When you think of children’s books, do you think of small, unimportant stories? A lot of adults probably do. But the stories we tell to children can ask big questions and address important themes. In fact, I’d go farther than that. I’d say that kids’ and teens’ books have more freedom to address important issues, because they’re so often looked at via metaphor, via science fiction or fantasy situations that are a step or two removed from real life, and yet still very relevant.
When was the last time you read a book, for pleasure, that asked readers to consider what makes a society function, what makes a society just, what it means to be a good neighbor and a good citizen, how different groups can coexist in peace, and how to react to an unjust and corrupt government? I’m not talking about a book on political theory or a historical fiction novel that’s more history than fiction. I’m talking about one of my favorite YA science fiction series, Dark Life, by Kat Falls.
The 2-book series is set in a post-global warming world where much of what is now land is underwater, and that’s only the first sign that it’s going to deal with some serious issues. On the surface, people live cramped into skyscraper apartment buildings, whole families allowed only one or two rooms. Other people live on the ocean itself, in ships, houseboats, and submarines, while still others live in an experimental colony on the sea floor. It sounds like the setup for a grim dystopian series, doesn’t it? And yet, the story isn’t really about a world gone wrong. It’s about a world people are struggling to make right again. And in a way, it’s about a society starting from scratch.
The first book asks its young readers to consider whether we all deserve the same rights, even if we’re different. Children who are raised at the bottom of the ocean begin to develop strange abilities usually associated with marine life: electric shock, camouflage, echolocation, etc. The protagonist, Ty, has one of these, called a “dark gift”. And so does the story’s villain. Near the end, other characters attempt to lynch the villain, claiming that his abilities make it too easy for him to escape from prison. It’s only when Ty reveals his own gift and asks whether his friends and neighbors are going to take away his rights, too, that they stop to think about what they’re doing.
In the sequel, Rip Tide, we’re introduced to the surfs, short for Surfeit Population, who live on huge “townships” because they are not wanted on land. It’s only then that we see how lucky Ty and his family have been; their lives underwater are hard, but compared to the surfs, they have it easy. The conflict between the subsea “pioneers” and the surfs, who both have a claim to the continental shelf, is a lesson in negotiation, and they reach a compromise that enables them to share the area. That’s such an important lesson for kids to learn as they grow up: that sometimes different people’s interests conflict without anyone really being in the wrong, and that such situations are better resolved through peaceful compromise than violence.
The two books both deal with what it means to be a good neighbor. In the subsea settlement where Ty grew up, neighbors help and depend on each other. When one family is struggling, others help them out; for example, when Ty’s neighbors are robbed by subsea outlaws, their entire community comes together to help them replace their schools of fish and drain the water from their house. Meanwhile, Gemma – who grew up on land – has never been alone, but has had few people she could depend on. The people in her community were not her neighbors, just people who happened to live nearby. In an age when people have hundreds of Facebook “friends” they may rarely talk to in real life, it’s worth exploring what makes someone a true friend or neighbor.
Finally, the Commonwealth – the futuristic government which controls the world above water – is clearly corrupt. This isn’t one of those stories about a brave group of teens who bring an end to the dystopia. It’s the just-as-worth-telling story of a brave group of people who live within it and make it a better place in small ways. They carve out a part of the world for themselves that they can make fair, just, and worth living in, even if it’s at the bottom of the sea; they go to great lengths to help their neighbors, both fellow “pioneers” and others they share the ocean with; they decide against vigilante justice and in favor of treating everybody equally; and they are welcoming to everyone who wants to join them. In my opinion, that’s a story worth telling, worth reading, and worth giving kids to read.