Teen Librarian Toolbox
Inside Teen Librarian Toolbox

Voting and Elections in YA Lit

Here’s a brief collection of YA fiction and nonfiction titles that deal with the topic of elections and voting.

It’s not enough to tell teens to register to vote, you have to help them with next steps. Teach them how to research the candidates and issues. Talk to them about what happens at the voting booth & how to fill out & submit a ballot. Help them be informed, confident voters. Being an engaged citizen is about more then just registering to vote, so let’s help teens follow the process, not just begin it.



Rock the Vote

Pew Political Party Quiz

How to Register to Vote

The Classroom Isn’t Meant To Be Political, By Teen Contributor Riley Jensen

There is a time and place for political discussion, but the classroom is not one of those place. Maybe when it’s in a government class or a debate class, but Calculus is not the place for it.

A few days in my AP calculus my class had finished our lesson for the day. There had been political discussions in this class before, but I make a point of staying out of them because I am the only democrat in a room full of republicans. I have no problem listening to people talk about their beliefs because I don’t need to get involved in that in a place where I’m trying to figure out derivatives. But, this day the students somehow found a way to drag me into their political talk.

I was sitting in my class, just working on solving some practice problems as the conversation around me was getting into politics. I wasn’t really listening until someone decided to ask, “are there any libt***s in here?” I looked up, but I wasn’t about to say that I was a democrat in this room full of people who clearly would think me to be stupid for my beliefs. Apparently, it didn’t matter what I wanted because as soon as I looked up another person responded, “yea, Riley is.”

At this point, everyone is looking at me, the odd one out. Thankfully, the teacher decided that she was going to start trying to control the environment. So, she says, “let’s not use that word.” The political talk kind of dies down and everyone is back to minding their own business, but then the class is nearing an end.

Now, it gets worse. I’m just sitting their trying not to get angry because obviously I’m insulted, so the teacher decides to talk to me. In front of the whole entire class. She says, “Riley, I’m sorry if that upset you. I don’t want you to feel singled out, so if anything we says offends you please tell me. I will put a stop to the political talk immediately.”

Clearly, there is a lot of things wrong with the situation. First, she is very much so singling me out at that moment. Second, I don’t know how she expects me to tell her that I’m offended in front of all the people who just offended me. Third, I’m not sure why she didn’t stop the political when one of her students was obviously uncomfortable. And, finally, this should have been a private conversation.

I was saved by the bell at last, or at least I thought I was. As I’m sitting in my next class I get a text from the person who decided to tell everyone that I was a democrat. He goes on in this long paragraph about how the class had been “unprofessional” and I was “always welcome despite differences” and that I shouldn’t let this “stunt my talent.” Such a lovely text that quite literally made my blood boil. It was even more funny when I remembered that I had him in my next period. You know, where he could have apologized to my face like a decent person would have done so.

But no, he didn’t apologize to my face in that next period. Instead he acted as though nothing had happened. I guess he thought that maybe he was forgiven because I didn’t respond to his infuriating text. In reality though I didn’t respond to his text because I probably would have said some very rude things that he definitely deserved to hear.

Then, in the next period I do respond just to make sure that he knows that we will have problems if he does something like that again. Naturally his response is that he didn’t mean it, but “it just happened.” This was very similar to the email my teacher sent me in reply to me telling her that the way she handled the situation was not super great.

In the email I sent my teacher I essentially told her everything that had made things worse. I believe the word I used was unprofessional. I feel like that was a fitting description of what happened, but I doubt she liked that very much. In her reply she said that she knew as she was addressing me in class that it was the wrong thing to do, but she just couldn’t stop herself. I know that sometimes people make mistakes, but it’s hard to be sympathetic when the problem should never have even been a problem.

This whole situation could been avoided if calculus class had stayed calculus class. I was there to learn derivatives and get my grade. I was not there to have my political views criticized. So, now I think calculus is going to stay calculus. The way it should have been in the first place.

Screening The 13th: Questions to ask yourself #SJYALit

sjyalitI recently heard about how “video visits” were growing in popularity with prisons. As the details unfolded, my initial impression of interest (“Oh that’s nice – families could maybe see their incarcerated loved ones more often or from greater distances.”) turned to revulsion. The strategy is being used largely by local jails as a way to reduce the need for security staff to supervise visits.  Families still have to travel the same distance but now can’t even be in the same room as their loved one. It seems so dehumanizing to people on both sides of the bars.


After watching Ava DuVernay’s new documentary, The 13th, now streaming on Netflix, I can only believe that “dehumanizing” was by design. I am encouraging the TLT readership to make viewing The 13th a priority by the end of 2016. It’s essential viewing for our times. Another reason to shuffle this to the top of your queue: The other day I spotted this tweet in response to a request for permission to screen the movie:

You guys get what a big deal this is, right? Offering free public screenings of new films by award winning directors like DuVernay is not something that happens every day. Do you have a film discussion group at your library or another way to, as the director encourages, “show + share”?

Should you incorporate this into your teen programming? Let’s talk about this.

What’s it about?

From IMDB: An in-depth look at the prison system in the United States and how it reveals the nation’s history of racial inequality.

This is a comprehensive, statistic and history packed documentary about the evolution of the prison system since the 13th Amendment’s abolition of slavery and how federal and local policies and institutionalized racism work to feed Black Americans into the system at a much higher demographic rate than is represented in society at large. It is not light viewing. It’s not pleasant, it’s not easy, it’s not fun. It’s not supposed to be. This is a challenging film on many fronts.

A TV-MA rating*?

Yep. Sure is. As we all know, teens are living lives every day that people say they shouldn’t be allowed to read about or watch. This is a powerful movie with difficult content. But it’s not the language–as in the prevalence of the n-word–or nudity–in the form of brief prison security camera footage from Kalif Browder’s three years at Riker’s Island–that is the most difficult. It’s the 911 calls and cell phone videos that captured the deaths of Trayvon Martin, Philando Castile, Tamir Rice, and Eric Garner that are played as the film, step by crushingly methodical step, takes the viewer decade by decade through the politics and consequences that lead directly to those heartbreaking, devastating moments.

Yes, this is a film for mature audiences in the most literal sense of the word. It is sobering and requires maturity. It’s also a good time to think about who gets to have the privilege being considered too immature to remain unaware of the realities of the film.

Questions to ask yourself

This is not a simple film for screening or discussion. Expect big feelings. Expect challenging reactions. Expect a lot of questions. Most importantly, expect to hold a conversation after the film. I feel that screening this–especially with a teen audience–and not hosting a discussion afterwards would be a disservice to the viewers and to the message of the film. Before you embark on a screening, consider the following:

  • Have you watched the film yourself at least twice? Watch it once, immersing yourself in the narrative. Then watch it again with an eye to detail and quotes. Take notes. Mark timestamps of specific elements that you want to emphasize in conversation so you can be sure you got them right.
  • Have you read/listened up on the surrounding issues? If this is your first introduction to the topic, don’t let it be your last. See the suggested titles at the end of this post for some book suggestions. Other jumping off points:
  • Who will come to the event? Think about the teens in your community: do you know who’s going to show up? Do you have a hunch? Who will be in the room and what experiences and emotions will they bring to the conversation? Who will you invite? What kind of balance will you seek between demographics like age, race, or gender? What ages will be welcome and how will your library or school address the rating, keeping in mind that TV ratings are voluntarily assigned by networks and producers are and not legally binding? What situations has your community or your teen patron base at large been involved in that relate to the subjects of the movie that they will bring with them to the viewing?
  • How heavily moderated will the conversation be? Will you steer the discussion to specific points? Will you allow or encourage discussion of specific politicians? Specific policies? Specific incidents? Or will you strive to keep the conversation more general? What is your plan for maintaining courteous discourse between the participants? What will your ground-rules be?
  • Are you equipped to handle the political and emotional complexity of conversation? It’s ok if you’re not the right person to lead the conversation. Who else in the community could you call on? Are there teachers, community leaders, local clergy, or organizers who the library could partner to facilitate a productive discussion?
  • How will you answer the inevitable question, “So how do we fix it?” This film doesn’t end with a tidy answer or any direct suggestions for ways to remedy the enmeshment of social, economic, and political issues that result in the imprisonment problem. I feel that it’s important to offer options and solutions to teens. My suggestion: share with your teens DuVernay’s own words from an interview last month with The Atlantic and invite them to respond with their own ideas:

    I believe in fortification and I believe that at this time, we should be fortifying ourselves through knowledge, through self-care, through community. All of these speak through art. It’s really about rallying around this moment and taking in a totality of what it is, and making it internal in whatever way that means to you. If you know all this stuff, great. Pass it on. If you don’t know it, know it. You need to know it. Because at this point, after you see 13th, silence in this case is consent. You know all of this. You’re a forward-thinking person, you care about it. You can’t just walk out into the night after you see the movie or put down your iPad after you see it on Netflix and do nothing about it.

    I’m not saying you have to join a march. I’m not saying you have to push for legislation. I’m saying what this film talks about is the very way that we deal with each other in the everyday. It’s about our relationship to each other as it deals with race. So there’s a lot there to be done. I’m stepping out of the conversation as it relates to this film. I’m doing two weekends talking to people and kind of giving birth to it and putting it out into the world. And then I’m going away because it’s not mine anymore. This is out in the world. I don’t want my voice clouding the conversation. I want people to be having their own conversation about it. That’s my great hope.

    Show + share, indeed.

Book tie-ins

YA Fiction

book cover: All American Boys by Reynolds and KielyAll American Boys by Jason Reynolds and Brendan Kiely

Rashad Butler is a quiet, artistic teen who hates ROTC but dutifully attends because father insists “there’s no better opportunity for a black boy in this country than to join the army.” He heads to Jerry’s corner store on a Friday night to buy chips, and ends up the victim of unwarranted arrest and police brutality: an event his white schoolmate Quinn Collins witnesses in terrified disbelief. Quinn is even more shocked because the cop is Paul Galluzzo, older brother of his best friend and Quinn’s mentor since his father died in Afghanistan. As events unfold, both boys are forced to confront the knowledge that racism in America has not disappeared and that change will not come unless they step forward. Reynolds and Kiely’s collaborative effort deftly explores the aftermath of police brutality, addressing the fear, confusion, and anger that affects entire communities. Diverse perspectives are presented in a manner that feels organic to the narrative, further emphasizing the tension created when privilege and racism cannot be ignored. Timely and powerful, this novel promises to have an impact long after the pages stop turning. (SLJ Review by Ashley Turner)

Cy in Chains book cover by David L. DudleyCy in Chains by David L. Dudley

Cy Williams, thirteen, has always known that he and the other black folks on Strong’s plantation have to obey white men, no question. Sure, he’s free, as black people have been since his grandfather’s day, but in rural Georgia, that means they’re free to be whipped, abused, even killed. Almost four years later, Cy yearns for that freedom, such as it was. Now he’s a chain gang laborer, forced to do backbreaking work, penned in and shackled like an animal, brutalized, beaten, and humiliated by the boss of the camp and his hired overseers. For Cy and the boys he’s chained to, there’s no way out, no way back.
And then hope begins to grow in him, along with strength and courage he didn’t know he had. Cy is sure that a chance at freedom is worth any risk, any sacrifice. This powerful, moving story opens a window on a painful chapter in the history of race relations. (Publisher description)

Rikers High book cover by Paul VolponiRikers High by Paul Volponi

Martin was sitting on the front stoop of his apartment building minding his own business when he was arrested for something he didn’t even mean to do. Five months later, he’s still locked up on Rikers Island, in a New York City jail. Just when it seems things couldn’t get much worse, Martin is caught between two warring prisoners, and his face is slashed. Now he’ll be forever marked with a prison scar. One good thing comes from the attack: Martin is transferred to a different part of Rikers where inmates are required to attend high school. If Martin opens up to a teacher who really seems to care, perhaps he’ll learn a lesson more valuable than any taught in class. An award-winning author, Paul Volponi is uniquely qualified to tell Martin’s story because he taught on Rikers Island for six years. He originally wrote Rikers for an adult audience. The book has been revised for young adults and is being republished as Rikers High. (Publisher’s Description)

book cover: X by Ilyash ShabazzX by Ilyasha Shabazz with Kekla Magoon

Cowritten by Malcolm X’s daughter, this riveting and revealing novel follows the formative years of the man whose words and actions shook the world. X follows Malcolm from his childhood to his imprisonment for theft at age twenty, when he found the faith that would lead him to forge a new path and command a voice that still resonates today.
Malcolm Little’s parents have always told him that he can achieve anything, but from what he can tell, that’s a pack of lies—after all, his father’s been murdered, his mother’s been taken away, and his dreams of becoming a lawyer have gotten him laughed out of school. There’s no point in trying, he figures, and lured by the nightlife of Boston and New York, he escapes into a world of fancy suits, jazz, girls, and reefer. But Malcolm’s efforts to leave the past behind lead him into increasingly dangerous territory. Deep down, he knows that the freedom he’s found is only an illusion—and that he can’t run forever. (Publisher’s description)


book cover: Between the World and MeBetween the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates

In a series of essays, written as a letter to his son, Coates confronts the notion of race in America and how it has shaped American history, many times at the cost of black bodies and lives. Thoughtfully exploring personal and historical events, from his time at Howard University to the Civil War, the author poignantly asks and attempts to answer difficult questions that plague modern society. In this short memoir, the “Atlantic” writer explains that the tragic examples of Michael Brown, Trayvon Martin, and those killed in South Carolina are the results of a systematically constructed and maintained assault to black people–a structure that includes slavery, mass incarceration, and police brutality as part of its foundation. (Publisher’s description)


book cover: True Notebooks by Mark SalzmanTrue Notebooks by Mark Salzman

Wanting to add life to a cardboard juvenile delinquent character in the novel he was trying to finish, Salzman (Iron & Silk; Lying Awake) visited a juvie lockup for high-risk offenders where his friend taught a writing class. Despite entering the facility wishing “we could tilt L.A. County and shake it until everybody with a shaved head and tattoos falls into the ocean,” Salzman ended up teaching a class himself. The remarkable results are detailed in this wonderful book. Salzman found students who took writing more seriously than the college kids he’d taught. Both selections from the boys’ writing and Salzman’s taut storytelling give us multidimensional images of teenagers thrown into a justice system concerned only with punishment. Early in the book, a friend of Salzman’s complains that there are no good books about juvenile delinquents. Well, there’s one now–one that examines a broken system with grace, wit, and gripping storytelling. (Booklist review, John Green) 

book cover: The New Jim Crow by Michelle AlexanderThe New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness

In this incisive critique, former litigator-turned-legal-scholar Michelle Alexander provocatively argues that we have not ended racial caste in America: we have simply redesigned it. Alexander shows that, by targeting black men and decimating communities of color, the U.S. criminal justice system functions as a contemporary system of racial control, even as it formally adheres to the principle of color blindness. The New Jim Crowchallenges the civil rights community — and all of us – -to place mass incarceration at the forefront of a new movement for racial justice in America. (Publisher’s description)


book cover: Slavery by Another Name by BlackmonSlavery by Another Name: The Re-Enslavement of Black American from the Civil War to World War II by Douglas A. Blackmon

A Pulitzer Prize-winning account of the “Age of Neoslavery,” the American period following the Emancipation Proclamation in which convicts, mostly black men, were “leased” through forced labor camps operated by state and federal governments.

Using a vast record of original documents and personal narratives, Douglas A. Blackmon unearths the lost stories of slaves and their descendants who journeyed into freedom after the Emancipation Proclamation and then back into the shadow of involuntary servitude shortly thereafter. By turns moving, sobering, and shocking, this unprecedented account reveals the stories of those who fought unsuccessfully against the re-emergence of human labor trafficking, the companies that profited most from neoslavery, and the insidious legacy of racism that reverberates today. (Publisher’s description)

*Again, I’d like to remind everyone that TV ratings are voluntarily assigned and overseen by a panel made up no small part by corporate representatives. TV ratings are not laws. (For more on the problems in the movie rating industry, see the 2006 This Film Is Not Yet Rated.)

The 2017 Mindset List

The 2017 Beloit College Mindset List was released today, and it is worth a read, as always.  Go ahead and take a look now if you haven’t already.

I was already in college when the first Mindset List was released for the class of 2002, but I recall my friends and I poring over it (found forwarded on Elm, printed out in a computer lab because none of us had Internet or printers in our dorm rooms…), feeling quite wise, mature, and informed.  “Oh these children don’t remember the Reagan assassination attempt?  What a life of luxury they’ve led, always having a remote controlled TV…”  Aside from the novelty and eye rolling though, the list is generally useful for those of us who work with teens.

Two things in particular jumped out at me in reading this list.

There seems to be a tone of political cynicism that I don’t recall in previous lists.

17. Threatening to shut down the government during Federal budget negotiations has always been an anticipated tactic.  

20. The Pentagon and Congress have always been shocked, absolutely shocked, by reports of sexual harassment and assault in the military.

35. Congress has always been burdened by the requirement that they comply with the anti-discrimination and safety laws they passed for everybody else to follow.

Whether or not the cynicism is really representative of the current older teen cohort, it is out there in popular media and it’s worth noting that this is the environment in which they have come of age.

Also, the pervasiveness of technology over other cultural issues seems especially pronounced.  These are only a handful that reference digital tech in some way:

8. Having a chat has seldom involved talking. 

10. They could always get rid of their outdated toys on eBay. 

12. Their TV screens keep getting smaller as their parents’ screens grow ever larger. 

13. PayPal has replaced a pen pal as a best friend on line. 

14. Rites of passage have more to do with having their own cell phone and Skype accounts than with getting a driver’s license and car. 

16. A tablet is no longer something you take in the morning.

With regards to technology, well, it’s everywhere, right?  It’s important to note that for those folks who work with teens and young adults, that we’re now talking about people who came of age always having access to these tools and toys.  Digital natives, amirite?  It did make me wonder though, at the junction of being informed or shaped by technology, and simply using it as a tool.  When will the tech changes be so ingrained and pervasive that they stop showing up on the list?

What I found most helpful about this list was not the list itself, it was the preface.  Today’s incoming freshmen are dealing with economic issues that are perhaps more pronounced than those who entered college a few years ago.  Health care and insurance, college costs and debt and how they inform college major and career choices – these are the things I would like to know more about, the issues that have a lot more bearing on the actual mindset of teens than when YAHOO! came into existence.

Additionally, we’re coming to the end of an era in which these teens and young adults have a meaningful recollection of the September 11, 2001 attacks or recall our entry into the war in Afghanistan.  For as long as most of these teens can meaningfully remember, our country has been at war.  I would’ve liked to see some reflection on that as well, though I imagine past lists must have referenced it and I understand the List’s need for novelty each year.

Do you use the Mindset List in informing your work with teens?  Share your thoughts in the comments!


Occupy the Capitol: Engaging Teens in Politics

For the purposes of this post, it is really important that we come together as advocates for youth and leave behind our own personal political opinions.  Really, you’ll understand what I mean in a moment.

Regardless of what you may think about the Occupy Wall Street movement (OWS) and it’s message, I for one am glad that it is happening for one simple reason:  it is good for teens to see politics in action.  It is good for teens to see others engaging in the conversation and to know that they, too, can stand up and be heard.  The bottom line is this: It is important for teens to read, see and hear about politics in action.  They need to know and understand that they have a voice and not only can they use it, but that they should.

For years we have been hearing about low voter turn out.  And there has been a complacency on the part of America’s citizens regarding the politics of our country.  We have freedoms, important freedoms like the freedom to vote and be engaged citizens, but too many of our citizens choose not to.  And as we all know, modeling behavior is a far greater message.  There is truth to the saying that children will do what they see not what they hear.  So it is good for the youth of today to see American citizens engaged in healthy discourse and debate about our future.

For a period of time following 9/11 there was an overwhelming sense of American solidarity that in some ways quashed dissenting opinions.  Unlike the Vietnam War, few spoke out in protest initially against the various wars America engaged in.  To do so seemed un-American.  Those that did speak out were often publicly disgraced so they choose instead to keep quiet.  It is important for us all to remember that the freedom to speak unpopular opinions and challenge current ideals is an important part of who we are as a nation.  It is one of the fundamental rights that our nation was built on, appearing first in our Bill of Rights.

As we enter into the 2012 election season, it is important that we find creative ways to remind teens the importance of using their voice.  We can of course put up a variety of displays, both fiction and non.  But we can also get teens engaged through things like book discussions, mock trials, and simulated voting exercises.  Mtv has been engaged for years in politically empowering young people through their Rock the Vote campaign so be sure and check there for good resources to share, too.

Get teens thinking about the importance of being involved in the political process.  Read and discuss works such as 1984 by George Orwell, Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury, or The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins.  The message of these, any many other titles, it clear:  what happens when government takes over and the voice of its citizens are silenced?  What happens when those citizens refuse to use their voice, either out of fear and complacency, and government is no longer for the people, by the people?  In comparison, what happens when the voice of the few rise up, as they do in The Hunger Games, and challenge a corrupt government?

Get teens started in the idea of voting by having a Mock Printz Award vote.  Or have teens vote their favorite teen fiction characters into office.  Katniss Everdeen for President!  There are so many ways you can get teens involved in mock voting activities and it is a great way to remind them to use their voice.

Many schools have mock trial contests, find out if your local schools do and ask to be involved.  If they don’t, see about starting one as a part of your teen programming at your library.  You can take some popular teen fiction characters and put them on trail.  Is it okay for the kids in The Hunger Games to use violence to overthrow the corrupt government?  Put Lena on trial for falling in love in Delirium by Lauren Oliver.

Make sure you participate in Banned Books Week.

Have a Teen Advisory Group.  Let them be involved in the planning, organizing, voting, etc. of various activities.

When you share contests, links, news stories, etc. on your web or social media page, make sure some of them demonstrate teens being pro-actively involved in the political process.  You can use the poll feature on Facebook to let teens mock vote.

As long as it is civil and library appropriate, give teens a forum to express themselves and find their political voice.  Remind them that it is okay to change your mind; it is important to be open to new facts and information and grow.  That is why what we do is so important: engaged citizens must be informed citizens.  Keep providing access to a wide variety of information so that teens can learn who they are, what they think, and what their place is in this universe.

As you can see, there are a variety of ways that we can give teens a voice and remind them that using it is important not only for them, but for us all.  For every voice silenced, we may be losing the next great invention or scientific discovery.  Plus, as youth advocates, we must understand that empowering teens creates healthy teens.

Teen Fiction Dealing with Politics:
Vote for Larry (and its sequel) by Janet Tashjian
The Misfits by James Howe
Wide Awake by David Levithan
Hope Was Here by Joan Bauer

The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins, and most dystopian fiction
1984 and Animal Farm by George Orwell
Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury

Mock Trial Information
NY Times Article
Lesson Plan, refers to Holes by Louis Sachar
ClassBrain.com Mock Trial Script for Teens

Mock Printz Awards Example
ACPL Mock Printz

Teens and Politics Resources:
Mtv Rock the Vote
Radical Parenting 5 Tips
Teens: Politics is for you, too
Youth Noise