On September 8th, the United Nations observes International Literacy Day, a day to highlight the improvements made in literacy, as well as reflect on existing challenges. In fact, Sustainable Development Goal 4, Quality Education, includes increasing literacy rates as one of its target action items.
Being able to read is an essential skill, and access to education and literacy is a fundamental human right. When you are reading something, you are gaining the knowledge that someone else has written down—this is known as explicit knowledge transfer, and it’s the easiest way for people to transfer information. What’s fascinating and effective is when an author uses fiction as their medium, morals or messages can be communicated using a storytelling format.
Fiction can be a great way to explore world issues and international development. Reading fiction offers people pathways to explore and understand different global realities. As well, according to Dr. Dennis Rodgers from Manchester University, fiction often does a better job communicating the complexity of the world’s problems, as compared to an academic essay. The use of points of view in novels, poetry and other literature can allow for readers to better relate to these issues.
My name is Emma Craig, and I worked for ACIC over the summer as their Communications Assistant. My background is in library science, English and history, and I strongly believe that books, and especially fiction, can be used to explore different viewpoints and concepts. ACIC has done a good deal of work around raising awareness of the SDGs to Atlantic Canadians. In honour of International Literacy Day, I have selected ten pieces of fiction that I feel encapsulate these goals. These selections show suffering through a sustainable development-related issue, communicate a message related to the Goals, and sometimes, demonstrate the consequences of not meeting them.
The Boat People by Sharon Bala
“Did she now know what it was like to have so little agency? To be faced with such cruel options it was as if there was no choice at all?” -Bala
The first book I selected [SK1] was one of the contenders for Canada Reads 2018. Sharon Bala’s book[SK2] follows Sri Lankan refugees escaping civil war, only to be imprisoned for suspected terrorism once they arrive in Canada. The UNHCR stated in 2019 that there are 25.9 million refugees in the world. This is a global issue, [SK3] and through reading the story of Mahindan and the other Sri Lankans, readers can knowledge and empathy towards those facing this plight.
Goal 16 is focused on creating strong institutions built on the values of peace and justice, as well as raising awareness of the human rights accredited to individuals. This includes fighting corruption and prejudicial action within institutions (16.5). In The Boat People, the Sri Lankans are fleeing from war and violence, only to be subjected to imprisonment and labelled as terrorists, a result of unjust values and oppression within the Canadian carceral immigration system and stereotypes attached to refugees. However, we do see characters advocating for Mahindan and the other boat people, representing changes and action being taken to correct the actions taken by these institutions.
The Boat People’s connection to a real-world issue makes it an important read for those involved in sustainable development, as it increases awareness and empathy towards refugees and the challenges they face.
The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood
“Better never means better for everyone... It always means worse, for some.” -Atwood
Margaret Atwood’s dystopian fiction novel is the first of the speculative fiction texts I have selected. The book centres on a world that, due to extreme religious values and infertility, has resulted in the forced sex enslavement of fertile women to the country’s leaders. In this novel, the reader sees all rights for women stripped as they are reduced to second-class citizens. Originally written in 1985 and now a Hulu TV series, The Handmaid’s Tale was written by Atwood as a critique of rising conservatism in the US, but remains an important and relevant feminist text.
Goal 5 is focused on securing gender equality, with a focus on women’s rights. Even though much work has been done, the UN reports that women continue to be underrepresented in politics and the workplace, as well as face barriers to proper healthcare and nutrition in some countries. As well, in a statistic with parallels to the women of Gilead, only 52% of women in marriages/unions are able to make their own decisions about their sexual and reproductive health. The Handmaid’s Tale depicts women’s social and reproductive agency being taken away, showing a break-down of years of work to secure women’s rights. The female characters have memories of this former world, which makes the book so unsettling as it gives the fictional story a connection to the real world.
Atwood’s novel represents a speculative and bleak future where years of working for gender equality have been dismantled.
The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas
“We let people say stuff, and they say it so much that it becomes okay to them and normal for us. What's the point of having a voice if you're gonna be silent in those moments you shouldn't be?” -Thomas
The Hate U Give is the first young adult (YA) novel that I have selected. Angie Thomas’ novel follows the story of Starr, a black teenager who witnesses the killing of an unarmed friend by police. Like The Boat People, this book centres on an issue that has been a major point of discussion in the public consciousness. A new study has determined that black men in the United States are 2.5 times more likely to be shot by police than white people. This study comes after a wave of unarmed black men deaths over the 2010’s in the US, resulting in the formation of the Black Lives Matter movement.
While Goal 10 is mostly focused on reducing economic inequalities, its targets are also directed at empowering people of all race, ethnicity and origin (10.2). Within The Hate U Give, black people are disempowered by the use of racialized stereotypes, mainly in the labelling of the killed teen as a ‘thug’. In fact, the title of the novel is taken from Tupac Shakur’s anagram for THUG LIFE. Shakur’s lyrics and the story of The Hate U Give both speak about rising above the inequalities and prejudices that many people are born into. Starr becomes empowered by speaking out about the event, correcting the narrative surrounding the shooting and spurring her community into action.
Thomas’ YA novel discusses racial prejudice and police violence through the point of view of someone directly affected by it. Her story is also one of youth empowerment, as the protagonist rises above the stereotypes and prejudices assigned to her.
The Kite Runner by Khaled Hosseini
“There are a lot of children in Afghanistan, but little childhood.” -Hosseini
Khaled Hosseini’s premiere novel is an exploration of Afghanistan’s politics and history over a thirty-year period. The book centres on the friendship of two boys, Amir, a wealthy merchant’s son and the Hassan, his servant, and how they are separated by the social, ethnic, and political tensions prevalent in their country. When the novel was published in 2002, it brought attention to the realities that people in Afghanistan were living through. The Kite Runner provided Western readers with a look into the class, racial, and political issues that affected everyone in Afghanistan’s society, even children.
Goal 1 is focused on the elimination of global poverty, while Goal 10 is focused on reducing inequalities. The Kite Runner chooses to show poverty and inequalities in Afghanistan to the reader through the point of view of a child. According to the UN, one out of five children live in extreme poverty. While Amir grows up in a wealthy environment, we still see the effects of poverty on his community. This is more evident upon his return to Afghanistan as an adult, where he reflects retrospectively on the effects the political crisis in the country has caused. As well, the caste system in Afghanistan is an example of further inequalities based on class and ethnicity. These inequalities put a strain on Amir and Hassan’s relationship, which Amir recognizes later in life and much too late.
The story Hosseini tells is one of poverty and inequality, and how these affect the most vulnerable in society, such as children.
The Lorax by Dr. Seuss
“Unless someone like you cares a whole awful lot, nothing is going to get better. It's not.” -Seuss
The Lorax is among the children’s books that I have selected for this list. Books can be great way to introduce young children to world issues! Dr. Seuss’ classic story tells the story of the Once-ler and the Lorax, and the consequences of deforestation. Seuss was known for writing stories for children with morals related to different causes, which is why his messages have had such a big impact.
Goal 12 of the SDGs is focused on sustainable production and consumption of resources, while Goal 15 is focused on the protection of forests and biodiversity. The protection of life on land is perhaps the strongest theme in The Lorax. Deforestation in the book results in the total destruction of the forest’s ecosystem, as forests provide homes to all types of land plants and animals. As well, The Lorax demonstrates the risk of consuming resources too quickly, as the profitable city the Once-ler founds is negatively impacted once production stops. This aligns with facts about material footprints, and how countries’ needs for resources is outpacing their population and economic growth.
While Seuss’ children’s story is often remembered for its environmentalism themes, it is important to remember the themes surrounding sustainable production and resource consumption as well.
Malala’s Magic Pencil by Malala Yousafzai
"If I had a magic pencil, I would draw girls and boys together as equals.” -Yousafzai
This selection is a little different from the other books as it is based on a true story. Malala Yousafzai’s first book tells the story of her childhood in Pakistan, and a magic pencil that she would use to fix the world’s problems, focusing on access to education and gender equality. The magical element of this story is what made me choose it as a book for this list, as it frames the true story in a fantasy frame. This light children’s book teaches children about the importance of using their voices to stand up against inequalities and how they can make a change.
Goal 4 is focused on allowing access to quality education for all people, while Goal 5 is focused on gender equality. According to the UN, 50% of children that are not in school live in conflict-affected areas. This is connected to the story of the children’s book and Yousafzai’s real life. In 2008, the Swat Valley where she lived was taken over by the Taliban, where they imposed strict rules on women and girls, such as not allowing them to go to school. Not only were they barring education from the people they had taken over, but also imposed discriminatory rules based on gender. This is what sparked Yousafzai to become an activist in her own community, and now on a global scale, to speak about these issues affecting girls living in poverty and war zones.
Malala’s Magic Pencil’s use of autobiographical and fantasy elements makes it a useful text to teach children about some of the SDGs.
Odds Against Tomorrow by Nathaniel Rich
“He had no great advice to offer to his clients about this fact. He just wanted them to understand the likelihood that they would be incinerated shortly.” -Rich
Nathaniel Rich’s speculative fiction novel explores a near future where the world is overwhelmed by natural disasters. The novel focuses on Mitchell, a mathematician who works for a company that calculates the odds of bad events happening. The main threats that affect Manhattan involve tropical storms and flooding, and the book highlights how the company Mitchell works for profits from the fear they instill in clients. Odds Against Tomorrow exists within a movement of books known as “cli-fi”, fiction that focuses on climate change and its effect on civilization and the human experience.
Goal 13 is focused on strengthening the global response to the threat of climate change. While most of the facts and targets are focused on global warming, this goal also aims to make countries more resilient and adaptive at handling natural disasters (13.1). In Rich’s novel, we see the effects of natural disasters on a major city. An important part of the novel’s story is focused on the theme of what you do with the information you have. Mitchel can predict these disasters but is powerless to do anything, so he must live with the facts he knows. We also have had knowledge about climate change for many years, but Rich’s novel argues that it is not enough to just know and wait for it to happen.
Odds Against Tomorrow shows the effect of inaction to climate change issues, making an argument towards the targets of Goal 13.
The Plague by Albert Camus
“All I maintain is that on this earth there are pestilences and there are victims, and it's up to us, so far as possible, not to join forces with the pestilences.” -Camus
Albert Camus’ classic novel provides an on the ground view of a city ravaged by pestilence. The novel follows a French doctor, Dr. Rieux, as he works to treat people within the quarantined city of Oran. While it is believed by many that Camus’ novel is meant to be an allegory for German occupation of Paris during the Second World War, the author was also aware of great epidemics occurring in Algeria. The novel provides readers with a look at the reality of healthcare when a city is faced with crisis.
Goal 3 is focused on providing quality healthcare to all people, as well as promoting healthy living. In our time, HIV, AIDS, tuberculosis, and malaria pose huge threats to those living in areas affected by it. According to the UN, 35.4 million people have died from AIDS-related diseases since the outbreaks. The Plague depicts the escalation of an epidemic, as early warning signs are ignored. One of the targets for Goal 3 is to strengthen the ability for countries to react to and manage health risks, as well as early warning monitoring (3.D). In Camus’ novel, there is a lack of preparation for dealing with the plague, resulting in the large death toll. In the novel, we see no other cities providing aid to the suffering Oran. This demonstrates the need for collaboration with dealing with global health risks, as we cannot face these issues alone.
The depiction of an epidemic in this novel illustrates the need for cooperation in achieving the goals, or else we are just as much contributing to the destruction.
Solar by Ian McEwan
“The past had shown him many times that the future would be its own solution.” -McEwan
This book by Ian McEwan tackles the issues of clean energy and climate change using a more light-hearted tone. The novel follows scientist Michael Beard, who during a low point in his life is offered the chance to work on a solar energy project to battle climate change. Unlike Odds Against Tomorrow, this is a cli-fi novel where the protagonist is actively participating in fixing the issue. McEwan’s novel focuses on the human experience portrayed in a comedic light.
Goal 7 is focused on creating affordable and clean energy for everyone, and is intrinsically connected to Goal 13, which is focused on climate change. According to the UN, energy production is responsible for 60% of global greenhouse gas emissions. Because of this, green solutions for energy production is vital for the world to become more sustainable. McEwan, however, does not try to preach the need for action in his novel. The character of Beard is unsympathetic and focuses more on the science, which is part of the reason for his personal life failing. However, this scientific mindset provides the readers with the facts surrounding climate change and doesn’t try to win them over by catering to the emotional.
Ultimately, Solar’s use of humour and facts about solar energy and climate change is what makes it a good novel for exploring these issues.
The Water Knife by Paolo Bacigalupi
“Some people had to bleed so other people could drink.” - Bacigalupi
The final book I have selected depicts another bleak future where climate change has effected the way people live. This novel follows Angel, the muscle for a rich developer, in a future America where drought has made water hard to come by. Bacigalupi is not unfamiliar with the cli-fi genre, with his other books The Windup Girl and Shipbreaker also depicting futures where climate change has reshaped the way society is structured. In The Water Knife, we see the violence and privilege that can arise from a water crisis.
Goal 6 is focused on providing proper sanitation for drinking water, as well as improving access to it. Over 40% of the world’s population are affected by water scarcity. The Water Knife captures this water scarcity, but also the consequences of it. As a result of the drought, the American government of this novel is corrupted by corporate influence and militias arise to protect the little access there is to clean water. Bacigalupi depicts the power struggles and privileges that can arise when an important resource like water is threatened.
The Water Knife depicts an apocalyptic-type future, making the reader think about the privilege of being able to access water.
If you are looking for a new book to read and are interested in a getting a new viewpoint on world development issues, consider one of these ten books! It is a great way to reflect on issues related to the SDGs, as well as celebrate International Literacy Day!