Learning Life Lessons Through a Love of Literature: A Personal Essay

By Kayla Overbey

Thursday, December 13, 2012

In sixth grade, I was not social. Instead of making friends and participating in class, I lost myself in stories. Most of my mornings in homeroom were spent ignoring the other students and downing a few chapters of my latest read. My homeroom teacher, eager to solve this problem, interrupted the classroom conversation one morning and announced that I was in need of an “intervention” (her words, not mine). Horrorstruck, I watched as every young face in the room turned to


find me slowly shrinking behind whatever was my current book.

“Kayla, we just think you shouldn’t read so much,” she explained before herding me to the middle of the room. She encouraged the other students to surround me, and they all began to chant. Really. The words “put down the book” are permanently stamped into my brain, as well as a burning feeling of rejection, surrounded by people who disapproved of me and my habits. I clutched my book

like a paper shield to my chest, wishing that the classroom would disappear, that my teacher had never spoken, that everyone would just leave me alone.

It was only when one of the students in the circle reached forward and ripped the book out of my hands, tearing a page, that the teacher finally ended the game. Her nervous expression told me she felt her playful “intervention” had stepped a bit too far. We all returned to our seats and I sat, tearful and red-faced, feeling the angry ball in the pit of my stomach slowly ebb away.

I don’t blame my homeroom teacher. She was a very kind, silly woman and only meant well. After all, I had the social skills of a toaster and was terrified to make eye contact, let alone strike up a conversation with my neighbor in history class.  However, I’m almost 21 years old and still in love with stories. At the time, I thought something was wrong with me. Why did I read so much? Now, I think my teacher should have turned her worry toward the other students.

Since when was reading so uncool? I hear more kids exclaim that they hate reading and would rather die than work their way through “Huckleberry Finn” or “Where the Red Fern Grows.” For me, reading provided hours of vivid entertainment that extended beyond the length of a movie or the battery life of a handheld video game. It showed me more than my small, Midwestern hometown of Hays, Kan., would ever have to offer.

Reading isn’t just the interpretation of letters on a page — it stimulates creativity. It’s a lifestyle, a learned skill. According to Scholastic’s Reading Facts, two thirds of eighth-graders don’t read at their grade level. In 2005, 12thgraders scored lower in reading than they did in 1992 in the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP). Reading was once a privilege, only accessible to the literate and wealthy. I work at the KU Writing Center, and I frequently help native, English-speaking students who don’t understand where a comma goes, or how to break up a run-on sentence. What happened to literacy?

My schoolgirl days were filled with other kids telling me that reading was weird. They called me a nerd simply because I would rather check out books from the library than sit and watch “The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air” (although that show ishilarious). That label followed me through high school, despite the fact that I graduated with average grades. I was no valedictorian, though some expected me to be. And for what? Because I remembered the big words I read and used them? I don’t really know. But I do know that reading helped me in more ways than I can ever understand.

I’m glad I doggedly stuck with my reading habits, encouraged by a few beloved teachers and many family members. Even at such a young age, I explored the world and saw so much more than what lay in my closed-in hometown.  I wouldn’t take back a second of it, not even the weird, cult-esque intervention in homeroom. The lessons I learned from my favorite story characters stuck with me; they carved a path for me, showed me I could face my demons and told me to keep going. They showed me where to go. All I had to do was follow.

(This was originally posted on the Political Fiber website on December 13, 2012. I’m posting it here to archive my work. You can read the original here.)


Popular Dystopian Books and Why We Like Them

By Kayla Overbey

Thursday, December 6, 2012

Books portraying alternate societies, post-apocalyptic worlds and failing governments have been extremely popular lately—in fact, the number of dystopian-themed books is at its highest point since the 1960s, according to an analysis by GoodReads. But these kinds of books date back much further and remain a typical choice for sci-fi readers. So, what about dystopian books makes them so popular?

“Apocalyptic stories allow us to express our fears, and, perhaps, serve as warnings to prevent such futures from coming to be,” said Chris McKitterick, director of the Center for the Study of Science Fiction at the University of Kansas.

He said that apocalyptic, dystopian fiction always seems to ask one central question: What if _____ happens? The blank could be something to do with technology, society, evolution or about anything else.

Many of these books focus on governments — corruption, cruelty or how very easy it is for them to break down — and become more popular during turbulent political times. Most recently, we’ve seen the rise of books like the Hunger Games trilogy, which surpassed Harry Potter as the bestselling series on Amazon.

Here’s a look at five classic dystopian novels that point out flaws in governments and societies that, in ways, aren’t so different from our own.

  •  Lord of the Flies by William Golding

“Lord of the Flies” tells a story about the formation and failure of government. Some question its categorization as dystopian; there are no zombies, end-of-the-world threats or post-apocalyptic environments. Instead, the stage is a lonely island for a group of stranded British boys who set up their own makeshift society. And, guess what? It eventually turns south.

KU senior Maria Juarez from Des Moines, Iowa, said the book exposes human nature when civilization falls apart.

“And best of all, children committed all the atrocities on the island,” Juarez said. “If the aliens were to visit Earth, I would put a copy of ‘Lord of the Flies’ in their welcome basket.”

  • The Giver by Lois Lowry

Welcome to a seemingly perfect society, one that strips its citizens of pain, suffering and choice. Only one lonely person must experience those: the Receiver of Memory. When 12-year-old Jonah steps into this role and learns what his community is hiding, his notion of the “perfect” town begins to come apart at the seams.

Kiley Dinkel, a freshman at Fort Hays State University from Hays, Kan., said the book’s theme of individuality is still memorable, though it’s been years since she first read it.

“The message that really stuck with me was how important it is to be different,” Dinkel said. “Being different isn’t a bad thing… it makes you who you are.”

  • 1984 by George Orwell

Arguably one of the most popular, classic dystopian novels of all time, “1984” focuses on a tyrannical government that is out of control. This political fiction exposes a society filled with never-ending war, constant government surveillance and public mind control. Individuality and independent thinking are considered “thoughtcrimes.”

Matt Lancaster, a junior from Basehor, Kan., says aspects of the novel — like the “telescreens” that spy into civilians’ lives — hit close to home and raise intriguing questions.

“[The book] praises the right kind of individuality, the kind that questions unjust establishments,” Lancaster said. “It is a great example of socialism gone too far.”

  • Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury

A nightmare for book nerds everywhere, “Fahrenheit 451” takes place in a society where books are burned and firemen don’t put out fires, they start them. Guy Montag is a fireman whose questions soon stick him in the middle of the censorship conflict.

Diane Mason, an English teacher at Hays High School in Hays, Kan. said that teaching material like “Fahrenheit 451” always raises questions of censorship in the classroom.

“Every couple of years, I encounter a student who refuses to read this or that book,” Mason said. “I think to myself, is this book so terrible that I should burn it? Get it out of your sight so that you never have to experience a thought that challenges your own?”

  • The Road by Cormac McCarthy

This grim mixture of high literature and popular fiction depicts a father and son’s journey through a post-apocalyptic, broken world where survival is a struggle. Starvation, cannibalism and the constant threat of death all make this a grave read. This novel will pose at least one significant question to its readers: What’s the meaning of living an empty life?

Austin Schauer, a senior from Topeka, Kan., said themes in the book, such as cannibalism, are “terrifying, for obvious reasons.”

“It will make you reevaluate everything you’ve ever thought and the way you live your life,” he said.

(This story was published by Political Fiber on Thursday, Dember 6, 2012. I’m publishing it here to archive my work. Read the original post here.)

‘Hunger Games’ themes mirror current political frustrations

By Kayla Overbey

Tuesday, September 25, 2012

‘Hunger Games’ Themes Mirror Current Political Frustrations

Then I remember Peeta’s words on the roof. “Only I keep wishing I could think of a way to…to show the Capitol they don’t own me. That I’m more than a piece in their games.” And for the first time, I understand what he means.

I want to do something, right here, right now, to shame them, to make them accountable, to show the Capitol that whatever they do or force us to do there is a part of every tribute they can’t own. That Rue was more than a piece in their Games. And so am I.

— “The Hunger Games” by Suzanne Collins

Millions of fans around the world have participated in the craze of  “The Hunger Games.” In the U.S. alone, 23.5 million books have sold since publication in 2008. The movie adaptation broke box office records, taking in $155 million its first opening weekend in North America, according to the New York Times.

“The Hunger Games,” a trilogy of novels by Suzanne Collins set in a post-apocalyptic America, were written for young-adults. However, the plot, which focuses on character Katniss Everdeen and her struggle to survive a gladiator-esque fight to the death against an authoritarian government, gained widespread popularity with a broader audience. As the story went viral, readers noticed political elements, some of which are comparable to the U.S. government.

The plot is fueled by themes of extreme poverty, violence as entertainment, gaping disparity between classes and imminent revolution. The government, known as the Capitol, exerts power with ruthless force by annually hosting the Hunger Games, a competition in which two teenagers from each of the 12 Districts compete.

The reward? Food, which is desperately needed by the starving lower districts but almost always ends up in wealthier hands.

The realistic tone and setting of the books has some readers wondering if such a government could actually exist. Aaron Pope, a University of Kansas junior from Topeka, said the books give an example of a government that has “thrown in the towel” and given up on its citizens.

“I feel like ‘The Hunger Games’ takes a look at what our society is now and amplifies it to a more extreme measure in order to show what we could become,” Pope said.

As for class disparity and poverty, Pope said the Capitol “is a government that recognizes this problem and deals with the situation by trying to act like there is no real problem.”

Cause for rebellion

In the books, the gap between economic classes is cause for a rebellion. The situation seems eerily familiar to the Occupy Wall Street movement, which inspired a string of revolts in 2011 and 2012. In the “Hunger Games,” the districts’ rebellion against the Capitol and the wealthy oppressors was successful because of the story’s heroine, Katniss Everdeen. However, the Occupy movement quickly lost its momentum. It’s this trust in the individual that Pope thinks is lacking in American political movements and elections. The passion behind the cause is what made Katniss’ revolution stick, said Pope.

“She didn’t make the easy decisions that won over ‘voters.’ She made the tough decision to stand up for what she believed in, and that belief inspired a nation,” Pope said.

The theme of control through fear has also received reactions from readers. The competitors in “The Hunger Games” are chosen against their will to fight to the death, as only one tribute may appear victorious. None of the districts rise against the Capitol in objection. Laurissa Marcotte, University of Kansas freshman from Hays, Kan., compared this to past military drafts and other government actions.

“The Capitol uses food and other necessities so that [the people] will put up with the Hunger Games,” she said.

Marcotte said the PATRIOT Act of 2001 and the Transportation Security Administration are similar examples of this overstretch of governmental power.

“Both of these violate privacy rights, but people were so fearful after 9/11 that they were willing to sacrifice that right for a sense of security,” Marcotte said.

The PATRIOT Act of 2001 and the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) were both passed after 9/11, pushing the government toward greater measures of safety. The act and administration both allow government officials to monitor any private citizen’s activity and heighten travel security to prevent further terrorist attacks.

Entertaining the masses

The books have even raised questions about competitive reality television shows like “Survivor.” In the novel, the murder of teenagers for sport is celebrated and watched as nationwide entertainment with popularity levels rivaling those of the Olympics.

While some wonder whether U.S. entertainment could eventually accept violence casually, Janni Aragon, University of Victoria political scientist, believes that the comparison is more metaphorical than realistic.

“Do we see an interest in vapid reality TV and fewer people concerned with voting or real politics? In a sense, yes. Do we have people performing for the masses, losing any shred of decency while they try to gain popularity or fame? Yes,” Aragon said. “But are they competing to the death? No. Maybe the death of thoughtfulness, but that is a different conversation.”

While the comparisons may seem surprising, political themes are commonly found in dystopian and post-apocalyptic novels. Aragon explained that fiction acts as a safeguard for authors to express their political feelings without facing negativity.

“This is usually the point for the author to comment on politics in a way that is safer,” she said.

Some believe that the political themes of “The Hunger Games” will influence a youthful generation to feel negatively toward government, but that’s unlikely. Historically, novels like “1984,” “Brave New World,” “Battle Royale” and others have all had negative governmental undertones without strong repercussions.

Marcotte believes “The Hunger Games” will follow that trend.

“I’m not sure if I’d say the trilogy has really affected young adult perception of government,” said Marcotte. “I think dystopian fiction is popular because it’s exciting. They’re just a cool story for most young adults.”

Feature image illustration credit: Scholastic Inc./Flickr 

Donald Sutherland discusses his role as President Snow in the film adaptation of The Hunger Games and about how he hopes the story wakes up this generation of youth to their place in the political world.

Contact Kayla Overbey at kayla@politicalfiber.com.

(This story was published by Political Fiber on September 25, 2012. I’m posting it here to archive my work. You can read the original publication here.)