Ordinary Kids or Special Snowflakes?

In the past few years, I’ve noticed increasing criticism lodged against one particular character trope: the chosen one. Sometimes referred to scathingly as “special snowflakes,” these characters usually don’t have individual merit (or, in some cases, very well-developed personalities), but rather a Grand, Prophetic Destiny, which positions them—often through the endowment of unique or extraordinarily strong gifts—as The Only One Who Can Save Us. Fans of any major franchise (think Harry Potter and Star Wars) will recognize this immediately: this idea of a chosen one taps strongly into the sort of hero mythology Joseph Campbell famously wrote about in his book The Hero With a Thousand Faces. What’s curious to me, however, is that many fans of YA are turning against it—rejecting everything from the notion of a hero whose status comes randomly assigned, to the concept of a hero itself. (Not coincidentally, I’ve noticed a lot of books with gray or antiheroes have spiked in popularity in the past few years—Julie C. Dao’s Forest of a Thousand Lanterns and Kiersten White’s The Conqueror’s Saga trilogy are good ones.)

Reading arguments in favor of abolishing the special snowflake—in favor, presumably, of more realistic, ordinary characters who achieve greatness through their own merit—immediately put me in mind of John Marsden’s Tomorrow series. The seven books, published between 1993 and 1999, were and are a massive hit in Australia; in 2018 it is considered a classic, and has been adapted both as a film and a television miniseries. And while it’s never achieved the same popularity in America, my local library did have a copy of the first book, Tomorrow, When the War Began, and the familiar story it contained—teenagers bravely facing the unthinkable—left a huge impression on me.

Tomorrow, When the War Began centers on Ellie, a teenager living in the rural outskirts of the small Australian town of Wirrawee. On a whim, she and her best friend Corrie decide to invite several of their other friends to go camping with them for a week out in the bush, in a remote, enclosed area known by the local farmers as “Hell.” They return home after a week to discover the unthinkable: their homes and farms abandoned, their animals dying, and the local showground turned into a prison camp—for their families, friends, and neighbors. In just the time they were away, Australia has been invaded by colonizing forces from Asia—and the seven teenagers are suddenly the only free people left in Wirrawee.

With very little else to do in this unthinkable new world, the kids reluctantly decide to fight back—and in one fell swoop, Ellie is thrust from her role as trip organizer into that of guerilla leader. Ellie is smart and resourceful, but also by her own admission hotheaded and pushy; she knows how to survive in and navigate the bush thanks to her rural upbringing, but has no other practical experience with which to fight a sophisticated invading army. And despite her courageous, almost instinctive assumption of leadership, Marsden reminds us painfully that she’s still a child: she wants to gossip with her best friend Corrie about who’s dating whom, and flirt with fellow fugitive Lee. On multiple occasions, she expresses a wish that there were simply adults present to take charge, and to remove the burden from her.

Marsden does a brilliant job conveying the emotional battlefield of a war zone through his teenage cast of characters: the boredom, the hopelessness, the reckless bravado, the fear and concerns of dehumanization as impossible circumstances push Ellie and her friends to unthinkable acts. The triumph of the series is that, despite her grim surroundings, Ellie succeeds—not every time, and not without cost, but through a combination of street smarts, quick thinking, and often as not, sheer dumb luck. Her fallibility, her penchant to make dumb mistakes, and the limits of her knowledge make her one of the most realistic and well-crafted heroines I’ve ever encountered in young adult literature.

Whether you love it or have grown to hate it, the Chosen One isn’t going anywhere—thousands of years in the zeitgeist have proved that much. But I think often of Ellie and her friends, and how interesting young adult literature would be with more characters like them: ordinary kids using nothing more than their smarts and each other to conquer incredible circumstances.