The presumption of innocence is a cornerstone of our judicial system. You are innocent until proven guilty. But in Concord native Meredith Tate's new novel for young adults, accused criminals have the presumption of guilt. At a time when our nation is gripped by conversations about due process and the court of public opinion, a young adult novel about what it means to be accused of and punished for a crime feels particularly relevant. The novel is called The Freedom Trials. NHPR's Peter Biello spoke with Meredith Tate.
Meredith Tate's Top Five Reading Recommendations
1. Six of Crows by Leigh Bardugo. "This book is a master class on world building, with six main characters — all of whom are morally ambiguous — who have to pull off a heist. Kaz Brekker, the leader of the group, is an expert thief and con artist, and one of my favorite YA characters of all time. It’s incredibly intricate, but also extremely fast paced. I couldn’t put it down!"
2. Before the Fall by Lauren Oliver. "They just made a good movie out of this story, but the book is one of my all time favorite young adult contemporaries that shows a nuanced and layered exploration of popularity."
3. Girl Against the Universe by Paula Stokes. "This book is a really touching YA contemporary about a girl living with anxiety and overcoming grief. The main character believes she is doomed to be unlucky forever, because she survived a series of accidents that those around her did not; however, her self-imposed isolation is challenged by a young tennis player she befriends and starts to fall for. This book has a great and realistic depiction of mental illness and therapy.
4. Written in the Stars by Aisha Saeed. "This is a YA contemporary thriller I flew through in a few hours. The main character is a Pakistani-American girl who is caught dating a boy of whom her parents do not approve; they whisk her off to Pakistan under the guise of a family vacation, which soon becomes a nightmare when the main character learns she is going to be forced into marriage."
5. An Ember in the Ashes by Sabaa Tahir. "This is an amazing YA fantasy inspired by Ancient Rome. It's very dark and twisty and completely un-put-downable. It's perfect for fans of fantasy and fans of dystopian fiction."
(Note: This transcript has been lightly edited for clarity.)
In your novel, Evelyn Summers is fifteen and an honors student when she is locked up for a crime she can't remember. All she wants is to get out and return to her mother, but she's got to get through this prison system for young adults. There are a lot of scary things about this system. What's the scariest part of it for you?
I have this deep fear of being accused of something that I know I didn't do. And so I think for Evelyn to be in that situation where you were accused of a crime, everyone is telling you you did this crime, but you have no idea what it is or why you did it, I think to me that would be very scary. I also have a personal fear of needles and anything touching my body. In their prison, all prisoners have to wear a collar around their neck and they prick them every morning behind their collar. For me, that would be very scary.
And they give these prisoners drugs pretty much every day to make sure that they can't remember, and that seems to be a key part of this, because they are on the one hand expected to atone for the thing they have done but on the other hand they can't remember what they've done and can't evaluate for themselves the rightness or wrongness of it. How did that part occur to you?
I've always liked the idea in science fiction of memory erasure. The movie Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind is one of my favorite movies. Obviously totally different in tone and feel from Freedom Trials, but I've always found that to be an interesting concept. What if you could erase the bad things in your life? Would you want to or would you not want to?
I think that there's a scene in the book when Evelyn was talking to Alex, who was another prisoner, and she's talking about how she really wants to know what she did, she wants to know why she's there. Alex is saying, "If you did something that was so bad, just so awful that they had to literally lock you up and make you wear a collar because you're so dangerous, do you really want to know? You have the chance to move on and have a clean slate. Do you really want to be tainted by that thing you did if you have a chance to live your life without having to deal with that memory?" So I think it's always been a concept that's interested me.
Let's talk about the genre for a moment, this dystopian fiction, which is really popular among young people now. Why write about dystopian societies in a world that can seem quite bleak in the news?
I've always loved the dystopian genre. I'm a huge fan. But I don't see it as bleak. I think that people look at the famous dystopians, 1984, The Hunger Games, and say, "Wow, that's a horrible, bleak future." But the emphasis is not on the bleak future, the emphasis is on the fact that we have the power to change what's going on, change what we don't agree with. Look at Catniss in The Hunger Games and how she was able to rise up in a bleak situation and take that control. I think that's a really good message for young people. It doesn't matter how old you are. You have the power to speak up and you have a voice and you can make change. And I think that's where dystopian, especially young adult dystopian fiction, is so powerful, especially nowadays. Teens do have so much power and they're the future and we try to belittle them and take away that power but I think dystopian fiction and YA fiction is really great for sending the message that they should use their voice.