Skip to main content

Destructive Imaginaries: Catalyzing Critical Hope in Youth (2022 Donald Award Winner)

Brittany Tomin • University of Regina

Education is positioned within our social (sub)conscious and common discourse as an inherently positive force, driven by the view that educational institutions are capable of “preparing students” to live in the world meaningfully and productively. However, in her article “Anticipating the Apocalypse: Monstrous Educational Futures,” Esther Priyadharshini describes and problematizes the “anticipatory regimes” 1 of education in relation to the future in the following way:

Conversations with youth can be circumscribed by what appears on the immediate horizon and practices confined to pragmatic and programmable decisions about the tomorrow. When the telos of education is interpreted as improving academic grades and employability, conversations with young people can be confined to exhortations to aspire better/greater, to maximize grades, improve employability skills, choose appropriate subjects and get employment ready. Futures talk is thus often conducted in a distinctive aspirational, yet pragmatic register where the emphasis is on being ‘realistic’, and on focusing on tangible actions and programmes. 2

As echoed here, part of the process of becoming that schools perpetuate is driven by the very same restrictive methods through which participation in liberal democracy is governed, as Chantal Mouffe problematizes; 3 schools prepare youth to meet the “entry conditions” 4 of democracy which involves a healthy dose of socialization and an enforced commitment to the preservation of current systems and structures. The narrative is pervasive: if only we can teach youth the right way to participate in the world—defined often by neoliberal and capitalist goals of competition, productivity, and skills-driven learning—they will flourish. But what happens when those systems and structures fall apart? Or, worse yet, what if they never particularly worked in this first place? Amidst an ongoing global pandemic, continually worsening climate contexts, ongoing colonial violence, and worsening economic disparities, what right way is there? What futures are currently available to our students who increasingly feel abandoned by generations before them?

In contrast with dystopian young adult literature (YA) that often romanticizes a return to the “past” as liberatory in juxtaposition with the problematic futures in which these narratives take place, 5 in this paper I instead consider speculative YA texts that do not turn away from the reality youth face. I specifically draw from Aaron Starmer’s 2016 novel Spontaneous 6 as an example of the pedagogical and transformational affordances of YA texts that, instead of socializing youth towards romanticizing present “order,” unflinchingly navigate destruction and the failings of adults to adequately care for young people. What role might texts like Spontaneous play in allowing educators to make space for and see the ways our current systems are neglecting youth? Further, how might this kind of storytelling, placed in the hands of youth who are the ones (figuratively) spontaneously combusting before our eyes within current paradigms, help them imagine the “after” of destruction and facilitate “futures talk” 7 that explores critical hope? 8 How might texts such as this help us embrace destruction as a paradigm that is far more appealing to many of our youth than the current goals of education: to preserve the status quo, socialize young people to become responsible citizens, and ultimately force upon them the mistakes of those that came before them?

The work presented in this paper complicates research in futures studies and education that suggest that dystopic narratives increase feelings of hope/helplessness and inform negative future outlooks in youth.[^9} Importantly, recent narrative-based work with young people signals an emergent shift; the destruction of society as we know it is not necessarily seen by youth purely as an object of hopelessness but also as a complex opportunity for change.[^10] Drawing from work critiquing the positioning of children and youth as hopeful future ambassadors for the present-as-it-is, 11 what might we learn about/from how youth are really thinking about societal change? 12 Further, what might we learn from YA texts that unflinchingly trace destruction? As YA fiction has often been used as a prominent tool of socialization, 13 what might we make of texts like Starmer’s SF-adjacent Spontaneous, in which youth literally spontaneously combust without genuine efforts by institutional powers to stop it? If youth will inevitably “combust”—literally in the novel and symbolically in the present climate—how might we make sense of an emergent disposition wherein societal collapse is not the worst possible scenario for youth when imagining the future? Inspired by the following quote from Ben Lerner’s novel 10:04, “Since the world is ending […] why not let the children touch the paintings?”, 14 this paper will present a path forward, building on the complex blurring of the utopia/dystopia binary 15 in speculative youth imaginaries, using dystopia that contains within it the potential for new beginnings towards critical hope. How might we be inspired by dystopian YA and YASF (young adult science fiction) to embark on a pedagogy wherein children can “touch the paintings” and speculatively imagine possibility within destruction? 16 I draw from Spontaneous because, upon reading it, I noticed profound similarities between the kinds of conversations I had with youth about the future during my own speculative world building research and the novel; similarities, I argue, we don’t make nearly enough space for in schools as a point of conversation and as a path forward towards critical hope (versus the sanitized form of hope educational institutions often embrace).

Spontaneous follows Mara Carlyle, a senior at Covington High, who narrates for the reader how it feels as a young person always on the potential precipice of spontaneously combusting as she watches her peers, without explanation, begin to randomly explode. When the first student, Katelyn Ogden, explodes, there is a flurry of activity to try and explain why youth are exploding and, unsurprisingly, every attempt is made to blame the children themselves as more and more teens spontaneously combust. Through Mara’s first-person narration the scene is described as follows:

A tour of cable news resulted in teeth-grinding and blind-pulling because I was sure that some helmet-haired reporter was creeping through our shrubbery, about to thrust her head through our window and say, `So is it terrorists, homosexuality, or the overall crappiness of your hometown that’s tearing your generation apart, young lady, and do you mind holding your answers and tears back until my cameraman gets the proper lighting in place?’ 17

Accordingly, as more teens spontaneously combust, scientists, journalists, and government officials all flood to the town to “figure it out.” 18 The president even makes an appearance via video chat to speak to the affected students who are eventually quarantined in a makeshift government-run testing facility, expressing unflinching commitment to support them. However, when a student spontaneously combusts during her address of hope, Mara recalls the following scene for the reader:

‘Oh, for fuck’s sake! Oh for fuck’s sake!’ the president cried as she pushed her wheely chair back from her Oval Office desk and threw up her hands. Her terrified face was now three times as large and projected on the dripping walls of the tent. `Turn it off. Good God! Off, off, off!’

People do what the president says, so the image of her face was immediately replaced on the tent wall by a screensaver of an eagle, only the eagle looked as bloody as the rest of us. 19

The eagerness to turn away from what is happening, exemplified by the fictional president’s response, is mirrored by the rest of the town and many of the scientists and journalists who were once committed to the “story.”

Struggling to reclaim what is left of their rights, their education, and their hope for the future, the remaining students cobble together a misfit teaching staff of community members still willing to teach them—a triumphant moment saving them from staying home alone and waiting to see if they explode. However, Mara tells us that it’s:

Not [like] anyone noticed. As January rolled along, bigger things happened. A jumbo jet went down over Brazil. A tsunami killed thousands in the Philippines. The cast of a new comic-book movie was announced. In other words, as we geared up to go to school, the citizens of the world shifted their attentions. Like some foreign war that people get sick of hearing about because they don’t understand the politics, our plight was deemed unwinnable and no one cared about some human interest story starring plucky kids asserting their right to an education. […] As long as we, the cursed ones, stayed put, the world seemed comfortable not thinking about us. 20

The youth are left more or less on their own, with the occasional apology from a parent expressing regret that life turned out this way. As more and more students explode, morale weakens and students, including Mara, begin blaming themselves: Why were they the ones who lived? Why was this happening to them? Who would help them? As prom approaches, “Google dispatche[s] a fleet of those self-driving Priuses decorated with sparkly lights on the inside,” Mara tells us. Justifiably jaded, she adds, “It was clearly a promotional stunt to prove that these technical marvels were safe even when kids were exploding inside of them.” 21 With the support of a community-member-turned-teacher with film industry experience, the youth create a YouTube channel that is engaged with by millions who watch as if its reality television; an opportunistic academic claims to have a “cure” and attempts to make money off the youth (only to find themselves covered in the remains of a spontaneously combusted student); the remaining townsfolk move away. Upon graduation, a newly-minted Covington High senior becomes the first of their class to explode and the institutional response is no longer to help but, rather, to ensure no Covington student leaves the town until after they graduate:

Since spontaneous combustion affected such an insignificant portion of the population, the rest of the country was cool with restricting our constitutional rights, and essentially ignored the events. `Not my kid, not my problem.’ And some people even considered us lucky, because the federal government tossed our town a few hundred million dollars to build a state-of-the-art high school with slick surfaces and drains in the floor. Easier to hose down after the last bell. 22

Mara, feeling like her entire life has been destroyed, engages in the act of rebuilding anew, albeit without her previous commitments to the systems and structures that abandoned her and her peers. If she is to participate, it will be on her terms.

Texts such as this resist many of the trappings of “return-to-normalcy” narratives many other dystopian stories fall into; there is no undoing what has been done, no romanticization of the past upon which to project one’s hopes. In The Child to Come: Life After the Human Catastrophe, Rebekah Sheldon describes the problematic role children often play in dystopian texts as follows: “The figure of the child stands in for a futurity that strips the future of everything but repetition and yet insists that repetition is progress.” 23 As Sheldon argues, so often the struggles of the future in dystopian texts represent a fight to return to the normative present of the reader; an insidious form of socialization as young readers are meant to realize “on their own” that the present is worth fighting for. But for Mara and her remaining peers in this near-future narrative, there is no illusion of repetition as progress; there is only forward, away, beyond—in the cataclysmic aftermath of destruction, there is no interest in going back.

While this summary depicts the story as a hopeless one, there is value in texts such as this that can help facilitate honest futures talk—space for youth to articulate and push back against the ways in which they are spontaneously combusting. In my own research facilitating a world building project wherein youth used speculative storytelling to imagine the future of their city (Toronto), students chose to imagine a world after social, environmental, and economic collapse; this was, in their theorizing, the only way to really imagine something new and different. As one student in my research noted, “People who have money now are too powerful to give it up,” so they collectively envisioned events within the timeline of their imagined future—a climate crisis on the brink, capitalism pushed to its limit—that forced change. As Matthew J. Wolf-Meyer argues in Theory for the World to Come: Speculative Fiction and Apocalyptic Anthropology,

The future is unfathomable. But in this openness, it becomes a space to play with theories of what might be, of what the future holds, and how it will reshape human lives and society, and how the future will change too. […] Speculative fiction—and social theory—that considers desolation and its aftermaths helps to point to ways forward, ways to live through the apocalypse, even if living through doesn’t manage to keep things the same as they were. 24

In the spirit of the young people’s work in my research and those in Priyadharshini’s aforementioned study who similarly found a complex hope within destructive imagination, I might amend this to argue that speculative fiction is particularly generative for students especially “if living through calamity doesn’t manage to keep things the same as they were.” 25

In her work on climate anxiety, Maria Ojala advocates for a pedagogical approach “that focuses on a critical hope that is based in an acknowledgement of the negative, a positive view of preferable futures, the possibility of societal change, and that is related to concrete pathways toward this preferable future.” 26 Resisting the neoliberal impulse to “privatize hope,” 27 Ojala emphasizes the importance of teaching towards the undecided nature of the future and argues that “to face the negative is a starting point for constructive hope.” 28 A critical hope does not lead youth away from the truth of our current moment but, rather, carves out space for new stories of possibility. If what we need, as Sarah Amsler argues, is “radically new readings of the present and the future and new methods for learning to read the world differently; readings that not only encourage ‘re-thinking’ or ‘re-imagining’ but re-doing the world,” 29 texts like Spontaneous can be powerful catalysts for re-storying; for breaking the commitments we impose upon youth to adhere to systems and structures that do not—and will likely never—serve them. Novels like Spontaneous, although intended for a YA audience, are also invaluable tools for educators who might be struggling to understand how the current moment might feel for youth who anticipate “spontaneously combusting” at any moment. By engaging at length with Starmer’s novel as an example of the shift from the triumphant return-to-normalcy dystopian texts of the early 2000s and pairing this example text with in-field research exploring young people’s dispositions towards the future, I argue that we can use texts such as this to gaze unflinchingly at the challenges before us and our youth as educators, and to, in turn, commit ourselves to radically revisioning the world alongside our students instead of abandoning them to the futures carelessly fashioned for them.


Amsler, Sarah. The Education of Radical Democracy. New York: Routledge, 2015.

Biesta, Gert. “The Ignorant Citizen: Mouffe, Ranciere, and the Subject of Democratic Education.” Studies in Philosophy and Education 30 (2011): 141-153. doi:

Campbell, Joseph W. The Order and the Other: Young Adult Dystopian Literature and Science Fiction. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 2019.

Lerner, Ben. 10:04. Toronto: McClelland & Stewart, 2014.

Mouffe, Chantal. The Return of the Political. London: Verso, 1993.

Moylan, Tom. Becoming Utopian. New York: Bloomsbury Academic, 2021.

Ojala, Maria. “Facing Anxiety in Climate Change Education: From Therapeutic Practice to Hopeful Transgressive Learning.” Canadian Journal of Environmental Education 21 (2016): 41—56.

Priyadharshini, Esther. “Anticipating the Apocalypse: Monstrous Educational Futures.” Futures 113, no. 1 (2019): 1-8. doi:

Rubin, Anita. “Hidden, Inconsistent, and Influential: Images of the Future in Changing Times.” Futures 45 (2013): S38—S44. doi:

Sheldon, Rebekah. The Child to Come: Life After the Human Catastrophe. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2016.

Starmer, Aaron. Spontaneous. Toronto: Dutton Books for Young Readers, 2016.

Toliver, S.R. and Keith Miller. “(Re)Writing Reality: Using Science Fiction to Analyze the World.” English Journal 108, no. 3 (2016): 51-59.

Toliver, S.R. “Freedom Dreaming in a Broken World: The Black Radical Imagination in Black Girls’ Science Fiction Stories.” Research in the Teaching of English 56, no. 23 (2021): 85-106.

Tomin, Brittany. “Worlds in the Making: World Building, Hope, and Collaborative Uncertainty.” Journal of the American Association for the Advancement of Curriculum Studies 14, no. 1 (2020): 1-15. doi:

Wolf-Meyer, Matthew J. Theory for the World to Come: Speculative Fiction and Apocalyptic Anthropology. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2019. doi:


  • Esther Priyadharshini, “Anticipating the Apocalypse: Monstrous Educational Futures.” Futures 113, no. 1 (2019): 1.
  • Priyadharshini, “Anticipating the Apocalypse,” 1.
  • Chantal Mouffe, The Return of the Political (London: Verso, 1993).
  • Gert Biesta, “The Ignorant Citizen: Mouffe, Ranciere, and the Subject of Democratic Education.” Studies in Philosophy and Education 30 (2011); see also Mouffe, The Return of the Political.
  • Rebekah Sheldon, The Child to Come: Life After the Human Catastrophe (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2016).
  • Aaron Starmer. Spontaneous (Toronto: Dutton Books for Young Readers, 2016).
  • Priyadharshini. “Anticipating the Apocalypse.”
  • Sarah Amsler, The Education of Radical Democracy (New York: Routledge, 2015).
  • Sheldon, The Child to Come.
  • S.R. Toliver and Keith Miller, “(Re)Writing Reality: Using Science Fiction to Analyze the World.” English Journal 108, no. 3 (2016).
  • Joseph W. Campbell, The Order and the Other: Young Adult Dystopian Literature and Science Fiction (Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 2019).
  • Ben Lerner, 10:04 (Toronto: McClelland & Stewart, 2014), 98.
  • Tom Moylan, Becoming Utopian (New York: Bloomsbury Academic, 2021).
  • Matthew J. Wolf-Meyer, Theory for the World to Come: Speculative Fiction and Apocalyptic Anthropology (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2019).
  • Starmer, Spontaneous, 80.
  • Starmer, Spontaneous, 73.
  • Starmer, Spontanenous, 163.
  • Starmer, Spontaneous, 237.
  • Starmer, Spontaneous, 317.
  • Starmer, Spontaneous, 359 - 360.
  • Sheldon, The Child to Come, 36.
  • Wolf-Meyer, Theory for the World to Come, 15.
  • Wolf-Meyer, Theory of the World to Come, 15. Cited again for reorientation towards initial quotation.
  • Maria Ojala, “Facing Anxiety in Climate Change Education: From Therapeutic Practice to Hopeful Transgressive Learning.” Canadian Journal of Environmental Education 21 (2016), 42.
  • Ojala, “Facing Anxiety in Climate Change Education,” 46.
  • Ojala, “Facing Anxiety in Climate Change Education, 51.
  • Amsler, The Education of Radical Democracy, 21.