It all started innocently enough. It was casual Friday and I’d left the office to do some library visits. One of the teen librarians spotted me in my short sleeves and informed me that I’d be a perfect tattooed Dauntless leader for her upcoming Divergent program. I shrugged and agreed to participate, having no clue whatsoever what I was getting myself into. But I could wear my skin. That would be easy enough.
A week before the program, I decided to get informed. I got myself a copy of the book and dropped right into that fun little universe that was pretty much a forced blending of Harry Potter and The Hunger Games. But that’s okay. Mockbusters don’t write themselves.
Headed to the library on program day, I was kind of excited. I mean, I was the Dauntless leader, hands down the coolest faction in the book. I wasn’t sure how the program would go. In essence, it was a pretty ambitious role playing game. A couple of weeks before, the teens who would be participating were tested (read the book) to determine their faction placement. I didn’t get to see that, but I hear it was pretty brutal. But could the teens be expected to both show up on program day and relax their inhibitions enough to role play in public? Past experience made me doubtful.
My Dauntless initiates were all strangers. In spite of attending the same school, they didn’t know one another. Four of them were pretty quiet, but there was one who immediately slipped into character. Shortly after, her fellow initiates followed suit. I handed out character cards to each player. These cards had predefined actions on them that each character would need to complete to progress the live story. It was my job to make sure these things happened on schedule. After that, we started faction training. My initiates were practicing their marksmanship. A well-meaning Abnegation initiate (or “Stiff” as we affectionately called her) came by to selflessly help us set up our targets. Of course, due to the bastardization of faction politics over time, we took advantage of her innate kindness and made her act as a living target.
As the evening wore on, the initiates became comfortable in their characters. During their downtime, the Dauntless wandered the library causing mischief and mayhem. I thought it was interesting that my teens opted to embody the behaviors of the more unsavory Dauntless in the novel (like Peter) rather than the just and heroic heroine of the story (Tris). That, perhaps, speaks to the nature of divergency. Two of my teens had cards that labeled them “Divergent,” but, if they really believed it, they were better actors than Four. None of them questioned the cruel and confusing missions I sent them on. They were just happy to be a part of the group.
And that, I think, is where the real power in the book exists. Sure, it’s derivative, but it’s just a good thing for teenagers to hear. You can be different. Sometimes you should go against the grain. Sometimes when you’re right, others will resent you for it. The end of the world is often not the end of the world. You need not restrict yourself to some predefined set of characteristics.
That idea, though, is much better conveyed in the one-on-one environment of reading a book. It’s easy to identify with Tris when you’re seeing things through her eyes. In the game, it was more fun to be like everyone else. There was less risk that way. For me, seeing both perspectives simultaneously was kind of revelatory. This event was the real-life manifestation of literary engagement. And the actions that the teens undertook represented a very real connection with the text.
My favorite part of the whole thing, though, didn’t happen until after the game was over. The girls in my group, who were previously strangers, exchanged phone numbers so that they could hang out together in the future. Come to the library because of a love of a book, engage with like-minded individuals, and leave with new friends. I can’t imagine a better outcome for a library event.