Earlier this year I posted about the trend behind YA dystopian fiction. This week several YA authors weigh in on the trend --- and their reasons for writing it --- in the New York Times “Room for Debate” column. What follows are excerpts from the column, along with titles for each author:
Paolo Bacigalupi is author of Ship Breaker, a National Book Award Finalist about child laborers tearing apart oil tankers in a post-oil future. “I suspect that young adults crave stories of broken futures because they themselves are uneasily aware that their world is falling apart,” he writes. “With ‘Ship Breaker,’ a novel set in a future when oil has run out and New Orleans has drowned under rising sea levels, I was trying to illuminate the sort of world that we adults are handing off to them.” Bacigalupi speculates that quality of life is deteriorating and teens crave something that reflects this viewpoint. “…we adults wish we could put our heads under the blankets and hide from the scary story we're writing for our kids.”
Maggie Stiefvater, author of the hugely popular trilogy, The Wolves of Mercy Falls, disagrees with the viewpoint that youth readers enjoy dystopian novels because they reflect our dark times. “Would we be so enamored with dystopian fiction if we lived in a culture where violent death was a major concern?” she asks. Instead, she suggests that the complexity of contemporary life make the black and white choices often present in dystopian fiction appealing to youth readers. “Teenagers want to be able to fight for what’s right,” she writes, “but finding out what’s right is now 90 percent of the battle.” Her series, beginning with Shiver (Wolves of Mercy Falls Series #1), is a paranormal romance involving werewolves and star-crossed lovers.
The Hole in the Wall is an environmental fable that straddles the divide between middle-grade and YA fiction. Author Lisa Rowe Fraustino thinks that many readers find comfort in dark themes. She quotes her editor, Ben Barnhart, on the escapism inherent in dystopian titles: “It can be comforting, in a strange sort of way, to read a story in which the terrifying struggles and tribulations of the main character force your own problems to fade away.” Fraustino offers some of her own favorite titles that highlight this kind of conflict, including Robert Cormier’s conspiracy classic, I Am the Cheese, and M.T. Anderson’s satire Feed, set in a world where media is downloaded directly into people’s brains.
Scott Westerfeld is the author of two series that deal with dystopian themes.
The Uglies, series is about children raised in a culture where plastic surgery --- getting to be beautiful --- is the reward for good behavior. Rebelling against a culture that encourages --- even surgically enhances --- conformity in appearance and thought, Westerfeld’s series was an early harbinger of the current youth dystopian trend. His second series, Leviathan, is set in an alternate history version of WWI that pits the mechanized “Clankers” and their giant mechanical engines against the “Darwinists,” whose methods consist of genetically engineering living creatures for warfare. Westerfeld deals with both dystopian and apocalyptic themes in his literature for youth readers. He surmises that the popularity of dystopian fiction comes from teens being able to identify with the regimented lives presented in dystopian fiction. “Schools are places where teens are subject to dress codes, have few free speech rights, and are constantly surveilled, where they rise and sit at the sound of a bell. Is it any wonder that dystopian novels speak to them?” Apocalyptic themes, by contrast, offer the breaking down of the regimented system. “What is the apocalypse but an everlasting snow day?” he asks. “An excuse to tear up all those college applications, which suddenly aren’t going to determine the rest of your life.”

Author of the bestselling Frindle and the new Benjamin Pratt and the Keepers of the School Series, Andrew Clement generally writes upbeat titles for middle-grade readers. Still, he remembers the moment as a young reader that darker themes began to appeal to him. His solution was Jack London’s Call of the Wild, along with an appetite for Edgar Allan Poe's tales of horror and Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes mysteries. Clement suggests that dystopian themes appeal to readers, not because the world has gotten worse, but because we are more aware of things happening around the globe. “Perhaps the dystopian stories of today are darker because all of us, writers and readers alike, have become more aware of the many awful things that happen in our world,” he writes. “A study of world history shows that truly awful things have always happened. In our current media-saturated lives, however, every single awful thing that happens anywhere is pressed upon us in full-color, live-action images, both instantaneously and repetitively. In order for a book to seem scary today, it has to be very scary indeed.”

“Room for Debate” features the opinions of several other authors and scholars offering their ideas and recommendations for dystopian fiction. I was most intrigued by the inclusion of several classic science fiction titles, including George Orwell's 1984, Aldous Huxley's Brave New World, and Clockwork Orange by Anthony Burgess, which was a novel before Stanley Kubrick's infamous screen adaptation. We think of these books as being primarily for adults, but most readers encounter them for the first time as teenagers --- either in literature class or in explorations of their own. What isn't discussed is whether they still hold up as dystopias today or if their frightening visions have faded as the world has taken different paths from the ones imagined 50 years ago or more. My question about current dystopias is not why they are popular or what they may intimate about dark futures, but what they tell us about our society here and now.
Have you read any of these authors or titles? Do you agree or disagree with their assessments of dystopian fiction?

Sarah A. Wood, a reviewer for Teenreads.com and Kidsreads.com since 2003, is a lifetime reader and writer. She refuses to accept that there are people who don't like to read and stubbornly believes this is only because they have not met the right book yet.


by seredni on ‎12-31-2010 01:05 PM

I love dystopian YA, and I'm a 40 something elementary teacher, soon to be a elementary librarian.  I haven't thought much about why the genre is so popular, but I don't think it's because we see the world around us falling apart.  I'm so old that I won't guess why it's popular with today's youth.  I enjoy it because they allow me to escape from my daily routines.  Dystopia allows me to be a survivor is a tough world.  Through the narrator or main character I can stand out, be a hero, do what I want to do, not what societal norms tell me I need to do in order to fit in. I get to rely on myself and focus on a simple task--usually staying alive and/or saving those I care for. 


I haven't read any of the ones listed above, but I'm putting them on my list.  I think the trend took off with The Hunger Games, but there are many others which vary greatly in style, plot, and setting.  The Giver series (Gathering Blue and The Messenger) is a not-to-be-missed series for middle level readers (I'd recommend for grades 5-7).  The Dirt Eaters is another series that's quite enjoyable, especially for boys.  I wasn't too impressed with How I Live Now, although it does have appeal to those looking for romance (sex, actually, but never described in detail).  There's the City of Ember series, great for grades 4-6--much better than the movie.  For HS readers nothing is better than Feed--M.T. Andersen's story is stunning, although some readers may not enjoy the language (I loved it, but I know someone who hated it). 

by Moderator Sarah-W on ‎01-01-2011 10:16 AM

Thank you for your comment and recommendations. I love dystopias, too, but I have to admit I'm a sucker for happy endings.

by Moderator Melissa_W on ‎01-13-2011 12:07 PM

Sarah, this was such a timely column now that Bacigalupi has won the Printz award for Shipbreaker (definitely on my TBR now!).

by Moderator Sarah-W on ‎01-18-2011 08:55 AM

Melissa, the timing was purely accidental, but I do try to make every post here connect with new titles! Sometimes I wish they all could win awards to get the readership they deserve.


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