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Thursday, August 25, 2011

Dystopian Lit: YA's Next Big Thing

First it was witches and wizards or teens with various magical powers. Then came vampires and werewolves and paranormal romance. Now the young adult literature world is brimming with dystopian and post-apocalyptic tales. Why are these seemingly dark themes striking such a chord with today’s youth?

What Is Dystopian and Post-Apocalyptic Literature?
Utopia, of course, is the concept of the perfect society, first explored in Sir Thomas More’s 1516 novel.1 Dystopian literature takes that concept and flips it, portraying a society that is often oppressive or stricken with poverty. George Orwell’s 1984 is perhaps the best-known example of dystopian lit. Post-apocalyptic lit takes it a step further, showing a world in which society has, for the most part, collapsed due to some catastrophic event, such as a nuclear war (a recent entry in this genre is The Road by Cormac McCarthy, which was selected for Oprah’s book club in 2007).

Sounds pretty bleak, doesn’t it? And yet something in these tales calls out to teens and keeps them coming back for more. The New York Times offers a great resource for exploring dystopian fiction and YA readers’ attitudes toward it.

Dystopian Fiction
Dystopian novels, for both kids and adults, have been around for a long time, but those for the YA set are enjoying a recent surge in popularity. The Hunger Games trilogy by Suzanne Collins is just one example of this type of story. In it, young people are forced to compete each year in a televised murder-fest for the entertainment of society’s elites, who live in the Capitol. As in most dystopian fiction, the protagonist struggles against her society’s rules, eventually seeking to overthrow the system altogether.2

The difference between dystopian fiction for kids and that for adults is that adult stories are usually grimmer. The Hunger Games, for instance, provides a happy conclusion; 1984 does not. The age range of readers, however, may not be vastly different for the two books—The Hunger Games is recommended for readers aged fifteen and up, and 1984 is on many high school (14-18) reading lists. But The Hunger Games, specifically geared toward younger readers, offers a more hopeful tone.

The reasons for this are simple. Adult dystopian tales generally offer a warning of the consequences of some current trend or worry.2 YA dystopia, on the other hand, is often written as an allegory for the lives of teenagers themselves. After all, an oppressive and restrictive society makes a lot of sense for teen readers surrounded by authority figures (teachers, parents, etc.) and ready to test the boundaries. As YA author Scott Westerfield points out in his blog, “Teenagers’ lives are constantly defined by rules, and in response they construct their identities through necessary confrontations with authority, large and small. Imagining a world in which those authorities must be destroyed by any means necessary is one way of expanding that game. Imagining a world in which those authorities are utterly gone is another.”3

That being the case, it’s easy to see why these stories tend to end happily. Teens reading them as reflections of their own lives aren’t going to relate to stories that don’t offer any hope.

For a list of great works of dystopian fiction, click here.

Post-Apocalyptic Romance
Post-apocalyptic fiction often reads almost as a sub-genre of dystopian lit, but it does offer some themes of its own. Instead of a repressive society, for instance, there may be no society to speak of, having been wiped out in whatever catastrophe led to the state of humankind portrayed within. Now many authors are taking it a step further by adding the element of romance.

The post-apocalyptic part of the story appeals to YA readers for much the same reason dystopian lit does: the protagonist struggling against all odds to survive and figure out a world that no longer makes sense.4 The romance aspect appeals to them for obvious reasons as well as they’re generally discovering that part of their lives themselves. In that sense, these novels carry on the popularity of Twilight and the paranormal romance genre that spawned from it.

In Your Library
Publishers Weekly blogger Josie Leavitt has noticed that some parents struggle with their children reading books that deal with such dark topics.5 She argues, though, that teens identify with these stories for the reasons mentioned above, and that parents should talk to librarians and booksellers to help determine what reading material is appropriate for their children.

What do you think of this trend in YA literature? Are dystopian and post-apocalyptic stories flying off the shelves at your library? Give us your thoughts in the comments section below.


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