This year will be my first year teaching 9th grade English. So this summer, in addition to reading the massive amounts of first-year-teacher advice books, I’ve also been catching up on my young adult (YA) novels. I’ve always prided myself on being a hub for great book recommendations. Not to brag, but I have multiple friends and a few strangers (who have become good acquaintances) come to me for advice on their next book. It’s amazing and wonderful to have that kind of influence and trust. Choosing books is very personal, and I am honored to have people willing to listen to my advice. I hope to be able to earn that same trust with my students. In order to do that, I have to read!
That said, back to the YA books. Since I’ve been reading so many young adult books back to back, I’ve started to see a trend. A vast majority of the more popular books are dystopian fiction. After reading my fifth novel having to do with the end of the world and a bunch of kids fending for themselves, I started to ask myself, why? Why are these books flying off the shelves?
I could be jaded by now (which is sad) but a lot of these books follow the same plot points:
- An oppressive government hiding behind a utopian facade
- Vaguely described post-apocalyptic world
- A persecuted or suffering protagonists who will become the brave hero or heroine of the story
- Division within the society: rich-against-poor, elite-against-workers, government-against-citizens
As I started on my sixth novel that was more or less the same theme as the other five, I decided to look at it from a different point of view. I tried reading it as a young adult would, all the while asking myself questions about why this would appeal to my “teenage” self. Here are a few of my thoughts:
1. The Lack of Adults
- I think the lack of adults is the number one reason teenagers like to read dystopian fiction. Young adult literature is a break from authority figures telling them what to do, what to watch, and what to read. It makes sense that teenagers would relish the idea that adults were either missing or incapable of helping to change their circumstances. The burden of being a hero falls onto the shoulders of children, with whom the readers identify.
2. The End of the World
- The end of the world is a fascinating prospect. Will we be overrun by zombies? Will the surface of the world be pocked with craters from a massive meteor shower? Will there be massive floods that makes the remaining humans build treehouses and live among the leaves? The possibilities are endless and the small glimpse in how humanity handles The End is interesting.
3. Young Hero Rising from Nothing
- Seeing someone rise from humble beginnings to become the hero of the world is inspiring and motivating. We all have a touch of ordinariness, but we hope and wish that one day we will be able to prove ourselves extraordinary. Of course it would most likely be because we were the first person in our family to graduate from college, or we were able to get a book published against the odds *wink!*, but who knows. Maybe we will be overrun by werewolves and one of us will have to take down the pack leader in order to restore peace…it’s a possibility!
4. The Action and Suspense
- Action and suspense catches the eye of readers. Guys, especially teenage guys, don’t care about love triangles or sparkly vampires. But if there are fights to the death for survival, then they become very interested. Readers get to place themselves in the shoes of the protagonist and feel the danger, but without placing themselves in jeopardy. Look at the Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins. I can tell you right now, if I were part of the Hunger Games, I would not last long. Not that I wouldn’t try my best to survive, but I really don’t think I could kill another human, much less a kid. But that’s the beauty of dystopian novels. We delve into our minds and ask ourselves, “What would I do?”
5. Righting Injustice
- This world is full of wrongs that we wish we could change. In dystopian novels, the heroes have that chance to change what they see. They start a covert revolution, or join one that is already gaining strength. They fight back. I’m sure there are times where we wish we could fight back against the injustices that we see unfolding in our reality.
I’m sure there are more reasons why people enjoy reading dystopian fiction, but these are my top five that I see consistently. Do I wish there was a little more variety in the dystopian novels that are out there now? Sure, but I think each book has something to teach us. Whether we are running with the protagonist as they are being chased by Grievers or fighting side by side against a pack of flesh eating unicorns, we come away feeling flush with adventure and weary of societies that seem too good to be true. If you want to learn more about what dystopian novels are teaching our students/kids, here is a link to an interesting article: (YA dystopias teach children to submit to the free market, not fight authority)
Now, what do you think attracts people, not just teenagers, to dystopian literature? Can you add to my list of common reasons for the attraction of it? Why do you think, especially in recent years, that this subgenre has taken over the YA sections in libraries and bookstores? I’d love to know what you think!