The Rise of Young Adult Dystopian Fiction

I’m making my way through the, so far, excellent novel The Maze Runner by James Dashner.  It’s about a teenage boy who awakens in a strange compound, all his memories erased, which is itself surrounded by a creature-filled maze that has no escape.  And yes, the book is aimed at young adults.  It’s quite entertaining.  On NPR yesterday, they ran a report about the rise of dystopian fiction for young adults, centered around the novels by Suzanne Collins (The Hunger Games Trilogy) and Scott Westerfeld’s “Uglies.”  I would certainly include Dashner’s novel (which is itself a trilogy) in that same group.

Unfortunately, I can’t seem to find the NPR article, which also included a list of canonical works in this category (I really just wanted to share the list).  However, I did find a similar article from June of 2010 in The New Yorker exploring the exact same phenomenon.

The youth-centered versions of dystopia part company with their adult predecessors in some important respects. For one thing, the grownup ones are grimmer. In an essay for the 2003 collection “Utopian and Dystopian Writing for Children and Young Adults,” the British academic Kay Sambell argues that “the narrative closure of the protagonist’s final defeat and failure is absolutely crucial to the admonitory impulse of the classic adult dystopia.” The adult dystopia extrapolates from aspects of the present to show readers how terrible things will become if our deplorable behavior continues unchecked. The more utterly the protagonist is crushed, the more urgent and forceful the message. Because authors of children’s fiction are “reluctant to depict the extinction of hope within their stories,” Sambell writes, they equivocate when it comes to delivering a moral. Yes, our errors and delusions may lead to catastrophe, but if—as usually happens in dystopian novels for children—a new, better way of life can be assembled from the ruins would the apocalypse really be such a bad thing? […]

Children, however, don’t run the world, and teen-agers, especially, feel the sting of this. “The Hunger Games” could be taken as an indictment of reality TV, but only someone insensitive to the emotional tenor of the story could regard social criticism as the real point of Collins’s novel. “The Hunger Games” is not an argument. It operates like a fable or a myth, a story in which outlandish and extravagant figures and events serve as conduits for universal experiences. Dystopian fiction may be the only genre written for children that’s routinely less didactic than its adult counterpart. It’s not about persuading the reader to stop something terrible from happening—it’s about what’s happening, right this minute, in the stormy psyche of the adolescent reader. “The success of ‘Uglies,’ ” Westerfeld once wrote in his blog, “is partly thanks to high school being a dystopia.”

The best of these novels are successful because they are able to take a concrete problem that bothers many teenagers — the loss of identity in a new setting, losing your personality to be beautiful, the loss of privacy in our information overload age, etc. — and turn that into an allegorical story.

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  • Robin February 3, 2011, 3:27 am

    Thanks for a thought provoking post. I think that some of these dystopias do fit into the allegory for "high school" mode — but I think other things are going on and reducing the critique to that specific allegory is really selling these readers short. Series like The Hunger Games or Philip Pullman's "His Dark Materials" are after much bigger game. They are offering a social critique of adults and the messes they've made. I'd also add one of my favorite "dystopias" to the list, though it is all too real — The Book Thief, set in Nazi Germany. Allan has it right that these works are exploring big social justice issues — repression, propaganda, religion, etc. — in ways that are sometimes much more interesting and sophisticated than books meant for adults.

    • James February 3, 2011, 6:32 am

      I'm intrigued by "The Book Thief." I think you're both right about the larger social issues these works present, wish I took the time to include that in the post.

  • Allan Bard January 16, 2011, 6:09 am

    Nice post/site! I'll have to find some of the books you've mentioned… Being a writer who writes for children too, I think there should be more books that show us and kids more than just the ordinary characters like dragons, fairies, mermaids, wizards with sharp hats, princesses, kings, dwarves, elves, etc… There should be more wisdom, connections to our world and everlasting problems like racism, dignity, self-respect… I think every author should strive to create such stories with new creatures inside. I try some new in some of my books (Tale Of The Rock Pieces, The Opposite Of Magic, Kids'Funny Business, etc (weightless korks, glowing, living balls, Brown faces, fiery men, one-eyeds, night fruit, rock pieces, fish-keepers, etc…), hope I'm right?.

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