As I write this, the latest wave of dystopian young adult lit, Hunger Games: Catching Fire and Divergent, are respectively on Demand and in the theatres. Dystopian is a word that means, as I explained to Youngest the other morning, the opposite of Utopian; it pertains to a situation or circumstance that is dysfunctional, dark and bleak. The genre is nothing new as it offers an opportunity for society to fictionally work through the dark fears and nightmares that concern us. This might be the long-term effects of radiation that framed some of the better sci-fi movies of the 1950s or the soulless impact of the corporate/big-brother world of the Matrix movies. Even young adult fiction has had its dystopian elements, but the latest incarnations – coupled with conversation with my own kids – has me wondering what exactly is going on.
Youngest’s reading interests have always been a bit different. He’s never taken to the Harry Potter books like his siblings but he’s become steeped in Greek and Roman mythologies, with all of the earliest stories of heroism and character failings. He likewise has taken to young adventure and is an avid fan of Anthony Horowitz’ Alex Rider as well as The Young Bond series by Charlie Higson. These are classic examples of the good/evil adventure stories with heroes and villains, except that the heroes are in their mid-teens and infinitely more identifiable to the reader. But several months ago, he began reading another series by Charlie Higson, The Enemy. The premise centers on the lives of young London tweens and teens trying to survive in the midst of a global zombie apocalyse and each of the books examines the separate lives and adventures of specific characters; the characters – those who manage to survive – don’t meet until one of the later books in the series and it’s this book in which he’s presently immersed. What’s different about this particular series however, lies in the seeming hopelessness of the struggles that these kids undergo. Youngest came down to breakfast one morning recently and shook his head as we talked about this particular series. What was brutal for him was that the author would develop young characters with whom he could identify and appreciate, only to have the characters either die or become infected and become zombies; I really get to like somebody and then *bang* he’s gone. It’s been rare that I’ve censored a kid’s reading choice, typically opting instead to keep tabs on it and perhaps looking to follow up in later conversation about the topic and that’s the route I opted to take in this instance as well. I was then relieved when he put the novel aside for a break: but that was shortlived as he substituted another for it, Divided We Fall. This particular novel is a teen political/action thriller that tells the story of a high-schooler/Idaho National Guardsman who is caught in a blossoming conflict that has the seed of a second Civil War.
It’s the nature of the dystopia that gives me pause. Youth literature has been filled with dystopic themes for many years but it’s only been in the past few that the shift has seemingly gone from the fantastic – Harry Potter and the Twilight series – to the more realistic political and social realms. While the rap on the youngsters is that they don’t pay attention, the reality is that they do pay attention; unfortunately, few adults are actually explaining things to them and they consequently suffer from a deficit of both information and the context into which to put that information. Enough teens are seeing their older siblings and friends return home or scrounge by with considerable debt to understand that things are not going well. Likewise, they are also learning that their electronic tethers are increasingly monitored by the government that has professed to be their lifetime bud; unfortuntately, that bud is in the process of becoming a confidant as well, whether they wish to share the information or not. Couple this with the rise of the corporate society – where they aren’t so much a generation as a marketing cohort – and the 1984 parallels are unnerving, if not downright frightening.
The title of the essay, Some thing Wicked This Way Comes, is a classic Ray Bradbury novel that came out when I was a toddler and which I gobbled up in the entirety in middle school. In the story, the protagonists are young teen boys who must face a terrifying experience that is first portended in quiet, unnerving ways. Bradbury does a great job evoking an atmosphere of growing uneasiness amidst the promise of garish, carnival-like entertainment long before things spin out of control and it’s this same scenario playing out amongst the kids long before they actually have a sense of what’s facing them. They are surrounded by any number of escapist opportunities via an electronics consumer society, yet they sense that events are coalescing in ways that they can’t immediately understand and it’s this sensibility that is spinning out of the minds of authors for the kids’ consumption.
Today’s stories are a reflection of the fears that face our future adults. Their problem is that many don’t understand the context of the situations facing our society today and without that understanding, they can’t frame a coherent response to it. So when you see the tweens and teens reading some of this dystopian literature, consider whether they like it because it’s just a "ripping good yarn" or whether there’s a nugget of something else occurring. Then take the time to chat with them and see what you can help comb out of their concerns, putting the story into context. You have the benefit of age, experience and hindsight to help put things in context, while some they might only have a vague uneasiness about what they hear and see. That is, ultimately, our principal job – to teach them, help them make sense of the world so that they’re prepared for it when they step out into it.