Is there such a thing as too much dystopia?
I have a very strong memory of reading Jurassic Park when the film was in cinemas: it was 1993, and I would have been ten years old. I had gone straight from Enid Blyton to adult novels, because that was what we did―the connective tissue of Young Adult didn’t exist.
YA fiction is a uniquely diverse, genre-crossing world. Within its walls can be found books for any reading ability, written with wit, creativity and skill; and representing racial, sexual and gender issues with consideration and love.
With all this variety, the apparent stranglehold of dystopian fiction on YA has raised questions for the curators of young people’s reading in school and at home. Why do these stories―The Hunger Games, Maze Runner, Divergent et al―so appeal to the nation’s youth? Are they suitable? Are they having a deleterious effect on young readers? And how should we respond?
So why do dystopias appeal to the nation’s youth to this extent?
The appeal of dystopia is no mystery. Fictional characters are driven by loss and need, and dystopian characters are the purest distillation of that drive: the characters have lost their liberty, their dignity, their safety―they need everything. Their lives are structured by the antagonist―the oppressive state/occupying force/space aliens―so the enemy is clear and powerful and loathsome. Dystopian characters are hard-wired with the need for freedom, reflecting the desire of young readers beginning to push against the boundaries of their own parent-controlled world, and their stakes are built into the setting; into their habits and behaviours and clothing. Everything a book needs is on the first page, instant and sweet: dystopia is the energy drink of plot, and young readers guzzle it down.
Are dystopian novels suitable for every young reader?
Before I was a writer, I was an English teacher for six years, and I know that but judgements on suitability are tricky and subjective; eleven and twelve year olds are unique in their interests and maturity, and no two are alike. Which books children should be reading is only answerable on an individual basis, and that’s up to librarians, teachers, parents and, ultimately, the young readers themselves. Young people know best what’s too scary or too violent for them, and they’ll put a book down if it makes them uncomfortable.
The violent content of many dystopian novels has been a cause for concern for some guardians―but it’s important to consider it in context. A violet scene in a book will place the reader inside the skin of the victim, the perpetrator, or both; and the imaginative agency required of a them means the consequences of violence are explored with greater depth than in a video game or film. The acts of violence in YA novels, which might sound excessive if described in isolation, are given a resonance in context that allows a young reader to explore their consequences safely. Which brings us onto…
Are dystopias having a deleterious effect on young readers?
Absolutely not. It’s almost trite, but it’s true―no reading is bad reading. The benefits of reading fiction on cognitive and empathic development, as well as the honing of language, are well established, and these apply to YA’s dystopian staples as much as any other text. And there’s more.
The essence of a dystopian world is the stripping away of the comforts and securities we take for granted. Experiencing that kind of privation through a book demands that the reader considers the means by which humanity could be maintained in such adversity―what it means to be human without the structures of civilised society to guide our behaviours. And what this always amounts to is love, compassion, courage, and friendship. Noble values, and universal, recognisable in all the greatest fiction.
So how should we, as custodians and promoters of reading, respond to a dystopia-obsessed young reader?
With delight and encouragement. Hollywood adaptations have created a misconception among certain commentators that YA fiction is nothing but dystopian Chosen Ones battling their sinister overlords. This is, of course, bunkum. Your hungry reader might chew their way through a slew of dystopian series in quick succession―and once they do, they’ll be looking for their next fix. This is where we, the curators, can help, encouraging them into new areas, different genres and styles, and into new dystopian worlds.
Discouraging or deriding any kind of reading is never a good idea―nor we shouldn’t shy away from acknowledging these pop culture behemoths in classroom discussion. Instead, we should think about how dystopia draws on universal literary concerns. What makes the tough choices of Thomas in The Maze Runner so different from Ralph’s in Lord of the Flies? Or Katniss’ Hunger Games dream of a safe, free life so different from George and Lennie, grinding away on dry ranches in Of Mice and Men?
Tough choices and dreams are the lifeblood of fiction. No stories exist in a vacuum―their characters and themes intersect, and harnessing these big ideas could lead students more confidently towards a deeper understanding of set texts, and unlock their literacy skills in a manner that could help them succeed in other curricular areas.
Dystopian fiction is a safe and thrilling space for young readers to challenge themselves with frightening, adult-free, non-didactic stories about what it means to be human, and to consider the means by which authority is wielded.
Rather than fear them, we should be thrilled when they grab the attention of a young reader, and do our best to shine light on the page.