Why Are Teens Reading Dystopian Novels?
By Francisca Goldsmith
Infopeople Project, California
Whether you are a parent, grandparent or teacher, if you were reading what everyone was reading in the mid-to-late 20th century, then you no doubt became acquainted with dystopian fiction through many now-classic books. Did you read Nobelist William Golding's Lord of the Flies? How about Ray Bradbury's Fahrenheit 451? And had you already read Anthony Burgess' Clockwork Orange before Stanely Kubrick made the movie? Or did the movie lead you to the book?
The opposite of utopian fiction, which features a perfect world or society, dystopias are noted for possessing these qualities and themes:
• An imaginary future world or society
• Tightly controlled inhabitants
• Conformity as good and individuality as bad
• Lack of awareness by most that their circumstances are not utopian
• A main character who is frustrated by the controls and acts in spite of them
• Treats the author's perception of a problem in the current real world through its exaggeration in the story's universe
Until recently, dystopian fiction was created by authors writing for adults, an audience that brings not only awareness of social values but also their own deeply-held beliefs about those values to the book. The titles listed above appear on secondary school reading lists but weren't crafted with teen readers in mind. In this decade, however, we are seeing some fresh new novels that offer teens dystopian reading intended for their open–and opening–perceptions of the world and its problems.
Why would kids want to read about a hero or heroine pitching his or her own individual efforts against a totalitarian society? Won't that turn the readers into rebels in our own imperfect–but hardly dystopian–society? Are these books luring unsuspecting kids into a negative mindset about what we as parents, grandparents and other responsible, mature adults find good about our society?
In a word: no.
Worries like these overlook some very important truths about teen readers, even ones as young as 12 or 14. Jaymee, a 13-year-old eighth grader, reveals a lot about herself and her fellow middle schoolers when she says:
"I think dystopian books can help kids because the themes and lessons they have can help people with problems they have or might have and can give answers about what they want to talk about. One of those answers for me is 'never go crazy over power,' which I learned from [Frank Beddor's] The Looking Glass Wars. Power is like a scar, and it can ruin your life. Themes like this help me in my own life."
The series Jaymee names is a well-crafted and clever take on Lewis Carroll's Alice in Wonderland and Alice through the Looking Glass fantasies, which were decidedly neither utopian nor dystopian. In Beddor's hands, the power struggles Carroll's Alice had with the Red Queen are magnified. Even the power the author, Lewis Carroll, had as an adult over his character model and original audience, Alice Lydell, are made explicit. But the magic of the story and the art of storytelling aren't compromised.
When we look at Jaymee's comments, we learn as much about the kind of reader she is as we learn about why she likes The Looking Glass Wars. We know she likes to read and understands how stories "work." She's willing – and able – to "work," too – and to consider her own world beyond the book in hand. (What author wouldn't step up and thank her?) We also see that Jaymee feels concerned with blemishes as 'scars," but she can make the jump from physical to existential.
In short, reading this dystopian series enlightens as well as entertains Jaymee. It's not dry. It's not preachy. It connects her to ideas of her own and assists her in assimilating information to make it her own knowledge.
Faith, another eighth grader, and Jaymee's best friend, puts it this way:
"It's better to learn life lessons from what you read than being told by your parents. It's easier to get it and hold onto life lessons from stories when you read it and think about it and learn from it. If you just get told, it doesn't stick, but when you see what happens in a story, it helps you to develop, shows you how it's better to do this than that."
Fourteen-year-old Richard pitches in:
"It helps me to think that our world or society can change, that I could help to change it."
Besides talking about how reading dystopian fiction helps them to think about the real world, these teen dystopian fans share how these stories make them feel as they read:
"I find it interesting and comforting at the same time. You can see how this could take you to the next level and how books don't have to be normal." (Jaymee)
"I like the complexity! I think other kids who don't like complex stories–like the time it takes to get into watching Dr. Who—probably wouldn't like that." (Faith)
"Yeah. I like twisted books where you take one thing and change it, and something different happens from what could have." (Jaymee)
"Reading about other worlds and imaginary cultures is exciting. It's interesting to know that there are other ways to form a society — different from the way we have formed ours." (Richard)"I advise adults to read [Suzanne Collins'] Hunger Games because it takes a teenager's point of view and gives a reminder of how we think." (Faith)
"It's good especially if they have children and really really want to know how we think. Also adults could learn about warning signals when things might not be right with a teen." (Jaymee)
Once these teen readers had broached the idea of adults reading teen books, I asked them if anyone can be the wrong age to read dystopian fiction.
"Definitely! I don't think you should read them if you are below fifth grade. It's not that the ideas are bad. I would love little children to understand what's going on in our world, but if you hear stuff that your mind can't understand, you worry too much — like a six-year-old would reading the Hunger Games." (Faith)
"[Younger kids] can't get the concepts because they don't really know how our own society works yet, so they can't see what is different in dystopian fiction." (Richard)
Richard's point is important for parents and other adults to understand: teen readers do believe that they have a grasp on how society "works." Anyone who has ever been in a middle school knows that this is, to a large degree, true: teens are able to consider life with more abstract understanding than their younger siblings can. This is something that we adults often do not recognize.
"I believe parents shouldn't always dictate what you should read, because teens want to get a taste and opinions of life that are different. If you can't read something based on the cover or title, then that's not fair. Sometimes kids should explore on their own just a little, even if their parents want to shape their future." (Faith)
That freedom to explore through reading dystopian fiction isn't about wanting a blueprint for destruction or rebellion. It's the thinking teen's portal to seeing our own world with room for creativity and a private place to experience emotions.
"[James Patterson's] Maximum Ride series' best audience is teenagers because I know a lot of teenagers want excitement. They fantasize about it and want to read about it. It has a little drama in it, but the drama can be sad as well as exciting. I even cried reading these." (Faith)
"I think teens can bring their own life experience to reading dystopias like Maximum Ride, seeing how your life is like what is in the book, but also different. You can relate to the characters and you can relate your own family to it." (Jaymee)
"I wish others could also experience that feeling that they can change things. That we could remake our society." (Richard)
"It's the small things that happen that make it easier for you to connect to the characters. [Veronica Roth's] Divergent is teen-focused. The romance is targeted to a teen audience. The characters get split by personality, but kids have a choice of where they can go, like the ones who value honesty are black and white clothed and become lawyers. Teens are just starting to become involved in life and want to be connected and want to have ideas about what could happen in the future and its possibilities and what would I do– what 'if…'." (Faith)
A difference between the mid-20th century dystopian novels written for adults and the ones teens are reading from the wealth of young adult fiction available today is the series element. Whether dystopian fans or fans of other genres, teens love series, as do the authors who write for teens. What's that about?
Reading a series brings some guarantees to the teen reader. One of the simplest of these is that the experience of a great read won't end with the last page of a book; another installment is or soon will be available. However, there are other guarantees a series offers, especially to teens who are in a life development phase where changes are not only frequent and sometimes bordering on traumatic, but also appearing unwanted. Being able to rely on a favorite set of characters or a favorite author to continue to provide more gives teen readers some self-chosen comfort. (Yes, it's a little odd to think of dystopian series as offering comfort, but they do for many teens).
As Jaymee, Faith and Richard have noted, although not using these words, experiencing dystopian concepts, plots and characters offers catharsis mixed with the enjoyment of epiphanies about their own lives. There's only so much catharsis and insight a reader can take at any one time, however, so a series gives teen readers the necessary breathing spell between volumes. Knowing this, too, allows the authors of such series to provide new elements for consideration in successive books of a series. That differs from series books for younger children, where repetition of favorite tropes and plot arcs are the name of the game for both readers and writers.
Yes, teen readers do love dystopian fiction. But the reasons why aren't bleak ones. Next time you hear a teen waxing enthusiastic about such a book or series, you can be sure you are hearing the voice of someone who is helping her- or himself to grow empathy and analytical thinking, two hallmarks of maturing young adults.
To help you find some popular and well-written dystopian young adult books, here's a list to fill a bookshelf:
Volume 1: The Looking Glass Wars
Volume 2: Seeing Redd
Volume 3: Archenemy
Also by Frank Beddor:
Looking Glass Wars
Mad with Wonder
Zen of Wonder (forthcoming)
The Hunger Games, by Suzanne Collins
Volume 1: The Hunger Games
Volume 2: Catching Fire
Volume 3: Mockingjay
Also by Suzanne Collins:
Gregor the Overlander
Gregor and the Prophecy of Bane
Gregor and the Curse of the Warmbloods
Gregor and the Marks of Secret
Gregor and the Code of Claw
Matched, by Ally Condie
Volume 2: Crossed
Volume 3: Reached
The Maze Runner, by James Dashner
Volume 2: The Scorch Trials
Volume 3: The Death Cure
Also by James Dashner
The Kill Order, prequel to The Maze Runner series
Volume 1: Maximum Ride
Volume 2: School's Out Forever
Volume 3: Saving the World
Volume 4: The Final Warning
Volume 5: Max
Volume 7: Angel
Volume 8: Nevermore
Also by James Patterson
Maximum Ride graphic novels in six manga format volumes
The Jenna Fox Chronicles, by Mary E. Pearson
Volume 2: The Fox Inheritance
Volume 3: Fox Forever
Divergent, by Veronica Roth
Divergent 3 (forthcoming)