Tuesday, March 20, 2012


The first release in a 4-film series opens March 23.
The genre to read right now goes by a name that you don't expect to roll off the tongue of a teen.

But ask die hard readers of The Hunger Games, Legend, Maze Runner, Across the Universe, Maximum Ride, Divergent, what dystopian fiction is and you might be surprised.

My guess is they'll recognize the name in an instant and in an animated voice tell you that it's exciting stuff about people being treated really badly.

Stories about misery? Well yes, but misery is only the catalyst for what happens in these books. What they're really about is heroism: Teens rebelling against cruel rulers in a futuristic world that's been stripped of all of its greenery and goodwill.

Here's how the dystopian tale generally goes:

First, something cataclysmic happens that destroys society as we know it -- usually before a book begins. War, plague, environmental disaster, that sort of thing. Then maniacal adults take over the crumbling mess that's left. They're on a power trip to control everyone and their cruelty knows no bounds. By now, children have been born to this new society, and they're becoming teenagers and are developing minds of their own. Though they've endured cruelty all their childhood, the teens aren't defeated by it. They're smoldering in it. Defiance sparks inside them and they begin to defy the regime, infiltrate it and eventually try to undo it.

Dystopian novels "take a current fear and push it hard to come out with a world where everything is as bad as a writer can imagine," according to Tor.com, a website about science fiction and fantasy books. "They have a shape of story, in which somebody accepts their world as the way the world is and then comes to reconsider, question and learn deeper truths about it, and then attempt to change it."

That's heavy stuff. So why are teens devouring it -- why, to borrow a title from The Hunger Games, is it catching fire? (That's of course the name of the second book in Suzanne Collin's phenomenally popular trilogy about a particularly bloody post-apocalyptic society in which kids are sacrificed in a televised killing game.) It's not that dystopian fiction is new -- H.G. Wells (The Time Machine), Aldous Huxley (Brave New World), George Orwell (1984), Anthony Burgess (A Clockwork Orange), and Ray Bradbury (Fahrenheit 451), all paved the way. And don't forget such contemporary classics as Lois Lowry's The Giver and Orson Scott Card's Ender's Game.

In the last few years, post-apocalyptic fiction has become not just popular. It's become crazy popular. It's both the genre of choice of teens and some adults -- even more so than the vampire romances paved by The Twilight Saga series. It's even in the curriculum of middle school English classes and inspired school field trips. This Friday, opening day of the first release of a four-film adaptation of The Hunger Games, the entire seventh grade at our Thornton, Colorado, middle school (that's about 400 students) will head to a theater to watch it.

There's a lot of debate about what's behind this popularity. Some say dark, futuristic stories offer teen readers a catharsis for real-life frustrations -- for all the conflicting, bad news they hear about the environment, oil supplies and injustice, and for an intensifying sense that they're being watched over more than ever before. Heavy testing, the spread of video surveillance cameras and even the very thing teens can't resist, Facebook, have made them feel exposed.

In real-life, some say, teens don't feel as if they have control over what's happening in world, whereas in these books, it's teens who have the wherewithal to fix the mistakes society has made. Not the adults. In fact, it's the adults who've messed everything up.

Not everyone, however, believes that our teens are walking under a dark cloud looking for a therapeutic escape through dystopian fiction.

 "Would we be so enamored with dystopian fiction if we lived in a culture where violent death was a major concern?" wrote Maggie Stiefvater (The Shiver trilogy) in a New York Times editorial in 2010. "It wouldn't be escapism." Her theory is that teens are drawn to these imaginary worlds because the choices within them are clear-cut. "Teenagers face a huge number of choices and an almost paralyzing array of expert opinions on what constitutes right and wrong. In a culture defined by shades of gray, I think the absolute black and white choice in dark young adult novels are increasingly satisfying for readers."

But then why does this genre also appeal to adults? At least among adults who read young adult fiction.

When I read The Hunger Games, I didn't just read it, I devoured it: all three books in four days. It was the most compulsive I've felt about a series since reading Patrick Ness'  Chaos Walking trilogy (The Knife of Never Letting Go, The Ask and the Answer, and Monsters of Me) -- another incredible dystopian series, which hasn't gotten the same teen following but is every bit as irresistible and disturbing. And I don't even like to read books containing violence. So why couldn't I put either down?  What genre can mess with readers' insides -- completely flatten them -- yet make them wish there was another series to do just the same?

Andrew Clements (Frindle), in that same New York Times editorial, suggested that the Internet may have much to do with the popularity of these books as anything. With Twitter, Facebook and Google, we've all become keenly aware of the injustices and cruelties going on the world. Wasn't it just a week or so ago that Kony2012 hit Twitter and sparked a divisive debate that put a brutal warlord in Africa to the forefront of everyone's thoughts?

"In order for a book to seem scary today, it has to be very scary indeed," Clements wrote on in The New York Times.

Interestingly, the most popular series in the genre right now, The Hunger Games, is also one of the most bloody and disturbing. It packs in every dire situation you could imagine: severe oppression, starvation and poverty, barbaric absolute control, and a tooth-and-nail struggle for self-preservation. And it leaves you asking yourself: If I were pushed to the limits, how much of my morality would I sacrifice?

In The Hunger Games, 16-year-old Katniss Everdeen volunteers to be a contestant in a televised killing event in order to spare her younger sister from participating, and along the way sparks a rebellion that she never really intended. The event, which is called The Hunger Games, is how rulers of a post-apocalyptic North America, Panem, punish their people for a previous rebellion. Every year, the rulers select by lottery one boy and one girl from each of their 12 districts to fight to the death until only one of the players or "tributes" remains alive. Katniss enters the games with a childhood acquaintance who is willing to sacrifice his life to save hers, and along the way the two are manipulated into a relationship that even they can't tell is real and are forced to confront the darkest parts of themselves.

These are stories of kids being kidnapped, tortured, then retaliating. Is this too dark? A glance at the cover of The Eleventh Hour Plague and its barren, beat-up landscape might lead us to that conclusion. But don't stop there. Read these books and you'll discover that there's something else going on that's, well, uplifting. Yes, society in these books has run amok and conditions are brutal, but despite it all, the human spirit prevails. Smart, confident and fit teens are refusing to accept society at it is. In fact, they're fearless. They're standing up to a sadistic regime that has completely underestimated them.

Clements suggested in The New York Times editorial feature that books about horrors and mayhem help put events in our lives in perspective, providing a stark contrast that young and old not only find enjoyable but helpful. Could this also mean that they could fire readers up and make them care about what happens in their world? That doesn't sound so bad. Teens standing up (albeit without breaking rules or using violence) for something they care about.

Sure, the brutality in these books can be overwhelming, even to adults, but what I think really drives interest in these books is 1) the heroism (heightened with  romance) 2) the non-stop action. Right from the start there's conflict and an urgency that something must be done. And since these books are set in the future, the possibilities of world-building are wide-open. Authors come up with nifty futuristic devices that teens eat up, even catchy exclamatory phrases that get around swear words, like "What the odd" from Emma Clayton's The Roar. Most of these books are thrill rides, in which readers feel strapped into a storyline, rocketed forward along with the protagonists on a race against death. The stakes are high and we are all feeling, at least within the pages, fearless.

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