Wednesday, November 14, 2012

Young Adult Dystopian Literature -- A Big Thing

In this blog post, I am taking a break from writing about this year's Soaring Eagle nominees; I will get back to that list of titles very soon. Instead, I would like to use the next few posts to reflect on a professional learning opportunity I had in early November. I was fortunate to be able to  attend a national conference sponsored by the Young Adult Library Services Association, focusing specifically on Young Adult literature. The theme for this year's conference was "Hit Me with the Next Big Thing."  It was a great opportunity to meet teen librarians from all parts of the nation, learn about ways teen services differ (and stay the same) throughout the world, and hear some amazing YA authors.

The most valuable part of any conference are those opportunities to network with colleagues and authors.  In that light, let me use this space to share some of the insights I took away from the people presenting in the front of the room, and the people sitting across from me at the dinner table.  I have too many observations for one blog post, so I will limit this one to the three authors who presented at my preconference session, "Shining the Light on Dystopian Literature."  (For clarification, the term "dystopian" refers to a utopia --ideal society -- gone tragically wrong.  In recent YA literature, however, the term has also been used to refer to post-apocalyptic stories, in which a future world has been affected by some sort of disaster.) Some thoughts from these three authors:

from YA author Pamela Service:   It is interesting that the rise in YA dystopian literature has made science fiction more popular among teens; veteran author Service established her career writing science fiction for all age levels. Service, having just arrived in St. Louis from upstate New York in the wake of Hurricane Sandy, commented that she sees immense potential for publishing YA novels about environmental disasters. Technically, these novels would be post-apocalyptic rather than dystopian, but their relevance to world events would certainly increase their importance, and therefore their popularity.  Many YA authors are already writing these types of novels: one award-winning example is Paolo Bacigalupi's duology, Ship Breaker and The Drowned Cities.   Another example, closer to home for us living in Wyoming, is Mike Mullin's chilling trilogy about survival after the explosion of the Yellowstone caldera; two of the books, Ashfall and Ashen Winter, have been released so far.

from debut author C. J. Redwine:  Often parents and teachers have concerns over the popularity of YA dystopian novels such as the Hunger Games trilogy; let's face it, these books are dark.  Redwine, a former English teacher whose first book, Defiance, has just been released, wisely pointed out that dark themes have been part of the young adult literature canon for several decades. The idea of young adults having to survive in a world without parental guidance, and making tragic mistakes, while currently popular in Michael Grant's Gone series and James Dashner's Maze Runner trilogy, can be easily traced back to William Golding's classic The Lord of the Flies. And while we cringe at teens fighting to the death in Hunger Games, the all-seeing, all-oppressive government that devalues human life has been a force in our literature since George Orwell's 1984 and Animal Farm, and Lois Lowry's The Giver.

 from YA author Ilsa Bick:  Bick, whose YA novels include Draw the Dark and Ashes, had so much to say about why teens are drawn to dystopian literature that I could dedicate this entire post to her comments.  To be brief, however, she pointed out that a large part of the attraction is rooted in developmental psychology:  teens are wanting to explore a reality that is more scary than the one they live in; they bond with heroes and heroines who can overcome immense odds; and they learn from those characters' experiences what they themselves would do in similar situations. Bick observed, as have many other YA authors, that the reality of teens' lives today is a dystopia (a potentially ideal world gone tragically wrong); with the rise of  bullying and violence in schools, frequent natural disasters, and increasing rates of teen suicide, pregnancy, alcoholism and drug abuse, it is hard to argue with her observation. 

However, all three authors agreed that YA dystopias differ from those written for adults in that they are more hopeful and offer teens a way to improve the world they live in. In YA dystopias, there is a focus on survival and compassion. Like all good literature, these stories ultimately showcase the values of self-sacrifice, persistence, creativity and resourcefulness. While YA dystopian literature cannot be called the "Next Big Thing," it certainly is "A Big Thing" now, and deserves our attention and understanding.

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