As every English teacher knows, dystopian young adult literature is on fire.
Hunger Games. The Maze Runner. Divergent.
Matched. Uglies. Unwind.
Even older titles, Orson Scott Card’s Ender’s Game (1985) and Lois Lowry’s The Giver (1993), have recently been turned into films, as producers have chosen to strike while the dystopian box office iron is hot.
I’m thrilled that kids are gobbling up these books, but also wonder what’s drawing so many of my students to these dark stories. And, in the classroom, how can I use all of this bubbling enthusiasm for dystopian stories to pull my teens into the meatier literary worlds of writers like Kurt Vonnegut and Ray Bradbury?
After zipping through a half-dozen YA novels in the past few months, here’s my take on the allure:
1. All of these stories present intense, high-stakes scenarios where the protagonist is a triumphant (at least to some degree) underdog. We all love a good hero’s journey story, and many of these plot lines follow Joseph Campbell’s satisfying pattern.
2. These books entertain while posing important questions to readers who are on the cusp of adulthood. Yes, there’s action and adventure (and even a little romance), but there’s also heavy lingering issues that will hopefully cause students to pause and think deeply about the world. What freedoms are they willing to give up for security? How can they please their parents/authorities/community, but still be true to themselves? Is there more good or evil in human nature?
3. We live in a violent world. Watch the evening news and you’ll see that someone was killed in a shooting today. Go through airport security and be reminded that terrorism is a real and constant threat. Attend school on a day of an “intruder alert” drill and watch my students pretend to hide from a pretend school shooter who walks around campus jiggling our locked door knobs. In today’s world, violence and fear are in the air we breathe, so it’s not hard to imagine a Hunger Games scenario (part Gladiator games, part voyeuristic reality T.V. show) becoming part of our world.
4. Most of the stories have, for the most part, a happy ending. Yes, our protagonists are weary and scarred at the end, but there’s usually a hopeful note to leave us feeling the battle was worth fighting. Even in these gray, desolate worlds, there’s still a place for hope, showing that today’s youth may seem cynical but are ultimately optimistic about the future. Our teens believe good will eventually win. I do, too.
5. Finally, it can’t be ignored that many students feel overly monitored and stifled by their parents, teachers, and even their own peers. Often, teens fear that the old saying, “The nail that sticks out gets hammered down,” is true. So, they go through the motions of modern life, never really believing in the system yet never having the courage to change the system. These books appeal to the idea that the “good life” being touted by authorities is really a sham. And while these books are critical of government, there’s also a buoyant belief in the power of the individual to be a catalyst for change.
When I spot students who are fans of this genre, I’ll casually ask guiding questions, having them identify themes in the popular titles they’re reading. It doesn’t take long before a conversational door opens that reveals a parallel theme found in Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451, Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World, or Anthony Burgess’ A Clockwork Orange.
If your young readers aren’t yet ready for the challenge of an adult dystopian novel, a perfect bridge between YA and adult titles is Kurt Vonnegut Jr.’s chilling futuristic short story, “Harrison Bergeron,” featuring a heroic teen rebel and a disturbingly dark ending. With this story I use an informal quickwrite topic, online multimedia links, and handouts featuring depth-of-knowledge questions requiring students to analyze the text as well as make modern connections to Vonnegut’s story. Click here to take a closer look at my two-day lesson plan.
The Giver, Official Trailer:
Ender’s Game, Official Trailer: