Why are young readers so enthralled with fiction focused beyond the end of the world? Suzanne Collins’ Hunger Games series. Veronica Roth’s Divergent books. David Estes’ Dwellers. Ally Condie’s Matched. I could go on. Easily. On and on and on. It’s a long list. And growing. Dystopia is hot with kids right now. The question is, why?
The Guardian’s “Children’s Book Doctor,” Julia Eccleshare, figures she might have it worked out. Eccleshare suggests that dystopian novels “offer young readers the chance to think about what kind of world they would create for themselves if they could forge everything again.” As Eccleshare points out, “Breaking and making is at the heart of a great many stories; the devastation of the old highlights the importance of the new when it is rediscovered or reinvented.”
In addition, stories such as these empower children by trusting them with roles far beyond reality. Typically, the destruction wipes out “good” adult rulers; children step into the breach. It’s not a new fictional phenomenon. Earlier examples include Robert Swindells Brother in Land, a classic title of the 1980s reflecting then current concerns about the possibility of a nuclear bomb being dropped, in which a group of children have to manage on their own after the adults have been destroyed and Marcus Sedgwick’s Floodland, published at the turn of the millennium, in which, having seen her parents sail away to safety, a young girl has to navigate Eel Island and its inhabitants if she is to survive when the east of England is subsumed by flood water. In both, and in the many dystopian novels of today, an apparently bleak world is re-imagined and lit up by children who understand clearly what is worth saving as they step from childhood to adulthood. Frequently, family is let go while friendship or trust in others becomes the future foundation. Navigating that space is what all adolescents need to do which is why they like this kind of fiction so much.
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