Monday, October 31, 2011

Why is Dystopia So Appealing to Young Adults?

This article appeared on p19 of the Reading with kids section of the Observer on Saturday 22 October 2011. It was published on on Saturday 22 October 2011.

Why is the current crop of dystopian fiction is so popular with teenage readers?

Moira Young
The Observer, Saturday 22 October 2011

Moira Young. Photograph: Benjamin Harte

Vampires, fallen angels and their brooding kin still crowd the young-adult shelves of your local bookstore. But they are having to make room for a new wave of dystopian fiction, kicked off by the jaw-dropping success of Suzanne Collins's The Hunger Games trilogy, set in a post-apocalyptic North American totalitarian state.

Books for young people set in a post-apocalyptic or dystopian worlds are not new. Three notable early examples are Madeleine L'Engle's science fantasy A Wrinkle in Time (1962), William Sleator's suspense novel House of Stairs (1974) and the politically intriguing The Giver (1993) by Lois Lowry. Some of the big names of the new wave, along with Collins, are British-based American author Patrick Ness, Mortal Engines writer Philip Reeve, and young adult science-fiction novelist Scott Westerfeld. But what is it that attracts teenage readers to dystopian fiction?

There are a number of opinions, but the main drift seems to be that books set in either chaotic or strictly controlled societies mirror a teenager's life; at school, at home, with their peers and in the wider world. Let's call it the "my own private dystopia" theory.

I'm going to offer a much simpler explanation. Teenagers like to read dystopian fiction because it's exciting. It all comes down to the story. The story comes first, and the setting – extraordinary though it may be – is of secondary importance.

For the most part, dystopian fiction owes more to myth and fairytale than science fiction. These are essentially heroes' journeys – they just happen to be set in an imagined future world. The hero, reluctant or willing, is just as likely to be female as male. Something happens – an event, or a messenger arrives bearing news – and the teenage protagonist is catapulted out of their normal existence into the unknown. They cross the threshold into a world of darkness and danger, of allies and enemies, and begin a journey towards their own destiny that will change their world. They will be tested, often to the very edge of death. The stakes are high. The adults are the oppressors. The children are the liberators. It's heady stuff, far removed from the routine of everyday life.

The outer, global journey of the characters is matched by an inner, emotional and psychological journey. These are no cartoon superheroes. They, like their teen readers, have to deal with recognisable concerns and problems, including friendship, family, betrayal, loss, love, death and sexual awakening.

A new wave of dystopian fiction at this particular time shouldn't come as a surprise to anyone. It's the zeitgeist. Adults write books for teenagers. So anxious adults – worried about the planet, the degradation of civil society and the bitter inheritance we're leaving for the young – write dystopian books.

We create harsh, violent worlds. These are dark, sometimes bleak stories, but that doesn't mean they are hopeless. Those of us who write for young people are reluctant to leave our readers without hope. It wouldn't be right. We always leave a candle burning in the darkness.

And we write good stories. That's why teenagers read them.

• Moira Young's new book, Blood Red Road, is published by Marion Lloyd Books/Scholastic

John Lennon: All I Want is the Truth

Partridge, E. (2005). John Lennon: all I want is the truth. NY: Viking
LS5385: YA Lit / Biography (photographic)
Michael L. Printz Award Honor Book
American Library Association Best Book for Young Adults

I will admit that I only chose this biography because it was available at the library. I have always enjoyed the Beatles music, but it was not to the point of obsession by any stretch.  I own only the Beatles "One" album, which was produced long after they broke up.

In any case, I did enjoy reading the book and found myself amazed that the Beatles stayed together and functioned as long as the did with the rampant drug use.  Unbelievable.  It is definitely not sugar-coated in the book, and it's really something that Lennon was able to write and perform when he was so blitzed on drugs for so much of the time.

It is clear Lennon was a troubled soul from the time he was very young and despite the efforts of his aunt to keep him on the straight and narrow.  After reading the book, I am not sure how I feel about John Lennon. The words selfish and spoiled come to mind.  Talented, yes, but really insensitive to the people who most loved him.  Was his talent so important that his racial slurs and mockery of handicapped people were to be tolerated?  Give me a break.  I wonder if it would have been tolerated today.

Much of the book, naturally, was dedicated to the Beatles and the various members coming together and falling apart.  I learned a lot about the Beatles and especially that the image projected to the world was not really who they were at all. It was pure marketing.

The book was well-done, and the pictures were great, but if the intent was to respect and/or adore John Lennon, it missed its mark.

Monday, October 24, 2011

31 Ways to Change the World

Stanhope, N. (2010). 31 ways to change the world: we are what we do. NY: Candlewick.
LS5385: YA Lit / Informational Books

This is a pretty cute book with the very simple concept that "small actions X lots of people = BIG CHANGE."

Though it feels geared more towards the elementary aged child, there are definitely some lessons that can be taken from it for teenagers and adults alike.  Many of the actions are actually children turning a critical eye on adults and their actions. (energy use, recycling, etc.)  The book is colorful and the illustrations are fun and eye-catching, mixing up mediums with some drawings, some photographs.  It's a quick read but is packed with information and suggestions on how anyone can really make a difference in making our world a better place.  Many of the actions are free (smile at people) and easy (compliment someone).

It Gets Better

Savage, D. and Miller, T. (2011). It gets better: coming out, overcoming bullying, and creating a life worth living. NY: Dutton.
LS5385: YA Lit / Informational Books

Though I am glad there are so many people who contributed to this book - young, old, straight, LGBT, famous, and not - I found it depressing.  Yes, most of the essays tell kids struggling as LGBT (or just being 'different') that their lives are precious and worth living because of all the future holds, the overwhelming message I got is that their high school years are just going to be awful and they need to suck it up and get through it.  I find this unacceptable on so many levels.  Many of the essays also talk about this huge support network that's "out there" for these kids if they'll just go looking, but I don't think that is always the case.

When you are fourteen years old and being bullied and mocked, to be told to just "hang in there" for the next four years seems impossible.  Four years is nothing when you're forty, but at fourteen, that's a lifetime and some of these kids are so beaten down (both literally and emotionally) that they don't have the strength to go on.

This book is definitely a step in the right direction and I hope is a comfort to any teen (or anyone) who is struggling with being able to be who they are without being persecuted for it.  And the list of contributors and their essays are impressive, and it is definitely an eye-opener for someone who hasn't experienced or witnessed the topics discussed in the book.  I hope for those people, it will help them become more sensitive to those who are singled-out and become advocates instead of passive observers.

Formic Wars: Burning Earth - Prequel to Ender's Game

Haven't read this yet and can't decide if I will.  I loved Ender's Game, but I am disappointed that the prequel is a series and is in graphic novel format.  I suppose I should have a little faith since Orson Scott Card is still the author. Here's the trailer, which makes me even less interested.  It's so busy!

It's Perfectly Normal

Harris, R.H. and Emberley, M. (2009). It's Perfectly Normal: Changing Bodies, Growing Up, Sex, and Sexual Health. Somerville, MA: Candlewick Press.
LA5385: YA Lit / Informational

Well, I have to say I learned a few things about the good ol' birds and the bees. Truly I did.  This book is straight forward and explains things in a matter-of-fact way.  I would say especially to parents who aren't comfortable talking to their kids about these subjects (puberty, sex, etc.), it would be doing the kid a big favor to hand over a copy of the book to the kids.

Yes, there are illustrations and explanations that are going to make the kids giggle.  There's A LOT of nudity.  Some of it, including intercourse and masturbation,  may seem a little naughty to a ten-year-old. . . or a fourteen-year-old. . .  or a forty-year-old.  My point is that it's all about the perspective and the background and comfort level of the reader.  The parent or teacher needs to decide the age appropriateness. The book does a good job of presenting, in a non-judgmental fashion, the wide variety of changes that happen to our bodies, the wide range within which those changes take place, and the diversity of the results of those changes.

The author does not shy away from sex and that sex is done for pleasure as much as procreation, but it does repeat the message that sex can cause pregnancy and that abstinence is the only true protection from pregnancy and disease.  It mentioned the alternative of "postponement," which I really hadn't heard before.  "Postponement" is apparently just temporary abstinence.

Apparently, this book is considered "pornographic" by a group in Arkansas (go to: Pornographic Library Book Pictures ), and when you look at their site, and the select pictures and phrases they chose to show how awful the book is, you can kind of be persuaded that it IS pornographic! Just goes to show the power of those who want to censor.  I had to laugh - and I share this even if it may make some wonder why I noticed - but on the censor website, they have. . . ummm. . . tampered with one of the illustrations.  If you'll notice, the website shows an illustration of a young man without and with an erection and cites p. 37.  In the copy I have of this book, the anatomy on this guy is a bit smaller in both pictures.  I suppose it could have been an illustration from a different edition they showed on the website, or someone who thinks that size does matter when calling something pornographic. Who knows? And who knows why they felt the need to embellish? I also noticed they say it's for "3rd -6th grade." My edition says ages 10+ (isn't that about 5th grade?). Again, I think this is a cheat to pull people over to the dark side of censorship.

Back to the book and its merits and shortcomings.  The latest version has added in updated information on HIV/AIDS, the HPV vaccine (but only is suggested for girls), and Internet safety.  Chapters 25 - 29 are a bit heavy for a ten-year-old, and they are also more wordy, with less illustrations.  I think teens would quickly lose interest after the easy, colorful style of the previous chapters.  The information is very good, but it's too much packed in at the end.

Monday, October 17, 2011

Talk to Teens - They're Still Listening

What? Huh?  TALKING still works and is even enjoyed by teens?  Go figure! Also of note is the time spent by teens each day on print versus electronic media.  Great article.

Talk to Teens—They’re Still Listening