Dystopian YA: Is It About High School Or the Apocalypse?


Now that 2014 is here and we all move one step closer to the inevitable apocalypse (whether it be a month or a millennia in coming), it's worth taking a moment to think about all the post-apocalyptic and dystopian literature on the YA shelves right now. It's no secret to anyone that dystopias are the current hot trend in young adult literature. And it's easy for lots of literary observers to dismiss all members of the genre in the same way that we all brushed off vampires (may they stay staked and dead for the rest of the decade). In fact, plenty of people (though not all) have shrugged and said this trend must be popular because that's how teens think of high school, and then left the analysis at that.

How lazy can you get? Sure, high school sucks. And even when it doesn't suck, it still at least kind of sucks. But that's not why teens like The Hunger Games or Divergent . Because no, teens are not so melodramatic as to think being unpopular is the same as being rounded up and forced to fight to the death. No, isn't it more plausible that maybe, just maybe, teens like dystopian fiction because they have the completely reasonable feeling that the world is falling apart?

For one thing, YA dystopias aren't new. I remember my early high school days getting hooked on Scott Westerfeld's Uglies, a series about a dystopian world in which people are all given plastic surgery to make them beautiful. And there were plenty of other dystopias on my shelves, too: Feed by M.T. Anderson and The Giver by Lois Lowry, along with lesser known titles like Shade's Children by Garth Nix or The Bar Code Tattoo by Suzanne Weyn.

These books validated my anxieties about the world, while also providing some in depth exploration of the cracks that had me uneasy. Uglies, for instance, was about how destructive our cultural obsession with beauty is, and about how we value that over individuality, personality, or intelligence. And so I loved it, not because that's what high school is like, but because that's what the world is like, and it sucks.

So yes, there has been dystopian YA for a long time. But today, dystopian YA is more than just a presence — it's a force, and that distinction is important. Because to me it says that teens are more anxious than ever about their world.

This genre is now speaking to more young people than ever before, and it's not because high school got a lot tougher or parents got a lot more dictatorial. It probably has more to do with the fact that you can't subject a generation to post-9/11 hysteria, two foreign wars, and constant talk about global warming without repercussions taking place. And the repercussions seem to be that we're fairly convinced society as we know it is going to collapse and be replaced with something decidedly less pleasant. To say that it's about high school is, plainly, insulting.

Image: Kendra Miller/flickr