Sure, teens are still reading about vampires, but end-of-the-world scenarios are bigger than ever.
Happily ever after? Not so much. Ruth Leopold, 15, of Wilton, Maine, loves dystopian books like The Hunger Games (teens fighting to the death in a televised, government-sponsored game), Gone (kids trying to survive in an adult-free world) and Life As We Knew It (an asteroid hits the moon and wreaks havoc on the Earth's weather). “I like the fantasy in it--and thinking about how it would be if I were in the future in those places,” she says. She imagines hanging out with Katniss, the 16-year-old heroine of The Hunger Games. “Sometimes I even have dreams that I'm in that world,” she says. But in the end, she is glad she's not: the gloomy tales make her feel lucky she lives “a good life with my family and everything I need.”
Like Leopold, hundreds of thousands of today's teens are reading future-as-a-nightmare novels--and not just the 1984 and Brave New World classics required by their teachers. Publishers will be releasing dozens of new dystopian titles over the next few years. Among the scenarios: no more gas, no more water, viruses run amok, genetic manipulation gone awry, totalitarian leaders, reality TV gone too far, and so on.
Why now? Newspaper headlines about swine flu, terrorism, global warming, and wars in Afghanistan and Iraq are inspiring authors--and making kids feel uneasy. Some publishers also point to publicity surrounding December 21, 2012, the end of the 5,126-year Mayan calendar--supposedly an apocalyptic sign.
Still, most editors and authors credit lingering unease from the World Trade Center attacks. “After 9/11, it seemed people started thinking about the destruction of the world,” says Karen Grove, who edited Susan Beth Pfeffer's This World We Live In, the April 2010 release that will end the trilogy that started in 2006 with Life As We Knew It. “Then we got hit with New Orleans and earthquakes.”
Uncertainty plays a role, too. “There's so much mystery about what the future will hold,” says Lauri Hornik, president and publisher of Dial Books for Young Readers and Dutton Children's Books, publisher of this season's Incarceron and the upcoming book Matched.
Led by Suzanne Collins's The Hunger Games, end-of-the-world novels are selling briskly. “The sales are through the roof,” says Antonia Squire, children's buyer for Kepler's Books in Menlo Park, Calif. “They're targeted at an age group that doesn't have time to read. But these kids are making the time.” Word of mouth drives kids (and their parents) to the bookstore, too. “These are books that kids talk about among themselves,” says Kenny Brechner, owner of DDG Booksellers in Farmington, Maine.
Scholastic has a clock online that is counting
down to the August 24 release of Mockingjay,
the final book in the Hunger Games trilogy.
And some titles, such as The Hunger Games and Catching Fire, sell because of “you've got to read this” reviews right out of the gate, says Heather Doss, children's merchandise manager for Bookazine. “The dystopian books are more word-of-mouth titles. They are the titles that a hesitant teen who doesn't normally read sci-fi would only pick up after hearing how great it is from friends.”
A look at books in print: 700,000 for James Patterson's Witch & Wizard, about imprisoned kids who defy the New Order government; 200,000 for Michael Grant's Gone series (two titles in print, with a third, Lies, out in May); and more than 1.5 million for the first two books in the Hunger Games trilogy. Scholastic is running a countdown clock until the August 24 release of the final book (its title, Mockingjay, was revealed last Thursday).
Like The Hunger Games, the books often become series. “It helps, assuming the first book works,” says Morgan Burns, YA buyer for Borders. “If you put all that effort into creating a brave new world, you want to use it.” Just one example: in March, Delacorte will publish The Dead-Tossed Waves, a companion to Carrie Ryan's zombie-tinged dystopian novel, The Forest of Hands and Teeth (2009).
What's the appeal? Kids love “what ifs.” “What if we lost control?” says Burns. “It's fun to imagine yourself as the hero.” What if most men disappeared, as they do in Egmont USA's Epitaph Road by David Patneaude? What if the earth ran out of oil, as it does in Suzanne Weyn's Empty, which Scholastic is publishing this fall? Or what if, as in Neal Shusterman's Unwind, the organs of healthy teens were transplanted into other people? When seventh-grader Leon Robie, 13, reads The Maze Runner, Gone, and The Hunger Games, he puts himself in the characters' shoes. “What if you could pull through like they could?” he says.
“It's testing the waters of, 'Oh, my gosh, could this really happen?' ” says Jean Feiwel, senior v-p and publisher of the Macmillan imprint Feiwel and Friends, the imprint publishing S.A. Bodeen's The Gardener (June), about teenagers being grown for particular attributes, like plants. “I think we like to be scared of things that are not real. The idea that we're watching or reading things that are completely outlandish or impossible or really dire helps us cope with what is.”
Often, the books make kids feel lucky. “It's the idea of, 'this is so bad--I have it good,' ” says Krista Marino, senior editor at Delacorte Press and editor of the dystopian novels The Maze Runner, The Owl Keeper, The Forest of Hands and Teeth, and The Dead-Tossed Waves. She remembers getting that feeling as a kid, when she read Louise Lawrence's 1985 Children of the Dust, set after a nuclear war.
Indeed, kids write to Life As We Knew It author Susan Beth Pfeffer about reading her books and realizing how much they love their siblings, parents, and life. “The letters I get from kids pretty uniformly say the positive they get out of the books is to appreciate their lives and the people they love,” she says. “What I'm getting from the kids is, 'I never thought to appreciate all the everyday things I took for granted.' ”
That sense of appreciation is what many authors are after. “They think they're born with all these freedoms, and the right to an iPod, and I want them to think about the notion that that isn't a right,” says Witch & Wizard author James Patterson.
Back to the Future
Apocalyptic themes date back to the Bible, and dystopian novels to Mary Shelley's The Last Man (in her 1826 tale, a plague kills virtually everyone on earth). Traditionally, the genre's titles--from AClockwork Orange to The Handmaid's Tale--have warned against oppressive trends and governments. “They really are kind of cautionary tales,” says Laura Godwin, v-p and publisher of Henry Holt Books for Young Readers. “These books are all believable metaphors that arise from the social milieu or situation of the time. They're taken to their logical extreme.”
Dystopian tales, traditionally just for adults, moved into the kids' market years ago with books like Lois Lowry's The Giver and Robert O'Brien's Z for Zachariah, and more recently with Scott Westerfeld's Pretties and Uglies and M.T. Anderson's Feed.
The newest generation of dystopian fare tackles themes similar to those in books that preceded them. In Rae Mariz's The Unidentified, due out this October from HarperCollins's Balzer & Bray imprint, kids go to high school in a shopping mall with corporate sponsors who watch them 24/7 on video. The story, though an exaggerated version of reality, raises the question of “how much are corporations telling us what we want,” says Kate Jackson, senior v-p, associate publisher, and editor-in-chief of HarperCollins Children's Books. “Dystopian novels... make you think about things a little differently.”
That's true, too, for William Sleator's Test (Abrams/Amulet, 2008), due in paperback this April. It describes every kid's worst nightmare: a standardized exam that decides who will be rich and who will be poor. “If there's anything students dread, it's... the evil standardized test,” says Abrams's Susan Van Metre, who edited Test. “The idea that authority might have its own mysterious and not necessarily good intentions speaks to kids' daily life.”
In these stories, teen heroes use brains and courage to survive, despite their lack of power. “In the late '80s, the government was seemingly more in control of terrorist things, and the financial system seemed more in control,” says Regina Griffin, executive editor at Egmont USA, who is working with author Peter Lerangis on Perfect, the first of four books about kids born without genetic flaws, due in February 2012. “People didn't feel that same sense of perpetual unease that is invading books now.” In other words, the time is ripe. “The dystopic novel reflects the current mood of the new generation of young people who see that their future isn't as rosy,” says child psychiatrist Elizabeth Berger, author of Raising Kids with Character.
The page-turning aspect to dystopian tales is another part of their appeal. “There's tons of conflict. It's thrilling. Lives are at stake,” says Lisa McMann, author of The Unwanteds, a fall 2011 release about kids who are valued if they're strong and smart, but shipped off to death farms if they're creative.
Often authors exaggerate current concerns over reality TV, global warming, or technology. Girl in the Arena (Bloomsbury, 2009) by Lise Haines features fight-to-the-death gladiator bouts. In Saci Lloyd's Carbon Diaries series, which began last spring with The Carbon Diaries 2015 (2017 is due this spring), the government rations carbon dioxide use. In Kat Falls's Dark Life, people live in “stack” cities underwater because earthquakes and swollen oceans have made the earth uninhabitable. Patrick Ness's Chaos Walking trilogy features men infected with a germ that broadcasts their thoughts. “His big inspiration was the information overload that teens are subject to,” says his editor, Kaylan Adair.
Books such as Isamu Fukui's Truancy series and Cory Doctorow's Little Brother (an intentional nod to Big Brother) deal with timely social issues such as the erosion of civil liberties. In the Truancy tales, teens get barcode scans when they go in and out of class. In Little Brother, hacker kids take on the Department of Homeland Security. And in Cameron Stracher's The Water Wars, which Sourcebooks is publishing in January 2011, water is more valuable than gold because of global warming.
Authors tap into teen angst, too, by looking at the battle of the sexes in novel ways. In Nomansland by Lesley Hauge (Henry Holt, June), teenage girls protect their makeup- and mirror-free island against the enemy--men (a sequel is already in the works). In David Patneaude's Epitaph Road, a virus kills 97% of all men. In Vulture's Wake by Kristy Murray, due this spring from Holiday House, virtually all the woman are gone after a war.
Some new books incorporate a romantic angle, though the focus is still on survival. In Lauren Oliver's Delirium, which HarperCollins will publish in spring 2011, love is declared a dangerous disease and 18-year-old girls get a procedure called “the cure” to ensure a safe, predictable, love- and heartbreak-free life. And in Allyson Condie's Matched, due out in December, girls get an assigned mate--and are, usually, happy about it.
Sometimes authors use futuristic tales to remind kids of the past. In The Clone Codes, out this month from Scholastic, Patricia McKissack and her husband and son, talk about cyborgs and clones who are treated like slaves in the year 2170. At the end of the novel, the authors spell out how U.S. slavery inspired various scenes.
Like slavery, wrongful imprisonment comes up in Catherine Fisher's Incarceron (Dial), out last month. The “prison” is so huge that it includes forests, cities, and sea. And in Teri Hall's The Line, out next month also from Dial, a physical barrier encloses the entire United States.
Kids like talking about the issues these books bring up, says Brechner, whose children's book group has tackled Gone and plans to discuss Incarceron. These stories make their characters--and their readers--feel empowered. “It's like Harry Potter. You're tested, and you can be resourceful, and you can survive,” says Delacorte's Marino.
The message: if the characters in the books can persevere, readers can, too. “It allows you to live out a fear and conquer it,” says Grove, who edited next month's Fire Will Fall by Carol Plum-Ucci, the sequel to Streams of Babel. “There are horrible things that happen in it, and people do die, but it ends with the characters trying to move on.”
Holding Out Hope
YA authors “are using the dystopian genre to try to grapple with the issues of today,” says David Levithan, v-p and editorial director at Scholastic. But unlike writers of adult fare, they are giving their downbeat stories an optimistic twist. “It's about improving the dystopia rather than throwing up your hands and saying, 'This is what we're fated to be,' ” he says. “We realize we could be these characters.”
“If there's any one theme in children's literature, it's hope,” Perfect author Lerangis concurs. That was true for Diamond of Darkhold, the fourth and final tale in Jeanne DuPrau's Book of Ember series, and it's true for the final book in Pfeffer's Life As We Knew It trilogy. The books are never as bleak as Cormac McCarthy's The Road, or Stephen King's Under the Dome. Scary stories (and movies) help kids work out their fears, says Girl in the Arena author Lise Haines, “and almost function like fairy tales. Even in the worst of situations, we find ways to get through, and sometimes even better the world.”
YA titles, particularly The Hunger Games and Catching Fire, have been finding a wider readership of late, too. “It's the same kind of thing that happened with Twilight. Kids started reading it, and then the adults did,” says Michelle Wilson, a readers' adviser at the public library in Glencoe, Ill. Of course, grownups are also reading their own dystopian fare, such as the graphic novels Walking Dead and Y the Last Man, or the forthcoming Ballantine novel The Passage by Justin Cronin, about a vampiric virus. “It's not just a YA phenomenon,” says Burns.
With their drama and violence, dystopian tales lend themselves to the big screen. In the past, moviegoers flocked to see Mel Gibson in Mad Max and, in more recent years, Wall-E and The Book of Eli. Several authors are talking to studios about movie rights, and some are already in the works, such as Tomorrow, When the War Began, based on Australian writer John Marsden's novels about a futuristic battle breaking out in Australia. Last year Transformers producer Don Murphy optioned Doctorow's Little Brother, and the Gotham Group, which previously announced plans to shop film rights to The Maze Runner, has just optioned Dark Life. Seven Star Pictures has picked up film rights to The Forest of Hands and Teeth. Scholastic Media has the film rights to Mortal Engines and Fever Crumb by Philip Reeve. Lionsgate bought rights to The Hunger Games, and Suzanne Collins is writing the screenplay. And independent producers Tasty Films and Contagion Films have optioned Unwind. Meanwhile, Johnny Depp tried to buy The Carbon Diaries, but Saci Lord turned him down because he wanted it to take place in the United States.
No matter the details, when it comes to dystopian worlds, the bottom line is often the same. “You can't control people--the way they think or what they feel or even how they look or act,” says Holt's Godwin. “Any time that's attempted, it's bound to end in disaster.”
One thing is certain: these books aren't going anywhere. Vampire and dystopian stories “will co-exist,” says Burns, the YA buyer for Borders. “Dystopian fiction has become a staple genre for YA. Teens are showing consistent interest in the many possible variations of the future, both good and bad.”
“As long as there's something we're afraid of, there will be dystopian literature,” Godwin adds. And in these times, authors are getting plenty of inspiration. “The world has become a much scarier place,” says Doss at Bookazine. “I think it's here to stay.”
But wait, there's more! Click here for a comprehensive list of forthcoming titles in this genre.