Moira Young makes some good points here. Her basic thesis is that kids like reading about dystopias because they’re exciting. Stuff happens in dystopian worlds. More importantly, stuff happens to teenagers. And teenagers like to read about other teenager who do stuff.
Sounds obvious of course, but raises an interesting point. For all the blood and chaos of The Hunger Games and other dystopian YA books, maybe teenagers secretly long for these worlds. Because at least in a dystopian world, a teenager can matter. In a dystopian world a teenagers can fight for democracy, in our “democratic” world, teenagers can’t even vote. In a dystopian world, teenagers learn to survive in the wild; most teenagers I know can’t even start a campfire. In a dystopian world, a teen can lead a band of resisters, destroy a totalitarian regime and save the human race. In our world, teenagers don’t have time for such things. They have to go to math tutoring, then volleyball.
In a dystopian world, teenagers are never very far from death, and yet they hang on to life with every cell. In our world some teenagers, who seem to have every comfort in life, kill themselves out of sheer despair.
Dystopias are just another place to put teen characters in grave danger. Historical fantasy (or even historical realism) works equally well, as does urban fantasy with all its werewolves and dragons. In a world with werewolves and dragons who cares if the teens stay out a bit late? A common feature of these books is the idea that only the teenagers can save the world. Numerous clever ideas have been used to wiggle this plot device into place, but once it’s there, the result is a teenage reader’s dream, not to mention publishers’.
Teens are engaged in the dystopian worlds writers create. In the real world, they are cloistered behind school walls, imprisoned with 31 of their age mates, and sniping each other to be king and queen of the artificial society we force them to live in for 1/3 of their waking hours. Is it any wonder they long to lose themselves in violent dystopian books. They want to FEEL something.
I for one, would love it if we could offer them more than books. Lower the voting age for starters, to 12. Introduce co-op programs in schools, wherein teens work at different jobs, earning money for themselves and their schools. Make charitable work compulsory and credited. Abolish math for all but those who really love it. Make English more about writing than reading. Make history more about reading than memorising. Plants veggie gardens and make the kids grow what they eat. Teach them to fish, and make clothes and balance checkbooks and edit magazines and paint houses.
In short, turn our dystopian high schools into utopian academies, before it’s too late.