Why is dystopia so appealing to young adults?

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.

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15 thoughts on “Why is dystopia so appealing to young adults?

  1. Homelearning and having a local homelearning community goes a long way to this–feeling useful, empowered, productive, and exploring one’s creativity and all that life has to offer. We can each do a piece to building this place. For teens who want to escape highschool (most of them), check out Grace Llewellyn’s wonderful book, The Teenage Liberation Handbook: How to Quit School and Get A Real Life and Education. I don’t think we can wait for the System to figure it out. It will take them to long…if ever. We need to do it Now, before we lose more young lives to despondency and despair. GREAT post, Gabrielle!

  2. Ah, but Deni, which came first, the chicken or the egg? As it happens I DO know a lot of teenagers (I’m a teacher too!). Yes teenagers can be feckless, directionless and irresponsible, but do you seriously believe that this is their nature? If our expectations of teens were different, THEY would be different. You can see this in traditional cultures and in teens that, for whatever reason, have been forced to grow up and take charge, perhaps to care for a sick parent. You’ve probably also noticed that kids who face adult expectations are more responsible and happy at school. I see this in elite athletes (NOT school athletes, because school sport is also artificial), young professional actors and kids who work with adults, say at their parents’ business. Maybe voting should be like a driver’s license – you have to take a test?

  3. hear, hear. If you visit a school focused on community, creativity, independence, and responsibility you’ll find creative, independent, responsible teenagers. Like at PSCS: http://pscs.org/ (had to plug it, I used to work there ans it’s fabulous).

    BTW, I taught a dystopian fiction class this summer and I asked the high school kids in the class why they loved dystopian fiction so much and they said it’s a bit like stepping into a scary movie. They say they can experience the horrors of such a future, without having to live inside them.
    As well, like you said, they enjoy a good fight against “the system” when their own lives are so controlled and conformed. It’s a way to escape the tedium of that system and enjoy some high stakes drama. “Take me to the apocalypse!”

  4. This was an interesting article. From my own kid’s standpoint after loosing their father when they were ten and fourteen ( not to be confused with good idea) they became more responsible and did well in school. They also worked at jobs starting when the oldest was fourteen as a camp counselor and the youngest was thirteen as janitor in a gym. Maybe asking a little too much from them but I didn’t have babysitting while I worked long hours and this kept them safe. They were also more responsible than the average teen. Now I am so proud of them I could croak.

    They didn’t read dystopian books then but now they read anything and everything they can get their hands on. I’ll be asking them this question about what they liked when they were teens. And sharing this article. Thanks for giving it another try.

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