Monday, July 25, 2011

Darker Times : YA Fiction Mirroring Reality?

Over the past several years, there has been a wave of Young Adult titles that have had darker plots. Many of these titles have become favorites among teens, and may quite possibly stand the test of time becoming classics in their own rights. A classic YA title, The Outsiders by S.E. Hinton, is probably one of the first novels for teens that explored gangs, loyalty and death in a profound manner. Teens gravitated to the characters not because they knew someone just like PonyBoy but because their authentic voices touched a nerve. Which ultimately led teens to not only explore "real" issues but to discuss them with each other. The book was written in 1967, a very turbulent time socially for America. Today's economic and social times are troublesome in their own way. Yet instead of one book that stands out as the voice of the dark side, there are several that are getting teens to talk about tough life issues. Is it a sign of the times? Or is it just a fad that YA authors and publishers are going through?

The Hunger Games Trilogy brings to life a kill-or-be-killed reality show. Throughout the trilogy, Katniss comes to realize that she and her fellow citizens of District 13 are nothing more than pawns in a political game of power and control. The citizens have lost power and control while government officials, even those who seem to be ideal, manipulate power for their own gains. Its a frightening look at how a government can become so powerful that survival comes down to a daily quest between life and death. The response from most teens who have read this trilogy is that Katniss is so real for them, yet they wonder if they could possess the same nerves of steel to survive.

James Patterson's Series Maximum Ride offers readers a world where a gang of teens who are 98% human and 2% bird, escape from the lab called "School" to make it on their own. Unfortunately, The Erasers, FBI and the entire world seems bent on tracking them down and destroying them. The appeal of the book is that Max and her friends continually escape from their enemies and find their way to freedom.

In yet another series, Books of Ember, by Jeanne DuPrau, young characters deal with darkness and secrecy on a day to day basis. Doon Harrow and Lina Mayfleet have recently been assigned eye-opening jobs in the City of Ember. Doon is assigned as a pipeworker. Lina is a messenger. As Doon repairs the plumbing in the tunnels under the city, Lina learns of some unsettling secrets. Together they piece together the puzzle of what lies above them. The key theme that continues on through the tale is survival and trust. The teens are resilient and independent, perhaps the two "worst" qualities in the eyes of The Builders. Yet it is their resilient nature that takes them out of the darkness, which ultimately saves them.

In each of these series, the tone is the same. There is distrust, secrecy and the realization that in order to survive even the toughest situations it is better to trust gut instincts than to hope that those in "charge" have the best intentions. Which begs the question: Are teen readers looking for these tales because it's an escape or for something that helps them cope with today's reality? The political news of the day is filled with uncertainty. Healthcare, unemployment, taxes and foreclosures are just a few of the issues that teens are facing in their own neighborhoods and homes. Is it any wonder that titles that depict government control, secrecy and escape to a "worse off" place have become so popular. Literature has often painted a picture of the good and bad in society. It demands of the reader to ask questions and seek better solutions. In the dystopian and post-apocalyptic worlds, the less than ideal settings provide a glimpse at what may lie ahead for our society. Teens gravitate towards these stories not because they see themselves living in these worlds. Rather, it's a testimony to how the human spirit survives in spite of the obstacles placed before them. In a strange way, these dark novels may offer hope that survival is not only a valid option but the only option for the young citizens of dystopian worlds.

One other point to consider when looking at the "darker" plots. Dystopian plots are often involved with conspiracy and secrecy. The protagonists are often seeking truth and coming to terms with how those truths shape their worlds. In their own lives, teens often feel sheltered from the truth and complex issues. In these novels, the teens not only demand the truth, they get what they desire, the truth. Teens don't want to be treated as if they can't handle complex issues, rather they are looking for ways to learn how to face the challenge. These novels do just that and more. They can open the channels of communication in which teens can discuss issues that are important to them.
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