Bookbanter Column: “Too Much of a Good Thing” (July 20, 2011)

If there’s one thing that readers, writers and the publishing world have all learned from the likes of the Harry Potter and Twilight series, it is that children’s publishing seems to be going through a series of cycling genres right now.  With the worldwide success of J. K. Rowling’s then relatively unique series, the children’s and young adult fantasy genre exploded with a glut of fantasy books  — I should know, I was submitting my own YA fantasy manuscript to agents at the time and received nothing but rejections; this was in part due to the sheer number of YA fantasy manuscripts that agents and editors were receiving at that point, as well as possibly because my manuscript may not have been the work of pure, original genius I deemed it to be; but we won’t talk about that here – that still continues in the current time, partially because many of these YA fantasy books were the first in a series. 

Then came Twilight and its overwhelming success, and then there was the glut of vampire books which has now slowed down.  It has slowed down in part, because the next cycle of the children’s and YA genre has begun in the form of the dystopian story, which is because of the success of the Hunger Games series, which has spawned a large number of quickly written and published books on a doomed future involving teenagers.  Just as with the stories about wizards and vampires, the ones about this hopeless future often straddle the line of a decent story and being outright asinine.    

The same cycle phenomenon can certainly be applied to the adult science fiction and fantasy genre with the vampire, zombie, and post-apocalyptic stories, but because of just how bestselling Harry Potter and Twilight continue to be, with the current teen readers – as well as new teen readers discovering these respective series each year – publishers know there is a lot of money to be made from these books.  It may not have the complexity and longevity of Harry Potter, or the sexual frisson and word-of-mouth support as Twilight, but if it’s a book with a cool cover that looks like it could be as good as Hunger Games, then kids and teens are going to buy it!

This is, of course, in part due to the fact that publishing is in a very uncertain and unpredictable place right now, with the advent of the ebook, and the future is not as concrete a s it has been in the past; but it’s also easier to just publish books that are popular, much like Hollywood has turned more to making movies of adapted screenplays instead of original ones.

Rachel Manija Brown, author of All the Fishes Come Home to Roost, has in fact done a series of posts on her blog that partly inspired this column.

“I got food poisoning and downloaded a bunch of first chapters of random recent YA science fiction to distract myself. To my amusement, most of them turned out to be dystopias – and many of them very similar dystopias. The idea that the government can control absolutely everything is meant to be horrifying in the books, but becomes hilarious when you read ten first chapters in a row in which the government controls your clothing, tattoos, water, emotions, marriage, writing, computers, jobs, college majors, families, games, and virginity.”

The original post can be found here.  When asked why she thought so many YA dystopian books are being written, she responded:

“It’s a popular trend. Only time will tell whether it will have staying power or quickly fade away. While it’s always tempting to link trends to zeitgeists, it’s too easy to take any trend at all and then explain it away by linking it to something happening in the world. (“Big hair was popular in the eighties because it symbolized the empty grandiosity of America’s posturing on the world stage.”) My best guess is that YA dystopias are popular now because people really liked The Hunger Games and wanted to read more books like that. That, or both YA novelists and teenagers are afraid of nanny government.”

What I think is being crucially missed here with these dystopian stories is a message and resonance.  When you think of some of the dystopian classics like 1984, The Jungle, Brave New World, and The Handmaid’s Tale to name a few, there was a strong message in each of these books, of a particular world that had gone down a wrong path, a path the real world should never make the mistake of going down.  They were all possible worlds that could perhaps be, but we knew we could never let it go that far.  The dystopian stories mentioned below are missing this important message; they are just there as a quick, simple story that leaves no lasting impression.  Rachel weighs in on this:

“If the main thing I get from a book is the idea that teenage girls having sex is bad or that having the government control everything down to the color of your socks is bad or environmental destruction is bad – all messages contained in a number of YA dystopias I’ve read recently – then the book is too message-driven for my taste.”

In fifty or a hundred years, readers will still know of 1984 and The Handmaid’s Tale, but I’m pretty sure any of the books I’m about to mention likely won’t be remembered.

But enough chitchat, lets get to the books . . .


Hunger Games

Hunger Games: We begin first with the trilogy that really started the runaway train ride of the dystopian story.  The Hunger Games are an event held each year in the Capitol of a changed America in a distant future, where two teens between the ages of twelve and eighteen are chosen from each district to participate in a unique arena where they must fight and battle each other to the death.  The last remaining boy or girl alive wins and gets to spend the rest of their lives in splendor.  The Hunger Games are meant to be a reminder to all the citizens of the districts of how bad times used to be, and how everyone should be happy and grateful to the Capitol and the ruling government.


Water Wars

Water Wars by Cameron Stracher: In this future, American is a different place, with a whole new map of six republics that are at war with each other after what was known as the “Great Panic.”  Here water has become scarce, as the great lakes and rivers have dried up.  Republics now fight for rare wells and water sources for survival.  Water consumption is controlled by a government body and it’s all about the haves and the have nots.  This is also the story about a girl and a special boy who has the ability to “divine” sources of water.


Maze Runner

Maze Runner by James Dashner: The first in a trilogy, this is perhaps the most derivative of The Hunger Games, featuring an enclosed maze world where a boy finds himself mysteriously arriving by elevator.  There he finds sixty other boys who have been trapped there for some time; a new boy arrives every thirty days.  Then the first girl arrives.


Marched

Matched by Ally Condie:  The first in a trilogy, in this world nothing is left to chance and the Society Officials decide all aspects of daily life, so when the main character has her husband – who is her best friend – chosen for her, she believes the Society Officials know best, until she installs her Match microchip and sees a different boy.


Birthmarked

Birthmarked by Caragh M. O’Brien: The first in a trilogy, in this changed world women and girls have their sole roles of childrearing defined for them, with the main character playing the part of a midwife with her mother.  The first three children must be offered to the government with the possibility of a better life in the city.  Apparently it also involves inbreeding and “numerous birthing scenes.”

 

Divergent

Divergent by Veronica Roth: The first in a trilogy, in this world a dystopian Chicago is divided into five factions dedicated to the development of a specific virtue – Candor (the honest), Abnegation (the selfless), Dauntless (the brave), Amity (the peaceful), and Erudite (the intelligent), and on a specific day each year all sixteen year olds must choose the faction they will devote the rest of their lives to.

 

Delirium

Delirium by Lauren Oliver: In this world of a controlling government, young Lena Haloway is looking forward to her eighteenth birthday, when she will finally be cured of “deliria,” which in this world is any form of love.  Her mother committed suicide and her last words were “I love you.”  That is until she meets a young man who changes her mind . . .

 

Incarceron

Incarceron by Catherine Fisher: The first in a series and originally published in Great Britain, Incarceron is a prison where people are born and die and know of little else, and Finn wants to escape, but legend says there has only ever been one person who has.  Joining up with the warden’s daughter who also wants to escape, they discover a crystal key and a unique means of communicating with each other.

 

Wither

Wither by Lauren DeStefano: The first in a trilogy where scientists have tried to create perfectly genetically engineered children, and the first generation is nearly immortal, while successive generations begin to die early in age: girls at age 20, boys at age 25, and girls are now kidnapped and taken for brothels and marriages to breed children.

 

Bumped

Bumped by Megan McCafferty: A virus has made everyone over the age of eighteen infertile and unable to conceive, turning young teens into baby-making machines for a certain fee, making them the most important members of society.  Apparently, Bumped is written with a tongue-in-cheek attitude and humor, indicating that the author is at least aware of what she’s creating.

 

Enclave

Enclave by Ann Aguirre: In this doomed world, children don’t earn the right to be named until the age of fifteen, since most of them apparently don’t survive that long.  They are trained in one of three focuses: breeders, builders, or hunters, which is identified by how many scars they bear.

 

XVI

 

XVI by Julia Karr: Colloquially referred to as “Sexteen,” this book perhaps represents the worst of the worst as far as storyline goes.  The year is 2150 and girls, when they turn the important age of sixteen, are branded with a tattoo that is supposed to protect them, but in fact notifies everyone around that they are now “sexually available.”  It seems to be the book that puts women at the very lowest level of society.

This list by no means is comprehensive of the YA dystopian genre.  I invite readers to comment of other bizarre and extreme books that they have discovered in this genre; or perhaps they saw something deeper and more meaningful in one of the books they read listed above.

BookBanter #3: Too Much of a Good Thing

BookBanter Column

In the third BookBanter Column, “Too Much of a Good Thing,” I take on the exploding genre of the Young Adult Dystopian genre that has burst to life after the incredible success of the Hunger Games trilogy.  Here you’ll find a nice list of some of the more crazy and unbelievable YA dystopian books that have been published in the last couple of years.  You can start reading below and follow the link for the rest of the column:

If there’s one thing that readers, writers and the publishing world have all learned from the likes of the Harry Potter and Twilight series, it is that children’s publishing seems to be going through a series of cycling genres right now. Continue reading . . .