Dystopia and Alternative Realities

I met a writer not long ago who said that she did not like books which were dystopic – in other words, books whose endings were not uplifting or at least reasonably resolved.  Her reasoning was that our world is already a chaotic, negative place so why should books for kids reflect the worst in our world.  She believed that this created a sense of hopelessness in readers, and she went so far as to say that she wouldn’t let her own kids read books like this.

But why?

If you saw the movie The Watchmen, or better yet if you read the amazing graphic novel, you’ll find that “happily ever after” is something that many in the U.S. and the civilized world are no longer interested in.  Dystopic and AR-themed books have been growing in popularity for the past 20+ years.  This is true in children’s literature as well as adult material.  Granted, we are still suckers for the Cinderella ending, and movies like Pretty Woman  or books like The Princess Diarieswill continue to find favor with a certain segment of the population. These kinds of stories are so far from reality that they still have a magical appeal. But many American consumers find these happily-ever-after stories to be unfulfilling because they are so far from reality. When was the last time a credible news source reported that a 16-year-old girl with a single mother suddenly discovered she is the daughter of royalty?

The world truly is a dark and scary place, and one of the things that dystopic and alt. reality books allow kids to do is to see that it could be much worse. Granted, there are those who will argue that this isn’t the most mentally healthy approach to dealing with a difficult world, but there is some research that indicates kids who feel lost and alone in the universe find comfort in reading about characters who face similar emotions, even if their circumstances are completely different.

Providing the “happily ever after” ending to some kids will do nothing but make them feel more like an outsider.  These kids have already discovered that life often gives you lemons, then follows that up with a pile of sewage.  Many of these kids turn to books to find characters with whom they can share the feeling of “yeah, the world truly sucks, but we find a way to survive it.” They take comfort in the dark circumstances of these alternative realities because they seem somehow familiar.

This is not to say there isn’t a place for the light-hearted, happy ending story.  Even a kid with the darkest reality wants to cheer for the underdog sometimes.  But to say that dystopic books or books that propose an alternative view of society are too dark or too difficult for kids is to deny many kids an opportunity to get lost in a good story. Books can provide an escape for young readers, and even if adults feel that such books are not healthy or positive, dystopic books give some kids a chance to find a hiding place from a real world that isn’t all that pretty to begin with.

A few excellent books that have been labeled as dark or dystopic which I’ve enjoyed:

M.T. Anderson’s Feed

Gregory Maguire’s What-the-Dickens: The Story of a Rogue Tooth Fairy

Lois Lowry’s The Giver, The Messenger, and Gathering Blue trilogy

Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s TaleFile:TheHandmaidsTale(1stEd).jpg

Robert O’Brien’s  Z for Zachariah File:ZforZachariah.png

There are dozens of others, and this list could go on and on. It’s good to know that any kid can find a safe haven in a book, even if that book may seem to be a frightening or undesirable place. I think Mick Jagger summed it up the best: “You can’t always get what you want, but if you try sometimes, you get what you need.” This is the heart of dystopia, and it’s not a bad place to be.


One thought on “Dystopia and Alternative Realities

  1. All I ever ask for in a book is that it tries to speak to the truth.

    Dr. B

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