Jenny's Library

Posts Tagged ‘dystopia

cover image for Killer of EnemiesKiller of Enemies by Joseph Bruchac

Seventeen year old Lozen’s life has never been exactly easy.  Her family was never among those who could afford genetic modifications or the latest tech implants.  But once upon a time they had their own home, and pets, and her father and uncle were still alive.  Now it’s just Lozen, her younger siblings, and their mother – and all four of them are trapped behind prison walls that exist to keep monsters out and them in.  Lozen knows how to hunt the monsters though – that’s why The Ones in charge have let her and her family live.  It’s also why they hold her family hostage, ensuring her compliance.  Lozen knows that if she can just manage to get them all outside of Haven’s walls and out of sight of the guards, they’ll be able to once again survive and live on the land that her people have called home for centuries.

I really wanted to love this book. She’s a monster hunter, for goodness sake!  (Plus, how many dystopias are out there that feature Native American characters?) And for the first third or so, I did love it.  But the pacing grew increasingly uneven, our introduction of each succeeding villain became too repetitive, and one of the twists just didn’t quite work for me.  Still, it’s a good book, with some very excellent lines and scenes, and think it should be in every library’s young adult collection.

cover image for Etiquette & EspionageEtiquette & Espionage by Gail Carriger

Sophronia does an excellent job of getting herself into trouble and embarrassing her older sisters, but she is perpetually floundering, stumbling, and tripping when it comes to being a proper young lady.  Fortunately (for her mother’s nerves, if nothing else) Mademoiselle Geraldine’s Finishing Academy for Young Ladies of Quality is willing to take Sophronia in.

Gail Carriger’s Finishing School books are set in the same alternate steampunk universe as her Parasol Protectorate series, so of course Mademoiselle Geraldine’s Finishing Academy is not quite what Sophronia expected, and her lessons include much more than how to curtsey properly.  Yet, it’s full purpose, and her reason for being there, remain a mystery to her long after she climbs on board (yes, on board), creating a useful narrative trick for controlling the pace and for keeping readers guessing – and turning the pages.

It’s the kind of story that would likely come across as a bit overdone and over the top if it were written by someone else, but Carriger manages to carry it off with style.

Unfortunately, there is a rather large misstep about a third of the way through the book, when the only character of color is introduced in a way that isn’t at all logical or appropriate.  While this same character is shown in an admirable light for the rest of the book, that doesn’t excuse the author and editor leaving in a description that makes no sense and is based on caricatures.  Which is a shame, because the rest of the book is delightful.  It tweaks it’s nose at gender conformity, flirts a bit with critiques of class and inequality, and isn’t afraid to show complex relationships among female personages.


cover image for Being Henry DavidBeing Henry David by Cal Armistead

A teenager wakes up a train station with no memory of who he is or why he’s there, with only $15 in his pocket and a copy of On Walden Pond in his hand. After falling in with some “street kids” and escaping from their unsavory “protector,” the boy with no name heads for the woods, hoping to find some answers at Henry David Thoreau’s cabin.

I’m not entirely certain why authors/publishers keep making books about middle class white kids having meaningful experiences when circumstances force them to slum it, but they do. Again and again. Verdict: skippable, very skippable.

cover image for The GiverThe Giver by Lois Lowry

Jonas’ world is comfortable and orderly.  Like all other children in The Community he got his front-buttoned jacket when he was seven, and his bicycle when he was nine, and now that he’s becoming a twelve, he’ll be assigned an occupation.  But when Jonas isn’t picked to be an Engineer or a Nurturer or any of the other typical occupations, but instead is chosen to be the next Receiver of Memories, his world is turned upside with the truth that his training reveals.

The world-building here is rather sparse, leaving more than a few holes, but it works for the intended audience.  It’s definitely a child’s point of view that we get of this dystopian world, which actually makes a certain amount of the opaqueness not only believable but necessary.  It’s clearly meant to raise questions more than answer them, and does a good job of that.  Lowry does an excellent job here of not only slowing revealing the communities secrets but also pacing out reader’s exposure to customs that will seem strange to them, encouraging children to get to connect to Jonas and his family despite their differences.

What fascinated me the most while reading The Giver was how clearly you can see traces of Lowry’s modern classic in so many of the currently popular young adult dystopias.  It makes me want to spend the next few months just writing about the influences of modern science fiction for middle grades and young adults, and most particularly the extent to which the latter is dictated by readers experiences with the former, as opposed to being shaped by trend in adult genre novels.

cover image for Betsy and Tacy Go DowntownBetsy and Tacy Go Downtown by Maud Hart Lovelace

Betsy, Tacy, and Tib are now twelve, which means they are finally old enough to do things like walk downtown by themselves and go sledding after supper – in the dark!  The whole world seems to be growing up as well, now that the first horseless carriage has come to town.  But are Betsy, Tacy, and Tib quite as ready for all these grown-up adventures as they think they are?

I will always remember this as the book in which the girls go to the Opera House. To see Uncle Tom’s Cabin.  Which meant that blackfaced minstrelers provided the entertainment during intermission. (One assumes the actors in the play were in blackface as well.)  Other than that, it’s just as lovely as it’s predecessors. But, well…that’s not precisely a small thing to overlook.

cover image for Keeping the MoonKeeping the Moon by Sarah Dessen

Colby, North Carolina isn’t where Colie Sparks expected to spend her summer. She was supposed to spend it at home, with her friends. Instead, her mother has shipped Colie off to spend the summer with her aunt, Mira, while Kiki Sparks tours Europe selling her multitude of fitness products. But could Colby be just what Colie needs?

(hint: this is a Dessen novel, so the answer, of course, is yes)

Small town. Quirky characters. Wisecracks followed by heart to heart conversations. Just what you’d expect from a Dessen novel. This isn’t my favorite of hers (it didn’t click for me the way others have, and parts of it rubbed me the wrong way), but it was a light, quick read.

cover image for BarrayarBarrayar by Lois McMaster Bujold

Cordelia Naismith never thought that marrying Aral Vorkosigan would be without its ups and downs, but neither did she expect to end up married to the Regent for Barrayar’s four year old Emperor.  Risking her own life is nothing new for Cordelia, but when her family is threatened as well she decides that she may have had just enough of Barrayan politics.

How much do I love this book? Too much to write a proper review for it.  It’s just excellent. If for some reason who haven’t read this series yet, you need to do so now. Also, I want more books about Cordelia and more heroines like Cordelia.

I ran into a fellow youth librarian that I know, but haven’t seen in a while, at the LA Times Festival of Books (I know! what are the odds! anyway…).  At one point when we were talking she asked me which age of kids I preferred working with.  I used to have an answer to that, back when I subbed in schools.  I don’t anymore.  I think in part because I have more flexibility of choice in the library; it’s easier to set up library programs so that they bring out the best in each age, rather than having to handle the worst of each age for an entire school day.

I think the other reason is because my current position really emphasizes childhood and adolescence as a continuous process.  Teachers get kids at one age, and then see them grow incrementally throughout the year.  I go from working with toddlers to teens to preschoolers to elementary age students all in the space of a week.  Then I do it all over again the next week.  Teachers see kids grow, but only up to a certain point, at which time they are replaced by kids the age the outgoing class they used to be.  I, on the other hand, see kids move from our baby classes to our toddler classes and so on.  If I worked here long enough, I could see them move all the way up to being a parent with their own baby.

Which may be part of why I’m finding the number of people talking about young adult literature in comparison to adult literature, but not in comparison to children’s literature, to be increasingly annoying.  There hasn’t really been an upsurge in people doing it (except that there has been an upsurge in people talking about young adult literature) but I’m fast losing patience with it.

I understand why it happens.  Adults who add a handful of young adult titles to their reading lists are hardly going to do the same with picture books or middle grade novels.  And yet…I don’t actually understand it.  I love picture books and don’t really understand anyone who doesn’t.  I’ll still like you as a friend, but I don’t really get not liking Portis’s Not a Box or Gravett’s Orange Pear Apple Bear.  And I think all of you science fiction and fantasy fans that aren’t reading at least a couple of Ursula Vernon’s Dragonbreath series are totally missing out.

Most of all though, talking about how books for teens are different from books for adults, without also talking about how books for teens are different from books for kids, just makes no sense to me.  It’s like talking about how teens are not like adults without having any understanding of how they used to be as children.  There’s often an implicit understanding, when talking about the things 17 year old drivers do, that not that long ago they were only 15 and couldn’t drive themselves anywhere.  But when people mention The Hunger Games and where it fits in the larger dystopia canon, it’s only ever adult books that are mentioned, not the middle grade dystopias, such as The Giver, the Shadow Children series, A Wrinkle in Time, or The City of Ember, the books that shaped it’s target audience’s expectations for how such stories should go.

This problem seems to be especially bad when it comes to science fiction novels.  I think, in part, because most adult science fiction literature fans were nerds as children and read adult books more often than most children tend to.  But also because many adults just aren’t aware that adult genres don’t exist in children’s – or even teen – literature the way they do in adult literature.  When adults study children’s literature in school, whether as English students or library science students, we don’t talk about mysteries, speculative fiction, horror, and romance.  We talk about animal stories, historical fiction, school stories, and other genres that are much more popular among actual children.  Which isn’t to say that adults genres don’t exist in children’s literature, it’s just that they don’t have quite the same presence, and their tropes and themes are often very different.

Modern ideas about school and home are present in dystopias for children and young adults in a way that they aren’t, usually, in adult fiction.  It goes beyond simply being a warped version of the world they know, it’s also about development and how children perceive the world around them.  So the kids in Camazotz are still playing ball – because children’s sense of time and play and the way their actual memory works means that synchronized bounces read as wrong in a way that never getting to play with balls at all does not.  The children of Ember still go to school, in part because we assume that American children would have a hard time seeing themselves in kids who did not.  Teens in Delirium have tests they must pass, because while we are borrowing from Romeo and Juliet here, modern teens (supposedly) need an institution rather than a political alliance to rail against.  Jonas and Katniss both have mandatory assemblies to attend, despite the danger of populous action they present, because what’s more benignly oppressive than a pep rally?

These are all tropes and traditions that go beyond just science fiction for teens.  You can draw parallels to adult science fiction novels, but you can also do the same for contemporary novels like Looking for Alaska, in which a school assembly is a dramatic turning point and the site of student rebellion, or Lowry’s historical Number the Stars, which features a different child defying an entire country.

I could go on, but the point is that there are traditions and tropes present in young adult literature that readers will miss out on if they are no longer familiar with stories about mice on motorcycles or spiders than can spell, not to mention the subgenere of “preteen girl loses mother tragically.”  This isn’t to say that all of these tropes are interesting or that children’s or young adult literature can’t or shouldn’t change – just that a lot of what young adult literature does makes so much more sense if you’ve Dr. Seuss or Judy Blume more recently than several decades ago.