Tuesday, June 22, 2010

In Praise Of Youthful Dystopias

In the early days of parenthood I silently vowed I'd read everything my daughters were reading, to gain that precious insight into their developing psyches. These days as my daughters tip-toe through the minefield of adolescence (and I speed toward my fifth decade) that vow has proven itself . . . naïve. I can barely tolerate the novels I enjoyed in my 20s; what hope is there for me of ever finishing anything, say, Twilight related?

That is why I am grateful for Laura Miller's survey of dystopian “YA” fiction. Both my daughters will tell you they can't wait for August, when Suzanne Collins' concluding book to “The Hunger Games” will finally hit the shelves. When the girls describe these and other books to me, my first reaction is fatherly concern: This sounds rather grim and bloody for a young girl — n'est-ce pas? My second reaction is a hesitant, Um, should I be reading this?

Of course, as the girls regale me with their excited (and lengthy) summaries I reconnect with some of my own adolescent reading habits. S.E. Hinton's fatalistic weepies seemed to be popular with everyone, and I can remember enjoying a handful of them. During the fall of 1977 I devoured every Jay Bennett thriller I could get my hands on, beginning with The Birthday Murderer. The wiki summary is spot on: “The usual Bennett hero was a late-teenage loner drawn by circumstances beyond his control into a treacherous and confusing situation. A recurring theme was the need to reject alienation in favor of reaching out to others.” As I recall, Bennett made it quite clear that “reaching out to others” was genuinely difficult work, a message that resonated with me as profoundly as did the “treacherous and confusing situation.”

That halcyon season of Bennett thrillers was a short one, to be sure. I can well remember the sinking feeling I had when I realized I knew the mysterious villain's identity within pages of opening the third book. Bennett's “O. Henry” template was too inflexible to cultivate a deep readership.

There were also the pulps, and that sole Stephen King novel, which, had I known it was Stephen King, probably would have changed everything. After that it was “adult” reading: Alistair MacLean and Louis L'Amour inevitably leading to James Jones and Ernest Hemingway and all the rest of 'em.

Getting back to Miller, she title-drops some of the dystopian “youth” novels from the past, but the only one I read was Z For Zachariah, which I thought was criminally tedious. The direct antidote to that book was The Road Warrior, one of the first “Restricted” movies I bluffed my way into. That movie was the YA book I'd wanted to read. Sure, a nuclear holocaust would be a downer — in reality. But I wanted a perilous, action-packed fantasy. It sounds to me like those are the books Collins is writing, and I'm just grateful someone's providing this for my kids.

Addendum: Caitlin Flanagan recommends adolescent girls read Testimony by Anita Shreve, one book I'd definitely read before passing along. (A)

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