Monday, October 13, 2008

Apocalypse wow! Another great staff essay, plus dystopian recommendations

Lately it's been feeling a little end-of-the-world-as-we-know-it out there beyond the land of kids' literature. YA writers and their publishers actually seem to have (creepily) anticipated the current apocalyptic atmosphere with several new dystopian novels. Staffer Michelle is back with an awesome essay on new titles The Hunger Games and The Other Side of the Island. Take it away, Michelle! (A round of applause, if you please.)

In the deluge of exciting new titles this fall, two dystopian science fiction novels merit a reading-by-flashlight-under-the-covers award. Suzanne Collins, author of the Gregor the Overlander series, kicks off a new series with The Hunger Games, while Allegra Goodman (author of Intuition) ventures into the YA arena with The Other Side of the Island.

The Other Side of the Island is The Giver and 1984 meets Duprau’s City of Ember with a timely environmental emphasis. After the Flood from the melted ice caps and its ensuing wars and famine, a woman known as Mother Earth and her Council of Cooperation (affectionately called the Corporation) unite people by promising safety and security under New Weather. In the Enclosure, there are (usually) no surprising or inclement weather changes, and each hour a specific assigned color is projected on to the sky. Mother Earth and the Corporation become a creepy amalgamation of religious-political power, as seen in the eerily familiar Corporate Creed that all children memorize:
Our Councilors seven. Corporation is your name. Your plan to come, Enclosure done, on earth as it is in heaven. Give us this day our daily bread. And correct all our trespasses. As you correct those who trespass against us…(pg 6)
In addition to rote memorization and copying “education” methods, the Corporation uses “Persuasive Reasoning and Positive Reinforcement” to correct citizens’ “Inaccuracies” and “Unpredictable” behavior. (Do you feel Big Brother watching you yet?) Honor’s family moves to the island after living in the wild Northern Islands, and she desperately wants to blend in and be so perfect no one will notice her misfit, rule-breaking parents. In comparison to the developed setting, Honor herself is surprisingly lackluster, wanting to belong merely to avoid trouble, and barely bats an eye when her former best friend is suddenly orphaned. The pace gradually picks up as her parents escalate their rule-breaking with the birth of a forbidden second child, and soon disappear without explanation. Honor must finally face the possibility that the Enclosure is perhaps not so very safe and secure as she thought. Her turnaround revelation is a long time coming, and not quite as satisfying as I would have liked. The overall background is wonderfully imagined, but where problems like Honor rescuing her mother could have become complicated or emotional, Goodman opts for easy solutions: another grown-up steps in to do the dirty work in places that are “not for children” (pg 263). Let us remember Harry Potter at thirteen: taking on Sirius Black, Azkaban’s first escaped prisoner!

While Goodman may not give Honor enough credit, there are still plenty of big ideas to chew on here. The borders of faith and science, environmental guardianship, government, and individualism are probed subtly, leaving room for a reader’s own interpretation, with plenty of action in between.

Suzanne Collins gives us a blunter, more brutal world in Panem (once known as North America), reminiscent of Anderson’s Feed and Card’s Ender’s Game. There used to be thirteen Districts surrounding the Capitol, until the thirteenth District was utterly destroyed as an example after a failed rebellion. For further punishment, every year each District must send two young “tributes” (read: child sacrifices) selected by lottery to compete to the death in the televised Hunger Games, mandatory viewing for the rest of the citizenry.

Katniss Everdeen hunts illegally in the wild outside District 12’s fence to support her mother and younger sister, Prim, until the unthinkable happens: Prim is selected for this year’s Hunger Games. Katniss volunteers in her place (heart-wrench), only to discover that her counterpart tribute is Peeta Mellark, a boy who once helped her in her family’s darkest hour (more heart-wrench, and the beginnings of a seriously complicated romantic subplot!). After a week of training with their drunkard mentor, Haymitch, the tributes are let loose in the arena. It’s near-constant action from here, with the brawny teaming up on the weak and the Gamemakers spurring on the bloodbath by setting off pre-made traps. You can’t help but root for Katniss, with her perfect mix of wilderness knowledge, courage, and incredible humanity in the face such brutal inhumanity. There is a fair amount of violence – some of it particularly brutal – so those made queasy by blood should be warned.

Lest you think this is merely a glorified gladiator/Survivor novel, tossing poor teen bodies around nonchalantly, here’s one of Katniss’s rare admittances of her vulnerability and philosophy:
“Katniss, it’s just hunting. You’re the best hunter I know,” says Gale.

“It’s not just hunting. They’re armed. They think,” I say.

“So do you. And you’ve had more practice. Real practice,” he says, “You know how to kill.”

“Not people,” I say.

“How different can it be, really?” says Gale grimly.

The awful thing is that if I can forget they’re people, it will be no different at all. (46)
Following in the footsteps of dystopian greats like 1984 and films like Battle Royale, Collins gracefully handles questions of power and humanity, creating a disturbingly possible future. I can’t wait to see how the rest of the series develops!

Here are some reading suggestions to give you an introduction to the array of awesome dystopian books out there.

Feed by M.T. Anderson
In a world where everyone has immediate access to the implanted "feed," living without it is unthinkable. When Titus and Violet meet while recovering from feed malfunction, they challenge the social convention of the feed and discover what it truly means to be an individual.

Little Brother by Cory Doctorow
When 17-year-old superhacker Marcus is caught in a terrorist attack, his track record lands him in interrogation with Homeland Security. After his release, Marcus must decide whether to lay low to protect himself or to use his techno know-how to fight for civil rights.

The City of Ember series by Jeanne DuPrau
In the city of Ember, everyone gets assigned a job at age twelve. That's what keeps Ember operating smoothly. But now the generator is failing, the lights are flickering, and darkness is closing in...

The House of the Scorpion by Nancy Farmer
Matt is a clone, created to provide replacement body parts for 140-year-old drug lord El Patrón. Unlike most clones, Matt still has his intelligence – and he’ll definitely need it to escape from El Patrón’s estate into the equally dangerous world outside.

The Giver by Lois Lowry
Twelve-year-old Jonas is nervous, but excited, about his new role in the Community: the Receiver of Memory. What he learns from the Giver will change Jonas's life – and the Community itself – forever.

The Host by Stephenie Meyer
On a futuristic earth where humans are systematically possessed by alien “souls,” protagonist Wanderer discovers what happens when her “host” refuses to relinquish her body or her memories.

Life as We Knew It and The Dead and the Gone by Susan Beth Pfeffer
When the moon shifts dangerously close to Earth, deadly climate changes end modern-day life. Miranda learns about courage, integrity, and loss as she helps her family survive in desert suburbia.

Uglies, Pretties, Specials, and Extras by Scott Westerfeld
Tally can't wait to have the operation that will make her a "pretty" and make over her whole life. Then a terrible secret about the procedure makes Tally question the benevolence of a society in which individuality is considered ugly.

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