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Contemporary Dystopian Fiction for Young Adults

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Dystopian Young Adult fiction ‘tells us not how to build a better world, but how to perhaps avoid continuing to mess up the one we’ve got...Yet the far-fetched concepts they employ may create a buffer between reader and text, perhaps allowing them to be read ultimately as flights of fancy rather than projections of a possible future’ (Basu, Broad and Hintz 2013, pp. 3-4). Discuss this statement in relation to a social/political issue in two set texts ‘The Lorax’ and ‘Rose Blanche’.

Introduction to Young Saviors and Agents of Change

Dystopian narratives have significantly become prevalent in recent decades, especially when discussing their presence in literature pieces and publications aimed at young adults. However, while these narratives play an important role introducing young individuals to grave socio-political issues, numerous critics are of the opinion that the concepts incorporated are often too far-fetched, thus leading buffer between the reader and the textual content. The current study primarily highlights two texts, namely ‘The Lorax’ and ‘Rose Blanche’, where the former deals with environmental impacts of industries and the latter deals with the agonies of the Holocaust. Both the texts have been widely acknowledged across the world in terms of engaging young adult readers with issues that are seemingly difficult and could be considered as borderline sensitive. The purpose of the current study is to predominantly take on a critical and evaluative outlook to discuss whether the texts contribute to the understanding of socio-political issues within children and young adults or whether the content generally comes across as flights of fancy as opposed to a realistic outlook towards how the future might turn out.

Discussion on Young Saviors and Agents of Change

The English adolescent literature market has developed significantly over the years, especially in terms of the quality of content as well as the narratives and themes utilised to present the content. However, the development has certainly not been free from criticism. Basu, Broad & Hintz (2013) argue that the concepts that dystopian young adult literature pieces use is often far-fetched and simply do not connect with the target audience that is predominantly comprised of school gong children. While the usage of a dystopian narrative is widely popular both in modern literature and science fiction, the implications typically involve the presentation of a society that is doomed due to its own actions. Ranging from crisis situations relating to the environment, ethics, technology and the society to a presentation of content that is outwardly nightmarish, most young adult dystopian narratives have received equal shares of appreciation as well as criticisms. It is important to note that the issues that could hinder the development of a prosperous societal system in the future are of paramount significance to young adults. However, while it is necessary to introduce children to serious issues, a majority of the dystopian narratives used in young adult literature comprise of dominant schemas that may unnerve or disconnect the reader owing to the sensitive nature of the content.

For instance, one of the most popular young adult literature pieces that tries to introduce children to the atrocities and the dehumanisation involved in the Holocaust is the 1985 publication named ‘Rose Blanche’ by Roberto Innocenti and Christophe Gallaz. The book was, in essence, a tribute to the White Rose movement, an intellectual resistance collective that took place during the Third Reich. Innocenti & Gallaz (1983) use a deliberately Aryan girl child as their protagonist, where the plot of the story relates to how the girl discovers a Nazi concentration camp, steals food from her house to feed the detainees and eventually gets shot by German soldiers during a skirmish with the enemy. The story has been widely acknowledged in the context of presenting the grim realities of the holocaust and the World War in a manner that children and young adults could connect with and comprehend. O'Sullivan (2005) states how the underlying objective of the book was to fundamentally initiate dialogues between children and adults while sparking an interest as to how the Holocaust took place and how similar situations could be avoided in the future. While the book managed to achieve its objective in terms reaching out to a global audience and painting the grim pictures of war, the illustration of the Holocaust were a major area of objection.

Dystopian narratives and their usage within modern young adult literature have also received criticism for their failure to present solutions towards how the world and its living conditions could be improved. The theories of rationalism and evolutionism, both of which were extremely prevalent during the 18th and 19th centuries, had fundamentally developed an optimistic outlook within individuals towards the future. However, as the shift in dynamics, especially in the adolescent literature market, began to change from utopian themes to dystopian themes, a growing sense of concern and pessimism was evident. Toliver (2020) states how the need to foster existence and eliminate extermination is a key aspect that young adult literature pieces must incorporate in the coming years. Juvenile fiction is undoubtedly a very critical component of literature, and it is important that authors take on a more passive and controlled approach when discussing socio-political issues. The holocaust was arguably one of the most heinous war crimes that the Nazi regime committed, and it will inherently be a difficult topic to convey to children. While Rose Blanche makes a brave attempt at doing so, the results are often considered to be claustrophobic for children, albeit being discussion-inducing and argumentative.

The usage of dystopian narratives in adolescent literature has also been criticised for painting an overly-negative picture of how the world could look like if current practises and technological trends are continued. Donnelly (2019) puts forward that contemporary anxieties relating to the application of science and technology is a concurrent theme within most young adult books and illustrations that take on the route of dystopia. Most young adult literature pieces that use dystopian narratives comprise of an artistic response to societal problems and usually undermine the idea of freedom and liberty through repression. Moral failures and the improper application of scientific technologies are also relatively common. Discussing the relevance of these texts to young readers, the development of a disconnecting buffer is certainly evident, both in terms of content that is overly explicit and dangerous as well as narratives that may lead to pessimistic mindsets. Connors (2017) is of the opinion that most dystopian narratives take on unrealistic means to try and convey important socio-political issues to children, and while they may spark an interest, the result is often counterproductive. Communicating with children, especially in the context of socio-political issues, relies largely on the competence of the adult supervisions the communicative process. Whether it is a teacher undertaking a reading session at school or a parent reading out a book to his or her child, it is crucial that the adults take on the responsibility to engage in discussion that is constructive as opposed to being claustrophobic and overly sensitive. 

Another prominent example of how dystopian narratives have been used in young adult literature pieces is the 1971 publication ‘The Lorax’ by T. S. Giesel. Using the penname of Dr. Seuss, the author managed to portray the negative impacts of industrialisation and how it impacts the environment in the long term. Personal care and involvement are central themes within the story, where the author primarily relies on symbolism and personification as means to communicate with children and young adults as to how environmental destruction can be stopped. One of the most widely talked about publications, the line "Unless someone like you cares a whole awful lot, nothing is going to get better. It's not” is still remembered by readers across the world (Geisel, 1971). However, the book received a plethora of criticism, especially in the context of being unfair towards the logging industry, even going on to be banned in the state of California. While it was acknowledged in terms of conveying the implications of ecological destruction to children, the presence of misanthropy and parody were the key factors that led to the criticism.

The dystopian boom in modern young adult literature has also been widely considered as overlooking the positive impacts of modern technology while only going on to present the negatives of how technology can lead to grossly dehumanising results. The Lorax, for instance, was severely criticised for failing to accommodate the reseeding and efficiency efforts of the loggers and blatantly going on the present the picture in a one-sided manner. Thielen (2016) argues that dystopian novels and literature pieces aimed at children must take on a solution-oriented approach to ensure that the outcomes remain positive and without skepticism. It is critical for new-age adolescent fiction authors to bridge the gap that has been created by books such as The Lorax and Rose Blanche in terms of simply presenting the negatives as opposed to plausible alternatives regarding how the situation could be reversed. While most of the books and publications that take on a dystopian narrative comprise of diverse topics and remain well-adjusted to the needs of a common adolescent reader, the presentation of the topics must certainly be handled in a manner that is more sensitive and accommodating of the human race.

In addition, dystopian narratives within young adult literature pieces as the aforementioned examples have also been accused of artistically disguising the conspiracy between technology and politics. For instance, Giesel’s Lorax has often been construed as leftist eco-propaganda that has been written in a manner is intrinsically unfair and biased. Similarly, Rose Blanche has faced criticism for the lack of realism relating to how the girl managed to sneak in food to a Nazi concentration camp. Reading and learning about world history and events are crucial components of cognitive development in a child, and it is of paramount importance that early reading allows the children to understand topics based on their levels of comprehension. The usage of far-fetched concepts and negative experiences such as war, family breakdowns, environmental destruction and others often tend to bog down the mind of children in terms of how the issues are presented. Another key area of criticism entailed within young adult novels and literature pieces that rely on dystopian narratives is the exploitation of the nature of young adults, who are constantly seeking for more information as to how they can handle the complexities of being an adult in a manner that is appropriate and necessary (Laakso, Lahtinen & Samola, 2019). While the literature pieces promote social cognition and discovery of issues that plagued societies in the past and the present, the aspect of how the young adults could work towards improving the future is inadvertently missing.

It would also be important to discuss how the dystopian narratives in adolescent literature affect the minds of the young readers owing to the fact that the common young adult reader comprises of a limited number of real-life experiences. Gebauer (2020) argues that most novelists and publishers fail to incorporate the value of ethics and moral correctness in dystopian narratives. While the impacts are relatively limited when aimed at a more mature and adult audience, the impact can be far more dangerous when targeted at young children. Early reading is arguably one of the most influential aspects that drive social and cognitive development within a child, and it is important that the quality of the content is in line with encouraging the children to work towards the future and improving the same. However, books such as The Lorax and Rose Blanche only paint a grim picture of how the world stood and how human actions would lead to the destruction of the world without any suitable recommendation.

Conclusion on Young Saviors and Agents of Change

In conclusion, it was identified that a majority of young adult literature pieces that rely on dystopian narratives to communicate the content to children failed to present a picture that was realistic and involved solution-oriented approach. Dr. Seuss’ The Lorax and Innocenti and Gallaz’s Rose Blanche were the key texts that were evaluated within the study in this regard, where the problems of using concepts which are simply too far-fetched and unrealistic were prominent. In addition, the texts were also found to be criticised for including concepts that painted the human race in a negative light while including limited consolations in respect to the negativities. Several peer-reviewed scholarly publications were also incorporated in the study that further speak about how these dystopian narratives were exploiting the need for information within young adults and using complex socio-political issues to reach out to children. The important of early reading was also highlighted in an extensive manner along with the need for adult supervision and a sense of added responsibility when involving children and young adults with books such as Rose Blanche or The Lorax.

References for Young Saviors and Agents of Change

Basu, B., Broad, K. R., & Hintz, C. (Eds.). (2013). Contemporary dystopian fiction for young adults: Brave new teenagers. Routledge.

Connors, S. P. (2017). "I Have a Kind of Power I Never Knew I Possessed": Surveillance, Agency, and the Possibility of Resistance in YA Dystopian Fiction. Study and Scrutiny: Research on Young Adult Literature, 2(2), 1-23.

Donnelly, S. D. (2019). Future girls: revolutionary adolescence in young adult dystopian fiction 2005-2018.

Gebauer, C. (2020). Dreading the Future: Exploring the Ethical Dimension of Dystopian Fiction.

Geisel, T. S. (1971). The lorax. Random House Books for Young Readers.

Innocenti, R., & Gallaz, C. (1985). Rose blanche.

Laakso, M., Lahtinen, T., & Samola, H. (2019). Young Saviors and Agents of Change: Power, Environment, and Girlhood in Contemporary Finnish Young Adult Dystopias. Utopian Studies, 30(2), 193-213.

O'Sullivan, E. (2005). Rose Blanche, Rosa Weiss, Rosa Blanca: A comparative view of a controversial picture book. The Lion and the Unicorn, 29(2), 152-170.

Thielen, B. M. (2016). A New Kind of Social Dreaming: Diversifying Contemporary Dystopian Fiction.

Toliver, S. R. (2020). Eliminating Extermination, Fostering Existence: Diverse Dystopian Fiction and Female Adolescent Identity. Beyond the Blockbusters: Themes and Trends in Contemporary Young Adult Fiction, 187.

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