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Is dystopian literature appropriate for teens?

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Marie Lucas - published on 12/14/22

It's been popular among teenagers and young people for years now, and there's a reason for that.

Dystopia is a literary genre that has been all the rage among teenagers and young people for years now. In a dark atmosphere of violence, blood, and totalitarianism, these books present a futuristic world with disastrous consequences for the planet. Fortunately, a hero inevitably rises up, rebels, and saves humanity.

Among the most popular in recent years, thanks in many cases to screen adaptations, are the Divergent trilogy by Veronica Roth, The Hunger Games series by Suzanne Collins, and The Maze Runner series by James Dashner. Some older books in the genre are considered classics and are even required reading at many schools, such as Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451 or George Orwell’s 1984. Lists of the best dystopian novels abound on the internet. Should we be concerned about our kids reading these books, with their often dark and disturbing themes? How can we accompany young readers of this genre?

Dystopian fiction describes a perverted and inverted utopia, a genre of which Brave New World by Aldous Huxley, published in 1932, is the founding work. By anticipating the possible drifts of a technological and ultra-connected universe, these books present an imaginary world – always with an anchor in reality – which is worse than ours. Reflecting society and its fears, they explore the notions of survival of humanity and an ultra-distressing future in which technology and dictatorship have destroyed people’s humanity.

The Hunger Games series, for example, describes a society in which the media turns the worst horrors into entertainment, and the government controls the citizens to the extreme. Thus, the population is forced to watch its young people kill each other. In Divergent, there are five factions and everyone is obliged to belong to one of them. The question of “fitting into a predefined mold” is at the heart of the book, along with the issue of “dominant” and “dominated” groups. 

A dark side that can be problematic

This literature shows the darker side of humanity, with bloodshed, cruelty, and totalitarianism. Violence is omnipresent and consequently some parents or educators are concerned and even tempted to forbid young people to read it. 

Solange is a teacher in a private school in the Paris region. She explains, “Of course, violence is omnipresent, but this shouldn’t be a cause for concern; young people are immersed in this culture and unfortunately are used to it. On the other hand, the dark, bleak, desperate aspect is more problematic.”

Indeed, these readings can be dangerous for particularly emotional, hyper-sensitive personalities, especially since they feed the moody side of teens. Lastly, it can be difficult to find one’s way around in these books from an ethical point of view if a reader doesn’t have clear notions of good and evil.

Positive points

On closer inspection, however, there’s a positive side to this literary genre.

“First of all, there’s always a hero who comes to challenge the evil authority and makes you want to rebel,” explains Solange. This rebellion becomes necessary when the authority turns out to be evil, and the heroes of these books feel in their heart, in their head, and in their guts that it’s harmful. Thanks to this example of abuse of authority, the good is eventually brought to light.

“This literature offers the opportunity to have deep discussions,” says Solange. “I study this type of literature to help my students become aware of their own negative tendencies, so that they can think critically and act properly later in the world.”

Better still: through such contrasts, these works convey Christian values: respect for others, love of neighbor, and respect for the most vulnerable. Thus, not only is this literature compatible with the Christian spirit, but it can be a springboard for evangelization.

“In my classes, I always take the opportunity to talk about Christ,” says Solange with a smile. “Besides, this literature gives us the desire to rebel, and isn’t a revolution – one of love, of course – at the heart of the Gospel?”

How can we guide young readers?

Giving guidance to young readers of dystopian fiction is therefore essential.

“You have to enlighten them, have discussions with them, decipher the text with them to help them make sense of what they’re reading, and bring out the positive, because interpreting the text is sometimes difficult,” says Solange.

To do this, it is important to learn about the subject, for example by reading some of the classics of the genre.

A second bit of advice: make sure that young people discover this literature at an appropriate age, because if they’re too young they won’t have enough maturity to analyze the works.

And lastly, these works should be consumed “in moderation” – although they are often addictive – and you should encourage young readers to explore a diversity of genres.

“Finally, to counterbalance this dark atmosphere, it’s important to offer young people the lives of saints, to read testimonies of people with radiant lives, because teenagers need light,” concludes Solange.

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