I’ve been on a real lit kick this week, I know, but I am, after all, the Lit Mama. I’ve been doing a lot of thinking about summer reading and even though we’re spending our summer with the folks from the Lord of the Rings trilogy, there are so many options to choose from.
One of my favorite genres is YA Dystopia, mostly because I like reading about regular people who fight so “a man can stand up.” But I’ve read Dystopia meant for all ages, so why YA? Because the emotions in YA books are so much fresher and more raw than in books intended for adults. Here you have this person who barely knows who he or she is and suddenly he/she has to save the world. Well, why not? What better way to get to know yourself? hahaaa Besides, this is a summer reading list for your teen or tween, not for a Grown Up. (Although you should definitely be the kind of grown-up who reads them, too.) Also, the heroes are strong females as often as, if not more often than, males. And we can always use more strong females to look up to.
Some of the greats
The very first Dystopian novel I ever remember reading was The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood. Not really written for YA, though it is often included on lists. I would recommend it for older teens because there is some pretty adult content. This book, which I have read multiple times, is one of the greats. It tells the story of Offred (Of-fred), who used to have a normal life with a husband and daughter and money of her own. Until a totalitarian theocracy overthrows the U.S. government, subjugates all women, and turns their lives into a living hell of existing solely for the purpose of serving men. The chilling thing about this story is that, of course, the protagonist’s name isn’t Really Offred. It was changed when she was assigned to be the baby-maker for Commander Fred and his wife. Because his wife is there to serve him in other capacities. Offred is the brood mare. Even scarier is the way the new government took power from women with a single swipe. Offred goes to the store one day to buy something and her money card has been wiped clean. She has no cash because people don’t use cash anymore. It is her first clue that life is about to go terribly wrong. I shudder when I think of it. How many of us rely on our debit cards daily and therefore would be powerless if the government decided to shut them down and take our money? Oh, the genius of Margaret Atwood. It’s terrifying how quickly the government cuts women off from all independence and then sends them to camp to be indoctrinated. This book always reminds me to be careful of my own independence, to guard it with sharp teeth and claws. Because I love my husband, but I am the subject of no man.
It was later, somehow, that I read Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury. I spoke about the protagonist, Guy Montag, in my 20 Fave Male Characters for People Under 20. In this novel, “firemen” who work for the government burn books in the name of public happiness. Any book not approved by the government is against the law. The firemen raid houses and burn the books, and sometimes the houses, and sometimes the perpetrators along with everything else. Guy is thrown into shock and confusion when a woman chooses to burn with her books rather than live without them. At the same time, he meets a teenage girl named Clarisse whose views about the world make him question the way of things even further. So one night during a raid, he steals a book. And the fit hits the shan. The intriguing part of the plot is the way Bradbury shows–through Montag’s wife and her friends–that with the condemnation of books and ensuing reliance on technology and media, people have quit thinking for themselves. They have no opinions, because they have nothing, really, to opine about. Again, a delicious shudder runs through me. Don’t give up your books. Don’t stop thinking. Don’t stop asking questions. Don’t rely on television for our information because it doesn’t truly give you any.
What turned me on to the YA genre here in the last decade was, of course, The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins. In Colliins’ truly terrifying world, kids are enlisted from the 12 colonies left in the U.S. to participate in a yearly murder fest. They go to an arena, 12 males and 12 females, and they basically fight to the death. Only one person can win. Katniss Everdeen ends up as part of the Games when her little sister gets picked to participate. Without forethought, Katniss volunteers to take her place. And turns this awful, Dystopian, totalitarian world on its head. Kids killing each other for entertainment just so the government can prove who is in control? Somebody better do something, is all I can say. Talk about complacence. There is so much depth in these novels that got chucked out for the movies. I would like to put the people who made the films in their own Hunger Games. How can you leave the heart out of a story and still call it good? Ugh! Do Not judge this story based on the films. Read the books. They are truly brilliant.
I read Uglies by Scott Westerfield because my sister recommended it while I was reading The Hunger Games. She, too, was a librarian at the time, though she has gone on to get her masters in speech pathology and now Rocks that biz. Uglies is about Tally, a girl approaching her 16th birthday whose best friend, a boy named Peris, has already gotten an operation and moved to New Pretty Town. New Pretty Town. Meaning a town for new pretties where no one has any responsibilities or worries. Because at 16, everyone in society gets an operation that turns them beautiful. New bone structure, new skin, new… everything. And Tally can’t wait to get her operation and join Peris. But then she meets Shay, a girl her age who is everything Tally is not. Shay is happy with her status as an Ugly, doesn’t want the operation–in fact, she intends to run away before her birthday to join a rebellion. On the day of Tally’s operation, she is enlisted by the government to track Shay down and lead the government to the rebellion headquarters. If she doesn’t, the government will never let her become a Pretty. What follows is Tally’s awakening to government control, how Pretties are kept complacent through their lack of responsibility, and how our differences are what make us beautiful, even without operations. Definitely a good summer read for a young girl who loves adventure and maybe needs to be reminded that ugly is as ugly does.
One of my favorite Dystopian story lines is that of Delirium by Lauren Oliver. This totalitarian government teaches that love is a disease, and there is a mandatory surgical cure performed on people when they turn 18. Lena, the protagonist, has been just as brainwashed as everyone else by the government and believes wholeheartedly that love is a disease. In terrible fear of catching it before her operation, she anticipates the cure with glee. Until she meets Alex. Alex lives outside society, has never been cured, and is part of a resistance that is not fooled by the government’s mind-control. Of course Lena falls in love with him. And it changes everything. My only complaint about this series is that it has one of those mid-story changes where Lena becomes involved in a love triangle. And I’m sorry, but if you fall in love so hard it literally changes your whole world, I just don’t think you’re going to fall that hard again any time soon. I hate love triangles. Writers, give us some credit.
Under the Never Sky by Veronica Rossi is the last book I’m going to talk about. Today. It is, perhaps, my favorite. Aria lives in Reverie, a domed city which protects its citizens from Aether storms caused by catastrophic changes to Earth. When a night of fun turns into a tragedy, Aria is banished from her home to the wastelands, where she will surely die. In fact, if not for an Outsider named Perry, she most certainly would have died when an Aether storm popped up. Perry is one of the people left on earth who don’t live in a dome, an Outsider, considered to be a cannibal or worse, but Aria has to rely on him to survive. What follows is a beautiful love story and a fascinating toppling of yet another totalitarian government. The coolest part is how Perry and Aria both have these assumptions about the other based on where they lived. As they get to know each other, they realize what we should all know. People are people, no matter where they’re from, and we all have things in common and we all have the same joys and worries and fears. And we’re all worthy. And bad guys can be found just about anywhere. Good stuff.
If you have a little looking for a bit of excitement and romance this summer, or who is as fascinated by people who don’t allow the government to control them as I am, get him or her one of these books. There are many others, but these are the ones I recommend first whenever anyone asks. Do you have any favorites I didn’t list? Let me know in the comments.