The adage about the trend has become as ubiquitous as the trend itself: dystopian books are everywhere, and their popularity doesn’t seem to be waning.
Shortly after Donald Trump was elected president, sales of George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four and Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale spiked. The latter story is seeing a resurgence not only because its feminist themes resonate with the set of readers who partook in January’s Women’s March, but also because the story is getting a shiny, new TV adaptation, out this month from Hulu.
Stories like Suzanne Collins’ “The Hunger Games” and their ilk ― the “Divergent” series, the “Maze Runner” series, and “The 100” series ― are not only popular on screen, but in American classrooms, too.
Which isn’t to say the subgenre doesn’t have its decriers. In an interview with HuffPost, science-fiction author Ursula K. Le Guin shared her thoughts on the appeal of dystopias: “People are scared, so they want to read fiction where they can be scared without any real reason to be. To sort of play at being scared instead of being really scared. I don’t read that stuff.” She’s not alone; The Hunger Games was among the most-banned books of 2010, 2011 and 2013.
But educators Judith A. Hayn, co-author of Teaching Young Adult Literature Today, and Elizabeth Majerus, co-author of Can I Teach That?, both argue that dystopian stories are uniquely useful in high school settings, where the texts can serve as jumping-off points for broader political conversations, and where students are otherwise unlikely to see themselves represented in the characters they read about.
“I think part of what resonates for younger readers is that it’s often a younger protagonist who’s facing the crises brought on by older generations.”
“I think part of what resonates for younger readers is that it’s often a younger protagonist who’s facing the crises brought on by older generations,” Majerus told HuffPost. “They’re facing these issues that they’ve inherited, and I think a lot of kids can really relate to that. It’s always exciting for a young person to read about a hero who’s also a young person, but particularly a hero that is faced with rectifying the social, environmental and political catastrophes that came about well before they were born.”
This year, Majerus is teaching a course at University High School in Illinois designed around utopian and dystopian societies in fiction. Her students read a bevy of essays about utopias and dystopias, then they ventured to create their own utopian classroom by electing which fiction titles they would read.
“Teaching a class that pretty much started a couple of weeks before the inauguration of Donald J. Trump definitely was a much more interesting, complicated ― but also exciting ― experience. It feels much more relevant,” Majerus said. “We’re at a point in American history where the things that we as a people do right now ― it feels like it does have an effect on the future, and whether we go down a road toward continuing democracy, and whether we go down a road that feels more dystopian.”
Hayn, who teaches teacher education at University of Arkansas at Little Rock, agreed. “I think that students feel that anger and frustration that they sense from outside the classroom, and they bring that with them,” she told HuffPost. “Even the very young have been very troubled, I think, by what is going on.”
Both Majerus and Hayn said that dystopian stories provide one avenue for discussing today’s political climate, without doing so in a contentious, head-on manner, and without engaging with their own personal viewpoints, which, they agreed, should be kept out of the classroom.
“I would hope that an English language arts teacher would be able to do that, say, ‘Do you see any contemporary issues in the world around you now?’ and lead the students to make some of those observations,” Hayn said. “I think we have an obligation to include the political, so that students understand why we got to where we are now.”
Majerus adds that reading stories that engage with political content, but through stories with individual characters and individual motivations, can add extra context to headlines that students are likely reading.
“When they get to really step inside the shoes of a person ― even if it’s a fictional person, but it’s a really well fleshed-out character ― they are more challenged to consider other perspectives, and to see the human stories behind the headlines,” Majerus said. “I think when a student reads a story that articulates an experience that they’re not familiar with, it can challenge some of their assumptions.”
The site for her class links to Margaret Atwood’s recent essay about her novel in the New York Times, in which the author wrestles with whether she considers the story a feminist one. (“If you mean a novel in which women are human beings — with all the variety of character and behavior that implies — and are also interesting and important, and what happens to them is crucial to the theme, structure and plot of the book, then yes. In that sense, many books are ‘feminist,’” the author writes, herself adding nuance to the conversation around the title.)
That said, both educators see the value in sharing stories from multiple mediums with their students, including not only fiction and news, but movies and TV shows, too ― whichever outlets kids are already getting their media from, so that they can think critically about what they’re already consuming. And, with dystopian books, there’s a wealth of cross-genre content available. Majerus is sharing a 1990 adaptation of The Handmaid’s Tale with her class ― a film is easier to fit into the allotted time than a series, she said ― and hopes to compare the choices made by the author and the director.
““I think we have an obligation to include the political, so that students understand why we got to where we are now.””
“I love watching a film after students have read a book, because you learn a lot about a book by analyzing the choices a filmmaker makes,” Majerus said. “What parts to include, how you bridge those gaps. Those choices are extremely rich for conversation about the book. Whether students agree or disagree with aspects the filmmaker focused on, how they feel about things that were left out.”
So, watching movies in English class can be much more than a fallback plan for underprepared teachers; it’s also a means of keeping the classroom relevant to the world beyond it.
To this end, Hayn thinks dystopian books are generally a better choice than the established canon, which, she points out, comprises mostly white male writers.
“We can go on and on about the value of that, and whether or not it’s a good thing, but students do not tend to see themselves in those pieces,” Hayn said. “They’re not there at all. And particularly if they belong to groups that have no power, that are underrepresented in society and certainly underrepresented in literature.”
A chapter of her book Teaching Young Adult Literature Today focuses on reaching disenfranchised groups of young readers, and she thinks contemporary YA stories ― dystopias included ― take a small step in the right direction as far as representation is concerned. True equality is yet to be achieved, but these stories instill the idea that change is possible.
“It’s also the comfort of seeing people succeed, overthrow and create a new world,” Hayn said. And that might be their greatest strength, and most alluring quality: dystopian books are, ultimately, about individual strength amid governmental havoc, and hope amid trying times.