'Hunger Games': Why Kids Love Disaster, Distress and Dystopia

These books that deal with anorexia, cyber-bullying, self-mutilation, alcoholic parents, and vampiric sex strike a nerve with teenagers because of the intense developmental and social changes they're experiencing.
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The other day I took a stroll through the Young Adult Literature section of my local Barnes & Noble. I picked up bestsellers like Jay Asher's "Thirteen Reasons Why," narrated by a high school junior who kills herself, after sending audiotapes to the 13 people she blames, and Suzanne Collins' prominently displayed "Hunger Games." Part of what's called the dystopian genre, "Hunger Games" is set in a bleak futuristic world where the government forces teens to fight one another to the death as their parents look on, airs the battle on television and calls it a national holiday. There are more books that deal with anorexia, cyber-bullying, self-mutilation, alcoholic parents and vampiric sex, not to mention one in which technology has replaced thought. And that's just the tip of the literary iceberg.

Our young adults are devouring this stuff. YA Lit is the only growth sector of the publishing industry these days. To parents, it can be disturbing that this ghoulish subject matter is what our eighth or ninth graders consider "reading for pleasure." It may even make you long for the days of Saturday morning cartoons.

The truth, though, is that these books strike a nerve with teenagers because of the intense developmental and social changes they're experiencing. Between 12 and 18, the ages broadly classified as YA, everything is changing all the time -- socially, physically, sexually. And in the transition from childhood to adulthood, the role of the parent can be very fraught. The ground beneath a teenager's feet is constantly shifting. In short, being a teenager can certainly feel just as bad as the various versions of apocalypse depicted in YA Lit. Normal struggles, crises, insecurities, and rejections may make even the average "well adjusted" teenager feel as if his world is falling apart. In reading about worlds and lives that are literally falling apart, kids are reading about emotions that are as intense as their own. Remember that in the adolescent years the emotional centers of the brain are much more developed than the impulse control centers, which don't reach maturity until the mid-20s. That disparity is not only why rental car companies don't let kids rent cars until they're 25 -- it's why teenagers are much less able to moderate their feelings than adults are.

What kind of YA Lit a teen is reading may offer some insight into what she might be struggling with. One of the big themes in the dystopian books, for example, has to do with trying to subvert a repressive system, one that precludes freedom and individuality. In Scott Westerfied's "Uglies," teens live in a highly surveilled, completely controlled society in which all 16-year-olds are forced to undergo plastic surgery in order to conform to established standards of beauty. It is no wonder that teens -- many of whom attend schools that employ video surveillance and random locker searches, who live with the constant pressure to fit in and endure the mounting anxieties of PSATs, SATs and college applications -- are drawn to dystopian universes in which the protagonists fight The System. On his author blog Westerfield wrote that the success of "Uglies" "is partly thanks to high school being a dystopia." Dystopian novels may be set in the future, but as far as the teenagers reading them are concerned, they are happening now.

If dystopian fiction is disturbing for what it imagines, contemporary reality YA Lit -- sometimes referred to as disaster fiction -- is perhaps even more frightening, simply because these books spin tales of a parent's worst nightmare -- rape, abuse, cutting, eating disorders, suicide. And certainly parents should be aware of what their child is reading in the same way they should have a sense of where their teenager goes online. A girl exclusively reading novels about anorexia (or suicide or rape, etc.) should be a red flag that her interest may be more than literary.

But assuming a teenager consumes a varied diet of reality YA Lit, then the "disaster story" can serve as a healthy outlet for its reader. Sometimes by reading about a truly terrible tragedy, a teen is able to find a perspective he wouldn't otherwise have on his own more pedestian woes. For another teenager, the disaster story may reflect what a teenager is feeling but cannot always express. For example, unlike Mia, the protagonist of "If I Stay," most teens will never have to make the decision of whether to follow their parents into the afterlife or live in their own mangled bodies on earth. But every teen will go through the wrenching process of separating from her parents -- an emotionally fraught process which often leaves both parties feeling mangled. Reading those feelings offers a kind of catharsis they may not be able to achieve on their own.

Here in the YA section, the covers can be scary and the titles morose. But YA Lit isn't just one huge undifferentiated library of misery. What is your teen drawn to and why? There is one surefire way to know. That book your kid can't put down? Read it. Then you'll have something new to talk about together. Which is great, no matter how depressing the book is.

Harold S. Koplewicz, M.D. is a leading child and adolescent psychiatrist and the president of the Child Mind Institute. For more on schizophrenia, trauma, and the perils of untreated mental illness, go to our website, which offers parenting advice and a wealth of information on childhood psychiatric and learning disorders.

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