At a recent holiday dinner, my aunt, a freelance writer, shared an interesting tidbit she had picked up following industry news: apparently, publishers are now shying away from teen dystopian novels. I wasn’t at all shaken by this; after all, I always did like older dystopias better, as there’s nothing like the wildly turbulent 20th century to galvanize some first-rate pessimism. (I’m not saying I didn’t like any of those books my tween sister made me read; I’m just saying that maybe if George Orwell hadn’t lived through two world wars, Winston Smith would have been in a love triangle. Although he did sort of leave Julia for Big Brother in the end, I guess. Dang.)
Anyway, it shouldn’t surprise us that dystopian fiction is going the way of paranormal romance; it’s been at least three years since The Hunger Games became the big book on campus, and the books that followed in its footsteps, while generally original at first, are beginning to seem like Hunger Games copies spewing out of a printer that’s short on ink.
The million dollar question, then, is this: what is the next big thing for YA literature? Yes, it’s possible that we could go a little while without having a “big thing,” allowing the shelves to be filled with more of a variety, with themes cherry-picked from previous YA crazes — a werewolf story here, mysterious boarding school there, a dash of repressive government to top it all off. However, in my experience as a demographically relevant reader and amateur writer, someone always comes along with an out-of-nowhere idea, a Book Patient Zero if you will, that affects everyone. Teen readers react by saying, “Dang, I loved that book, I must seek out similar books.” Writers say, “Well, that was interesting, but what if X happened instead?” and suddenly they’re using Patient Zero as a springboard for their own new books, effectively catering to the readers’ needs, and suddenly everyone in the publishing industry realizes that certain types of plots are equivalent to money. Then of course, the genre gets played out and it’s time for another fad. Regular boom-and-bust cycle.
Now, as a young adult and potential consumer of YA lit, here are a few things that I think, either seriously or jokingly, may be the new trend, as well as a few things I would love to see take flight.
Para-Transcendentalism/Natural Fantasy/Environmental Science Fiction
A lot of what made dystopian fiction a winner is that while it seemed to be about the future, it was, for the most, part about the present. Showing a dark future is a perfect way to criticize the already existing vices of society, and it’s hard for me to think of such an obvious form for a book with an agenda, unless, of course, that agenda is environmental. A number of environmental concerns are real fears these days, including habitat destruction, resource depletion, and air pollution, and it wouldn’t take all that much creative liberty to bring these fears to life. What if nature talked back or went on the offensive? What if mother Earth took up a philosophy of tough love and tried to force its oil-addict kid, Humanity, out of the house? I first came across this concept reading through the wonderful webcomic Gunnerkrigg Court, which draws heavily from the mysterious boarding school trope but eventually evolves into a story about the sharp divide between the natural world and the mechanized one. Influenced by various world mythologies, the comic manages to raise questions about real issues in a marvelously interesting fashion without the aid of a distant, dreary future.
Even though I haven’t read any of the books from the Infernal Devices series (those are more my sister’s style, as is the whole “having enough free time to read entire franchises” thing.), I can tell just from my basal knowledge of what those books are about that they’re sort of a genius idea. They run in the same vein as Cassandra Clare’s Mortal Instrumentsseries, another incarnation of the supernatural romance craze (a great incarnation at that, in my opinion), but they’re set in Victorian England, a magical land where worrying about whom the local adolescents were going to marry was a national pastime, so all the romance problems that arise are more historically accurate issues than filler. Also there’s the fact that the series transplants aspects of today’s literature, like demon-hunting protagonists, into a completely unexpected setting, like the Victorian Age. Imagine if we let our crazy 2013 ideas run loose in any of the other time periods; superpowers in Ancient Rome would be sort of nuts, as would Civil War-era detective work.
I can remember stories about people jumping into the technological world ever since I was a kid; I picked up half of my problem-solving skills from Cyberchase, the show where kids use math to save the Internet; I adored that Scooby-Doo movie where the gang gets stuck in a PC game; and even now I’m still transfixed by technology-centric plot lines like that of the webcomic Homestuck, where an apocalyptic computer program leaks into the real world. Not that this is anything too new: books like Inkheart and The Eyre Affair have seen characters traveling back and forth between the real world and the literary one, suggesting that it’s not so much of a “jumping into a computer” thing, but more of a “jumping into the dominant narrative media” thing. So, in that case, the idea has been going around for a while, and it seems to me like it’s only a matter of time before that trend discovers just how much has happened to media consumption since computer games fell out of favor. What if there was a story about the personas we create on social networks having their own personalities, distinct from ours, and interacting with each other when we’re logged out? What’s it like to be inside of an iPhone, jumping from app to app, running to avoid being hit by an angry bird only to be screenshot and sent to someone else’s phone?
But whatever happened to high school?
For some reason, in the YA world, the real fantasy story is the one where all the characters just go to high school like normal kids. Sure, there are a few wildly successful YA books that take place in a realistic world, such as The Perks of Being a Wallflower, Crank, Speak, It’s Kind of a Funny Story, and anything John Green touches, but most YA heroes are too busy memorizing the patriotic songs of their oppressive government or kicking evil vampire butt to do normal teen things like worry about college and their driving test. I’m not a culture expert or anything, but I’d say that realistic teen fiction will never be a fad because it has always been there for us and always will be. It’s a double-edged sword for the genre, as it means that realistic fiction will never be new and exciting just by virtue of premise like the first book of a fad will be, but it will also never be played out. No one’s ever, ever going to get tired of reality because we live in it, experiencing the same problems and emotions and societal ills. So while books about familial tensions and the struggles of the cafeteria may not be as prolific as, say, the dystopias of the past few years, they will still be here when The Hunger Games is on its third edition.
So, what will the next fad be? The truth is, I don’t know. I can predict as much as I want, drawing on my experience with reading YA and watching what the other teens around me are reading, (mostly my younger sister and those freshman in the school writing club who swarm around me yelling things like, “I’m a Divergent Shadowhunter!” I’m not saying I haven’t read those books, but no one gets excited like a freshman.) but in the end, my predictions will most likely mean nothing. It all depends on the author who’s out there somewhere right now, working on the new Book Patient Zero, the one that’s going to come on the scene like The Hunger Games or Twilight or Harry Potter before it. That book’s going to get here and blow everyone’s mind, and suddenly, it will have the entire YA world revolving around it.
I am so PUMPED.
— Cory C., 12th grade (yeah, I guess I am in grade 12 now), currently reading Sanditon by Jane Austen, because the creators of The Lizzie Bennet Diaries are producing a spin-off, and I do not watch anything before reading the book if I can help it.