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ALA 2013: Bleak New World: YA Authors Decode Dystopia

Photo by 96dp1. CC BY-NC-SA 2.0.
Photo by 96dp1. CC BY-NC-SA 2.0.

Dystopian societies remain a popular topic for young adult fiction, and the first panel I attended at ALA this year brought together some of the best authors in the genre to discuss their own works and the wider implications of dystopias in young adult fiction. Despite being held in the evening on the first night of the conference at a hotel that was quite a distance from the convention center, this event was packed. The larger hall that it was held in was standing room only even after the hotel staff brought in additional chairs (which brings me to my disclaimer that some quotes may not be entirely accurate since I was trying to quickly take notes while standing at the back of the room). And, given the line up of speakers, this is no surprise: The event brought together Lois Lowry, Patrick Ness, Veronica Roth, and Cory Doctorow for a conversation about their books, why they choose to write dystopias and why they think that dystopias are popular with teens.

Lois Lowry went first and talked about her starting point of wanting to write about memory. This desire combined with her memories of life growing up on military bases where everyone followed the rules led to her creating the community found in The Giver, which netted Lowry the 2007 Margaret A. Edwards Award. She also talked about responses that she has received from readers and in particular two responses about relating to the world she had created after a life in an isolated cult or religious community. She related dystopias to traditional folk tales and said that dystopias are “cautionary tales.”

Patrick Ness, author of the Chaos Walking trilogy, followed and presented what he viewed as the five big questions of dystopia, starting with “Why is dystopia so popular?” to which he responded (this may be paraphrased) “dystopia is, in fact, high school.” In other words, he sees the continuing popularity of this genre in young adult literature as being directly related to the way that teenagers view their own lives in high school. Next he tackled the question of what is accomplished by these stories, saying that they are ultimately survival stories. His third question was, “How useful do I find the label when writing for teens?” which he essentially answered by saying that it wasn’t useful at all. He talked a bit about his process of writing first and not thinking about any labels or adjectives until after he has the story. In fact, he said that he didn’t even set out to write a young adult novel but instead found himself writing young adult after starting in on the process. He then asked, “Why not utopia?” to which he responded by reflecting on the types of young adult literature that were available when he was young and how this has changed. He wants to avoid writing books focused on lessons and a perfect world and instead present a more realistic portrayal of an imperfect world. Finally, he reflected on “What is next for dystopia?” mentioning that he doesn’t consider any of his upcoming works to be dystopias. I was really impressed by the amount of thought he had clearly put into his remarks and his answers to these questions. He really gave a lot of insight into his writing process and how he thinks about his work and his audience. I haven’t read his books yet and listening to him speak definitely made me want to remedy this!

Next up was Veronica Roth, who discussed her Divergent trilogy. Her talk was deeply personal. She started by saying that she suffers from generalized anxiety and that this influenced her. She wrote the first book when she was in her early 20’s, and she noted that it reflected a great deal about her own internal world and revealed a great deal about herself. She said that she didn’t create it as a dystopia and, in fact, that in some ways she created her idea of a utopia and then “over the course of three books, I explored the ways that I am a crappy god.” It was really fascinating to hear her thoughts on how much of herself was both consciously and subconsciously in the books and how the process of writing the books helped her to understand herself better and to confront some of the negative aspects of herself. Hearing her talk about all of this was powerful and gave new insights into the version of Chicago that she has created.

The last author to speak was Cory Doctorow, author of several young adult novels, including his most recent, Homeland. His talk focused on how many think of dystopias as being about the negative aspects of humanity when, in reality, they can be about the good in people. He also talked about the myth that science fiction is predictive. Instead, he sees it as more of a reflection on the present. Given his interest in and focus on technology, it is no surprise that he also talked a bit about technology and how he thinks the goal is “to create a generation that jailbreaks every device.”

I greatly enjoyed this panel, though not necessarily for the reason that I thought that I would. I initially was more focused on what the authors would say about the dystopian worlds and the future of these themes in young adult literature, and they did provide some interesting thoughts on this topic. But, ultimately, the part of the panel that impressed me the most was the glimpses that the audience got into the writing process of these authors and how they craft their stories. It was a great panel that I was very fortunate to attend. If you would like to read more about it, check out the American Libraries Magazine blog post on it.

— Carli Spina, currently reading Cinder by Marissa Meyer

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Carli Spina

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One Comment

  1. I have lately been reading a number of contemporary books set in high schools with situations that remind me why I am so happy to gorget my own high school years. Those really are dangerous times that I would never live through again. So when I read this about the authors comparing dystopian books to high school, it made me think. I can see a teen looking at the unjust dictatorship that is high school and using these books to help work out some of their feelings of frustration. I remember reading some dystopian science fiction back in my childhood (it did exist in the sixties and seventies, we just didn’t hve the word dystopian yet) and thinking both tht the world could be worse, and that there was a possibility of making things better just as the heroes and heroines in those stories did.

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