Just before Thanksgiving, I finished reading The Giver with my 8th grade students. This was my first time teaching the novel, though certainly not my first time reading the book. I must have read it at least six or seven times through my schooling, and every single time, it never got old.
What surprised me the most about my experience teaching The Giver was the fact that students absolutely and completely adore it. I’ve never seen such enthusiasm before for literature out of a middle-schooler. My students would practically beg to read another chapter each day, and groan when I had to take a break to teach them the importance of style or metaphors. Even the most disinterested and unmotivated students would eagerly ask what page we are turning to so they could start their reading for the day.
I had to ask myself at the end of teaching this, what I could possibly teach them that they’d continue to have just as much passion for wanting to read. How could I top The Giver? And what exactly appeals to them about the novel that the barrier between their generation and books of any kind was permeated?
If you think about it, the dystopian YA market is huge, with The Hunger Games reigniting the flames of a subject matter that comes and goes. There’s nothing new about dystopians, from A Brave New World to A Handmaid’s Tale, they’ve all made their rounds in and out of popular fiction. But why do children love them so much? What about books that reflect the basest human instincts and behavior appeals to them? Why is it that they are so attracted to end-of-the-world stories?
Personally, I think that when they read about a world where the characters don’t have much of what the readers do have, the children are able to identify more with the struggle. You can ask them to imagine life without the internet for a month and watch the horror register on their face. After that, ask them how the world would be if there was no color. No feeling. No individuality. They will react in much the same way: confusion at how a world like that could exist, and the revulsion held for such a world that has more “withouts” than “withs.”
They will always be curious at how such a world would function because it is my belief that they are probably terrified at these scenarios. Reading about them is like watching a car crash – you just can’t look away. It’s why we keep turning the pages, even when we know that Jonas is eventually going to learn the truth of his community, that Katniss is going to have to face the death and destruction of innocents, and so on and so forth. What would happen if someone set the “reset” button on our world as we know it?
There may be a plethora of dystopians out there, but the truth of the matter is, they won’t ever get old to the readership (be it young or old), for as long as our world is constantly changing and challenging our ethics and morality, there will be books that push the boundaries even more. Children are moldable and vulnerable, and hopefully, they will take Lowry’s lesson about “Sameness,” and carry it with them long after they are out of my classroom. We need to show them how the world would be if you took away their basic freedoms, challenge their morals and manipulate our social structure.
So this is my challenge to other dystopian YA writers: How will you change a child’s life by showing them a new world gone wrong while keeping them interested in reading?
Make it good.