Hopeful Dystopia

I was recently asked about the plausibility of writing middle grade dystopian and post-apocalyptic books. After all, these are adult genres for a reason; they are depressing, dark and scary. Why would anyone possibly want to write them for children?

And to that I reply in-kind: How can I not?

Let me explain. As I have stated in a previous blog, the dystopian genre is all about what could happen if we allowed society to give up on the human spirit and become stale, stagnant, and overly controlled. Post-ap, likewise, is all about the very worst picture of our future as mankind. The only real difference between the two is one has a form of government and the other, anarchy. But they are both warnings, and often terrifying ones because they can seem very close to the reality we see in the world around us. Unlike the genres of thriller or horror, dystopia and post-ap often have the very real possibility of becoming non-fiction.

And this, my friends, is why I write them for children.

Who are the architects of the future? Who will have the chance to actually make sure this doesn’t happen? It’s our kids, that’s who. It’s those who will be a part of the future that need to know how to keep that future bright.

Now, I hardly expect my young readers to think on the level of Aldous Huxley, H.G. Wells or George Orwell. And to my mind kids’ stories should follow certain criteria: they should never be grossly violent, they should always be hopeful, they should have a happy ending, and, above all else, they should be fun. These rules defy the very nature of post-ap and dystopia, which are usually terribly violent, hopeless, end badly, and more often than not make you wish you had never read them by sheer force of their utterly depressing storylines. So the question shouldn’t be why I’m writing these genres for kids as much as how I’m doing it, because it is in the “how” that the “why” is truly explained.

When writing kids’ dystopia and post-ap, I can easily use the dark nature of the current state of my world in the creation of a larger-than-life antagonist and the setting of epic battles and monstrous obstacles within such a place. I can even create a padded-down version of post-ap violence by having my young protagonists fight giant bugs and robots with weapons that would never actually work but that sound amazing on paper (this is, after all, science FICTION). But in my opinion, the underlying hopelessness that abounds throughout dystopian and post-ap fiction is one thing that should never exist in any form in a fictional child’s story. Far more often than not, in adult post-ap and dystopia not only has the end happened already, there is no hope for the revival of a more peaceful, happier time before whatever cataclysm rendered the world into its current anarchist/totalitarian state. Thus, the vast majority of these stories end badly, with no hope of salvation for mankind.

And therein lies the major difference between kids’ dystopia and its adult counterpart.

For an adult, the story is all about what went wrong, but for a child it’s about what can still go right. What has happened? Why? What can be done to fix it? Why does this fix it? Questions like these can be extremely open-ended, and in an adult book the answers are more often than not fatalistic. In a kids’ book, though, the answers are black and white, and entirely full of hope. There is a way to fix this… but it has to be done by a kid.

So what kind of world would a child consider dystopian in the first place? What kind of society would a kid feel the need to fix? To an adult, dystopia means that their freedoms have been lost, their identities erased, and their world has become a prison. But children have different priorities, and a different point of view as to what would be a terrible kind of world to live in. Of course, there are the prerequisite schools going year-round,  constant homework, monsters being real, and chores that never end. These are fun plot devices, and I won’t say I don’t use them from time to time.  But as I have stated before, this isn’t just about entertaining young readers, it is about showing them how they can help make the future hopeful and bright. So what is the one thing that a child truly needs to feel safe and comfortable? And what is the one thing that, when taken away, destroys hope and joy in a child?

Family.

Not politics or religion. Not personal freedom or ethics. Just… family. Any kind of loving family. That’s what a child needs. Sadly, it’s also what so very many children don’t have today.

I won’t ruin “Guts and Glory” for you by giving anything away from its plot, but I will say that everything revolves around family. This, in the end, is the glue that holds society together, and even children know that. You don’t have to be deep and existential to remind a reader of what matters in the world. You don’t have to be preachy or boring to give a story meaning.

And you don’t have to be depressing to give a child a taste of exciting, thrilling… and ultimately hopeful… dystopia.

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2 Responses to “Hopeful Dystopia”

  1. I am so impressed by this posting I’m not even sure how to put all of my thoughts about it into words (I’m a wordless writer, the worst of afflictions). I have constantly had trouble explaining why I write the stories that I write, what they are really about and what compelled me to write them. But you don’t seem to have that problem. You have explained in beautiful and intelligent detail the how and the why and the wheretofore of your literary vision. It was the kind of explanation I want from the author’s of my favorite books. An explanation that tells me real thought and heart and time and effort and knowledge was put into the creation of this/these books. You aren’t just doing this for money or fame or whatever. You are doing this because you have stories to tell, and also because you want to show your readers something deep and meaningful and true. Congratulations. If I hadn’t already been a fan and believer, this certainly would have made me one. 🙂

    • Awww! Thank you Melissa! That’s so great of you to say! I’ve had enough people question my choice of genre that I decided I needed to clarify a few things, that’s all. You need to send me a link to your blog so I can read some of your stuff. I miss your writing; I haven’t been able to read any since “The Paper Trial” went down. 😦

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