As Dystopian Fiction Creeps Closer to Reality, Can It Cause Harm for Young Readers?

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Books have the power to pull us in, gather us up, toss us about and leave us changed. Sometimes the changes are uplifting and inspiring in nature. Other times, they are disconcerting, challenging the way we look at the world.

I have this memory of making lunch one summer day about 15 years ago. I found myself digging every shred of tuna out of the can. I caught myself, and I chuckled. At the time, I was reading “Life as We Knew It,” a dystopian novel by Susan Beth Pfeffer. I was fully wrapped up in her tale of survival in which the world is thrown out of kilter when a meteor pushes the moon closer to the earth, causing mass disruption—including food shortages.

Years later, when the preliminary impacts of the pandemic made their way to the midwestern United States, my husband and I went to the grocery store to stock up on food and supplies. We were wholly unprepared for the empty shelves, the crowds of people trying to get the last jar of peanut butter and checkout lines that mimicked those on the day before Thanksgiving. And then, of course, there was the great toilet paper shortage of 2020.

In shock, my mind dredged up the memory of my tuna can, but this time, rather than a chuckle, I felt my anxiety rise. All of a sudden, what was once a fictional depiction of a family doing whatever it took to survive a global catastrophe, now seemed much too close to reality.

I have been a reader of dystopian fiction for years, primarily due to my role as librarian to upper elementary and middle school students. Over the years, I have gobbled up “The Giver Quartet,” by Lois Lowry, “The Eleventh Plague,” by Jeff Hirsch and “The Hunger Games Trilogy,” by Suzanne Collins. To satisfy my adult desire for complex dystopian storylines, I have plowed through “The Parable of the Sower,” by Olivia Butler and “The Broken Earth” series by N.K. Jemisin, just to name a few.

But these books affect me differently now than they did before the pandemic.

Over the past two years, as I held virtual library classes during school closures, invited children back into the library after they returned to school in person and worked directly with teachers to plan curriculum and rethink how we “do” school in our new normal, I’ve been thinking a lot about how the impact of the pandemic on schools extends far beyond hand sanitizer and social distancing. In my role as school librarian, for example, it has affected everything from the library checkout schedule to my collaboration with teachers and even my direct interaction with students.

Part of my role has always been supporting individual students, classes and teachers in making book choices—before, during and after the pandemic. As students returned to the library in person, many seemed lost when it came to choosing books. And as teachers asked for recommendations for class read alouds and literary resources to support lessons and learning targets, I found myself considering whether there were any new factors to think about before recommending a dystopian novel.

Every year, to help students and teachers select books, I read and reread books to familiarize myself with them so I can make recommendations for students and teachers. As I read dystopian fiction in the wake of the pandemic, which has brought suffering, death and economic hardship, I began to wonder what happens to readers when what was once a purely fictional event grounded in cataclysmic events seems to edge much closer to reality? I started to think about whether dystopian fiction readers might be negatively affected by these tales of destruction, chaos and survival at the end of the world as their characters knew it.

In recent years, our district has dedicated significant professional development time to provide teachers and staff with an understanding of trauma and its impact on children. In light of that learning, I grew concerned that dystopian novels might have the potential to cause additional trauma for young readers. My tuna can example is but a silly after-effect of reading a story that drew me in as if it were real for a few days one summer, but it illustrates the power of a story to challenge the way we think about everyday life. How would I have felt reading a story like that in the midst of a global pandemic, or during a crisis in which I couldn’t access food for my children?

Earlier this spring, I picked up a new novel with a compelling cover—“Cleo Porter and the Body Electric”—and began perusing the summary:

“Like everyone else, twelve-year-old Cleo and her parents are sealed in an apartment without windows or doors. They never leave. They never get visitors. Their food is dropped by drones. So they’re safe from the disease that nearly wiped humans from the earth. Safe from everything. The trade-off? They’ alone. Thus, when they receive a package clearly meant for someone else—a package containing a substance critical for a stranger’s survival—Cleo is stuck. As a surgeon-in-training, she knows the clock is ticking. But people don’t leave their units. Not ever. Until now.”

Summary found on book jacket of “Cleo Porter and the Body Electric,” by Jake Burt.

I remember thinking, “Wow! That hits pretty close to home right now.”

As I read it, I was drawn into the story immediately and I knew of several students who would also want to dive right in. Then, I stopped and pondered whether I should deliberately share it with students.

Maybe kids these days are desensitized to the doomsday scenarios in dystopian fiction as a result of the prevalence of similar events in the real world—nuclear testing, countries on the brink of war, famine, refugee crises. With detailed information, photographs and videos shared across nightly news, print and online media outlets and social media, young people see much more than they used to, and can become cynical and hardened as a result.

These stories may be too much for some students. Maybe they were always too much—even before the world was under siege by a highly mutable virus. As hard as we try to deeply understand our students, it’s impossible to know what every student has faced, so it’s difficult to know how a book could cause a traumatic event to resurface.

Throughout my career, for example, I’ve worked with a few students who lost a parent. Some were uncomfortable with stories in which the plot line contains the loss of a loved one. I’ve met with students to help them navigate stories where animals die, people face disease and characters face a major personal disaster, such as a house fire.

As I reflected on this challenge, considering how to move through it—whether to hold off on promoting certain books this year or whether to encourage teachers to build buffer time into lesson plans to allow for more discussion—something else struck me. Maybe in some cases, these stories actually provide hope, strength and a path to resilience for young readers.

Ed Finn, founding director of the Center for Science and the Imagination at Arizona State University, wrote a summary of Eileen Hunt Botting’s book, “Artificial Life After Frankenstein,” for the National Academy of Sciences Issues in Science and Technology. In that summary, Finn highlights how Botting makes the case that “science fiction is a valid simulator of political possibilities, one that allows us to exercise the essential human capacity to hope for a better future.”

Science fiction and dystopian fiction have enough in common that this analysis rings true for me.

When readers see their champions overcome unimaginable challenges in dystopian storylines, are the readers themselves then buoyed to be stronger in the face of struggle and strife themselves? Can experiencing a character persevere and survive the end of the world provide some sort of road map for how we can make the world a better place?

None of the dystopian novels I’ve read have a protagonist who sits down, pouts and says, “I can’t do this (at least not for more than a paragraph). They get up, they find solutions, they push through often gut-wrenching scenarios to find a better life for themself, to make their world a better place, to save the ones they love.

As we navigate a post-pandemic (or still-in-the-waves-of-a-pandemic) world, it is important to keep in mind that world events may have impacted our students and shifted what they are comfortable reading. The books students choose to read will undoubtedly show us their tolerance level for intense, close-to-real-world plotlines. We must also be cognizant that some students may have experienced trauma, and that the power of a book might cause painful memories to return. But we also must remember that for other readers, these books strengthen them, introducing characters who demonstrate courage and explore the depths of human capacity for the good of others.

We don’t know which students will sit in our classrooms as we move forward, so we must carefully listen to what students are asking and take time to learn about their individual comfort level when selecting books, especially when it comes to dystopian fiction. And there may be friction between wanting to read the latest dystopian series to be able to talk about it with friends, and being ready to dive into the world put forth in the series.

While educators shouldn’t shy away from these powerful stories, as there are students who need them, they should approach these stories with increased sensitivity, leaving space for additional discussion and providing alternative options for students who may not be best served by these books.

The discord I feel when pitching a powerful read to my students is not likely to fade, but I will continue to help my students remember their rights as readers—one of the most crucial being that they get to decide what feels comfortable.

I will continue reminding them that they can abandon a self-selected book that doesn’t serve them or makes them feel uncomfortable (not in a good way). And when it comes to reading a book as a class or as part of curriculum, they can advocate for themselves by talking to their teacher when a book is impacting them negatively or speak up when they crave more time to discuss or process the layers of a narrative.

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