When I picked up this book, my first thought was, "Is this white woman going to understand what it's like to be a person of color in this country?"
Everyone seems to be re-reading their copies of “The Hunger Games” these days1, quivering with anticipation as dribs and drabs of information about the film adaptation trickle out. There’s already been a lot of discussion about the casting decisions, the teasers and, well, anything fans can get their hands on. For those who aren’t fans of the series, I’m sure the release date is eagerly anticipated because then maybe people will stop talking about it all the darn time2.
I will freely admit that I attended a midnight “Mockingjay” release party, because I am a sucker for book parties, and I also love re-reading, so my copies have been through the mill a few times. Every time I read books I love I find new little tidbits that make me glad I took the time, and I get to know the characters more deeply. But I also enjoy branching out, and I suspect some of you do as well...
So, if you’re tired of pawing over your copies of “The Hunger Games” while waiting for the movie release, here are some other dystopian YA series you may want to sink your teeth into.
"Uglies," by Scott Westerfeld
These books are set in a world after social collapse, where people are surrounded by relics of a former society and live in rigid, closely controlled conditions. Until age 16, people are educated and housed separately, prior to undergoing substantial cosmetic surgery to radically change their appearance. Underage people are known as Uglies, while post-surgery, they’re called Pretties.
This is a series about bodies and perception, but also free will and independence. Tally Youngblood, the protagonist, is forced to make some tough choices as she grows up and learns more about the society she lives in. She stumbles into government conspiracies, camps of rebels, romance and so much more over the course of the series.
There are some particularly interesting thoughts in Uglies about how people view cosmetic surgery and maturation. This is a world where instead of allowing people to mature naturally, they are forced into conformity with surgery, and Pretties are trained and conditioned to loathe and fear Uglies. You may have gone to school with someone last week, but once one of you becomes a Pretty, your relationship is over.
Some parts of Uglies lean dangerously close to trashing people who get cosmetic surgery; the Pretties, for example, lead primarily vapid and meaningless lives. At the same time, though, this is a world where surgery is not a choice, and Uglies highlights the pressures of conformity and what can happen when people aren’t given opportunities for informed consent and a chance to lead their own lives, but are rather told how to live. The Pretties are the way they are because they’re taught to behave that way.
"The Divergent Trilogy," by Veronica Roth
These books are getting a ton of buzz, and they are the entry in this list that remind me most directly of “The Hunger Games.” That’s not necessarily a bad thing -- “Divergent,” the initial entry in the series, is fast-paced, sharp, and sometimes gracefully lyrical, often at moments you wouldn’t expect. There’s a lot to like here.
Beatrice lives in a version of Chicago divided into five factions, with each faction focusing on a trait it sees as a particular virtue. At 16, she’s required to pick the faction she will associate with for the rest of her life, and “Divergent” presents a tough choice: Beatrice can stay with her family, or move to another faction that she feels deeply drawn to. The result of her choice will have a critical bearing on the rest of her life, but it’s also an incredibly difficult decision for a 16-year-old to make.
Tris, as she calls herself, is forced to grow up fast and make serious decisions that also highlight the difficulties of becoming an adult. As people start to develop independence and move away from their families, they often face situations where they must choose to go against the people they love. The results may not be as final in our cases, but they can be the cause of deep internal conflict.
A word of caution -- the other books in this trilogy aren’t out yet, so if you’re one of those people who immediately likes to move on to the next in the series, you may need to wait. Don’t blame me if you start reading and then want more.
"Chaos Walking," by Patrick Ness
I saved my personal favorite for last, because I am in love with this series. It’s set in a colony on another planet after the fall, as people are forced to survive on subsistence living, while another ship of colonists is on the way. The planet is plagued with Noise, a virus that makes inner thoughts apparent to others, forcing people to live in unwanted intimacy with each other.
Our hero Todd is forced on an epic journey and runs into an assortment of characters along the way. Chaos Walking is a coming of age story, but it’s also a commentary on religious extremism and power; if I was going to be forced to compare it to another book, I’d say parts come close to "The Handmaid’s Tale." It also brought up issues with colonization, indigenous people, and first contact, which makes it a juicy read for those of us who like a little social justice served up with our fiction.
As people rise to power and abuse it, Todd is put in positions that force him to make difficult ethical decisions, and to decide what kind of person he wants to be. He can take an easy path, or a hard one, and I was with him every step of the way. The distinctive typography was a definite bonus3.
Have you been reading any great YA lately? Got any fantastic recommendations for me and other readers?
2. Brace yourself: People will spend all their time arguing about the differences between the film and the book, and then gearing up for the next book. You’re in for a long ride. Return
3. Yes, I am a nerd. Return