The Bad Place: Why Kids Love Dystopias
Dystopian literature is hot.
In the school media center where I volunteer one morning each week, books like The Hunger Games trilogy fly off the shelves. The waiting list for each of the books in the series numbers into the double digits, and students are constantly checking in to see if a copy has been returned early. Ditto for the City of Ember series, The Giver, Unwind, and The Maze Runner trilogy. While classics such as Animal Farm, Fahrenheit 451, and Lord of the Flies are less popular, we’ve still seen a noticeable uptick in the number of copies circulating this year. What’s the big deal with dystopian novels?
The word “dystopia” comes from the Greek, meaning “bad place.” The genre typically explores political and social oppression, and the novels often take place in a grim, post-apocalyptic future. Dystopian literature makes some educators and parents nervous, since the themes are sometimes considered too dark, too mature, and too violent for students. Many dystopian novels, including The Giver, The Lord of the Flies, Brave New World, and Animal Farm perennially appear on the American Library Association’s list of challenged and banned books – books that various individuals and groups attempt to remove from schools and libraries each year. While many of these groups claim that the novels seek to “brainwash” students, dystopian literature actually prompts readers to do just the opposite. Students can explore the constructs of societies and how they function, as well as the concepts of oppression, fear, and manipulation. Dystopian literature can be used across the curriculum, as the economics of supply and demand can be studied: in The Hunger Games, for example, the government controls which goods and services are available to various districts, using starvation and deprivation as a means of social control. Students can also explore how power is wielded by both governments and individuals, and how it can be used for the greater good, and how power can also corrupt. They can also examine the importance of political alliances, and how governments in dystopian novels correspond to actual present-day regimes. Students can compare visual depictions of utopias versus dystopias through paintings and other artworks, as well as the ethics of citizens trying to survive in dystopian societies.
I suspect that dystopian novels resonate with kids so strongly because, to some extent, they are experiencing some of the same challenges as the novels’ characters, albeit on a smaller scale. Characters in dystopian novels often struggle against unfair authoritarian regimes, and have little control over their lives. Students often feel that they are at the mercy of their parents, teachers, coaches, and sometimes peers, and perhaps identify with the battle for autonomy and freedom waged by their literary counterparts. Yet despite the oppressive conditions that appear in such novels, hope is a prevailing theme in dystopian literature. The characters ultimately gather themselves to find the courage, knowledge, and resources to battle the enemy, and they generally do it through sheer intelligence and guts. The stories are compelling, thought-provoking, and prompt readers to think “What would I do in that situation?” In a nutshell, it’s the Little Engine That Could, but placed in a dark, tormented world where survival is ultimately at stake.
This week I’ve selected three resources on dystopias for upper elementary through high school students. Also, please be sure to check out Peggy’s companion column (linked below) for her take on the topic. Throughout the week I’ll be featuring many more cross-curricular lessons, activities, and other resources on dystopias and dystopian literature on our Twitter and Facebook pages, so check those out. Enjoy the resources, and may the odds ever be in your favor.
Lesson 6. Dystopia
Subjects: English Language Arts, Visual Arts
This lesson looks at a poem by Langston Hughes and a series of paintings by Thomas Cole to examine the concept of utopias and dystopias. The lesson includes questions about the poem and paintings for which students will supply written responses. I like how this lesson uses paths less-travelled – poetry and visual arts – to examine perfect and broken worlds, rather than the more common approach of novels. It’s a nice, creative lesson that makes a big impact in a short span of time. This lesson was created by Mensa for Kids, a division of the Mensa Foundation. The Mensa Foundation recognizes, encourages and communicates excellence in intelligence globally through education, research and recognition programs.
Odd Games! In The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins
Subjects: Math (Probability), Literature
This lesson examines the role of mathematical probability in the novel “The Hunger Games”. Students will determine the total number of entries in the Games and express probability as a fraction, decimal, percent and expression. This lesson is a great example of taking a subject and using it in a creative and unexpected way – a great crossover lesson that spans Language Arts and Math. This lesson was produced by Learning Through Listening, a division of Learning Ally. Learning Through Listening offers free listening-focused educational materials, teaching strategies, and activities.
Decoding the Dystopian Characteristics of Macintosh’s “1984” Commercial
Subjects: English Language Arts, Social Studies, Film
This lesson uses the "1984" Macintosh commercial to introduce students to dystopian characteristics. Students analyze the techniques used in the commercial and identify the comments that it makes about contemporary society. I like how this lesson takes a seminal TV event and examines the symbolism and contemporary events alluded to in the piece. This lesson is a product of ReadWriteThink, which offers free, peer-reviewed resources in reading and language arts instruction. Lessons are aligned to NCTE/IRA content standards.