Young Readers: Choose Your Dystopia

Filed under: Books for Kids

What's exciting young readers today? Based on current themes in publishing, it's incredibly awful visions of the future. But thankfully, terrible visions of things to come don't mean terrible books -- a few recent dystopian novels prove quite the opposite, in fact.


"Museum of Thieves"
by Lian Tanner (Delacorte Press, $17)
Why this future looks so great on the surface: The world is free of all ills (or so it seems). Ages before the story takes place, people figured out how to trap and contain everything that was potentially bad -- that means war, disease, natural disasters, and even animals (yes, kids growing up in this world have only ever seen mechanical clockwork animals).
What's really horribly wrong with it: The museum that contains all of those ills, Pandora's Box, seems about to burst at the seams -- and if all those horrific things were released upon the world at once ... well, that would be bad.
How is the book: The novel's premise is wildly interesting and the world it presents wholly original. But the book's characters prove to be its most appealing features. They are what will bring readers back to eagerly read the coming sequels. The tale's young heroine, Goldie Roth, is a scrappy, stand-up-for-herself individualist. She breaks laws, defies authority, and remains eminently likable while doing so. The "thieves" of the book's title are the good guys -- Goldie among them -- as Tanner presents an excitingly subversive view of right and wrong. It's a book that will give young readers a lot to think about, even while they rapidly turn pages, thrilled by the fast-paced tale. There's certainly an element of darkness to the story, but it feels equivalent to "Prisoner of Azkaban"-level darkness, not "Half-Blood Prince"-level darkness.


"A Crack in the Sky"
by Mark Peter Hughes (Delacorte Press, $17)
Why this future looks so great on the surface: People live safely encased in giant domes that project virtual skies (and the occasional advertisement). And citizens are told they have nothing to fear from the wasteland world outside the domes.
What's really horribly wrong with it: Global climate change has devastated everything outside of those few protected cities. And the domes seem to be failing. The mega-corporation/government that runs the dome cities denies the problems, though, just as they deny the secret war they're waging to suppress contact with the poor people who are still living on the outside in the wastes.
How is the book: As the story's massive conspiracy slowly unfolds, the book gets harder and harder to put down (and unfortunately, when you reach the last page and have no choice but to put it down, you'll be stuck with a wait-for-book-two cliffhanger). The story flips back and forth between two protagonists, one a boy who is heir to the governing family that first built the domes, and the other a girl in a different city who is under suspicion of treason after her rebel boyfriend gets arrested. You know the two will eventually meet, but where, when and how it finally happens comes as a surprising twist -- as do many of the plot points along the way. For example, a mind-reading mongoose plays a big part in the story -- not exactly something you'd see coming.


"Matched" by Ally Condie (Dutton, $18)
Why this future looks so great on the surface: When everybody turns 17, genetic testing is used to match them with their perfect mates (whom they then legally must marry). They're also assigned to their perfect career. They know they will have perfect children and live to grow old with their spouse (disease has been pretty much eliminated through all the genetic manipulation). And then the happy couple dies together on their 80th birthday, which has been determined to be the perfect age at which to die.
What's really horribly wrong with it: Well, come on -- that's just creepy.
How is the book: The Twilight Saga may have the vampires and werewolves, but "Matched" is the truly eerie teen romance. The story follows Cassia, a true believer who starts the book in the throes of eerie Stepford-like glee over her upcoming Match Day. She's oh-so psyched when she's paired with Xander, a boy she's known since childhood, but she starts to question things after she realizes she's falling for the new boy, Ky. But the book becomes much more than just a teen love triangle. Ky was never supposed to be matched with anyone because he's from "the outside." And the creepy Society (a.k.a. rulers of everything) seems to be hiding something very bad about the world outside their borders (in an intriguing parallel to A Crack in the Sky, above). Condie keeps the relationships interesting, too. It would have been very easy to make Xander the bad guy, so that you have no doubts about rooting for Cassia and Ky to be together. But both guys seem pretty great, and even more surprisingly, are friendly with one another. If the supernatural teen romance genre is about to move into the sci-fi teen romance area, this is a very promising start.

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Start by teaching him that it is safe to do so.