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tropes and themes

It’s the End of the World as We Know It . . .

Some days, when the birds are singing, the sun is shining, and the warm breeze is tickling your cheeks, all that good cheer is just the most annoying thing in the world.  The Earth is going to hell in a hand basket, and you would prefer to brood in sullen despair in a dark corner of a coffee shop than sit in the damaging UV rays.

What?  No?  Then neither do I.

Nevertheless, reading through the comments on most YouTube videos, Yahoo News features or any Facebook urban legend meme does make me fear for the future of humanity.  It is in these times that I turn to the post-apocalyptic visions of young adult authors for balm and comfort.  Or, if not for comfort, at least for reassurance that it could get much worse.

Should you seek such succor yourself (or find that those blasted robin red-breasts and their song-filling colleagues are trumpeting spring’s renewal of life and you are just over it), I present to you my top ten suggestions for you YA dystopian reading pleasure.

10.  How I Live Now by Meg Rosoff combines war, famine, and an inappropriate love affair between first-cousins.  It is not a book for the faint of heart.

9.  The Last Book in the Universe by Rodman Philbrick tells the story of a post-literate society where reading could get you killed.

8.  The Giver (series) by Lois Lowry is a classic and is more appropriately categorized as middle grade fiction.  However, it is a standard of the genre for young people, and Lowry sets the bar high for her succinct, lyrical world building.

7.  Unwind (series) by Neal Shusterman deeply annoyed me for its theology of the body.  However, it is a book that annoys me enough to prompt me to re-read it every once in awhile because it makes me think.  Shusterman asks questions of a person’s (or a body’s) intrinsic worth, and how that worth diminishes when life is just another commodity.

6.  Pure (series) by Julianna Baggott casts humanity as a grotesque menagerie of post-apocalyptic war victims, save the titular “pure” who were spared in a bio-dome.  The “pure” for their part, have their own host of issues.  If you have made it this far down the list, you may wonder why no one writes stand-alone fiction anymore.  My cynical side thinks it’s just a matter of money.  On my good days I tell myself that dystopias lend themselves to a subversion of the holy triune formulation, needing at least three books to tell the story well.

5.  Matched (series) by Ally Condie is my favorite of several recent series focusing on how love and partnering might look in the ruined future.  Read the whole trilogy; you won’t regret it. Other series that I’ve read in this vein (while I wait for Condie to write more books . . .) include Divergent by Veronica Roth, Delirium by Lauren Oliver, and The Selection by Kiera Cass.

4.  House of the Scorpion by Nancy Farmer bears the distinction of the being the first book to win both a Newbery award and a Printz award.  It also spans the ill-defined gulf between YA and middle grade fiction.  Farmer masterfully combines drug lords, human cloning, and classical piano in a frightening but still hopeful vision of the future.

3.  Blood Red Road by Moira Young takes place in a horrific new dustbowl that makes John Steinbeck look overly optimistic.  This book is so high up in the list partly because it gets extra points for including four horsemen marginally related to the apocalypse.

2.  Hunger Games (series) by Suzanne Collins is the most popular YA dystopia out there.  Its action, suspense, and love triangle . . . make the series a lot like other novels on this list, actually.  Collins’ use of bread and circuses entered the cultural milieu at a time and place that made it particularly appropriate, however.

1.  Feed by M.T. Anderson was written over a decade ago when the idea of people being constantly connected to the Internet seemed absurd.  Now?  Not so much.  Its futuristic language is jarring at first, but it is worth sticking with the plot.  True story:  I was recently touring kindergartens in the Boston Public school system (proof positive that the end is indeed nigh, let me tell you.)  Some of the teachers used the selling point, “We still use actual books!  And the kids do math on paper!  They are even allowed to read and do homework in a notebook!”  Apparently many children now do homework online, read textbooks solely online, and interact with peers and teachers, while sitting in the same classroom online.  I came home and wept bitter tears into the soft folds of Feed’s prophetic pages.

But I tell myself there are still people reading.  I tell myself the presence of these books remind us that the vision of the future need not be so bleak.  It’s not (yet) the end of the world.

Sweet Polly Oliver

Sweet Polly Oliver is the term the website,, uses to refer to a female character disguising herself as a man to achieve some purpose. “Sweet Polly Oliver” comes from a folksong about a woman disguising herself as a man in her dead brother’s clothes in order to follow her true love in the army.

The idea for this post comes from the Wheelock Family Theatre’s recent production of the musical, Oliver!, based on the Charles Dickens novel, Oliver Twist. It was a phenomenal watch, and what made it stand out was that the male character of Fagin, the old leader of a group of pickpocketing boys, was performed by a woman (Jane Staab of Wheelock College), and the character was performed as a woman disguising herself as a man!  There weren’t a lot of options for unmarried women in 19th century England (or really anywhere else).   And a poor, single woman in the streets was likely to end up in prostitution unless she got creative.

I am a fan of the Sweet Polly Oliver and find it riveting to see a female character infiltrating the male ranks, whether it be a bid for survival or as a way of accomplishing more than she could have within the confines of a male-preferential society. And of course, there are always the hijinx that come with fake identities. Here are some of my favorite Sweet Polly Olivers:

Hua Mulan Goes to War paintingHua Mulan from folksong, The Ballad of Mulan: When the emperor demands that one man from each family be drafted into the army for an upcoming war, the only grown man available in Mulan’s family is her old, infirmed father. Fearing that he would not be able to survive the dangers of war, Mulan disguises herself as a young man and takes his place. In the folksong, Ballad of Mulan, she ends up spending over a decade in battle and becomes a distinguished soldier. In the Disney rendition of the folktale, she becomes China’s savior and her ancestors rock out to Stevie Wonder and 98 degrees’s True to Your Heart, which is a great song by the way.

cover of the book, Alanna's First AdventureAlanna from Tamora Pierce’s The Song of the Lioness Quartet: In the fictional land of Tortall, young girls from noble families are sent to the city convent to learn how to become a lady, and young boys are sent to knight school at the royal palace. Not happy with their destinies, Alanna and her twin brother, Thom, switch places. Alanna disguised herself as a boy named Alan in the first two books, and we got to see her grow into womanhood while crushing evildoers and developing her powers.


ViolShe's the Mana fcover of the film version of Twelfth Nightrom Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night and She’s the Man: Viola lands on the shores of Illyria after a shipwreck separates her from her brother. She disguises herself as the young man, Cesario, so that she may serve Duke Orsino, who rules Illyria. I actually can’t remember WHY she wants to serve this duke, but I guess there weren’t a lot of options for young women who were alone and shipwrecked in 17th century. A couple years ago, a modern adaptation of the story was done, called She’s the Man . After her girls’ soccer team is cut, and she is told that she is not allowed to join the boys’ team, Viola disguises herself as her twin brother and plays for the boys’ soccer team of her school’s rival.

Fujioka image of Fujioka Haruhi from OHSHCHaruhi from the anime, Ouran High School Host Club:  When poor, scholarship student, Fujioka Haruhi breaks the $80,000 vase at the ridiculously wealthy high school she attends, she is forced to work as a male member of the Host Club – a club in which a few good-looking male students cater food and attention to female students. Haruhi’s minimal awareness of gender roles and her reactions to the hijinx of her schoolmates are quite interesting to watch.

image of Butterfly Lovers drama adaptationZhu Yingtai from the Chinese legend, Butterfly Lovers: Zhu Yingtai, is a beautiful, intelligent young woman whose father has allowed her to attend school, disguise herself as a boy, since this was a time when women were supposed to stay at home. There, she becomes best friends with fellow student, Liang Shanbo, and falls in love with him. Her gender is eventually revealed to him, and he reciprocates her love. However, tragic events befall them and they become star-crossed lovers, reuniting only in death as butterflies. This is the Romeo and Juliet story of China and has several film renditions.

Mairelon the Magician coverKim from Patricia Wrede’s Mairelon the Magician:   The main female character, Kim, is 17-year-old pickpocketing street urchin in 19th century England. Observing what happens to young women living in the streets, Kim grows up in male disguise in order to avoid being sold into prostitution. Knowing that her body is starting to change and grow and that the male disguise may not be viable for much any longer, she takes on a lucrative job to steal from street magician, who turns out to be a real magician.


Other favorite Sweet Polly Olivers that I’ve enjoyed reading or watching, but haven’t the time to mention include Prudence from Georgette Heyer’s The Masqueraders, Kim Yoon-hee from the korean television drama, Sungkyunkwan Scandal, and Eowyn from J.R.R. Tolkein’s Lord of the Rings.

On the Perils of Being a Parent (in YA Fiction)

There is a surprisingly high body count in young adult fiction.  First you have your realistic contemporary causes of death ranging from the tragically common (cancer in books like Deadline by Chris Crutcher or Before I Die by Jenny Downham, or suicide like in13 Reasons Why by Jay Asher) to the more unique (bovine spongiform encephalopathy in Going Bovine by Libba Bray).  Then have your standard mortal peril, where teenagers go off and take on evil beasties, fall in love with sparkly vampires, lend angst to the Hero’s Journey and whatnot (like in most books widely sold in the last several years).  Even so, it is not the young protagonists of young adult fiction that have the most alarming mortality rate.  It is their parents.  Mostly their mothers.


Mothers don’t fare well in children’s stories.  Disney almost always kills them off.  Bambie, Fox and the Hound, nearly every princess movie I can think off—they all have one thing in common.  Dead mom, dead mom, oh so many dead moms.  It’s amazing populations aren’t erased from the story worlds entirely, given this spate of cosmic matricide.  (Though, to be fair, some recent post-apocalyptic YA throws that possibility out there too.)  I was deeply impressed when Sonya Sones released her book One of Those Hideous Books Where the Mother Dies.  She, too, is an author who kills off the protagonist’s mother to start the action of the book’s plot.  But she is gracious enough to insert irony.

I was at first perplexed at the lack of mothers.  Then annoyed.  Then outright enraged when I became a mother myself.  But soon thereafter, I realized that maybe YA did not have a grand conspiracy to wipe parents off the earth.  There is the possibility that such fiction kills off parents in its pages because parents do die in “real” life and many want to read about it in stories to cope.  But, more than that, I think authors do it because parents can seriously hamper the life of a hero.  If my daughter one day said she was going on a journey to defeat demons, pursue her angel lover, and save humankind, I would never let it happen.  I’d tell her to eat her vegetables, go to bed, and leave the world saving to someone else’s kid.  And if she didn’t listen I would track her down and ground her, sitting outside her bedroom door with my own divine sword of wrath.  “Hero’s Journey?”  I’d say, my tone righteous.  “No archetypical quests on my watch, young lady, thank you very much.  Do your homework.  Play the savior when you are no longer a minor.”

I fear it is that I would be killed off pretty early in the book.  If I were lucky my fictional daughter would mourn me, perhaps keeping some necklace of mine as a talisman to ward off danger.  Though I would hate to be one of those deadbeat, incompetent parents that propel other YA protagonists forward more than I would mind simply being killed off.  Maybe it’s a testament to parenthood that good moms and dads often don’t live to see another chapter.  Because plot is what happens when parents aren’t looking.