Synopsis: A great many books and films these days deal with a dark, forbidding world where young people are warring with the villainous adults to save civilization. Teens are drawn to these stories, but why? What is it about dystopian fiction that fascinates young people? We talk to two successful authors of these stories about how kids are working out some of the issues in their own lives through these post-apocalyptic novels and learning valuable lessons about hope, trust, friendship, good and evil.

Host: Marty Peterson. Guests: Marie Lu, author of The Young Elites series of books, including The Rose Society; Tom Isbell, professor at the University of Minnesota-Duluth, author of The Prey and The Capture books for young readers.

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Teens and Dystopian Literature

Marty Peterson: Young people’s literature is all the rage these days, and books for school-aged readers are highlighted in bookstores, and online. The plotlines in these books aren’t what their parents or grandparents read in their teens, though. Popular among kids are tales of a dark, forbidding world ravaged by war, starvation and the enslavement of young people and their loved ones. Treachery is a key plot device and the villains are usually adults bent on securing power over civilization, while the young people, sometimes with magical powers, fight to save humanity. Why the interest in such dark stories? We asked two authors of dystopian novels for teens about why they think kids love these books so much. Tom Isbell is an actor, theater professor at the University of Minnesota-Duluth, and author of The Prey and The Capture – two books in a trilogy of young readers novels. His books paint a picture of a world that sounds familiar — with its concentration camps, abuse of those who are disabled or disfigured, and its experiments on twins…

Tom Isbell: The thing that I think I was going for, I mean you kind of hit on it in terms of these Hitler-like topics, is that one person asked if I saw these books as allegories, and not so much allegories as they are cautionary tales. I just think that if something really cataclysmic were to happen, something awful were to happen, that we would resort to our lowest common denominator and start blaming others which certainly we saw during the Holocaust and the rise of the Nazis. And so I guess I’m trying to kind of hearken back to that. And students get so much Holocaust education, or so much more than they used to, and the hope is that they make these links. That wasn’t just a time in history that these things could very well happen again.

Peterson: Why would young readers be attracted to this seemingly hopeless scenario and those like it painted by other authors?

Isbell: I think because that’s where they have the opportunity to be tested and the rules are thrown out, the rules that currently exist, and so they can become the ones who the world relies upon to kind of save ourselves. And I think that’s really fun. It’s fun in terms of world building because you get to create new rules and in this world teenagers can be as important if not more important than adults, and I think that’s really interesting to read about for a young person.

Peterson: Marie Lu agrees but says that the influx of technology and social media also play a role. Lu is the author of the very popular The Young Elites series of novels, the latest of which is titled The Rose Society…

Marie Lu: Technically our world is a better place than it was, say, a hundred years ago. So, you know, things are improving overall, but the fact that we have so much media today that connects young people to what’s happening in the world, something happens in another part of the world and two seconds later everyone will know about that event.

Peterson: She also says that many young people feel that their own world is rather dark…

Lu: You know high school to me is a little bit dystopian to begin with. You have very little control over your daily schedule, very little control over what happens to you every day. You’re in a place that’s very strictly regimented, you know, you have six minutes between classes to get to your locker, to get to your books and so on and so on. You know there’s like cliques and groups that form. So, I think it’s something that is not that far-fetched for a lot of young people to think about.

Peterson: Lu adds that it’s not just the kids who feel this way. Many adults are drawn to post-apocalyptic literature for much the same reasons. Like Isbell’s books with their Hitleresque story lines, Lu fashions many of her plotlines from history…

Lu: The things that happened in The Young Elites, barring the superpowers, it’s set at a Renaissance-era Italy. Back then, people were burned at the stake for all kinds of random things and that was very dystopian but also very realistic to what happened in reality so it’s not very far-fetched. And the good thing about YA (young adult) fiction is that when you read a young adult dystopian post-apocalyptic story, it’s very dark by the nature of the genre, but the hallmark of YA is that there is always hope at the end, there is always a ray of light, and the ray of light is always the young people in the book. Like they’re the ones who can solve these problems that exist in these dark worlds. And I think that is very inspiring for the younger generation who may feel like they don’t have a lot of control over their lives.

Peterson: And what enables these young people to save their civilizations from certain doom? Isbell says there are characteristics that the heroes portray that not only appeal to readers, but also inspire them…

Isbell: I think I’m trying to portray attributes that we want to have. I think each of these characters – Book and Hope especially – go through a journey, they go through a journey in each of the three books, and they go through the journey overall in the trilogy. Book, for example, is not terribly athletic, not terribly brave, but he has to find something in himself to become brave, to become the leader which he is not a born natural leader. And I think we respond to that because it gives us hope and courage that, oh, yeah, we can do this too. We have this within us, we just haven’t been called upon to do it or we don’t trust ourselves to do it.

Peterson: In Lu’s The Young Elites trilogy, the main character is a young woman named Adelina who has magical powers. Certainly, superpowers can advance the action, save the day and tie up the story quite neatly. However, Lu says that Adelina’s story and the evolution she experiences is complex; it makes the reader think carefully about the nature of power, and the choice it poses to those characters who possess it…

Lu: Adelina has this superpower but her superpower is this thing that’s actually destroying her slowly. And her power is very dark, it aligns with darkness and so the thing that will actually save the world for her is not her power but her ability to choose against it and to control it. So I think a lot of powers symbolize a certain personality that we have or a personality trait or a weakness that we have, or strength and our ability to control that and use it in a way that can actually help people in the world. And I see that kind of theme repeated over and over again in superhero stories. You know, you have this power but it can be used for good or evil – what will you choose to do with it? And I think that is probably the question at the bottom of every story that involves superpowers.

Peterson: The fact that Lu’s main character is female is a fairly new development in fiction. Sure we have the hard-boiled female detectives in adult crime fiction, but in post-apocalyptic books with a lot of action, superheroes and monsters, the young girl who leads the rag-tag band of warriors to victory is a bit of a novelty. Lu says that she sees it as a balancing out; Isbell says …it’s about time…

Lu: It’s one of those things that will never be asked about men. You know we have so many stories starring the quintessential, regular Joe everyman and nobody ever thinks of that as a trend. But having a lot of female characters in the spotlight, and really it’s not even a lot it’s just like a balancing out of an extreme in a quality that’s been pervasive in entertainment for a very long time that becomes called “a trend,” but I don’t see it as a trend. And the reason that I write it is, why not? Why can’t a young girl be the hero of a story?

Isbell: We’re just finally catching on. It should have been there all along and I think young adult literature really empowers young people – male and female – now and so it’s just about time that we caught up and we had female heroes as well as male heroes.

Peterson: Whatever the appeal of dystopian literature, Isbell says that it’s encouraging kids to read. You’d think with all of the other activities that encroach on kids’ time and attention, reading might take a back seat, but that’s not the case…

Isbell: Based on the few numbers that I read, this isn’t my area of expertise, but it seems like they’re the ones reading more so than the adults. They’re certainly buying more books than anybody else and they are returning to buying them generally as hard copies, not as e-books. So they are. We may not be seeing them in the library or in the bookstore, but somehow they’re purchasing these books and they’re reading these books and goodness knows, they’re very active in talking about these books. It’s really kind of thrilling to see people discussing books, especially young people.

Peterson: Aside from a good story with plenty of action and complex characters, what do Isbell and Lu want their fans to come away with after reading their books?

Isbell: We’re counting on them, this younger generation, to be brave, to make moral choices, to be courageous and that they have it in them. So, in a sense to give them courage and hope for the future even in the darkest times, and goodness knows, these dystopian books and these three in particular, are very, very dark.

Lu: I hope that they see the reason behind why Adelina is doing what she does, and that there are consequences to seizing power, to greed and to hurting other people. Adelina does all of those things and it comes at a huge price to her. And, in the end, you know she has achieved a lot but she will also lose a lot. I hope that young readers will see that and parallel it in real life to see that, you know, this is not the way. This is not the way you solve problems.

Peterson: You can find Marie Lu’s The Young Elites series, including the newest installment, The Rose Society, in stores now. She also invites listeners to visit her website at Tom Isbell’s books, The Prey and The Capture are also available now in stores. You can find out more about him and the series on his website at For information about all of our guests, log onto our site at You can find archives of past programs there and on iTunes and Stitcher. Our show is written and produced by Pat Reuter. Our production directors are Sean Waldron and Reed Pence. I’m Marty Peterson.