The Lion and the Unicorn 26.2 (2002) 254-264
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Monica Hughes, Lois Lowry, and Young Adult Dystopias
The popularity of Lois Lowry's The Giver (1993) has sensitized readers to the important subgenre of utopian and dystopian writing for children and young adults. What distinguishes utopian fictions for young adults from their adult counterparts? Since the definition of what constitutes a utopia or dystopia is in itself elusive, it may be challenging to define writing aimed at young people specifically. Is the defining feature of a young adult utopia to be found in the level of language, thematic content, or some combination of these factors? In the following, I will claim that the major quality of these young adult utopias is their advancement of a particular type of utopian pedagogy: one in which political action is addressed within the developmental narrative of adolescence.
All utopias are hybrid genres, so it is no surprise that utopias for young adults contain at least two major elements: the developmental narrative and a consideration of political organization. Utopias written for young adults are familiar in many ways. Readers encounter such elements as a rigorously planned society, charismatic leaders or masterminds, control of reproductive freedom, and the prioritization of collective well-being over the fate of the individual. In utopian writing for children and young adults, however, there are several unique elements. The child or young adult often becomes the central character in the utopia or dystopia. Sometimes the utopia takes the form of an idealized world separately created by the child or adolescent protagonists, possibly as a means of escape from adult control, and critical of adult governance.
Despite the just criticism of the category of "young adult" fiction, 1 it has been helpfully defined as "the literary novel with an adolescent hero or heroine seen coming to terms with the world and self" (Hunt 147). As such, young adult novels are promising vehicles for utopian writers to speculate about the way individuals position themselves in reference to a wider collective. [End Page 254]
In utopias written for young adults, political and social awakening is almost always combined with a depiction of the personal problems of adolescence. Sometimes an adolescent who feels out of place must attempt social integration within a utopia or dystopia, or an adolescent must negotiate for power or autonomy: a more powerfully-etched out struggle within a utopian or dystopian society. What effect does the developmental narrative of adolescence have on the utopian vision portrayed? In works such as Monica Hughes's The Tomorrow City (1978) and The Dream Catcher (1986) and Lois Lowry's The Giver (1993), explorations of personal autonomy and growth are not merely tropes of the young adult genre but a way of using the transition from adolescence to adulthood to focus on the need for political action and the exercise of political will within a democratic society. The Dream Catcher is an exploration of a misfit who strives to become part of her society, but also transcends its limitations in order to bring about needed reform. The Tomorrow City probes the nature of conformity and autonomy as its adolescent protagonists restore freedom of thought to a community under the complete sway of an all-powerful computer. The Giver depicts a young man reaching a state of maturity, and then having to take radical action to change his society. The elements of speculative science fiction allow for a consideration of how the adolescent fits into a perfect society; the utopian setting becomes almost an exaggerated way for the young adult to find his or her voice, and this voice is seen having a deep effect on a wider society.
These young adult novels honor dissent and agitation, and action based on a prolonged and combative questioning of the society in which the protagonists find themselves. At times, this questioning is bluntly phrased as an exhortation to avoid giving way to a totalitarian ruler, or to eschew the easy path of political and social conformity. Perhaps the young adult novel is a particularly...