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Robin Kirk

Robin Kirk
Location
Durham, North Carolina, USA
Birthday
October 13
Bio
Kirk is the author of three books, including More Terrible Than Death: Massacres, Drugs and America’s War in Colombia (PublicAffairs) and The Monkey’s Paw: New Chronicles from Peru (University of Massachusetts Press). She is the coeditor of The Peru Reader: History, Culture, Politics (Duke University) and helps edit Duke University Press’s World Readers series. An award-winning poet, Kirk’s essay, “Best Ever Dog,” was featured in the Summer 2010 Oxford American’s "Best of the South” issue. Kirk also won the 2005 Glamour magazine non-fiction contest with her essay on the death penalty, available in the November 2005 issue. Kirk authored, co-authored and edited over twelve reports for Human Rights Watch, all available on-line. In the 1980s, Kirk reported for U.S. media from Peru, where she covered the war between the government and the Shining Path. Kirk is a former Radcliffe Bunting Fellow and is a past winner of the Media Alliance Meritorious Achievement Award for Freelance Writing.

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APRIL 14, 2011 5:34PM

"Dark Materials" in young adult fiction

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My 12-year-old son has two categories of fear: the specific and the abstract. Sometimes, he jumps when our dog scrambles after the kitten. Night noises, even the winter hiss of a radiator, are scary. So are unexpected knocks at the front door and accidents we pass while driving. All can be named, discussed and fully explained.

Not so with abstract fears. If we are in the car and a radio report on global warming is broadcast, I turn it off. Al Gore's “An Inconvenient Truth” ranks in my house with “Paranormal Activity” for scare factor. No amount of reasoning (albeit unsatisfying, since all I can really say is “somebody will figure this out” and “remember to recycle and turn out the lights”) dilutes the abstract fear.

“Why does global warming scare you so much,” I once asked my son, after silencing the smooth voice of a host on “All Things Considered.”

“Because when I grow up, there will be no world for me to live in.”

That he is wrong, but also terrifyingly right left me without a soothing comeback.

Adults have the experience and perspective to acknowledge abstract fear and deal with it (albeit often with willful ignorance). A disaster strikes, but I am safe in my home; I fall on a rollercoaster without really falling; and viewing a film about the death of a child (think “Ordinary People” or the more recent “Rabbit Hole”) provokes strong emotion that eases over a post-screening glass of wine.

For children, though, dealing with these questions can be conceptually world-ending. Why do people destroy our environment? How can people war over color or language? Who are the extremists that think it right to oppress or kill others? What motivates one group to exterminate another and consider it just?

When I began drafting my young adult novel, this was precisely the ground I intended to mine. Inspired by books like The Book Thief (Marcus Zusak, Alfred A. Knopf), “The Hunger Games” series (Susan Collins, Scholastic) and Phillip Pullman's “His Dark Materials” series (Alfred A. Knopf), I wanted to explore how a group convinces itself that genocide is a moral act, ridding a world of a threat. Though my human rights work, I see this thinking lurking within most genocides, from the slaughter of the Armenians (termed “bandits” by the Ottoman masterminds) to the Holocaust, Cambodia and Guatemala. I chose to write a dystopia that would bring teen readers inside the logic of mass killing to see through plot and sympathetic characters how atrocity can be perpetrated for seemingly noble reasons. The genocidaires, as they are known in Rwanda, are not essentially evil, but rather normal people who are transported by evil ideologies.

A surge in dystopian fiction is testament to a vibrant subgenre that puts such questions about human society directly to young adults. Of course, dystopias are nothing new to children's literature. As Laura Miller pointed out in a recent issue of The New Yorker, “Readers of a certain age may remember having their young minds blown by William Sleator’s House of Stairs, the story of five teen-agers imprisoned in a seemingly infinite M. C. Escher-style network of staircases that ultimately turns out to be a gigantic Skinner box designed to condition their behavior. John Christopher’s The White Mountains, in which alien overlords install mind-control caps on the heads of all those over the age of thirteen, tore through my own sixth-grade classroom like a wicked strain of the flu. Depending on the anxieties and preoccupations of its time, a dystopian Y.A. novel might speculate about the aftermath of nuclear war (Robert C. O’Brien’s Z for Zachariah) or the drawbacks of engineering a too harmonious social order (Lois Lowry’s The Giver) or the consequences of resource exhaustion (Saci Lloyd’s The Carbon Diaries 2015).”

Today, dystopias make up a significant portion of the young adult market. As of February 2011, The Book Thief has been on the paperback bestseller list for an astonishing 177 weeks (in contrast, the seven-book “Harry Potter” series has been on the list for 244 weeks). “The Hunger Games” series is climbing at 23 weeks and will soon be a movie. Pullman's “His Dark Materials” series, inspired by John Milton's “Paradise Lost,” among other things, has been adapted for radio, the stage and film, and has provoked a dramatic reaction from the Catholic Church (organized religion is the villain, angels are both good and bad and Satan is a hero).

If anyone doubts the vibrance of the genre, check out what happened when BitchMedia posted a list of 100 Young Adult Books for the Feminist Reader, then started excising books from its list after readers complained. Among others, author Scott Westerfeld, whose “Uglies” series explores the dark side of the quest for beauty, was among those engaged in a flame war opposing censorship around difficult issues, like rape.

I've found that dystopias are fun to craft, since the author is master of the universe in ways realist fiction does not allow. As long as I am true to plot and character, fuel in my story can come from a mysterious Cyclon and children can have the ears of rabbits. But what remains immutable is human nature, which emerges through fantasy and alien universes in surprising, powerful ways.

Some critics, including Miller, bring an edge of derision to their critique, contending that dystopias are “not about persuading the reader to stop something terrible from happening—it’s about what’s happening, right this minute, in the stormy psyche of the adolescent reader.” Dystopia is reduced to high school, in other words.

I believe this view sells short author and reader. While many dystopias can be interpreted through the lens of allegory, for me that is only a beginning. Writers like Zusak, Collins and Pullman are after much bigger game. The Book Thief makes Death the narrator, both fascinated and frightened by the human capacity for good and evil, as seen through the life of a German girl growing up during the Holocaust. “The Hunger Games” series examines how elites oppress and divide minorities through propaganda and entertainment. Pullman's series, beginning with The Golden Compass (US edition), questions organized religion and makes a value out of individual freedom over institutions.

All of these struggles are as visible to children as the daily news. Yet they often go unremarked by adults or, at best, shrugged away. Children ask, with fresh amazement, how we, their elders, can tolerate such injustice and destruction. As advances in technology shape the world, dystopias also give their readers a way to explore them, from the constant presence of advertising (Feed, M.T. Anderson) to the insanity of voracious colonization (The Knife of Never Letting Go, Patrick Ness).

The questions dystopias pose are not necessarily new, though the worlds often are. Some critics resist including “real-life” dystopias in this category. But the world of The Book Thief, for instance, is as strange to young readers as any off-earth construct. The book examines the mechanism that makes people capable of killing others solely because they are members of a certain group, in this case Jews.

Interviewed about his inspiration, Zusak recounts a story told to him by his German mother. As a child, she heard noises one day and watched Jews being rounded up like cattle. A teen-aged neighbor gave an old man a piece of bread. The man fell to his knees and embraced the boy's ankles. But a soldier grabbed the bread and whipped both the Jew and the boy. “On one hand you have pure beauty, which is the boy giving the bread,” Zusak says. “On the other, you 've got pure destruction, which is the soldier doing what he did. Bring those things together and you've got humans.”

In The Hunger Games, heroine Katniss Everdeen selflessly volunteers to be a “tribute” and participate in the annual hunger games, a gladiator-style fight to the death that pits equally poor communities against one another for the prize of a bit more food and entertainment for the capital's elites. At issue here is our fascination wih watching those less fortunate than ourselves (think Jerry Springer or Jersey Shore), especially when they are forced to behave like animals – then become heart-breakingly human. The books also take readers inside the mechanisms of propaganda and manipulation, and how resistance can subvert these powerful tools of control. There's an interesting interview with the author about her thinking on war here.

At the core of dystopias is a very human question: how people really behave. Especially as teenagers, children are beginning to see that the world is not all that has been promised. The best dystopias ask the essential questions: Why is this so? Does it need to be so? And who says this must be so? Through dystopias, children can begin to experience what it means to be human in the twenty-first century, with all the despair – and hope – that this implies.

 

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Thank you for this in-depth analysis. I have "The Hunger Games" queued up on my audible player, but have yet to get started. Consider me inspired.
Interesting post, but I really struggle with what is written for youth: too much dystopia!!
Routinely the books available for youth are so heavy and so dark -- I usually read what my three sons are reading, what my friends' girls are reading-- then we often have discussions about why books available for their ages are SO DEPRESSING!! They have all learned to skip the Youth bookshelves for the adult shelves.
No one in my family nor among my kids' friends (because I ask) feels youth really need to be so depressed by what they read-- suicide rates for youth are skyrocketing-- and hope is not so visible at all in these novels...there is too much imbalance toward despair in too many of these books.
I rarely see an adult who is reading such heavy stuff.
The real world gives plenty of examples of the imbalance toward despair, how do these kids ever learn to keep their hope?
I loved His Dark Materials and the Hunger Games Trilogy. I'll have to check out The Book Thief. Thanks!
Growing up in the '80s with the impending doom of Russia dropping a nuclear bomb on American soil frightened the bejeezus out of me. I would lay awake in my bed at night thinking "What if Russia dropped it on my city? Would it just be a bright light and then be over or would I actually feel the initial heat before I was incinerated?" Granted, these were the irrational thoughts of a teenager who believed everything in the news was the gospel truth, so my panicked, dramatic reaction was born from youthful ignorance. My parents, bless their hearts, come from a very small town and have a painfully narrow vision of the world. They are not seekers of knowledge beyond their physical address and would never think of questioning anything. As a result, neither could knowledgeably explain the history between the US and Russia and why it had come down to this standoff between the two, nor did they even have an opinion on it. Eventually and long after the fact, my college history professor gave me an insightful lesson that helped me to understand the events leading up to this time in history and why certain things were significant and others insignificant. Armed with that knowledge, I was disappointed that I spent so much time being afraid when I could have been fascinated and curious with what was going on in the world. My fear could have been quelled with understanding and knowledge. History is such an underrated subject. I said all that to say this: I love dystopian novels. They make the "what if" question answerable. I recently re-read "Oryx and Crake" by Margaret Atwood. If I had read something like that when I was a teenager, I believe my fear would have turned into a quest for answers to that question of "what if Russian drops their bombs."
Growing up in the '80s with the impending doom of Russia dropping a nuclear bomb on American soil frightened the bejeezus out of me. I would lay awake in my bed at night thinking "What if Russia dropped it on my city? Would it just be a bright light and then be over or would I actually feel the initial heat before I was incinerated?" Granted, these were the irrational thoughts of a teenager who believed everything in the news was the gospel truth, so my panicked, dramatic reaction was born from youthful ignorance. My parents, bless their hearts, come from a very small town and have a painfully narrow vision of the world. They are not seekers of knowledge beyond their physical address and would never think of questioning anything. As a result, neither could knowledgeably explain the history between the US and Russia and why it had come down to this standoff between the two, nor did they even have an opinion on it. Eventually and long after the fact, my college history professor gave me an insightful lesson that helped me to understand the events leading up to this time in history and why certain things were significant and others insignificant. Armed with that knowledge, I was disappointed that I spent so much time being afraid when I could have been fascinated and curious with what was going on in the world. My fear could have been quelled with understanding and knowledge. History is such an underrated subject. I said all that to say this: I love dystopian novels. They make the "what if" question answerable. I recently re-read "Oryx and Crake" by Margaret Atwood. If I had read something like that when I was a teenager, I believe my fear would have turned into a quest for answers to that question of "what if Russian drops their bombs."
Thanks for the thoughtful comments! "Just Thinking," I know it sometimes seems like the book shelves are filled with dystopias -- but I think a closer examination would reveal that many are simpler tales of good and evil, fantasy/adventure (The Last Olympians), "issues" dramas and the dreadful teen porn (Gossip Girl is a nadir). As a teen, I loved the harder-edged books -- I think I felt that the sweeter novels (especially blatant issues books) pandered too much, like a parent giving advice. Geezerchick, persist through the first 40 pages -- The Book Thief is a masterpiece, but has a slow start. It's up there for me with To Kill a Mockingbird and Sophie's Choice.
Thank you for explaining this genre a little more...

I have to agree with Just Thinking...I think in this day and age, the children and teens would benefit from more hopeful stories overall.

My own kids respond to characters that deal with obstacles with some kind of grace and courage and creativity, and also with real human emotions & humor; I think their favorite characters over the years have become part of the their toolbox on how to behave.
I absolutely agree! Thank you so much for writing something redeeming about YA literature. As someone who has to do literary studies (in order to obtain my teaching degree), I'm often around people who believe that YA books are basically worthless except if they're seen as some sort of "gateway drug" that will lead young readers towards "real" literature. I think these people are missing the point you made: Dystopian YA novels help young readers grasp what it means to be human under very difficult circumstances (which are often shockingly similar to real life). I loved all three books/series that you mentioned in your article. Reading about your appreciation for these books really made my day!
cool that you dont feel that this is inappropriate for kids, because Im sure there are lots who do.
one of my favorite books ever is "I am the cheese".. heard of that one? a somewhat subversive 5th grade teacher recommended it to me and Ive been hooked on conspiracy theory ever since I guess ....
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Robin: I have read all those and more...
I think we're a bunch of softies over here. : )
Bravo! High Five! YES!!
It's like you and I have been sharing parallel thought wavelengths. I wholeheartedly agree that darker materials, as you put it, are very useful and necessary for young adult fiction. YA literature actually happens to be my favorite in part because of the dystopian worlds and young characters who are figuring out that world at the same time as the reader is.
rated.
I really appreciate this post. I have been thinking on this issue for awhile and I guess I like the variety of topics that young people have to choose from, dark or not. Thanks for putting a perspective on it.
I am an adult, a bibliophile and a writer. I have read most of the books you mention above and loved them all. I agree with you, and also think that some of the best fiction today is in the category you describe so well. Now I have to find your books.
I just went to a conference yesterday for children's book writers. Some of the speakers (agents/editors) said that dystopian novels are becoming less popular but I think there will always be a place for well-written thought provoking books. Young people deserve to be challenged and to have their concerns addressed. Great post! R