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Category Archives: Dystopian Socities

From goodreads.com

From goodreads.com

The Giver is a dystopian novel set around the life of a young boy, Jonah, and his community.  In this community everything is regulated – careers, family size, emotion, even the temperature.  At the age  12, when all children are assigned to their life’s work, Jonah is given the job of The Giver.  The Giver is the one person entrusted with all the memories of humanity.  For decades all other citizens have been denied  knowledge of the pain, fear, and joy people experienced before the community was “perfected.”  They are given only “the sameness.” The job of The Giver is both beautiful and torturous.  It also gives Jonah an understanding that no one else in his community could possibly have – an understanding that makes it impossible to go back to the content, secure life he knew before.

The Giver is not exactly pop fiction.  It has been a classic staple in American middle school classrooms since it won The Newberry Award in 1994.  I decided to read it because my younger daughter was reading it for school.  I don’t read everything she reads, but  I knew The Giver was considered a classic for a reason.  I just didn’t know what the reason was.

I was blown away by this novel.  The parallels between Jonah’s community and our modern culture are chilling.  The people of Jonah’s community possess the technology to regulate everything.   This allows them to avoid pain, but it also costs them any true joy.  It robs them of any real attachment to others and of a conscience.   While our modern technology isn’t quite that all-pwerful, it can be spectacularly numbing.   There is a particular scene in the novel that drives this point home dramatically.    I don’t want to give anything away, but the scene illustrates how seemingly decent people can commit horrific acts of cruelty and violence because these acts are the societal norm.

The Giver is a must for young readers, but it should be coupled with discussion.  There is a movie version of The Giver coming out starring Jeff Bridges and Meryl Streep.  Parent and kids will likely want to read and discuss the book before seeing the Hollywood version of this story.

LANGUAGE – No.  It’s a perfect world, no need to curse.

VIOLENCE – The people in this novel live in near perfect harmony, but not with out eliminating some problems.  There is so graphic violence, but there is at least one disturbing scene.

SEXUALCONTENT– The “stirrings” of the adolescent citizens are controlled with medication.  Some parents might want to discuss what is meant by “stirrings.”

SUPERNATURAL ELEMENTS – None

QUESTIONS FOR DISCUSSION


1.  Why do you think dystopian literature so popular?

2.  Is there something appealing about living in a pleasant world with no pain, or does it sound too boring?

3.  What do the people of the community lose by having “the sameness?”

4.   Do you think Jonah’s parent’s love him?

5.  Why is what happens to Baby Gabe so disturbing and shocking?

6.  Why would being The Giver be so hard?  Would you rather to be a Giver with all that knowledge or a community member living in blissful ignorance?

7.  Why is free will essential to being truly good, happy, or free?

IMPORTANT QUOTES

“The worst part of holding the memories is not the pain. It’s the loneliness of it. Memories need to be shared.”

“We gained control of many things. But we had to let go of others.”

“I liked the feeling of love,’ [Jonas] confessed. He glanced nervously at the speaker on the wall, reassuring himself that no one was listening. ‘I wish we still had that,’ he whispered. ‘Of course,’ he added quickly, ‘I do understand that it wouldn’t work very well. And that it’s much better to be organized the way we are now. I can see that it was a dangerous way to live.”

“It’s the choosing that’s important, isn’t it?”

“I don’t know what you mean when you say ‘the whole world’ or ‘generations before him.’I thought there was only us. I thought there was only now.”

From goodreads.com

From goodreads.com

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Lord of the Flies

Generally the books we review here are current, popular fiction. We review, not what we wish kids are reading, but what they’re actually reading. And while Lord of the Flies is certainly not pop fiction, if you have a child between 8th and 10th grade, there’s a good chance he or she is reading or will be reading it this classic. Recently at my school, a parent decided (some eight chapter in to this twelve chapter book) that the content was too disturbing for her child. That is a decision that every parent has the right to make, but perhaps if she had been a bit more informed, she could have made that call in time for the teacher to make an alternative assignment.

So, spoiler alert…this is a fairly detailed synopsis.

Lord of the Flies is a dystopian novel about a group of British boys stranded on an island after the plane evacuating them from boarding school crashes somewhere in the South Pacific. The first two boys we meet, Ralph and Piggy, find a conch shell and use it to call the other boys together. At this first meeting, we are introduced to Jack and his choir (apparently for British boarding school boys being the head of the choir is akin to being captain of the football team, so Jack wields a lot of clout). In any case, after some discussion about there being no grownups, the boys elect Ralph chief. Jack is clearly ticked that he wasn’t elected, but Ralph placates him by asking him to be in charge of the choir.  Jack declares they will be the hunters. This role seems to satisfy Jack- for the time being.

At first the boys are elated at the realization that there are no grown ups. They see the whole thing as a big adventure. Thy set about right away establishing rules and a system of order.   The conch is the symbol of this order. When Ralph blows it, it is a signal to the other boys to report for an assembly. Any boy holding the conch also holds the power to speak.

The fire is another important symbol in the novel. The boys light their fires by using Piggy’s glasses (another important symbol).  Their first fire gets rapidly out of control and one of the younger children is never seen again. Still, Ralph insists that maintaining a signal fire is their best hope for rescue, and he places Jack and his hunters in charge of keeping the fire going.  Unfortunately, Jack’s primary interest is in hunting and killing pigs.

Ralph works to build shelters and maintain order.  Finally he and Piggy see a ship on the horizon, but their joy turns to panic when they realize the signal fire has gone out.  Ralph is furious with Jack for not maintaining the fire and confronts him.  But Jack has just returned from his first pig kill.  Most of the boys are too excited about the prospect of meat to be too concerned with the missed rescue opportunity. When Piggy criticizes Jack, Jack slaps him breaking one of the lenses of Piggy’s glasses.

The carefree days of freedom the boys enjoyed in their early days on the island are all but gone.  Jack becomes increasingly obsessed with hunting.  Ralph is constantly frustrated with the lack of order, the filth, the fire, and his hair (another symbol).  The littler boys, the Littluns, are having nightmares, fearing a beast that they believe inhabits the island.  In fact, even some of the older boys are beginning to have their own fears about the beast.  A few nights later when two of the boys (twins named Sam and Eric but simply called Samneric) are tending the fire, they awaken to see the body of a dead parachutist, who has drifted down to the island, hovering over them.  They are terrified and run to the others to report that The Beast has attacked them.  The boys organize a hunting party, and their fears are only confirmed when they come across the strange “ape-like creature” hanging in a tree.

After this, Jack tries to convince the others that Ralph in no longer fit to be chief because, among other reasons, Ralph was afraid when they were hunting The Beast.  When none of the boys support Jack, he runs off in tears and says he’s “not playing.”   Before long other boys slip off to join Jack’s tribe.  Soon, only Ralph, Simon, Piggy, and Samneric are left to tend the fire.  The Littluns are fending for themselves almost entirely now.

At this point, Simon, who has always been a bit of a loner, wanders off into the forest.  From his secluded spot he witnesses Jack and the other hunters gleefully kill a mother sow.  The boys then leave the pig’s head on a stick stuck in the ground as an offering to The Beast.  When they leave and Simon is alone with this ghastly offering, he begins having a hallucination that the thing is speaking to him.  She tells him that they cannot kill the beast because the beast is inside them all.  The whole thing is very creepy.  Simon faints or has a seizure.  When he comes to, he goes up the mountain and finds the dead parachutist.  Realizing what it is, he staggers down the mountain to tell the others.  When he arrives at the beach, the other boys, including Ralph and Piggy, are engaged in a frantic dance in which they reenact the killing of the pig.  Simon stumbles into their frenzy and the becomes The Beast in their imagination.  They beat him, bite him, and claw him to death.  His dead body is swept out to sea.

The following morning Ralph is ashamed and despondent.  Piggy refuses to acknowledge what they’ve done, but Ralph calls it murder.  Samneric join them at the fire and all four boys try to convince themselves and each other that they weren’t really there the night before at all.  Once again, Ralph focuses his attention on keeping the fire going – a much more difficult task with only four boys.

That night while they sleep, Ralph, Piggy,and the twins are attacked by Jack’s tribe.  They’ve come for Piggy’s glasses so they can re-start their own fire.  They take them leaving poor Piggy nearly blind and utterly helpless.  Perhaps it is because of this, Piggy is desperate enough to confront Jack, and he convinces Ralph to get the conch so they can go to Jack’s camp and talk some sense into him.  There a fight breaks out between Jack and Ralph, but Piggy holding the conch, commands, for the first time since they’ve arrived, the attention of all the boys.  He speaks eloquently and passionately about rules and order.  Then Roger, the most evil of all the boys on the island, launches a bolder off the side of the cliff.  It hits Piggy and sends him sailing off the side of the mountain to the rocks below, shattering both Piggy’s skull and the conch.  Like Simon, Piggy’s lifeless body is claimed by the sea.   With the conch gone, so is any lingering sense of order or fairness that Jack might still have possessed.  He orders Samneric tied up and Ralph is forced to flee a barrage of spears.

Ralph spends the rest of the day and all that night hiding in terror for his life – especially after he sneaks up on Samneric tending the fire and they tell him of Jack’s plan to have the hunters hunt Ralph.  The next day, in an attempt to smoke Ralph out of his hiding place, Jack’s tribe accidentally sets the entire island on fire.  All the boys run to the water to escape.  As the boys crawl across the sand, Ralph runs smack into a naval officer who had seen the fire.  When the officer asks who is in charge, Jack starts forward then retreats.  Ralph takes responsibility for the boys – then he breaks down and weeps  “for the end of innocence, the darkness of man’s heart, and the fall through the air of a true, wise friend called Piggy.”

VIOLENCE

This might be one of the reasons some parents find this book so disturbing.  The killing of Simon is horrific. Piggy’s fall from the cliff and subsequent skull shattering is describe in fairly graphic detail. And the slaughter of the pigs is even a bit disturbing.  Most teachers (including me) would argue that this graphic violence is necessary to the plot – to illustrate the level of savagery the boys sink to.  Still, some parents might want to check it out for themselves  The killing of the mother pig is in chapter 8. Simon’s death is in chapter 9.  And Piggy is killed in chapter 11.

LANGUAGE

In chapter 8, when the boys kill the sow, one of them shoves a spear up her anus.  Then all the boys get a huge kick out of repeating the phrase, “Right up her ass!”

SEXUAL CONTENT

None.

SUPERNATURAL ELEMENTS

There is the mysterious beast, that comes to life in Simon’s hallucination.  In that moment it is named “Lord of the Flies.”  This is actually a biblical reference to the devil Beelzebub in the Bible.  In other words, one way to look at it, is that the Lord of the Flies is the devil.  At some points in the novel the beast is thought of as a creature apart from the children.  In Simon’s hallucination, the beast reveals she is a part of them.  Scary stuff.

PERSONAL REFLECTION

When I read this novel with my students, I tell them that it reminds me of a slumber party I went to in 7th grade.  One of the fun things about slumber parties is that you stay up way later than any grownups. You are, in essence, on your own – or at least it feels that way.  At one point in this particular party, someone decided to play a practical joke on another girl.  Everyone (including the girl) thought it was funny.  So funny, in fact, that some other girls played their own practical joke.  One prank led to another, and by 2:00 a.m. we had chosen teams and were in an all out prank war.  I remember at one point in the evening thinking that things had gotten out of hand, but I didn’t say anything.  I was driven by both fun and anger to keep going.  No one was hurt. And no damage was done to anyone’s reputation or self-esteem, but property was destroyed and mother’s were called.  In the end, I had no answer for  why I went along except that everybody else was doing it.  It was a mob mentality.  Now, if a few 12 year old girls can get carried away in one evening.  Imagine what a group of 12 year old boys would do after several months.  Well, we don’t have to imagine it.  William Golding has shown us.

QUESTIONS

– Are people basically good or basically evil?

-What would happen if we lived without rules?

-Is it rules that keep us civilized or is it our natural goodness or sense of right and wrong?  Do we need rules to keep us from sinking into chaos or savagery?

-What is a mob mentality?  Why are people so susceptible to mob behavior?


  After Life of Pi and Between Shades of Gray, I was definitely in the mood for a light read.  I knew Matched by Ally Condie is dystopian novel, but it’s not dystopian like The Hunger Games or Divergent.  Teenagers aren’t fighting and killing each other.  They are getting married – or at least getting introduced to the person they will marry.

Matched is set in a world that is free from disease, hunger, crime, and nearly all suffering. The Society has created this world for it’s citizens by carefully managing data on everyone.  Every person’s nutritional needs, exercise, dreams, school work, career, free-time and even marriage are all managed in order to insure optimal health and happiness.

I’ve got to admit, in the beginning of the book it all sounded kind of appealing.  All the grown-ups have jobs they enjoy – jobs tailored to their specific abilities and interests.  The children grow up in a close-knit group of friends.  Meals, custom prepared according to each family member’s specific nutritional needs, are delivered to homes morning and night.  And at age 17, teenagers are introduced to someone who has been selected, based on extremely comprehensive date, to be their perfect match.  The Society believes in providing it’s citizens with everything they need to live happy productive lives, and since a happy family life is crucial to a good life, young people are given the best possible chance at this happiness through a sophisticated matching system.  It’s a life free from choices, true.  But it’s also a life free from worry.  It’s nearly a life free from suffering.  What could be bad?

Turns out, a lot.  Initially, the main character, Cassia, is thrilled with her match.  He’s handsome, charming, smart, and her best friend, Xander.  Maybe she has always wanted Xander to be her match, but she never really let herself consider it.  People are very seldom matched with someone they know.  They are only 17, but Cassia knows that in four years, they will begin a marriage every bit as happy as her own parent’s marriage.  But when the face of another boy, Ky Markham, pops up on Cassia’s Match Information Portcard, Cassia is confused.  Suddenly, she knows more about this boy than anyone else in their close-knit circle of friends, and all of the sudden he is catching her eye.

Along with unexpected feelings for Ky, Cassia experiences other strange new feelings when her grandfather secretly gives her a forbidden poem – one eliminated  by The Society decades ago. Now Cassia’s perfectly planned, perfectly safe life doesn’t seem so perfect anymore.

I don’t want to give too much away on this one because I think it would make an excellent mother/daughter book discussion.  It  raises a lot of interesting questions about marriage, happiness, choices, and their consequences.  Even though there are no troubling elements, the subject matter (marriage) is a little sophisticated for younger readers.  Middle schoolers are not as likely to get as much out of this book as high school students.

LANGUAGE

No.  I think The Society has weeded that out.

VIOLENCE

No.  There are hints of past violence, but The Society has weeded that out too – for now. Of course, like with pretty much all books these days, there’s a sequel.  That’s another discussion for another post, but I’m really tired of sequels.

SEXUAL CONTENT

Cassia makes a brief mention of the awkward knowledge that she and Xander will one day have children, but it’s sweet and innocent.

SUPERNATURAL ELEMENTS

Cassia and Xander wonder about angels they have seen in old paintings,but  until now there has been no need for a Higher Power in their perfect world.

FOR DISCUSSION

Cassia is genuinely nervous and excited on the night of her Match Banquet. Why?  Doesn’t the idea of having your future husband or wife picked out for you eliminate all the fun?

Cassia’s parents truly love each other.  Yet, they were matched.  Can an arranged marriage be a happy one?

What are the ingredients of happy marriage?  Compatibility? Passion?  Commitment?

What does Cassia see in Xander?  What does she see in Ky?

Who do you find yourself rooting for? Xander or Ky? Why?

The Society really does seem to have the best interests of its citizens in mind.  At least Cassia has always been secure and happy.  Think of what The Society has provided. The citizen’s are free from so many of the worries that plague us today.  What has this freedom really cost them?


Whew!  I’m exhausted. I just spent the last week in a futuristic, dystopian Chicago. It was brutal. Divergent is the story of Beatrice Prior, a sixteen year old girl who has grown up in a society divided into five factions – each dedicated to a particular virtue.  Beatrice as been raised Abnegation, a faction dedicated to selflessness, but now she is of age to choose her own faction.  Unfortunately for Beatrice, the aptitude test designed to help young people choose, has come back inconclusive.  She is not fully suited for Abnegation, nor any other faction.  She is Divergent.  Beatrice doesn’t know what this means. She only knows (thanks to a warning from Tory, a kindly, albeit cryptic, test administrator) that being Divergent is very dangerous.  After covering up Beatrice’s test results, Tory admonishes her not to tell anyone she is Divergent.

This makes choosing a faction very difficult for Beatrice, who has never really felt she belongs among the selfless Abnegation.  On choosing day, Beatrice surprises herself  and her parents by choosing Dauntless, the faction devoted to bravery.

Most of the book is devoted to Beatrice’s (who renames herself Tris once she joins her new faction) training to become Dauntless.  Initiates who fail training must live Factionless – a fate worse than death in a society that places “faction before blood.”  Initiates must undergo weapons training, hand-to-hand combat training, and worst of all, fear simulation exercises in which trainees are injected with a serum that cause hallucinations of their worst fears.  While all this is going on, poor Tris must deal with injuries, homesickness, sadistic roommates, and a growing suspicion that Dauntless leaders might be hiding something.  It is Tris’s handsome trainer, Four, who first suspects what Tris is hiding.  Lucky for her, he is a good guy, and he has a thing for her. Like her test administrator, he helps her hide the fact that she is Divergent.

Eventually things escalate, and Tris and Four discover the truth about Dauntless.  Together they foil Dauntless’s plan, but not without a bloody battle.  And not for good.  I guess I’ll have to read the sequel, Insurgent to find out what happens next.

While violence and sexual tension might make some parents squeamish about this novel, Divergent has the potential to open some very fruitful discussions about bravery and sacrifice – something many of today’s teens know little about.

LANGUAGE

There might have been a few four letter words, but not enough to make the language a disturbing factor for me.

VIOLENCE

Oh my, yes.  In this novel we are treated to descriptions of brutal beatings, near drownings, a guy getting stabbed in the eye with a butter knife.  I’m not a complete weenie when it comes to violence, but this book was just exhausting.  It was like one long action movie.  Don’t get me wrong, I couldn’t put it down, but I’m not sure it’s the right book for my sensitive eleven year old.

SEXUAL CONTENT

Since this is a teen novel, it’s no surprise that a romance blossoms between Tris and Four.  They only kiss, but there is a sensuousness to their relationship that might not be appropriate for younger readers.  This book is by no means steamy, but she definitely likes him for more than his eyes.  Also, in one of her fear simulations, the fear Tris must face is sex with Four.  She fears intimacy.  She faces it by saying no, and after the simulation, he assures her that he does not have experience in that department either and that she is under no pressure. Of course, I would have preferred he said he does’t believe in sex outside of marriage, but I guess that’s just too much to hope for in a modern romance – even one for teens.  I just hope Tris and Four don’t  take it to the next level in the sequel.  I definitely felt like the author left that door open.

SUPERNATRUAL ELEMENTS

There are no supernatural elements in Divergent.  However, in one of her near-drowning scenes, Tris recalls the waters of her baptism.  I thought that was nice.  Also in the acknowledgments, Roth’s first thank you is to God and His Son for her blessings. This bodes well for a chaste sequel!

WHAT TO DISCUSS

Divergent is a dystopian novel.  What other dystopian novels are popular for kids today?  (The Hunger Games, Among the Hidden, The Ugglies, Matched…)

Was the violence too much, or did it add to the story by helping readers imagine what life was like for Tris and the other Dauntless?

To join Dauntless, Tris must, for all intents and purposes, leave her parents forever.  What does this say about her?

Tris is not terribly sympathetic to some of her fellow initiates.  Is Tris a likable character?

What role dose forgiveness play in this novel?

What is the role of self-sacrifice in this novel?  Selflessness?  Selfishness?

What is bravery?