Tag Archives: dystopia

THE GIVER by Lois Lowry

51usrhmubkl-_sx331_bo1204203200_Our mother-daughter book club pick for September was The Giver, by Lois Lowry. The Giver is one of those books I’ve always heard about but had never read, and because it was on the girls’ summer reading list for school, I made it the first book of the year. I’m glad I did.

The Giver is about a futuristic society that celebrates Sameness. There is no color, no music, no variation. Children are born, assigned to parents, grow up, and are given roles in the society based on their talents. They marry, raise their own two children, and then live out their lives until they are “released” to another land.

The book centers on Jonah, a boy who turns 12 and receives his vocational assignment: a Receiver. This means that he receives memories from an older member of the society, who passes along institutional memories from many generations back. These memories are of sensations long gone – pain, joy, love – as well as evils that have been eradicated, like disease and war. They even contain memories of nature that have basically been engineered away – snow, birds. As the Receiver, Jonah must process and absorb these memories, but he cannot share them with others unless he is asked to advise the community’s elders.

The Giver is a disturbing but thought-provoking book, and one that is great for middle school readers. It prompted discussion questions about the costs of giving up freedom in exchange for predictability and safety, and about individual responsibility in a place where most people don’t understand what is really happening. What is the role of parenting in this society, and of marriage? Would you want the responsibility of being the Receiver?

We ultimately concluded that while there are a lot of things wrong with our world today, the answer isn’t to get rid of emotion, variety and individual choice.

I can understand why The Giver was such a sensation. I am always surprised to find that I like dystopian books as much as I do – Station Eleven, The Age of Miracles, The Hunger Games. Maybe it’s time to broaden my horizons a little more? More important, the 7th graders (I can hardly believe I just typed that – we started this club when they were in 1st grade!) enjoyed it too and seemed to get a lot out of it.

THE CITY OF EMBER by Jeanne DuPrau

This year, my 10 year-olds and I are kicking off year 5 of our Mother-Daughter book club.

I spent a few weeks this summer compiling our 2014-2015 reading list. Here’s what our group will be reading this year:

Sept: The City of Ember, Jeanne DuPrau
Oct: Al Capone Does My Shirts, Gennifer Choldenko
Nov: The One and Only Ivan, Katherine Applegate
Dec: Out Of My Mind, Sharon Draper
Jan: Red Scarf Girl, Ji-li Jiang
Feb: Because of Mr. Terupt, Rob Buyea
March: Holes, Louis Sachar
April: Running Out of Time, Margaret Peterson Haddix
May: Esperanza Rising, Pam Munoz Ryan
June: The Witch of Blackbird Pond, Elizabeth George Speare

Book #1 is The City of Ember, by Jeanne DuPrau, which we will be discussing in September.


I confess that I wouldn’t have picked this book if it weren’t on the girls’ recommended summer reading list for school, from which they had to read 5 books this summer. I am not into dystopian fiction for adults, so I figured I wouldn’t like it for kids either. But I was pleasantly surprised by The City of Ember.

Ember is a small city which is powered by a huge generator and lit by massive streetlights that go on at 6AM and are turned off at 9PM. Food and household items are sold at stores stocked by massive storerooms run by the city. The library contains books only about topics that are known to its residents, as well as fiction books about things in their imagination. When the book opens, Ember residents have only known years of abundance, with their needs being met by the seemingly endless supplies of goods in the storeroom.

But the city is showing signs of decay and trouble. Supplies are finally starting to run out, and some foods, like canned peaches and creamed corn, are so scarce that they are basically a memory. Basic items like paper, pencils, tools and yarn are almost impossible to come by. Ember residents have learned to recycle and reuse almost everything they have, and their homes are overrun with broken furniture, old clothes, and random broken lamps. Most troubling: the lights are starting to go out with frequency, plunging the town into total darkness and bringing its daily activities to a halt.

In Ember, 12 year-olds are assigned a job when they finish their last year of school. The main character, Lina Mayfleet, is initially assigned a dreaded job in the city’s underground Pipeworks, but a boy in her class named Doon unexpectedly offers to switch with her. He has been assigned the job of messenger, which entails running messages all over the town (the only way townspeople have to get in touch with each other). They each set off for their new roles, where they make disturbing discoveries about the state of the town’s infrastructure (bad) and the morals of its leadership (worse).

Can Lina and Doon find a way to save Ember from its inevitable demise, or will they be stopped by the evil Mayor and his henchmen? Where *is* Ember, and how did it come to be? What is the significance of the strange messages Lina finds in a locked box in her apartment, and do they hold the key to saving the town?

The City of Ember was a relatively quick, suspenseful read. Like I said, I don’t read much dystopian fiction, and I suspect that devotees of this category might find the book pretty predictable. But I found it fresh and surprising, and I think that middle grade readers will also enjoy learning about this very different world and its inhabitants. Lina is a compelling heroine – creative and brave and loyal. The answers to the questions of Ember’s existence are thought-provoking and should prompt a good discussion among the girls about authority and societies for our first meeting back after the summer.

 

THE AGE OF MIRACLES by Karen Thompson Walker

I finished another book! Shocking. This is my lowest book month in recent memory – 3 books completed in September. Sigh. I’m telling you – it’s not the baby, it’s the job.


And now to the book – The Age of Miracles by Karen Thompson Walker. First off, I have to say that I rarely read sci-fi, dystopia, speculative fiction or YA. I have read a number of reviews of The Age of Miracles that criticize it for not holding its own in one or more of those categories. I can’t really address that criticism, because I am not familiar enough with those genres to judge. But I will say that I loved this book.

The Age of Miracles, which has gotten a great deal of attention this summer, is about the year when the earth’s rotation slowed down. The story is told through the eyes of an 11-year old girl named Julia who lives with her parents in southern California. With the slowdown comes a legion of problems for humans living on earth. The days start to get longer, throwing off the natural rhythm of life and confusing the calendar. Then birds start dying, unable to fly due to changes in the gravitational pull of the earth. Fruit can no longer be grown due to the changing pattern of daylight hours; whales are beached all along the coasts; and so on. Julia’s life is affected by these changes, just as everyone’s are, but at the same time she’s also a middle school girl trying to navigate the treacherous waters of fickle friendships, boys, and parents with their own problems.

The Age of Miracles (so named because adolescence is often called the age of miracles) is one of the most creative books I’ve ever read. Walker’s depiction of the gradual changes brought on by the slowdown, and the ways in which people reacted to those changes, was both realistic and totally original. There’s no revolution or apocalypse; there’s just ordinary people either trying to deny what is happening, or overreacting, or turning on each other because they don’t agree with how to adapt to the changing reality of a new way of life.  Julia is a matter-of-fact, minimalistic narrator whose small, personal life is just as important to her as the cosmic changes taking place around her.

I found The Age of Miracles quite stressful to read, as I suppose many dystopian novels must be. Yet Walker’s artful prose and the poignancy of her story kept me going despite the difficulty of the subject matter. My one complaint is that there was too much needless foreshadowing; she often ended chapters with sentences like “We had no idea how bad it would get later” or “It was the last time I would ever be in her house” or “We would later learn that…”. I find that kind of foreshadowing a bit cheap and patronizing. If a story is strong (as this one was), then I don’t need that type of hinting at what’s to come in order to keep me interested. I’d rather be surprised. This is a minor complaint, but it happened enough throughout the book that it’s worth mentioning. One other quibble: there were few mentions of how countries other than the U.S. were faring on the new earth. I’d like to have learned more about what was happening in other parts of the world.

When I first read about The Age of Miracles, I wasn’t interested in reading it. But I ended up getting it from the library and decided to take a chance on it, and boy am I glad I did. What a creative, thoughtful novel. I highly recommend it.