Books: Teen readers are eating up slew of post-apocalyptic tales

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There's nothing like a hurtling asteroid to put teen angst in perspective. After all, what's a dateless prom compared with the smoking ruins of civilization? Weighed against epidemics, mass starvation and thought control, those dreaded SATs lose their sting, and "safety school" starts to sound like a good thing.

That's one way to explain the surging popularity of post-apocalyptic fiction for the 12-and-up Young Adult market --- one of the most robust areas of publishing. The starker explanation is that this popular genre mirrors a world beset by some of the most frightening problems in recent memory, from climate change to terrorism and the shredding of privacy and free will.

"I think we all have this worry or fear that something really bad is going to happen," said Hayden Bass, teen services librarian at the Seattle Public Library's Central branch. "I think it's just the zeitgeist of the times."

Dystopias are a staple of fiction, from Brave New World and Nineteen Eighty-Four to contemporary novels such as Cormac McCarthy's The Road and Margaret Atwood's The Handmaid's Tale. But the genre is especially hot among publishers reaching out to young readers -- the ones who will inherit the nightmare scenarios of the 21st century. Bass said there's often a waiting list for these titles, which are "some of the most popular books we have."

Even the tween crowd has a dystopian best-seller -- Jeanne DuPrau's The City of Ember , about a post-apocalyptic underground world whose time is running out. The film version hit theaters in October, and the book series wrapped this fall with The Diamond of Darkhold.

In part, the dystopian trend represents a generational passing of the torch, said Georgia Clayton, 16, a sophomore at The Center School, who serves on the Seattle Library's Teen Advisory Board. "Fiction, especially Young Adult fiction, follows what modern issues are," she said, "and a lot of people are really worrying about the future and stuff."

Irene Muller, 16, said adolescents' strong opinions and sense of rebellion make them receptive to dystopian tales that might repel adults who are "too freaked out or set in their ways." "I think teen fiction tends to be the 'what-if?' voice," said Muller, a teen advisory board member.

Some authors have drawn dark inspiration from pop culture's voyeuristic obsession with celebrity. Among the most respected titles are Scott Westerfeld's Uglies trilogy, about a post-apocalyptic society that mandates cosmetic surgery for teens and awards privileges based on "face rank," a measure of how many citizens click on one's televised exploits. In The Hunger Games , one of this fall's most provocative releases, author Suzanne Collins holds a warped, funhouse mirror up to the excesses of reality TV. Designed as a tool of domination by the harsh government that presides over the ruins of North America, the annual games are a televised fight to the death among two dozen unwilling contestants ages 12 to 18. The event is equal parts horror and giddy spectacle as professional stylists costume the Tributes to curry favor with the TV viewers who will influence their fate.

"You can't turn on a TV and see the Hunger Games," said David Levithan, editorial director at Scholastic Inc. and a best-selling YA author in his own right, "but you can see the progression in society that can lead to that."

A tragic case in point was the Florida college student who broadcast his suicide last month to a virtual audience who alternately egged him on and tried to talk him out of it. Levithan said dystopian novels for teens "are all hopeful books, or at least constructive books," and the choices their characters confront symbolize the natural soul-searching of adolescence. "Teen novels," said Levithan, "are primarily about figuring out your identity and your place in the world."