YA Christmas Calendar: Day Two
Click for your next treat in the 25 days of YA Christmas!
Advent calendar images courtesy: One Little Bird Studio: http://onelittlebirdstudio.blogspot.com/p/advent-calendar.html
Click for your next treat in the 25 days of YA Christmas!
Advent calendar images courtesy: One Little Bird Studio: http://onelittlebirdstudio.blogspot.com/p/advent-calendar.html
Today the final book in Ally Condie’s Matched series is here in bookstores! Go out and get your copy of Reached and… “Prepare to stay up all night.” (Kirkus, starred review)
“Unpredictable twists and revelations…” - Publishers Weekly, starred review
Told in beautiful detail, by a narrator honest and brave, Matched is a story of quiet rebellions, of falling in love unexpectedly, and of the power of knowledge and secrets.
Cassia Reyes is a dutiful member of Society. She goes to school, to work, to her free time knowing that everything in her life has been perfectly planned and laid out. On the night of her seventeenth birthday she attends her Matching Ceremony and receives the best news: instead of being matched with a stranger, she has been matched with her best friend Xander. Two people from the same city are almost never matched together, and Cassia and Xander revel in the wonder of being matched with their best friend. But that night Cassia looks at her data card, hoping to catch one last glimpse of Xander’s face, and instead sees Ky. Somehow, somewhere, someone has made a mistake: Cassia has two matches. But the Society officials insist her match with Ky was a mistake and she should forget all about it. But Cassia can’t ignore the quiet, beautiful boy who lives just down the street from her, and as her curiosity draws her closer to him, she learns that the secret about her match isn’t the only one she’s going to need to keep.
Many accuse Matched of being simply a glorified retelling of The Giver by Lois Lowry, but if you truly sit down and read both books the similarities of the two stories are merely superficial. Yes the societies in both books are built on similar structures and principles, but what makes these two books vastly different are their main characters, and the quality of the stories. The Giver is the short but poignant tale of Jonas, who learns he has been chosen to be the new Giver for his town: the person who carries the memories of all the good and bad that came before. While Jonas’s story is about discovery, it’s resemblance to Cassia’s journey stops there. For Jonas there is no romance, no fight against society; he escapes at the end, but only to save himself (and the life of a newborn babe), not to save another. By the end of The Giver Jonas knows who he is and what he wants from life.
Cassia is very different. Cassia is eager to be matched, to be placed in a vocation, to start her new life with Xander. At first she wants to forget all about Ky and the mistake with her datacard. But on the day of her grandfather’s death (at the scheduled age of 80) he shares a dangerous secret with her: a poem not approved by Society. There is no creation in Cassia’s world, only sorting and probability. Yet this poem is a wonderful and sad thing that sparks a fire inside her she can’t put out. The flames are fanned even higher when she learns that Ky possesses dangers of his own: more non-approved words, and the ability to write (something no one else in Society knows how to do). As they share stories and words, Cassia and Ky find that they are more perfectly matched than Cassia could have ever dreamt of. Yet each day with Ky is a terrible risk: his words and his writing are forbidden and could get both him and Cassia branded as Anomalies and banished forever from Society. Cassia has a choice to make: to accept Xander and her society-approved life; or to accept Ky and his tender gifts of love and creation and freedom, even if it means the ruin of all her dreams.
Cassia is a wonderful narrator. She is smart, confident, and brave, but plagued with doubts. For so long she has waited to be matched and to start her life; her grandfather’s secret poem and Ky’s forbidden words open up a new possibility: a world of choices. Her struggle isn’t to the death in an arena like Katniss, or a battle for acceptance and survival like Tris. Cassia’s battle is in her mind and her heart and her words. Because in the end it’s what she chooses to say or not to say that will change the course of her life and the lives of everyone around her. Xander and Ky compliment Cassia nicely, offering perspectives into the accepted and the outcast. Yet by the end you see that Xander and Ky have far more in common than Cassia ever suspected, making her choice even harder. There is no clear winner in the battle for Cassia’s heart yet, even though she chooses to give up Xander for Ky at this juncture. Even as she runs away from her home and everything she knew, Xander is still with her in his own words and his gifts.
Ky and Xander make for great love interests because they are interesting, fully fleshed out characters, not just bundles of hormones duking it out over a girl. They both have enough respect for Cassia to not try and force her hand; while they are working for their own happiness, they also understand that Cassia can’t be happy if one of them makes her decision for her.
Matched is a fantastic book featuring a detailed and sometimes frighteningly realistic dystopian society and a courageous and loveable heroine that you’ll be rooting for from page one.
Here’s a snippet of the first starred review of Reached from Kirkus reviews:
“While staying true to the science fiction and romance at the core of Matched (2010) and Crossed (2011), the trilogy’s breathless finale blossoms into a medical thriller too, adding breadth and resonance.”
Very cool. Also, if you’re new to the books or it’s been awhile since you read them, check out the Matched tumbr for a new fact about the books and the world every day. Here’s today’s fact:
Excited for the release of Reached on November 13th? Read here to remember what got it all started.
The Giver is one of those classics that I think every kid in the US reads when they are in middle school or late elementary school. Somehow I was one of the ones that never read it. I actually didn’t read any of Lois Lowry’s books until last year when I read Gathering Blue. I really enjoyed the book, right up until the ending. And by ending I mean where the words ended, not where there was any kind of sense of satisfaction or resolution.I learned after reading Gathering Blue that this non-ending trait is one common to all of Lois’s books, which made me hesitant to read anything else she’d written. But finally I gave in and read The Giver.
First off, I want to acknowledge that this book was first published in 1993, and because of this you can’t necessarily hold it to the same standards as current YA. But at the same time you can hold it to the same standards, especially when its a book that is being called a “classic.” In either case, there are certain elements of this book that are very characteristic of the 90s in children’s publishing and writing, and I do have to account for that in my review.
I did love the world building in this book. It really is the first dystopia for young adults to broach all the topics and issues that the current dystopias are handling: climate destruction, behavioral control, control of reproduction, loss of humanity, etc. This world focuses around a marginalized community where everything is controlled to be the “same” and “safe.” Jonas, the protagonist, is just reaching age 12 when you are assigned your vocation or career. And he learns that instead of a regular job, he is to apprentice with the Receiver of Memories. Basically the Receiver is the person who holds all the memories of the world before—the good and the bad—so that society will not completely forget what happened before the Community was founded. And of course learning all of these memories leads to great changes in Jonas, and eventually a decision to flee the Community. The most fascinating part of this world is that the people in it do not see colors; colors are something that Jonas learns to see. Colors are also closely tied into intense emotions, which Jonas learns to experience and differentiate from the simpler emotions that his friends and family experience. This theme of repression of the human spirit—through the removal of memories, both individual and universal—is very powerful and provocative and makes for a good backdrop to this story.
What I didn’t like about this book was just about everything else. I even had problems with the world building. Mostly because there is absolutely no backup for the science. There is no explanation at all for how people are made to not see colors, even though the main character and society are quite adept at science and technology. The society is also healthy and fed without them having any concept of animals. Or rain. Or sunshine. Jonas doesn’t even understand what a hill is. While it is interesting to see him learn about these things by receiving memories of them, I didn’t find it believable that the world so be so completely altered as to remove things such as hills.
Jonas himself, while an interesting character, was not a really engaging character, and it was hard to feel much connection to him at all. Part of this comes from the fact that his society has trained him to be sort of bland and empty, and yes later on he does experience intense emotions and moments of trauma and realization, but you don’t get to spend enough time with him for these scenes to really resonate. Jonas is like a puppet, walking through the story so that Lowry has a reason to tell us about this world. The fact that the book is told in third person, and a rather removed perspective, makes it even harder to connect with Jonas.
Most importantly, there were no stakes—no real consequences—and there was no resolution. These are almost crimes in my opinion; and while they are things that can be forgiven by the fact that this book was written in the 90s, I don’t want to let Lowry off the hook. If you want to write a dystopia and really convey a powerful theme to your readers, then there have to be stakes. Life and death. We need to feel the peril that the hero is in because of their new-gained knowledge. We need to feel the turmoil as they are forced to leave their old life and persona behind to embrace their new enlightenment. And there needs to be dire consequences if anyone finds out how much the hero has learned and changed. None of this happens for Jonas: in fact, his society condones everything that he learns, and before he accepts his position he learns that he will not be allowed to be “released,” which basically means that they won’t kill him no matter what he does. So when Jonas flees at the end, it didn’t feel dramatic or frightening.
The worst crime this book commits is not having a resolution. There are so many big things happening at the end: Jonas is leaving the Community and in doing so burdening all those he leaves behind with the memories that he gained from the Giver. But do we see the effects of the memories on the Community? No. Do we see the effect on Jonas of losing the memories to the Community? No. Do we even get to see where Jonas ends up at the end, whether he finds civilization where people see colors and feel true emotions? No. And no. All we see is Jonas trudging to the top of a hill and suddenly feeling hopeful. Then it ends. I felt completely betrayed by Lowry when I turned to the last page and realized that nothing was going to be resolved. And even though I knew this was a trademark of hers, I at least expected something more than what I got.
Overall The Giver definitely started a new trend for dystopias in children’s literature, but I certainly don’t think it should be held to the heights that it is. Lowry’s editor should have sat her down and said, “Look, we need to feel your character more, and this book needs a damn ending.” I certainly won’t be reading any of her other books.
Dystopias are characterized as a society that is a counter-utopia, a repressed, controlled, restricted system with multiple social controls put into place via government, military, or a powerful authority figure. Issues of surveillance and invasive technologies are often key, as is a consistent emphasis that this is not a place where you’d want to live.
In the same way that talking about fantasy books without mentioning a certain boy wizard would be absurd (see Roger Sutton’s “What Hath Harry Wrought?”), any discussion of YA dystopia must acknowledge the impact of the taut, intricately plotted, and haunting Hunger Games trilogy by Suzanne Collins. While YA dystopias existed before it (and many of these were spawned by Lois Lowry’s The Giver, for younger readers), there is no discounting the bump in numbers and popularity since The Hunger Games was published, and the movie has only served to draw more attention. Thus, it’s helpful to know what makes for a good YA dystopian novel, and to have some titles in mind when you get the inevitable groan from teens after they finish Mockingjay and want more to read.
A note on definition: while shambling, brain-eating zombies; nuclear holocausts; electromagnetic space pulses that knock out most of the population; or alien invasions all make for compelling reading, they do not necessarily fall into the category of dystopia. Now, if the survivors of those various tragedies form a messed-up society where freedoms are curtailed in order to protect its citizens from imagined future terrible events, then we’re talking dystopia.
There are four major elements that appear consistently in good YA dystopian novels. Certainly a book need not have all of them, but the best do: a setting so vividly and clearly described that it becomes almost a character in itself; individuals or forces in charge who have a legitimate reason for being as they are; protagonists who are shaped by their environment and situations; and a conclusion that reflects the almost always dire circumstances.
In Across the Universe by Beth Revis, the setting is an interstellar spaceship, Godspeed, which is at once wondrous and claustrophobic to Amy, who was awoken from a cryogenic chamber and must now navigate the physical and social anomalies of this self-contained world. The descriptions are riveting, and the layers of lies that are built around the ship (and keep the generations who live and die within its walls docile) make the ship itself as integral an element as protagonist Amy.
In Fever Crumb, Philip Reeve uses gripping, slightly mysterious, complex language to describe his setting. The city of London and its scrambling, scrappy residents, the strange and slowly disintegrating giant head in which the Engineers live, and the very earliest rumblings (this novel is set centuries before Reeve’s Mortal Engines quartet) of the mechanics that will allow for the moving cities are stunning. The humor built into the descriptions is an elegant contrast to Fever’s hyper-rational approach to life, and the setting acts as an impressive foil against which she must struggle to remain the same rather than be shaped by the larger, much more wild and unpredictable but simultaneously much richer world.
A clever setting-as-character example is the world of Incarceron by Catherine Fisher. The prison experiment called Incarceron, a now self-aware and tyrannical entity, shapes the dystopia as much as the people who exist there. Fisher’s protagonists are intriguing and well developed, but even they are less memorable than the brilliantly conceived Incarceron that—having escaped the control of its original creators—sees, influences, punishes, and restricts according to its own standards.
A bad guy with no depth, vulnerability, history, or context functions as a foil for the protagonist but adds little else to the story. Depth of character makes the struggle between good and evil (against an individual or society) far more vivid. In the Hunger Games trilogy, Snow is one of many worthy villains; interestingly, he is perhaps the more blatantly malign but also slightly more sympathetic villain (in comparison to Coin) to emerge from the series. It is clear that he is following in a line of leaders who made similar choices, and it is equally clear that he is an exaggerated representation of the society in which he came to power. The lack of a specific “bad guy” but rather an example of a well-intentioned society gone horribly awry is presented in Ally Condie’s Matched, where the earnest and well-meaning Society has evolved into an entity that has whittled down the world into manageable, easily digestible amounts: this society allows exactly one hundred songs (and pictures, poems, etc.) and arranges carefully planned love matches that take any guesswork out of romance. It is all safe and cozy and may not immediately appear dystopian—until the reality of not being able to shape anything in your own life truly sinks in.
In Ashes, Ashes by Jo Treggiari, Lucy is prepared to acknowledge that ninety-nine percent of the population is gone and that her choices are few. What she isn’t ready to accept, and what makes this novel so complex, is that she is apparently the only immune person left on Earth, and she could best help the planet’s survival by giving her blood—all her blood—for medical use. The pace is superb, and the vivid descriptions of the new attempts at society are well crafted, but it is the choices the amoral but brilliant scientists make that push Lucy to define herself as martyr or survivor. The fact that the key scientist still feels like the kindest person Lucy has recently encountered complicates things all the more, as it lays bare how intensely vulnerable and alone she is in this ravaged world.
It is convenient to the story to have a rebel grandparent or elder who remembers how it used to be “before” and can account for how his or her offspring is different than the average citizen, but for the most part good dystopian novels don’t just take contemporary characters from realistic fiction and dump them into dystopic settings. The characters who clearly cannot see beyond the ways in which they have been raised force readers to consider not only how they might respond in that society, but also to thoughtfully assess elements of adolescence that carry across setting (snark, pushing at boundaries, curiosity about and interest in the newest technology, hormonal adjustments). Scott Westerfeld’s Uglies series, set in a dystopian environment where resources are plentiful but the use of them is highly suspect, offers characters shaped by having been raised in this world of enforced conformity. While some resist and others embrace it, Westerfeld’s protagonists are carefully operating within the boundaries of his creepy, image-obsessed world.
Two prime examples from opposite ends of the dystopian civilization spectrum are M. T. Anderson’s Feed and the Chaos Walking trilogy by Patrick Ness. Both address the effects of being permanently tapped into constantly flowing information (in Ness’s world, it is more metaphorical as a virus that causes thoughts to be heard; in Anderson’s capitalist nightmare everything is literally messaged directly into your brain), and both feature protagonists who reflect their environments, even as they catch occasional glimpses of how life could be otherwise. The protagonists are so richly developed, so compelling, and so hopelessly ensnared that they evoke sympathy even as they inevitably exasperate the reader.
Finally, Divergent by Veronica Roth is a movie-ready example of a novel that includes tantalizing snippets of a dystopic society that has led to citizens deriving their identity from belonging to one of five personality-based factions. While much of the focus is actually on Beatrice’s response to not slotting perfectly into one of those factions and her training once she chooses, there is no doubt that she will indeed select from the limited options she is presented, unable to envision what a different path would resemble.
In terms of how a novel wraps up, hopeful is good, and measured optimism works beautifully, but often you just can’t escape unscathed. In some cases, authors are daring enough (or heartless enough, depending on your tolerance for sad endings) to let their protagonists face seemingly insurmountable obstacles and find that they are, indeed, just that. The shocking conclusion of Ashes by Ilsa J. Bick is one of the coolest new examples of this: while the novel is closer to post-apocalyptic than pure dystopia, there is certainly a dystopic community in which Alex finds herself—a settlement that doesn’t try to exist as the world had been before but is shaped by an entirely new set of morals and standards. This paradigm shift, should the members survive their own chilling ethical choices, will surely result in a quintessential dystopic world.
The Eleventh Plague by Jeff Hirsch is also set as an end-of-the-world survival novel, but the strictly controlled elements of the community that has rebuilt itself to resemble how life used to be (complete with creepy baseball games that feel so…eerily incorrect in their very normalcy) seem like an obvious example of dystopia masking as utopia. Life there is better than what exists outside of Settler’s Landing, but the protagonist is forced to conclude that there is no such thing as a true haven anymore.
Cory Doctorow’s Little Brother probably represents the purest example on the list—modern technology meets classic dystopic elements—even while the book itself is part instructional guide, part love story, and part rant at the increasingly dictatorial powers that be that consider safety at any cost a reasonable exchange. Small personal victories for the protagonist and his friends are present, but the power of Big Brother is hardly tempered by their work, and the folks who tangled with the government are all permanently scarred by the encounter.
A bonus element from the above titles is the lingering point of consideration with which readers are left—wondering how and where they would fit (disturbing the universe, representing one of the masses, or somewhere in between), and perhaps also contemplating how near or far their own social structure is from what they just read. All the titles above lend themselves to such musings, and the protagonists within are also likely to give some thought to these issues—it is often how they move from quiet discontent to activism. Of course, these questions are moot when you aren’t sure if you are going to survive at all, and there are several dystopian novels that feature characters who (though the reader knows better) would scoff at the notion of philosophical debate, given that they are literally running, fighting, or competing to stay alive. Well-written dystopias, the most memorable ones, offer both: space for asking big-scale life questions along with plenty of adventure and danger to keep things exciting as one cogitates.
Good YA Dystopias
Feed (Candlewick, 2002) by M. T. Anderson
Ashes (Egmont, 2011) by Ilsa J. Bick
Hunger Games trilogy: The Hunger Games (Scholastic, 2008), Catching Fire (2009), Mockingjay (2010) by Suzanne Collins
Matched (Dutton, 2010) by Ally Condie (sequel Crossed, 2011)
Little Brother (Tor, 2008) by Cory Doctorow
Incarceron (Dial, 2010) by Catherine Fisher (sequel Sapphique, 2010)
The Eleventh Plague (Scholastic, 2011) by Jeff Hirsch
Chaos Walking trilogy: The Knife of Never Letting Go (Candlewick, 2008), The Ask and the Answer (2009), Monsters of Men (2010) by Patrick Ness
Fever Crumb (Scholastic, 2010) by Philip Reeve (sequel A Web of Air, 2011)
Across the Universe (Razorbill/Penguin, 2011) by Beth Revis (sequel A Million Suns, 2012)
Divergent (Tegen/HarperCollins, 2011) by Veronica Roth (sequel Insurgent, May 2012)
Ashes, Ashes (Scholastic, 2011) by Jo Treggiari
The Uglies series: Uglies (Simon Pulse, 2005), Pretties (2005), Specials (2006), Extras (2007) by Scott Westerfeld
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: There was a huge, huge bomb dropped about Xander in Crossed. Any chance at redemption in the final book?
ALLY CONDIE: Absolutely. There is always a chance at redemption until the last page…and sometimes even after that!
ET: Whose point of view will we be getting this time? Are you switching it up again?
AC: I am switching it up again, because it’s time for Xander to get to share his story as well. So there are three points of view — Cassia’s, Ky’s, and Xander’s — telling this final installment of the trilogy.
ET: There are still so many mysteries about the Society and the Rising. Will all our questions be answered?
AC: Many of the biggest questions will be answered in this book — but I don’t dare say that they ALL will. But you will certainly find out more about the state of the Society, and what the Rising really is, and what that means for the main characters.
ET: What did it feel like to put a period on the trilogy?
AC: It was both wonderful and a bit sad. Sad because I’m finished with the story for now, and because I will miss these characters and this world. But it also felt very good to write scenes that I’ve pictured writing for several years now (since I began Matched) and to see Cassia, Ky, and Xander all the way through to the finish.
ET: What are you working on now?
AC: Right now I’m working on the final revisions for this final book. But I also have an idea for another novel to begin after I’m finished with revisions. I’m very excited about the concept and the world and characters. It will be fun to explore something and somewhere new!
ET: Any updates on the movie adaptation?
AC: We are hoping to see a screenplay soon. I can’t wait!
ET: Will you ever return to writing about the Society?
AC: Right now I’m excited about my new idea (and several others), but I would never say never! Cassia, Ky, and Xander’s stories do feel finished to me–not that other things can’t happen to them, but those stories will play out off the page and in the readers’ minds. The books belong to them now.
I didnât have high hopes for this book. Everything Iâd heard was that it was âtoo much like the Giverâ and âjust an okay read.â But I found myself loving it from page one. Now Iâve never read The Giver, and I probably never will as I do not like Lowryâs writing style. So I didnât come in to Matched with any prejudices or previous notions. You might not like it as much as I did because of those things. Now on to what I liked.
First and foremost it was so refreshing to find a YA book that was about a romance, but wasnât smothered in smut. Thereâs barely one kiss in the whole book, and in some ways it was way sexier than anything in Twilight. Yes, the story is about falling in love and figuring out who you love. Yes, there is a love triangle. But thatâs not really what this book was about for me.
This is a story of discovery and quiet rebellion. Not every heroine can be a Katniss, leading a grand rebellion against the evil state. Cassiaâs journey isnât as dramatic. Sheâs not fighting to save her life literally. But in some ways she is fighting to survive. Sheâs fighting to retain the freedom and knowledge that she is gained. And she is fighting to protect those she loves in the only little ways that she knows she can. Her battles involve small slips of paper, golden compasses, and secret words passed when no one is looking. She doesnât wield a bow and arrow, she wields words.
The writing wasnât as strong as some of the other fantastic YA dystopias out there (like Hunger Games), but it was good and strong enough not to annoy me. (The second book was even stronger). Itâs not the most life changing story, and Cassia might not be the heroine of your dreams, but it was an excellent book and well worth reading.