Through a Glass Darkly: The Appeal of YA Dystopia

I did not think I was going to enjoy this book. I’ve always been ambivalent about stories that emphasize how unique their particular protagonist is from their peers. Society is full of sheep! Except for this one special boy/girl, the only one who recognizes the flaws in the system and strives fruitlessly to enlighten the masses. I think people are more complicated than that and I always want to hear the perspectives of the cast that the hero sees as uniform. So when I read the summary describing Maxwell as “more observant than the average Middletown teenager” who were “frighteningly obedient” I did not have the highest expectations.

Happily, that is not what this book does at all!

The YA genre has been overflowing with dystopian best sellers lately. The government bans love, the government dictates your social bonds, the government forces children to become murderers to assert their social control. Some of these are better than others! What’s been missing in many though is the thing I like best about dystopias: the feeling that what happens could be a plausible development out of our existing society.

Basically, I subscribe to the definition that dystopias should be a dark mirror of our world.

Catherine Austen’s All Good Children does that. All Good Children is about what happens when a society decides that behaviour modification is an acceptable thing to do to its children. It’ll improve their career prospects! It’ll make them better functioning members of society! And sure, it’ll kill any spark of initiative or creativity they have but that’s an acceptable loss. How creative does a trades worker need to be anyways? And it’s not as though they’ll do it to everyone. The cream of the crop will be spared, the top students in every school will continue unmodified to provide the country with its future critical thinkers.

I loved it because this sounded like something completely plausible to me. It’s worth remembering that the during the industrial revolution, the shift from child labour to universal education was often justified by the argument that education would better prepare students to be factory workers. Critical thinking is not the highest priority when attempting to train people to repetitive labour. We have additional aims in education today –and did in the past as well– but the concept of school as a place to teach social cohesion is still understood to be true today. Taking this to the extremes All Good Children‘s New Middletown does — where children are injected with serums that make them compliant and more receptive to behavioural modification — makes for a fantastic eerie commentary on our existing education system.

Austen’s character building and pacing do a great job of pulling the reader along Max’s realization of what’s happening to his school. I was invested in Max and shared his dawning horror and rage when he realized what the adults around him were allowing to be done to them. In fact, all of the characters are well drawn enough to make you care about what happens to them. I’d rather not spoil specific events but I will note that dystopias are not known for having the entire cast make it through the story unscathed.

I would recommend this book to any teenager who liked Lois Lowry’s The Giver or Francine Prose’s After. It would be a really great text for a book club or class to foster discussion of how they feel about how their schools and societies are organized. I like stories that encourage readers to be critical of authority, and as All Good Children shows, the dystopian genre is an excellent source for that.

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