ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:
Here's a sample of some of the titles on the New York Times best-sellers list for young adults - "The Book of Dust," "Renegades," "War Cross." If you can't tell from the names, these books are all dystopian fiction. Elissa Nadworny of the NPR Ed team wanted to know why teenagers love these stories so much, so she went straight to the source.
ELISSA NADWORNY, BYLINE: The plots of young adult dystopia can be pretty amazing.
UNIDENTIFIED BOY #1: They live underground somewhere, except they don't know they live underground.
UNIDENTIFIED GIRL #1: You get a vaccine for delirium which prevents you from falling in love.
UNIDENTIFIED BOY #1: Somehow, a bunch of various figures from history got put into the present day.
UNIDENTIFIED GIRL #2: During the surgery to make you pretty, there are these lesions in your brain.
UNIDENTIFIED BOY #2: And once you do get sponsored by a company, you become part of this, like, elite clique of people. That one was really scary because it seemed like something that could actually happen.
NADWORNY: Those are teens from Holland, Mich., talking about the recent books they've read. I'm at their book club, which meets about once a month at the public library. Today, they're discussing "The House Of The Scorpion" by Nancy Farmer. There's a drug lord, clones working in a field and, of course, a rebellion against the status quo. Seventeen-year-old Taylor Gort starts things off.
TAYLOR GORT: It's a question of how many moral ethic rules are you willing to break?
NADWORNY: Amanda Heidema, the librarian leading the discussion group, jumps in.
AMANDA HEIDEMA: Yeah. Is making a clone ethical? Yeah.
NADWORNY: Will Anderson shakes his head.
WILL ANDERSON: No, I don't think it is. I don't think so.
NADWORNY: They discussed this for nearly an hour, flowing from clones to whether or not manipulation was evil...
ANDERSON: Playing God. And I don't like that.
NADWORNY: ...To how screwed up adults are. In fact, screwed up adults actually play a major role in a lot of young adult dystopian fiction.
ANDERSON: It tends to be a common, like, teen angst thing to be like, oh, the whole world's against me. Everything's so screwed up.
NADWORNY: Teenagers are cynical, adds Aaron Yost, 16. And they should be.
AARON YOST: To be fair, they were kind of born into a world that's - their parents kind of really messed up.
NADWORNY: Everyone here agrees dystopia is super relatable. That's kind of what makes it scary and really good. Think of it like this. Teen readers themselves are characters in a strange land. Rules don't make sense. School doesn't even make sense.
JON OSTENSON: Their parents impose curfews, and nobody lets them drive until they're 16 whether they're ready or not.
NADWORNY: Jon Ostenson studies young adult dystopian literature at Brigham Young University in Utah.
OSTENSON: They see echoes of the world that they know.
NADWORNY: He says these books don't always have happy endings, and they're all about consequences.
OSTENSON: The hallmark of moving from childhood to adulthood is that you start to recognize that things are not black and white and that there's a lot of moral and ethical gray area out there.
NADWORNY: Which makes dystopian fiction perfect for the developing adolescent brain, says Laurence Steinberg, a psychologist at Temple University.
LAURENCE STEINBERG: It isn't so much rebellion, but it is questioning.
NADWORNY: As the brain develops, so does executive function skills, understanding argument, logical reasoning and hypotheticals. That's coupled with this intense arousability (ph) - so many new emotions, stronger emotions than when they were younger.
STEINBERG: When teenagers feel sad, one of the things that they often do is to put themselves in situations where they feel even sadder.
NADWORNY: They listen to sad music. They watch mellow dramatic TV shows. And dystopian novels, they have all that and big emotional ideas like justice, fairness, loyalty and mortality.
STEINBERG: The fact that it's fiction allows kids to flirt with those kinds of questions without really doing anything that might get them into trouble.
NADWORNY: And I think teachers and parents can probably be grateful for that. Elissa Nadworny, NPR News, Holland, Mich.
(SOUNDBITE OF HARALD KINDSETH'S "KEFI")
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