There is no question that the literary trilogy is becoming one of the most popular YA forms. On Aug. 24, 2010, Suzanne Collins’ Mockingjay—the third and final book in the author’s Hunger Games trilogy—debuted at No. 1 on the New York Times list of bestselling books and, according to publisher Scholastic, sold 450,000 copies in its first week.
While this figure pales in comparison to the sales of J.K. Rowling’s final book in the Harry Potter series—Scholastic reported that 8.3 million copies of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows were sold within the first 24 hours—the hype surrounding Mockingjay’s release is in the same ballpark. Librarians and bookstores made certain to stock large numbers of the trilogy’s conclusion—some even sponsored book-release parties for eager fans. Meanwhile, the trendy teen mall spot Hot Topic included Hunger Games T-shirts among its pop-culture wares.
While The Hunger Games has emerged as the recent leader in a new wave of adolescent dystopian trilogies published since 2000, Patrick Ness’ recently completed Chaos Walking trilogy (2008-10), set on a distant planet colonized by men whose thoughts are broadcast out loud, and Susan Beth Pfeffer’s The Last Survivors (2008-10), about earthly destruction following a shift in the moon’s orbit, represent close runners-up. Carrie Ryan’s Forest of Hands and Teeth (2009-11), a horror fantasy that describes a world population decimated by an infection that turns the afflicted into zombies, and James Dashner’s Maze Runner (2009-11), a William Sleator-esque series that places its adolescent protagonists within a mysteriously controlled and dangerous environment, represent two current trilogies-in-progress, each installment of which has been and continues to be heavily anticipated. To date, Ryan’s trilogy has published two books, and the second entry to Dashner’s trilogy, Scorch Trials, is out in November.
These trilogies have several things in common: They are all YA novels in the broadly fantastic tradition of dystopian fiction; they are published at the rate of about a book per year, a cycle that more closely mimics Rowling’s Harry Potter than Alloy Media’s Gossip Girl series; and these trilogies have a significant number of adult followers as well as critics (see Laura Miller’s June 14, 2010, piece about adolescent dystopian fiction in the New Yorker).
It’s easy to see why teens might enjoy these dystopian series. The trilogies feature strong adolescent protagonists who are granted an unusual amount of autonomy and power within a sharply defined and dangerous world. Though fantastic, the settings are uncanny and represent a skewed, damaged or accelerated version of reality. The risks and rewards of these new worlds are clearly defined, and violence is a very real threat. In other words, these trilogies are set in worlds that can easily operate as metaphors for high school. That the series’ installments are issued annually only adds strength to this argument as the trilogies take nearly as long to complete as a secondary education.
While Harry Potter demonstrated that young readership can and will endure, those novels featured a protagonist who matured with readers and installments that grew more complex, a feature that current adolescent trilogies don’t offer. Clearly adolescents accept the somewhat frozen status of their favorite characters, even as they—the readers—get older. This observation challenges the adult assumption that teenagers read comparatively and look for novels that feature same-aged or older characters in situations similar to their own.
Of course, the fantastical situations these characters face—challenges that readers are unlikely to encounter—preclude the literal situational comparison many adults assume is the only critical reading teens are capable of. That said, as teenagers literally age out of their adolescent reading by exceeding the age and circumstances of the typical YA character, the fact that they continue reading YA fiction suggests that their reading is perhaps more like adults—maybe teens read more for pleasure than we had previously thought.
Amy Pattee is an associate professor of library and information science at the Graduate School of Library and Information Science at Simmons College in Boston. She documents her reading on her blog, YA or STFU, at alanis.simmons.edu/blogs/yaorstfu/.