A turn to the serious

2008 was a year of dark thoughts -- although very good reading -- in young adult books. There were a great many dystopian novels; authors seem to be feeling grim indeed about the state of the world.

In “The Hunger Games” (Scholastic, ages 14 and up), Suzanne Collins imagines a future in which reality television has run amok. Every year, the subjugated districts that occupy the remains of North America are forced to send a boy and a girl to participate in a televised battle to the death -- but first, the combatants’ public images must be burnished by a battery of stylists and cheery talk-show hosts.

Allegra Goodman’s “The Other Side of the Island” (Razorbill, ages 12 and up) offers an Orwellian tale in which a paranoid, double-speaking government recasts environmental disaster for its own purposes.

Cory Doctorow’s “Little Brother” (Tor Teen, ages 12 and up) posits a near future (that might, the author suggests, already be our reality), in which a terrorist attack on San Francisco provides the government with an excuse to impose extreme security measures, until teen hackers have the knowledge or gumption to defend our liberties.


In Kristin Cashore’s “Graceling” (Harcourt, ages 14 and up), some people are born with extreme skills called “graces,” which obligate them to the service of their king. Katsa, a girl graced with extreme fighting and killing abilities, has been trained as an assassin and enforcer, but as she matures, she begins to develop a conscience and assemble, Robin Hood-style, a secret underground to oppose the ruthless kings. “Graceling” offers a fresh view of the process of learning self-mastery and has a knee-weakening romance that easily rivals that of “Twilight.”

In novels for younger readers, “Julia Gillian (and the Art of Knowing)” by Alison McGhee (Scholastic, ages 9-12) introduces a heroine who promises to be a series character, and is easily the most thoughtful character in recent fiction. Much of the novel takes place in Julia’s head while she is walking her dog -- it’s the first summer she’s been allowed to do so on her own -- and she has plenty of time to consider things: what she’s good at, what she’s afraid of, how her parents are not quite as perfect as she thought, how she dreads finishing her summer reading book because she can see a sad ending on the horizon. McGhee’s book may sound slow-paced, but this is exactly what kids this age are thinking about, and boys have been as crazy about this book as girls.

Three wonderful series established themselves with a second book this year. They are:

“The Mysterious Benedict Society” by Trenton Lee Stewart and Carson Ellis (Little, Brown), and “The Mysterious Benedict Society and the Perilous Journey” by Trenton Lee Stewart and Diana Sudyka (Little, Brown). Ages 9-12.

“The Penderwicks” (Yearling) and “The Penderwicks on Gardam Street” by Jeanne Birdsall (Alfred A. Knopf). Ages 9-12.

“The Seems: The Glitch in Sleep” (Bloomsbury) and “The Seems: The Split Second” by John Hulme and Michael Wexler (Bloomsbury). Ages 10-14.


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