From Uglies to The Giver to The Hunger Games, kids just love their dystopian novels. In an earlier post I mentioned that even The New Yorker had taken notice of this trend, and on the last day of the KMWP Summer Institute, I recommended a quasi-dystopian novel (Kazuo Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go) that might interest high school students. The science-fiction component of these novels gives us a tendency to distance ourselves from their urgency. Even though they are meant to be cautionary, we still assume that what happens in these books will not happen here. Never Let Me Go cuts away at this in that it’s set in the 1990’s (the novel was published in 2005) and is absent of any technological wizardry.
That science-fictional distance is also why it’s important for students to know about the real dystopian society that is North Korea. I’m encouraged that this year’s winner of the Samuel Johnson Prize for nonfiction is Barbara Demick’s Nothing to Envy: Real Lives in North Korea. I haven’t read the book, but I would be shocked if it was anything but a compelling look at just how oppressed that nation is. I’m excited to get my hands on a copy and possibly share it with my classes.
If any of this interests you, I’d also recommend Guy DeLisle’s graphic novel Pyongyang, in which the author-artist details his own business trip to North Korea. DeLisle’s artwork portrays the bizarre, egomaniacal urban planning and architecture of the city in a seriocomic light, and his empathy for the North Korean people (supposedly among the saddest in the world) keeps readers from simply hating the country. It might be the only place on earth I could describe as tragically fascinating.