What’s With the Apocalypse?

I had a very long semester in school and at the end of it, I found myself reading several post-apocalyptic novels. It wasn’t a conscious decision, but I found it very soothing, and after reading three or four, I started to wonder what that was about.

Post-apocalyptic stories take place, well, post-apocalypse. The general storyline is that something apocalyptic–be it a natural disaster, like the moon falling out of orbit, or nuclear war, widespread disease and famine–happens to decimate most of the population and change the world that we know forever. And usually one teen has to make something at least for himself or herself out of this new world, whether or not she is also called on to enact change on the wider-world scale. Of course The Hunger Games is the biggest example of this genre right now. And I love those books.

As I delved into more and more of these books, though, I wondered what relevance they actually have for modern teens? I mean, the moon hasn’t and probably won’t be knocked out of orbit anytime soon. Most of the population isn’t likely to be wiped out by plague or zombies anytime soon. And while nuclear war is always a possibility, I doubt that reading a novel ahead of time will actually help any of us cope with it if it does happen. So what is with this trend? If we don’t live in a post-apocalyptic world, then why are these stories so popular?

And then I realized that some of us kind of do. Those living in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina, those living in Newton, CT after the Sandy hook school shootings, New York City residents after the twin towers came down. There are community-wide disasters that must completely alter the people connected to those places forever. These events also affect the wider community and create a heightened sense of anxiety that seems to be one of the hallmarks of this kind of narrative.

On a more personal level, I think these narratives might also explore the emotional repercussions of childhood trauma. Kids who have been abused throughout their childhood suddenly find themselves in adulthood in a foreign world that they can’t really understand how to navigate. Trauma leaves an imprint and it is hard to know how to deal with it or interact in the world once it is, in fact, over. And I think that’s where post-apocalyptic narratives can be useful. They show teens in a very extreme situation learning to navigate a new world completely changed by the trauma. They give voice to more extreme emotions than most narratives can honestly claim. They show what people do when really pushed to the extreme. And that’s what kids who have lived through extreme abuse have really experienced.

So these are the post-apocalyptic books I have read (by no means a systematic or exhaustive list.) I would love to know others.

  • The Hunger Games, Catching Fire, and Mockingjay by Suzanne Collins
  • Life as We Knew ItThe Dead and the Gone, and The World We Live In by Susan Beth Pfeffer
  • Devastation by Gloria Skurzynski
  • The Eleventh Plague by Jeff Hirsch
  • The Color of Rain by Cori McCarthy
  • How I Live Now by Meg Rosoff
  • Divergent, Insurgent, and Allegiant by Veronica Roth
  • The City of Ember series by Jeanne DuPrau (which, take note all you Yeatts’s who might lurk on my blog, includes one of our family photos, I discovered to my shock when reading it.)

I think those are all the ones that I have read, but I’m pretty new to this genre. Anyone else have any others?

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About pamwatts

Writer, Reader, and Children's advocate
This entry was posted in Book Lists, Thoughts and tagged , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

12 Responses to What’s With the Apocalypse?

  1. Esther says:

    Do they have to be children novels? I can think of A Canticle for Leibowitz, which is not really a kids book but def. a classic sci-fi novel. OH! I remembered a kids book. Check out “The Ear. the Eye, and the Arm.”

  2. pamwatts says:

    Esther! I have been meaning to read that second one for AGES! And my friend, Kairn, added on facebook: Alas Babylon

    • Esther says:

      Haha! Alas Babylon was the exact other post-apocalyptic novel I was trying to remember and couldn’t for the life of me! Its been a while and all I recall from that book is the main character’s pondering about being “a legs man” (yeah random thing to recall), so I’m not sure if it was actually good. :p I’m assuming since I still remember the other 2, they must have stuck better.

  3. Ship Breaker by Paolo Bacigalupi is set in Louisiana after an environmental cataclysm brought about by global warming. There’s also a sequel that I haven’t yet read, Drowned Cities.

    And if you’re looking at adult novels, Cormac McCarthy’s The Road is a modern-day classic.

  4. Susan says:

    I don’t read much post-apocalyptic novels…as someone fighting chronic depression it doesn’t seem like a good idea 🙂 . I had to read “On the Beach” in high school I think. I like the Terry Brooks series, but they are fantasy. They take place after we’ve blown ourselves up!
    I might try the Hunger Games sometime. Will I feel ok at the end??

    • pamwatts says:

      Yupp, blowing ourselves up probably qualifies as an apocalypse. And I’m not sure about the Hunger Games. They are pretty rough at several points. It felt kind of cathartic for me reading them, but I’m not sure. Have you seen the movies?

  5. Liz Parrott says:

    Pam, you make me wonder if I would have liked post-apocalyptic novels when I was the age for YA books. I was that age in the mid-70s, and for most of my life I’d been terrified about nuclear war (thanks to the Cold War). I wonder if the novels would have increased or decreased my fears. I haven’t read any of the novels in what now seems like a hugely popular genre, for the same reason Susan sites.

  6. pamwatts says:

    That’s an interesting question, Liz. I often think that fantasy is a fairly safe way for kids to explore feelings and events that they aren’t ready to look at in a more realistic context. For instance, LOTR–the evil is huge, but it feels distant and it gets conquered. I think reading Rita Williams-Garcia’s Jumped, however, as a teen would have finished me. But that’s just me because I was in a really bad environment and I wasn’t ready to deal with that. I think it’s a bloody brilliant novel as an adult.

  7. Pingback: Write a House: Building a More Literary Detroit | Strong in the Broken Places

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