by Marcela ValdesNPR.org. September 30, 2013.
If you think kids are too young to worry about unemployment numbers, consider this: some of our most popular young adult novels fairly shiver with economic anxiety. Take Veronica Roth's Divergent, this week's top New York Times Young Adult bestseller and a perennial on the list since its publication in 2011. Divergent's heroine, Beatrice Prior, braves hazing, groping and punching in order to enter the militaristic "faction" that she admires. She endures these dangers willingly because in Roth's dystopian, all-or-nothing Chicago, Beatrice would be thrown into the streets if she fails her initiation. There, among the ruined buildings and the reek of sewage, Beatrice would be forced to join Roth's "factionless," the working poor who perform the scutwork of Divergent's society. The prospect makes Beatrice cringe. For her and her peers, she explains, to be factionless is "our worst fear, greater even than the fear of death."
Financial terror also motivates Suzanne Collin's blockbuster novel The Hunger Games. In a world of predatory Capitol-ism, Katniss Everdeen and her family exist on the edge of starvation. Her most famous skills — hunting and foraging — are developed to keep her mother and sister alive. Economic desperation tinges even her romantic connections. Peeta first makes an impression when he throws Katniss two warm loaves of raisin nut bread. Gale meets her while poaching in the woods, and their friendship springs from one shared truth: "Gale and I agree that if we have to choose between dying of hunger and a bullet in the head, the bullet would be much quicker."
Reading these books, I find it hard not to remember that The Hunger Games debuted in September 2008, the same month that Lehman Brothers declared bankruptcy. Or that the number of American children living in poverty jumped by more than three million in the four years preceding Divergent's 2011 publication. Financial stress in young adult novels may be nothing new: Louisa May Alcott's 1868 classic Little Women opens with "Christmas won't be Christmas without any presents." But to me it seems clear that the economic anxieties keeping today's adults awake at night — income inequality, food insecurity, downward mobility, winner-takes-all competition — have also invaded the literature of their children.