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What Poe’s Publishers Could Not Imagine

[Teacher's Note: Before my 7th grade students began reading their chosen dystopian novel, I wanted them to begin thinking about why these novels are popular. I found a “NY Times” debate on the topic with seven interesting articles from varied viewpoints. Students were assigned by groups to use Close Reading strategies and make comments. Once the groups were finished they shared their outcomes in a discussion format. This NowComment assignment was given near the end of the year. — Mary Moore]

Andrew Clements

Andrew Clements is the author of "Frindle," and most recently the "Benjamin Pratt and the Keepers of the School" series, among many books for younger readers.

UPDATED DECEMBER 26, 2010, 7:00 PM

Growing up during the 1950s, I read many of the children’s books of that period — stories like Thornton Burgess’s woodland adventures, all the "Winnie the Pooh" books, "The Wind in the Willows," "The Hardy Boys," the "Tom Swift" series, the Random House Landmark books, Tom Sawyer, "Kon-Tiki" — on and on. But by grade six or so, I was becoming more aware of the world. I began to realize that all was not sweetness and light, and my literary appetite was whetted for stronger meat.

Jack London’s "The Call of the Wild" is about as far from "The Adventures of Danny Meadow Mouse" as a young reader can get. The dog in London’s Klondike, Buck, devolves into as terrifying a creature as any vampire or werewolf would ever dare to be. And I loved that book, and went on to London’s other novels and short stories.

I dove into Edgar Allan Poe. I read all the Sherlock Holmes mysteries, and I devoured all of the seamy Perry Mason mysteries and the outrageous James Bond thrillers — a full menu of dystopia, madness, intrigue, and international mayhem. I enjoyed the sharp contrast between my safe and normal everyday life, and the horrors and the cold-bloodedness in my reading life.

Perhaps the dystopian stories of today are darker because all of us, writers and readers alike, have become more aware of the many awful things that happen in our world. A study of world history shows that truly awful things have always happened. In our current media-saturated lives, however, every single awful thing that happens anywhere is pressed upon us in full-color, live-action images, both instantaneously and repetitively. In order for a book to seem scary today, it has to be very scary indeed.

As to the hunger for today’s darker stories, I think scary tales have always had a strong appeal to people both old and young. It’s one of the ways we can put the events of our own lives into perspective. And the current popularity of dystopian tales also owes a lot to Internet-age marketing — a degree of consciousness saturation that Poe’s publishers could not have imagined.

DMU Timestamp: June 16, 2013 21:32

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