When people express discomfort about the recent spate of dystopian novels for young people - books that feature a grim, brutal, ruined future in which children live by their wits (although often the wits are assisted by some kind of edged weapon) - they are pretty much talking about this book.
After the seas have risen and a series of hurricanes have devastated the planet and drowned the land, people are starving. The people of Baz's London neighborhood rely on a team of divers who trade canned food salvaged from submerged warehouses for items like rabbits, cigarettes, batteries and the like. Once in a while, the divers, who live on an island, accept a small, skinny boy to come to the island to work for them. The island is thought to be a paradise, and parents save up exceptionally rare items to bribe the divers to take their boys.
Needless to say, Baz successfully gains a berth on the dive boat, gets to the island, and discovers that it is in fact a dreadful place. How dreadful? Well, aside from the beatings and the near-starvation and the slave labor, there is an insane leader called Preacher John who rules the place with a combination of charisma and physical intimidation.
On the desolate spectrum that rolls from, say, Scott Westerfeld's comparatively cushy Uglies future at the left-hand end to the world of Chaos Walking at the right, X-Isle falls somewhere in the mid-right. Rats do not play a major role, as they do in Maurice Gee's underappreciated Salt, and nobody's eating mold, as they do in Emma Clayton's underappreciated The Roar. On the other hand, on X Isle, children are driven to commit acts of violence upon other children and upon grownups, and hope is a risible concept.
This is what those people who don't like dystopian novels for children find unpalatable - the extinction of hope. I will go along with that to a certain point. Although the future is an excellent setting for children's fiction, allowing an author to bypass some of the plot restrictions that are in place when writing about contemporary children (mostly involving transportation and supervision), unmitigated misery is not for kids. Kids don't get misery, or at least one hopes they don't.
No, unmitigated misery is for teens. Teens know that they can rely on nobody but themselves (Michael Grant's Gone books), that grownups are out to get them (The Enemy by Charlie Higson), and that they are probably being repressed in ways they don't even know about (The Forest of Hands and Teeth). They suspect that they will never find love (Chaos Walking), are wholly inadequate (Uglies), and must duel their peers to the death in order to survive (Hunger Games). They know that somehow it will be their particular skills, the skills that adults disdain, their gaming abilities (The Maze Runner), or their talent for sneaking around (Ship Breaker), or their mad board skillz (Uglies again) that will deliver them through to adulthood.
So I say embrace the bleak. Hoard sunscreen and batteries against the day. Suffer and triumph alongside Baz and his spiritual brothers and sisters Nailer, Finn, Katniss, Ty, Tally, Hari, Todd, Mary, and the thousands of other desperate, resourceful, indifferently noble teens fighting their way through the ruins that we have bequeathed them. I'll give you a hint - they're gonna win.
I love this New Yorker article on the subject by Laura Miller. Happy holidays, everybody! Read bleak!