Todd Strasser's The Wave is a novelization of a teleplay by Johnny Dawkins based on a short story by Ron Jones. The book recounts a true incident that took place in a California high school in 1969. The central character, a history teacher with the fictionalized name Ben Ross, undertakes an experimental class project in an attempt to help his students understand how the German people could have allowed the Holocaust to occur. The students had posed the question and expressed a strong interest in exploring the issue after viewing a documentary on Nazi atrocities against the Jews.
Demanding strict, militaristic obedience to his commands in the classroom, and using chants and slogans to stimulate morale, Ross creates an environment where power comes from the experience of unity, and conformity to group pressure takes precedence over independent thinking. To his surprise, the students are completely captivated by the experiment, which is christened "The Wave"; they seem to actually revel in the rigid discipline and regimental drills which are central to the undertaking. Interestingly, the individuals who become the most fanatically devoted to the system are those who had been outcasts in the normal school social structure; as part of The Wave, these students discover a sense of acceptance and power they have never before been able to achieve. The Wave, which had begun as a simple class project, soon spreads throughout the school. There is a sinister aspect to it that develops as it grows, however. Many students conform mindlessly to the system, while others are pressured ruthlessly to join in. Fear and near-coercion becomes an integral part of the proceedings, as The Wave takes on the characteristics of a cult.
Fast-moving and simply written, The Wave explores a phenomenon of vital significance in world and social history, the insipid power of group dynamics which, when used wrongly, can seduce people to act in ways totally in opposition to their professed standards of morality. The book is especially valuable in the canon of young adult literature because it stimulates deep thinking and discussion on a subject of critical relevance, yet it is written in a manner that renders it inviting and accessible to even the most reluctant reader.