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It’s the End of the World As We Know It: The Rise of Dystopian YA

By Donalyn Miller — December 29, 2010 4 min read
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The joke around our house is that paranormal romance is dead. Literally. The publishing juggernaut of young adult books featuring vampires, zombies, werewolves, angels, demons, and dark faeries is winding down according to publishing analysts. While I don’t think we’ve seen our last vampire or zombie book, I do see that readers’ tastes have shifted toward a different genre, dystopian science fiction.

Dystopian science fiction often takes place in a futuristic world damaged beyond repair by overconsumption, war, or environmental destruction. Under the guise of creating a Utopia--a perfect society--governmental or societal control strips basic human rights from its citizens and creates a harsh existence filled with violence, poverty, and despair. In many dystopian books (and movies), storylines explore how people survive under hopeless conditions and fight against totalitarian mandates. Themes like freedom, love, and trust run throughout dystopian literature reminding readers of life’s meaning in situations where outside forces seek to take our fundamental humanity from us.

While we can trace the current dystopian fiction publishing wave to the tremendous critical and financial success of Suzanne Collins’ Hunger Games trilogy, dystopian literature--along with its counterpart, post-apocalyptic fiction--is not new. Numerous classic works, like Fahrenheit 451, A Clockwork Orange, Brave New World, The Handmaid’s Tale, and 1984, examine the same bleak futuristic worlds where protagonists risk everything, choosing escape or revolution over submission.

This week, the New York Times published an interesting debate, “The Dark Side of Young Adult Fiction”, gathering notable authors and literature experts to examine dystopian science fiction’s popularity and consider why teens find these dark stories appealing. Hugo-winner Paolo Bacigalupi believes that “young adults crave stories of broken futures because they themselves are uneasily aware that their world is falling apart.” Considering the heavily-monitored lives of today’s teens, author Scott Westerfeld observes, “Schools are places where teens are subject to dress codes, have few free speech rights, and are constantly surveilled, where they rise and sit at the sound of a bell. Is it any wonder that dystopian novels speak to them?”

Maggie Stiefvater, author of young adult books, disagrees, claiming that dystopian themes in fiction are pure escapism for teens living in an “increasingly complex” world. “Teenagers face a huge number of choices and an almost paralyzing array of expert opinions on what constitutes right and wrong.” Stiefvater says, “In a culture defined by shades of gray, I think the absolute black and white choices in dark young adult novels are incredibly satisfying for readers.”

Adult concerns about graphic violence and social issues in children’s books date back to The Complete Grimm’s Fairy Tales. Dr. Michelle Ann Abate, English professor at Hollins University, considers the age-old debate about dark themes in children’s literature, asking, “Is the role of these books to educate young people about the world in which they live, including its unpleasant aspects. Or, is it their responsibility to shield children from such elements?”

I consider my own classroom when I think about why dystopian science fiction books are popular. My students love these books because they love good stories. Action-packed battles between good and evil forces, strange, futuristic worlds, protagonists who fight for what’s right when the adults in their lives can’t or won’t--it’s great storytelling stuff. Reading dystopian books brings excitement and adventure into my students’ boring, routine lives. Since dystopian science fiction books spark series, I know that once my students find a book they like, they will read the next book, too. I also like that dystopian science fiction books change my students’ understanding of what science fiction is--many claim to hate sci-fi because they don’t like books about space, mad scientists or robots. I enjoy showing my students that wonderful writing exists in every genre.

In our reading community, I provide my students the space to discover what they like and don’t, what they agree with and don’t. I voice my opinions about the literary merit and writing of the books we share. My students will discover the good books--the worthy ones--and probably some dreadful derivative stuff, too. Isn’t that what all readers do?

My sixth graders observe the world they live in--they know that wars, poverty, corruption, and greed exist. They knew before they read The Hunger Games. By sharing and discussing dystopian books, we explore concepts that already exist in our world and consider how we might create a different future for ourselves. My students and I don’t see desperation in these books; we see hope and the power to right wrongs.

We also enjoy the great stories.

Here are some outstanding dystopian young adult books for your students, your children, or you:

Dystopian Science Fiction Books

Upper Elementary Readers

*Among the Hidden by Margaret Peterson Haddix

*The City of Ember by Jeanne DuPrau

Middle School Readers

*The Giver by Lois Lowry

The House of the Scorpion by Nancy Farmer

*The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins

*Incarceron by Catherine Fisher

*The Knife of Never Letting Go by Patrick Ness

Matched by Ally Condie

*The Maze Runner by James Dashner

Ship Breaker by Paolo Bacigalupi

*Uglies by Scott Westerfeld

Unwind by Neal Shusterman

High School Readers

*The Carbon Diaries 2015 by Saci Lloyd

Feed by M.T. Anderson

*The Forest of Hands and Teeth by Carrie Ryan

Little Brother by Cory Doctorow

*indicates the first book in a series or trilogy

Sarah Mulhern, at The Reading Zone blog offers additional insights and book recommendations in her post, Dystopian Literature and Tweens

The opinions expressed in The Book Whisperer are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.