Monday, January 2, 2012

Dystopian Societies in Young Adult Literature

2012. The apocalypse. How will the world end? Will it be a natural disaster? A plague? Man-made catastrophe? Or perhaps a zombie uprising? Are you prepared? The dystopian society, a popular sub-genre of young adult literature with lots of adult crossover appeal, could be your guide for preparing for the end. Dystopian societies, often born as the result of cataclysmic or apocalyptic events, offer the illusion of perfection, but actually limit the freedom of their residents. 

For a natural disaster ending, try Life as We Knew It by Susan Beth Pfeffer. Sixteen year-old Miranda’s world collapses when a meteor hits the moon and knocks it closer to earth, resulting in climate changes, tsunamis, fires and chaos. Miranda records events over the course of a year in diary entries, and readers see her transition from a normal high school girl worried about ice skating and boys to a young woman making decisions about the survival of her family as life as she knows it disappears.

In Epitaph Road by David Patneaude, a plague decimates most of the male population. Women take over the planet and bring an end to war, poverty and crime. Fourteen year-old Kellen is part of the male minority, a second class citizen living in fear of the next plague outbreak. When he learns that the outbreaks may not be accidental, he sets out to warn his father who is living in the plague’s projected path within a fringe community of men. What he finds in the community is terrifying. The plague virus can be manipulated and mutated. No one is safe.

Man-made catastrophes abound in dystopian literature and Neal Shusterman’s Unwind and Suzanne Collins’s Hunger Games trilogy are just two of the many examples of good intentions gone wrong. In Unwind, the second Civil War is fought over abortion and the compromise is the Bill of Life. It states that life is sacred from conception through age thirteen, after which, parents can choose to have their teen “unwound,” a process in which all body parts are harvested and donated to other worthy living people. Nothing is wasted. Fifteen year old Connor’s parents have signed the unwind order, and he is on the run, searching for a safe place where the unwanted have the right to exist.

In Hunger Games (movie coming in March of 2012), drought, famine, and war have caused the United States to fall, replaced by the country of Panem. In order to remind the humanity of it’s role in the collapse, the Capitol of Panem demands a boy and girl tribute be drawn by lot from each of Panem’s twelve districts. The twenty-four tributes fight to the death, gladiator style, in a televised event that everyone is required to watch. The story follows sixteen year old Katniss, the rebellious girl tribute from district 12 who volunteers to take her younger sister’s place in the arena. Only one tribute can make it out alive, but is there a way to thwart the Capitol? Is the rebellion already underway before Katniss steps into the arena, and if so, is she a player or a pawn?

Carrie Ryan’s Forest of Hands and Teeth takes place several generations after the Return, a time when zombie-like Unconsecrated bring an end to normal life everywhere. Mary has always lived in a fenced in community controlled by the Sisterhood. The Unconsecrated have always hungered just outside the fence, turning any who dared cross outside into mindless undead. When a stranger chances on her community, Mary begins to question whether there is life beyond the fence – a place free of Unconsecrated. Shortly after, the Unconsecrated breach the community’s defenses and Mary must decide whether to stay and help fight a losing battle or take her chances beyond the fence.

Part of the allure of dystopian novels is that almost everyone can identify with main characters fighting for survival or fighting social injustice while taking control of their own lives. What adds a horror aspect to many of the stories is how plausible the apocalyptic scenarios and humanity’s responses are. Picking up a little dystopia with a side of apocalypse isn’t just entertaining; it can also make you think.

Additional recommended titles:

Shadow Children series by Margaret Peterson Haddix


  1. "Life as We Knew It" and "Epitaph Road" are both excellent books. I enjoyed "Divergent" as well despite the amount of violence. I felt it was better handled than the violence in "The Hunger Games" which I found disturbing. I'm especially disturbed by the number of teachers and school librarians introducing this book to sixth graders and younger. That book is definitely for the high end of Young adult.

  2. I loved reading the YA novels by Lois Lowry--the Giver, Gathering Blue, etc. I thought the Z is for Zachariah by O'Brien was a bit harsh when I first encountered it, but now I realize how apt the story is in today's world.

    The Hunger Games by Collins was an enjoyable (though predictable) series. I don't see how they will be able to translate it to the screen--like The Lord of the Rings, some projects just can't be cut down into two hours (or less).

    I recently took a look at Lexile scores for some of my favorite dystopic novels, and I was surprised; Brave New World, Fahrenheit 451, The Handmaid's Tale, and 1984 were all rated as middle school books. Very interesting....

  3. Doc: I also loved The Giver and its companion books. I think it’s a wonderful introduction to dystopian societies and one of the first read by most middle school students. I haven’t read Z is for Zachariah, but loved the Hunger Games trilogy and am trying to go into the movie open minded.

    I’ve found that Lexile Levels, Accelerated Reader levels, and other ways of pinpointing book to grade equivalencies or reading levels don’t always compensate for a book’s content. Many young adult books are written between a fourth and seventh grade reading level (the newspaper is about a fourth grade level). While Hunger Games and Fahrenheit 451 may be perfectly fine in the hands of competent middle school readers, most parents and teachers would think twice about putting the Handmaid’s Tale in those same students’ hands. For adults and older teens, it’s all about interest in a book’s content. For younger teens and preteens, it’s a balance between reading level and content appropriateness. Some of the titles would be best enjoyed and understood with a little more maturity.

  4. I am a HUGE fan of dystopian fiction. I do have to admit that after I read "Life As We Knew It" I was left depressed and very much aware that I do not have enough food or supplies in my house to survive a disaster such as the one in that novel. I'm afraid that the book was a little TOO realistic for me and ended up scaring me and leaving me feeling quite unsettled. I tend to prefer books that are a little more far-fetched such as the book I am currently reading which is "Crossed" by Allie Condie. Her first book is "Matched", which I really enjoyed. It reminded me very much of a modern version of "Brave New World". The series is definitely worth a try by anyone who enjoys dystopian fiction.

  5. Jennifer, "Life as We Knew It" was a bit unsettling for me as well; it stayed with me for weeks after I read it. I did go on to read the rest of the trilogy and enjoyed it, but it is not a happy or hopeful series. Allie Condie's books are a bit less dire. I've found that dystopian literature covers a wide range of scenarios, tones and moods - something for everyone.