The Prophets of Our Time: YA Dystopia

A little over a week ago now, the New York Times ran an editorial titled “Teenage Wastelands,”  in the “Way We Live Now” section of the weekend magazine, about young adult dystopian fiction. They lamented the commercialization of the genre, as the New York Times is wont to do, and generally hashed about their feelings on some of the most popular recent titles and the sudden prevalence of new books claiming to be dystopian.

Of course, they made a few mistakes, first of all by lumping paranormal fiction and dystopian fiction in the same bunch, and the School Library Journal posted in their blog about the various offenses in the original article. I’ll let you all read that on your own, if you’re interested, because that’s not the inherent point of my post. Instead, I want to offer up a list of my favorite new middle grade and YA dystopia, and some older titles that still make favorites lists despite being railed against by many a ninth grader.

The important thing to remember about the difference between dystopian fiction and fantasy, sci-fi, or paranormal fiction is that in addition to usually being set in the [author’s] future, the topic of a dystopia is generally something of a critique of the author’s views on society. They often contain political or cultural subtexts, and frequently (not not always) apply tenets of social or political philosophy as part of a discourse. This obviously varies based on the target audience, but anyone who has touched dystopia in a classroom setting should be familiar with this idea. While the other genres I mentioned sometimes do tackle these topics, the idea is both that the story takes place in a world that grows from but is not our own, and that there is some sort of reference back to the decisions or events that took the cultural context from which the author is writing and creates the setting in which the story takes place. The Times article makes the mistake of considering I am Number Four as dystopian, when it’s actually futuristic science fiction. The line is sometimes narrow, but lovers of the genres often draw it with enthusiasm. The settings of dystopia can either be high- or low-tech, and some more recent titles appeal to the steampunk crowd by combining the two.

Most of what I read is young adult dystopia, geared toward the 15-20 age range, and classics. To say that YA dystopia is somehow less severe than adult dystopia is, frankly, to lack experience in the genre itself. There are dozens of examples of dystopias geared for adults, of course, but today we’re going to talk about those for the younger set. On that note, we’ll start at middle grade and move up.

The City of Ember / The People of Sparks / The Prophet of Yonwood / The Diamond of Darkhold / Jeanne DuPrau. Yearling, 2008-2010.

The Ember series is geared a bit younger than most of the titles on this list; probably more middle-grade than YA, with an audience of about 10-14. The reading is light, but the subjects are serious: environmental disaster, social collapse, resource shortages, and political deception are all rampant in these four interrelated stories. One of the great parts about the City of Ember series, for me, was that the heroes are both boys and girls, and while there’s a little bit of gender role business going on, it’s not extremely pervasive.

The Giver / Gathering Blue / Messenger / Lois Lowry. (Original Edition of The Giver was published by Houghton Mifflin in 1993. Current editions of all three titles: Delacorte, 2006)

A staple of middle school literature syllabi, many of you have probably encountered The Giver and its questions of a society that chooses to forget any and all unpleasant things. You may be less familiar with the other books in Lowry’s universe, which intermingle characters and plots with The Giver without being true sequels. In Gathering Blue, we visit another group of people roughly contemporary with The Giver’s Jonas and consider what happens when a society is deprived of small pieces of joy, while in Messenger we meet another character, albeit in a different location, granted the gifts and responsibilities of Seeing Beyond.

The Knife of Never Letting Go / The Ask and the Answer / Monsters of Men / Patrick Ness. Candlewick, 2008-2010.

The Knife of Never Letting Go skirts the border between dystopia and science fiction–set on another planet, Knife is the futuristic version of our society as it grasps at the ability to travel to new planets. The series is a narrative full of discussion of colonization politics, racial discord, the tenuous difference between “terrorist” and “revolutionary,” and the consequences of bringing old battles to new places.

Feed / M.T. Anderson. Candlewick, 23 February 2004.

Feed is another book that dances on the line between dystopia and sci-fi. In fact, thirty years ago it would likely have found itself lodged firmly in the latter camp, but in our world where information overload is a very real phenomenon and our lives are saturated with communication, it’s a definite contender in dystopian lists. You’ll have to be patient with it; the first time I read it I cringed at the awkward use of author-created slang, but once it picks you up, it’ll hold your attention until the end.

Awaken / Katie Kacvinsky. Houghton Mifflin, 23 May 2010.

Like Feed, Awaken is a story of a high-tech society rather than a post-apocalyptic one. These can be preachy, and Awaken definitely gets that way sometimes, especially if you’re tech-friendly and don’t think that friendships that take place online are inherently less valuable than those that happen in meatspace. Apart from that quibble, though, it’s an interesting take on the risks of the loss of net neutrality, among other things, in a world where the government and its organizations control the internet and the things people are allowed to do there for the sake of public safety.

Delirium / Lauren Oliver. Harper Collins, 1 February 2011.

In a world where love is a disease, the teen characters in this novel struggle to get through their last years of dealing with the pain and conflict that surrounds deep emotion until, at the age of majority, they are either cured of their “delirium” or sent to a colony of others who have been deemed incurable.



Matched / Allie Conde. Dutton, 30 November 2010.

Like the characters in Delirium, the teens in Matched are assigned the partners with whom they will spend their lives. Unlike the method used in Delirium, however, these teens are paired based on their expected ability to bond with their adult partners, and a major role of the government is to ensure that matched pairs bond with each other – and only with each other. But when a glitch in the system shows one girl two potential partners, her expectations for her life and the society around her begin to collapse.

Uglies / Pretties / Specials / Extras / Scott Westerfield.  Simon Pulse, 2005-2007.

Uglies is one of those titles that flirts with topics of free will with a good deal of underlying concepts, in this case questions of body image, self-determination, and identity expression. The world in these novels begins as a society in which people are “uglies” until they reach adulthood, when an operation removes the physical characteristics that makes them “uglies” and transforms them into the “pretties” that populate the adult world. Challenging this system and discovering what makes it work leads into the sequels.

The Hunger Games / Catching Fire / Mockingjay / Suzanne Collins. Scholastic, 2008-2010

The Hunger Games is the series that has swept a new generation of YA readers (and an old generation, of course) into dystopian fiction. Set in a world with reality television taken to violent extremes, the book also deals with questions of dramatic class disparity, racial tension, and social control through apathy and entertainment.



And some classic favorites:
Farenheit 451 / Ray Bradbury. Ballantine, 12 August 1987 (First ed. 1953).

Censorship, emotional control, and a system of social control that requires constant vigilance of one’s neighbors and an inability to trust anyone? Check, check, check.

Brave New World / Aldous Huxley. Harper Perennial Modern Classics, 17 October 2006 (First ed. 1932). and Nineteen Eighty-Four / George Orwell. Plume, 6 May 2003 (First ed. 1949).

The relationship between Orwell and Huxley was a teacher/student one, and when you compare these novels, it’s rather obvious that Orwell formed his world based on Huxley’s fears. Both authors were socially aware for their time, anti-totalitarian, and shared a belief in democratic socialism. That many aspects of the worlds they created relate to one another is unsurprising. At the same time, they set the stage for the variance in dystopian literature, with Orwell presenting a world of suppressed information in which citizens are not allowed to know what is truly going on, and Huxley creating a world with so much information the citizens no longer pay attention to any of it.

Cover Images from Amazon. Post image “Time Machine in Progress” from Urban Don on flickr.

22 replies on “The Prophets of Our Time: YA Dystopia”

I know this is months after this was posted, but I thought I’d share something about Feed.

My middle school library was part of an advanced-copy program, where kids could sign out various pre-released editions of books and after reading them give feedback to the editors. I got a copy of Feed before it was published for real, and all the made up slang is there because it was originally real curse words – and TONS of the f-bomb. It made my middle-school self uncomfortable, but I still finished it. I guess the reasoning is the author used actual snippets of real conversations heard on the subway, or something like that. But yeah – it’s all fake because all the made up slang was originally actual curse words.

Of course I would choose this list for my first Persephone comment, because what could be more exciting than dystopian YA lit?

I can’t second the Chaos Walking trilogy hard enough. I know it’s a lot less well known than Hunger Games, but the two came out around the same time and I think Chaos Walking is stronger in a lot of ways.

I loved The Astonishing Life of Octavian Nothing (not a dystopian future but 18th century America), also by M.T. Anderson, so I’ve long wanted to check out Feed. Maybe bookmarking this list will finally remind me to do so!

I’m sort of embarrassed that I’ve only read the books listed in the classics section. I’m huge consumer of YA fiction, I know all of the titles, but the ones I’ve given a shot (Uglies, The Knife..) just never grabbed me. I’ll have to try some of the others you’ve listed,

I’d suggest ‘Children of the Dust’ by Louise Lawrence, a novel that straddles the post-apocolyptic/dystopian line and made a massive impact on me when I read it as a young teenager. It’s sadly out of print but worth picking up if you can find a copy.

I didn’t like Uglies all that much, personally, but I know lots of people do. It just didn’t catch me. I read the whole Knife series, too, but that was mostly because I assumed that sooner or later something good would happen.

I’d try some more before I gave up on the genre.

Without spoiling anything, I will tell you that you never get to rest with that book. It’s one disaster after another, and that’s my biggest beef with it. If not for that I probably would have ended up loving the series despite my other qualms, but that issue makes me reluctant to recommend it. Good things happen, but every chapter is a new major disaster. Right up to the last page.

How did other people like “Matched”? I keep going back and forth on how I felt about it–while I read it quickly and liked the story, so many concepts were ripped off from “The Giver,” which I found very distracting.
That said, I’ll totally read the next book in the series when it comes out :)

I don’t know that things were “ripped off” from the Giver in particular, at least not to my reading, but I do think it’s pretty formulaic for the genre. The fact that it’s got planned sequels is less than exciting. I liked the first book well enough, but trying to extend the plot into sequels is going to mean a lot of recycled ideas unless Conde has some new material in store.

While it definitely followed the usual strain of YA dystopian lit, I just personally found that it had one too many similarities with the world Lowry created in “The Giver.” I guess “ripped off” wasn’t the best choice of words, but it kept taking me out of the story because I would think, “Oh, just like in The Giver!” every few pages. Since YA lit is what my graduate degree is in, I tend to get a little protective of my favorite books!

Great list! Have you read House of Scorpion? I’m curious if you’d put it in the science-fiction or dystopia genre.

Also? I’m always kind of shocked when I hear someone liked Feed. When I read it for class, literally EVERYONE loved it but me. I must be allergic.

I hadn’t even heard of it! From the summary I can find it sounds dystopian, with the adaptations of existing countries and the sort of extension of the current situation surrounding drug trafficking and things. Without reading it I can’t say for sure, though.

Nancy Farmer is amazing–you should definitely check out “The Ear, the Eye, and the Arm” as well. I think it would be right up your alley! It takes place in a futuristic world, has great characters, and walks the dystopian line with an interesting visit to a village that eschews technology, but isn’t the idyllic place it seems. So good!

I vaguely remember reading House of the Scorpion sometime during high school, and I definitely remember that I really liked it.

I’m sad to hear that you didn’t like Feed, though I recognize that the style isn’t for everyone. And it probably helps that my introduction to it came from an incredibly good looking boy while I was visiting a friend in Santa Cruz after what was easily the worst semester of my undergraduate experience. Perfect timing for such a sad little book.

I had to read it for a class, and I think that if I’d been lacking that incentive to finish, I wouldn’t have gotten through the first half. The slang is so forced and made me grind my teeth, among other things. But the second half was much better, so on the whole I keep it in my lists.

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