Even though the media-generated excitement over teen dystopias like the ones in The Hunger Games and (to a lesser degree) Divergent, has died down a bit, anyone living through the past year can see that dystopian fiction is still terrifyingly relevant. Some days it really doesn’t feel like we’re all that far from living through The Handmaid’s Tale, and George R.R. Martin’s early story “And Death His Legacy” is so prescient that it made me shiver.
A lot of dystopian novels have a depressing world view: the main character’s attempt to change things is thwarted, and, even if that character survives intact, the world they live in doesn’t really alter (Winston, in 1984, is one of the most broken characters ever).
What is different about most YA dystopias is that there’s an individual there who starts to question the status quo, and acts to change it– not without some horrifying struggles, but usually, they’re successful at either overturning the system or escaping to establish one they hope will be better. In the recently released book on children’s and YA horror, Reading in the Dark, there is an essay suggesting that YA dystopian novels aren’t necessarily about individual self-discovery: they are more about teens figuring out their responsibilities to society. I think it’s both. Seeing that there is a possibility to change things, and that it could be one person, a teen not all that different from them, who instigates that change, makes YA dystopian fiction a literature of hope. It makes me optimistic for the future.
That being said, here are some excellent YA dystopias that start with a (usually) pretty ordinary kid chosen to perpetuate the system, who ends up creating a better world.
The Giver by Lois Lowry
You can’t go wrong with this Newbery Award winner that tells the story of Jonas, living in a future utopian society, who is chosen, in a ceremony with his peers where they are all assigned jobs for their adult lives, to be the Receiver of Memories, the one person allowed to know the memories of the past in human history. It’s not as action-oriented as Divergent, but packs a much more powerful and memorable emotional punch. The Giver is part of a four-book series, but the first is the best and definitely stands alone. There is a movie based on the book that was released a few years ago. Be aware that euthanasia and eugenics are important to the plot, and part of why the book is so heartbreaking.
This is the first book in the Razorland trilogy (which now also includes two novellas), and it’s quite a bit more graphic than the first two books, probably on par with Divergent. In yet another post-apocalyptic underground world (one decidedly more primitive than Ember) Deuce goes through her naming ceremony and becomes a Hunter in her enclave, a sort of tribal society. As a Hunter, Deuce is supposed to find and catch food and rid the tunnels around her enclave of Freaks, ravening, cannibalistic creatures. Although she’s a believer in the way things work in her enclave, her exposure to a wider world and a partner who’s not so convinced lead her to question the actions of her leaders.
The City of Ember by Jeanne DuPrau
The city of Ember is an underground city built as a last refuge in a world about to be annihilated by nuclear weapons. Two hundred years later, everything, from food to electricity, is running out. After the ceremony where Lina and Doon, along with their peers, are assigned their future careers, the two of them trade places, and discover a puzzling mystery they must solve to save the residents of Ember from darkness. This has more action than The Giver, and more of a mystery at its center, and is a compelling read even for those of us well over the target age range. The City of Ember is also part of a series, and all of them are great reads. It has been made into a movie already, with Bill Murray as the corrupt mayor. and I really enjoyed it.
Across The Universe by Beth Revis
The first book in a trilogy, this science fiction thriller is told from the point of view of two teenagers– Amy, the only person not specifically chosen for a role in settlement of a new planet, and Elder, whose future leadership of the spaceship Godspeed was chosen early in his life. There’s mystery, cloning, genetic and hormonal manipulation, general lying and betrayal, and a surprising amount of action given that this all takes place in a closed environment. In some ways, it reminded me very much of The Giver. There’s suicide, near-rape, and euthanasia in this book, among other things, although I think Revis handles it all pretty well. The target audience for Divergent should enjoy this.
Legend by Marie Lu
June is the elite of the elite, being groomed for a position high up in the military in a dystopian society that’s more or less under military rule. Day is a rebel trying to undermine it. What could possibly go wrong when their lives intersect?
Uglies by Scott Westerfeld
Here’s one that’s interesting because almost everyone is chosen, eventually. It’s not wanting to be chosen that makes Tally stick out. Or, to make it more complicated, it’s wanting to be chosen but having to pretend she doesn’t want to be chosen and standing out as special when she wants to blend in. And then changing her mind. And changing it again. While it could stand alone, I think, it’s a good thing it’s part of a series because I have no clue where it’s going to end up. Westerfeld pretty much turns the tropes on their heads.
Editor’s note: This post originally appeared with a different introduction at Musings of the Monster Librarian on March 3, 2015.