Why Dystopian Lit is So Hot With Teens
I’m not telling you anything earth-shattering when I tell you that dystopian literature is hot in the YA section right now. It’s been super-hot for over a year, and I’ve been in love with it since I learned the word “dystopia” when I was student teaching in 2006. But why has it suddenly exploded? The genre has been around for at least fifty years. Novels like The Giver, House of the Scorpion, City of Ember, and Truesight already existed in kidlit. But the rest of the world didn’t seem too interested. They were off reading about magical boy wizards or sparkling vampires.
But then something happened.
That something was The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins.
In the same way that Harry Potter inspired a surge in fantasy/magical novels and Twilight brought vampires back with a bite, the smash success of Collin’s series has pulled dystopian literature back out of obscurity and into the spotlight.
Historically, most dystopian novels were products of both the Cold War and a fear of technology/the future. These books were aimed at adults. I’m talking about novels such as:
- 1984 by George Orwell
- Brave New World by Aldous Huxley
- Anthem by Ayn Rand
- The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood
- We by Yevgeny Zamyatin
Most of us read at least one of these in high school. But it was never a young adult thing. This is partly because young adult only become a “thing” in the 1960′s, and didn’t gain real traction and credibility until the 21st century. Dystopian novels are dark, political, sometimes violent, and often sophisticated. YA was seen as light and simple. But a few authors decided to write novels that fit within this genre, one hit the jackpot, and it suddenly took off! This may have been a surprise to the general public or the publishing industry, but upon further examination it actually makes a lot of sense that teens would flock to dystopian fiction. Let’s take a closer look at why it works:
The future societies in these books usually live in a world with a lot of rules. The government determines what you eat, what you wear, where you work, who you love, and even when you die. One step out of line and a police officer of some sort is going to take you away. The consequences are strict. Teenagers feel like they live in this kind of world. There are rules at home, curfews, driving laws, high school codes of conduct, and even the unwritten rules of behavior in social and peer groups.
Example: In Matched by Ally Condie, the government chooses who Cassia will marry, what her career will be, what she eats, and what she does with each hour of her day.
A major theme of many YA dystopian novels is leaving one’s family behind. Sometimes this is by choice, and sometimes by force, but the protagonist must face the world alone. Though this is a typical feature of young adult novels, it is particularly strong in dystopia. Leaving the family represents rejecting the rules of the society. The choice is tough and the consequences final, but strong convictions override all of that. It’s not a matter of seeking a talisman or falling in love, but more about rejecting a particular way of life…or seeking a better one.
Example: In Divergent by Veronica Roth, Tris leaves her family’s faction of abnegation to join Dauntless.
At some point in most dystopian novels, the protagonist has the realization that the orderly government is flawed or corrupt. And once a single flaw is discovered, the additional realization is made that there might be additional flaws. The government is not perfect and they don’t know everything. Young adults often start having similar realizations: their parents aren’t cool, their teachers don’t know everything, and even the president makes mistakes.
Example: In Delirium by Lauren Oliver, Lena realizes that love is not the terrible, dangerous thing her government has always warned her about.
4.) Teens Like Action, Romance, and Victory
Nothing fuels teen hormones like passionate make-out sessions in the middle of a life-or-death situation. Dystopias always have action-packed pages. The adrenaline level is high because the fate of the main character is at stake — but also the fate of the whole society. Of course, the protagonist always fights a brave battle, gets the girl/boy, and defeats the bad guy. While this is true of other genres, it’s also a necessary feature of dystopia for capturing the YA audience.
Example: In The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins, Katniss may not always know what she wants, but readers get what they want!
In this economy, a lot of teens are aware that the future will be difficult. Money is tight, politicians are fighting on the news, and divorce rates are high. They can identify with the political chaos in these novels and the feeling that one person can be at the heart of change. Whether purposefully or accidentally, the protagonists in many dystopian novels are the catalyst for change.
Example: Connor, Risa, and Lev in Unwind by Neal Schusterman.
6.) It’s Realistic
Though set in the future, many of the scenarios presented are possible in next hundred years. Many readers believe that magic, vampires, ghosts, talking animals, mermaids, and zombies aren’t real. For folks who need an element of realism and logic, but fall asleep in contemporary YA, this is their genre.
I would also point out that dystopian YA is largely popular because it’s being read by all ages. Current twenty-somethings read these novels for all of the same reasons listed above because we’re still trying to find our place in the world. But while fantasy and vampire novels might be read for escape or to satisfy the imagination, or romance novels are read as a form of wish-fulfillment, there is also a draw to dystopia that is very “now” and very relevant.
A Sampling of YA Dystopian Novels:
(most are trilogies, but pace yourself and focus on the first one!)
- The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins
- Delirium by Lauren Oliver
- Divergent by Veronica Roth
- Unwind by Neal Schusterman
- Matched by Ally Condie
- Uglies by Scott Westerfield
- The Knife of Never Letting Go by Patrick Ness
- Wither by Lauren DeStefano
- Bumped by Megan McCafferty
- Feed by MT Anderson
- Birthmarked by Caragh M. O’Brien
- Among The Hidden by Margaret Peterson Haddix
And for More Information:
Teenage Wastelands: How Dystopian YA Became Publishing’s Next Big Thing by Scott Westerfeld (author of Uglies)
Author Alison Stewart on YA Books and Dystopian Novels from Penguin Teacher’s Corner
Why is Dystopia So Appealing to Young Adults? from The Guardian, by Moira Young (author of Blood Red Road)
Full List of YA Dystopian Novels on Goodreads (voted by readers)
Posted on April 30, 2012, in books, Current Events, history, librarian, lists, Movies, teacher and tagged 1984 by george orwell, anthem by ayn rand, books, brave new world by aldous huxley, children's books, dystopian lit, Hunger Games, literature, teaching, why?, ya, yevgeny zamyatin. Bookmark the permalink. 16 Comments.