A Beginner’s Guide to YA Dystopian Fiction

Everyone has their areas of expertise. Some people are great at coding. Some people can sew awesome clothes. Some people juggle geese. Me? I’ve read a boatload of young adult dystopian novels. And since I’m a giver, it seems worthwhile to share some of that knowledge with the world.

If you hadn’t noticed, YA scifi/fantasy—and more specifically, YA dystopia—is having something of a moment lately. The Hunger Games: Catching Fire was the most successful film of 2013, and there are more than 50 million print and digital copies of the books available in the US alone. Divergent dominated the box office when it opened last weekend, and if Wikipedia is anything to go by (debatable), the sheer number of dystopian works has increased dramatically since the turn of the century. These books may be written for teens, but that doesn’t mean they can’t be worthwhile even once you’ve left high school behind.

But some novels are more equal than others, and there’s a lot of variation within the genre. The following is simply an introduction to this brave new world, focusing on relatively recent releases. It includes only books that can be clearly classified as both YA and dystopia, and only those that I have actually read.

The Hunger Games We’ll start off with the obvious. The Hunger Games, written by Suzanne Collins, is pretty much the poster child for YA dystopia at this point. If you haven’t heard about it, you’ve probably been hiding under a rock; please contact your nearest teenager for a heavy sigh, an eye-roll, and a plot summary before continuing. The series has a complex protagonist—and the first female character to lead a movie to the top of the box office rankings in 40 years—in Katniss Everdeen, and the books tackle serious issues surrounding race, class, and other topics far darker than most people expect from a book geared toward the lip gloss- and Axe-wearing crowd. Are they the best-written books I’ve ever read? No, but they’re definitely worthwhile anyway.

DivergentLionsgate’s other dystopic darling, Veronica Roth’s Divergent, pales in comparison. Some people will disagree with me here, but I really didn’t like this book. First, you have to get past the premise: society has divided itself into five factions representing different aspects of human nature, and everyone must pledge their lives to one faction. Those who don’t fit neatly into one category are “divergent” and therefore dangerous. After that, there are the unnecessary demonstrations of “bravery” (tattoos–how edgy!), the weird chastity messaging, and the characters who are bland despite the fact that one of them is important solely because she bears the distinction of having more than one personality trait. I didn’t read the sequels.

MatchedAlly Condie’s Matched takes place in a society where the government determines the spouse of every citizen. 17-year-old Cassia is matched with her best friend—but when she goes to view his information, another person shows up on the screen for an instant, forcing Cassia to question the accuracy of her match and, ultimately, her faith in the creatively-named Society. The series is lighter than The Hunger Games, but it’s still a good read (as long as you can handle the fact that the premise is basically designed to create a love triangle). Matched hasn’t been made into a movie yet, but it’s on the way—Disney bought the rights before the book was even released, and supposedly production has begun.

DeliriumStaying with the “love is controlled by the government” theme, we have Delirium, by Lauren Oliver. In the world of Lena Haloway (who, like Cassia, is 17), love is viewed as a disease: amor deliria nervosa. Fortunately for mankind, there’s a surgical cure for it, which is mandatory for all adults. However, shortly before her procedure, Lena falls in love (shocking!) with a boy who works for the resistance(!) and discovers that love doesn’t seem to be as dangerous as everyone thinks(!). There is a dramatic escape(!) and several totally-unforeseen plot twists(!). For as cheesy as the premise sounds, it’s really not a bad series, and the protagonist is, in my opinion, a stronger character than that of Matched.

EveAnna Carey’s Eve could be a sequel to The Handmaid’s Tale—a really terrible sequel written by someone with no talent. I don’t actually remember the whole plot of this one and it tellingly doesn’t have a Wikipedia page to help me out; I just remember that I hated it so much that I have dedicated my life to warning other people away. Bad pacing, aimless plot, mediocre characters, and a desperate need for a copy editor. I unsubscribed from whatever book-related mailing list told me to read this one.

FeedLet’s cleanse our palates with something good, shall we? M.T. Anderson’s Feed is a reminder, more than anything else on this list, that YA literature can be for adults as well. Feed is a more classic dystopia than the others here, following in the footsteps of Huxley or Orwell, and takes place in a future where everything is controlled by corporations, everyone follows trends like zombies, and the Internet-like “feed” is implanted directly into people’s brains. There’s a romance here, but make no mistake—this is not a light story. The end of Mockingjay is downright cheerful by comparison. Anderson makes some heavy critiques of modern society, but he clearly knows his craft. Read it.

Life As We Knew ItLife as We Knew It is very different from the other books listed here, but it’s definitely worth a mention. Susan Beth Pfeiffer’s novel tells, through a series of diary entries, the story of one family in Pennsylvania after an asteroid displaces the moon. The astronomical shift leads to food shortages, tidal waves, and drastic changes in the weather… which may or may not be scientifically accurate, but I was unconcerned at the time. Life as We Knew It isn’t a fast-paced tale of rebellion against an overbearing government, but rather a chronicle of a constant struggle for survival. Like The Diary of Anne Frank, only with fewer Nazis. And, you know, fictional.

This is just the tip of the iceberg. A few quick mentions of other books of note:

  • The House of the Scorpion, Nancy Farmer: I don’t remember this one well enough to write a good summary, but I know I enjoyed it. The main character is a clone grown to provide organs for a drug lord; the book itself won the National Book Award and was a runner-up for several other awards, including the Newbery Medal and the Michael L. Printz Award. It comes highly recommended.
  • Exodus, Julie Bertagna: Again, this has been left off simply because I don’t trust my memory of it. Exodus focuses on the dangers of global warming combined with a society that just doesn’t care about certain classes. I really enjoyed this, but that may be because I read it during my aggressively eco-friendly phase in high school.
  • The City of Ember, Jeanne DuPrau: This one is perhaps on the younger side of young adult, but it’s an interesting story about two teens trying to save a dying city. Read the book, but skip the movie.
  • Uglies, Scott Westerfeld: Though I’ve read and enjoyed several of Westerfeld’s other novels, I never picked up this tale of a society that takes its obsession with appearance to extremes. I include it because it’s definitely a heavyweight in the genre (or was when it first came out).
  • The Maze Runner, James Dashner: Another I haven’t read but have heard a lot about. It’s been described as Lord of the Flies with mazes. The movie comes out in September.
  • Gone, Michael Grant: A forcefield encloses a town just as everyone over the age of 15 vanishes. Many of the remaining inhabitants develop superpowers. Popular and entertaining enough that I finished it, but not enough so that I picked up book two.
  • Mortal EnginesPhilip Reeve: Wikipedia thinks this is a dystopian novel, though I’m not sure I’d totally agree with that characterization. Regardless, it introduced me to steampunk, and for that I have to thank it.

This is obviously far from an exhaustive list. I haven’t touched classic or adult dystopia, and there are certainly some I missed even where modern YA is concerned. Besides, at the rate dystopian fiction seems to be being produced recently, I’ll have enough to write a whole new list within the next few years.


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