Why is Teen Dystopian Literature on the Rise?

Thursday, January 13, 2011

For decades, teenagers have enjoyed stories of darkness and dystopia — from social critiques like “The Lord of the Flies” to dystopian nightmares like “A Clockwork Orange.” But in the last year or two, the market for dystopian and apocalyptic young adult fiction has exploded with more books and darker stories than ever, and the year ahead promises the most books in this genre to date.What's behind this teen dystopian trend, and why is there so much demand for it?

Patrik Henry Bass, senior editor at Essence Magazine, has some insights, as well as a reading list that he likes to call the “Ultimate Teen Dystopian Canon.”

Patrik’s Ultimate Teen Dystopian Canon:

  • "The Hunger Games," by Suzanne Collins: Heroine Katniss Everdeen lives in one of twelve numbered districts dominated by a decadent, exploitative central city called the Capitol. Every year, two children from each district are drafted by lottery to compete in a televised gladiatorial contest, the Hunger Games, which are held in a huge outdoor arena. The winner is the last child left alive.
  • "The Knife of Never Letting Go" (Book 1, "Chaos Walking" series), bu Patrick Ness: The Internet appears metaphorically, in the form of a virus that causes people’s thoughts to be broadcast into the minds of all those around them
  • "Uglies," "Pretties," "Specials" and "Extras," by Scott Westerfeld: All sixteen-year-olds undergo surgery to conform to a universal standard of prettiness determined by evolutionary biology.
  • “The House of Stairs,” by William Sleator: The story of five teenagers imprisoned in a seemingly infinite M. C. Escher-style network of staircases that ultimately turns out to be a gigantic Skinner box designed to condition their behavior.
  • "Little Brother," Cory Doctorow
  • "The Other Side of the Island," Allegra Goodman

Patrik’s Dystopian Classics:

  • "Brave New World" by Aldous Huxley
  • "1984" by George Orwell
  • "Lord of the Flies" by William Golding
  • "A Clockwork Orange" by Anthony Burgess
  • "Handmaid’s Tale" by Margaret Atwood

Produced by:

Kristen Meinzer


Patrik Henry Bass

Comments [15]

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Mar. 06 2013 10:56 PM
Tyler from Canada

Here are a few other books that are similar that people also might enjoy:

Feb. 22 2012 03:24 PM

I'm definitely interested in checking out some more of these YA dystopic novels. I've read some, but not all of them. The hard part is weeding out the good ones, that honestly try to connect to teenage readers and analyze a society, from the bad ones, that insert the stereotypical tropes but lack any kind of authenticity. Unfortunately, there are too many of these types of novels flooding the market right now.

Sep. 05 2011 09:23 PM
Stephen Graff from Woodbury, NJ

Dystopian fiction--if it's good and presents positive characters in the mix--can help readers prepare for future challenges in a world that seems to be increasingly difficult to comprehend. Even for well-versed adults and parents.

Aug. 06 2011 06:58 AM
John from Utah

I think recent YA dystopia lacks the reflection of our own society. Hunger Games is a great example. Though an entertaining read, it lacks any social commentary. How did we get to such a society? Who or what does the “capital” represent? Is it a critique of reality TV where we watch groups of people emotionally tear each other apart and this is the progression of our current popular culture? If so, the reader will never see the (non-existent) road signs (especially the younger reader.)
I think the dystopian novel is a cautionary tale that gives the reader road signs indicating how the present could become a dystopian future. You should see your own society in the reflection of the dystopian society. In my novel (e-book) Against Nature I start in the present and take the reader into the dystopian world. The catalyst is a global pandemic; a disease without a cure. I consciously put the road signs and reflections in the book. It’s what makes it a dystopian novel.
Sadly, I often find the road signs missing in YA dystopian fiction.

Jul. 27 2011 02:52 PM
John Mularoni

Among the Hidden by Margaret Peterson Haddix and the rest of the Shadow Children series should be on this list. I found them more enjoyable, "accurate" and chilling than even The Hunger Games.

Jan. 14 2011 04:24 PM
Lucinda from New Jersey

My daughters' favorite dystopian novels when they were younger (they are 18 and 20 now) were The Giver by Lois Lowry, Running out of Time by Margaret Haddix, and Among the Hidden, also by Margaret Haddix. While I wouldn't argue that they are classics in the sense that 1984 and Brave New World are, they are all excellent and I could certainly read them without gagging (and did).

I'm not sure what age we're talking about here. While I think the Handmaid's Tale is wonderful, I don't know if most 12 year olds could read it an understand it. The books I mention above were favorites around the ages of 10-12, though my older daughter asked after them just the other day.

Jan. 13 2011 10:31 PM
Alicia Conklin from NYC

Yes, kids are reading more dystopic novels now, not necessarily because they're responding to our crazy times, but because the adult YA writers are. Teens have always have liked this genre and they eat up edgy realistic fiction as well. And it's not just the disaffected teens--back in the 60's I was a Girl Scout (literally) but read whatever I could get of this type. It's just that now, finally, the adult writers have caught up with the teens and are providing books for their tastes.

The British and Aussies are also writing great YA dystopic stuff--John Marsden's Tomorrow When the War Began series, Melina Marchetta's Finnikin of the Rock, Karen Healey's Guardian of the Dead, just to name a few.

Jan. 13 2011 11:22 AM

Re: Art from Detroit -- I think that would be the novel We by "Yevgeny Zamyatin" and "...inspired Brave New World and 1984"

For YA dystopia, also happy to see Cory Doctorow's Little Brother on the list. It's a more realistic(?) take on what could go wrong in a security-obsessed San Francisco.

Jan. 13 2011 09:40 AM
Kristin from Lincoln, RI

Teen dystopian fiction is on the rise because teen fiction in general is on the rise. When I was growing up, I don't remember a separate
"Young Adult" section in the bookstore. It was combined with the children's section and did not have many selections. These days, recognizing the money-making possibilities by targeting the 12-18 year-old reading community, more writers are writing for this age group in mind. There are so many choices now in young adult literature, one of which is the dystopian literature

Jan. 13 2011 09:38 AM
Art from Detroit

The best unknown Dystopian novel would be We by Yogani Armington. It was written in Russia and 1921 and it was the novel inspired brave New War in 1984"

Jan. 13 2011 09:18 AM

Another strong entrant in this genere, IMHO, is Jeanne DuPrau's City of Ember series (4 books, 2003-2008, written from the perspective of tweeners learning the world they are living in is a dystopia. They all passed my key test for teen books: an adult could read them without gagging!

Jan. 13 2011 09:15 AM
Jason from Berkley, MI

I think it is a combination of things. I do think that dystopian lit has always been there. I remember reading 1984 and Farenheit 451 when I was a kid. I think the modern times have just changed the marketing to attract younger audiences. I also think that adults are being drawn to those books as well. I have read all of the Nicholas Flamel series and love them.

Jan. 13 2011 08:53 AM
Peg from Ithaca NY

How better to prepare our kids for the dystopian future they are soon to inherit from us? Also add "Feed" by MT Anderson and "Oryx and Crake" and "After the Flood" by Margaret Atwood.

Jan. 13 2011 08:15 AM
lisa von drasek from New York, New York

I disagree with Patrick Henry Bass's thesis that teens ages 12 and up are new to dystopic speculative fiction. Yes there seems to be an explosion because of the attention of the mainstream media because of the crossing over to adult readers as well as a generation of books published into growing young adult category. It is also not surprising to young adult librarians that these titles appeal to this age group. Their present world is out of their control. They are surrounded by predictions of doom…economic, environmental. A teen protagonist courageously surviving antagonistic authority is of course appealing and riveting. May I suggest Unwind by Neal Shusterman? What if parents had the opportunity to turn their oppositional teens in for transplant parts at around age 14 if they are oppositional, not really very talented or perhaps a little on the slacker side?
Lisa Von Drasek, librarian, Bank Street College of Eduction, pre-k through 8th grade.

Jan. 13 2011 07:19 AM

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