The dystopian genre is hot — particularly for YA readers.
In the school media center where I volunteer each week, books like The Hunger Games trilogy fly off the shelves. The waiting list is into the double digits. And students are constantly checking in to see if a copy has been returned early. Ditto for the City of Ember series, The Giver, Unwind, and The Maze Runner trilogy. While classics such as Animal Farm, Fahrenheit 451, and Lord of the Flies are less popular, we’ve still seen a noticeable uptick in the number of copies circulating this year. What’s the big deal with the dystopian genre?
The battle over the bad place
The word dystopia comes from the Greek, meaning “bad place.”
The genre typically explores political and social oppression, and the novels often take place in a grim, post-apocalyptic future. Some educators and parents consider the themes in the dystopian genre to be too dark, mature, and violent for students. It makes them nervous.
Many dystopian novels, including The Giver, Lord of the Flies, Brave New World, and Animal Farm perennially appear on the American Library Association’s list of challenged and banned books — books that various individuals and groups attempt to remove from schools and libraries each year.
The dystopian genre as a teaching tool
While many of these groups claim that the novels seek to “brainwash” students, dystopian literature actually prompts the opposite. Students can explore the constructs of societies and how they function, as well as the concepts of oppression, fear, and manipulation.
Dystopian literature can be used across the curriculum. The Hunger Games, for example, can be used to study the economics of supply and demand. In the books, the government controls which goods and services are available to various districts, using starvation and deprivation as a means of social control. Students can also explore how governments and individuals wield power. They can study how power can be used to corrupt or for the greater good. They can also examine the importance of political alliances, and how governments in dystopian novels correspond to actual present-day regimes. Students can compare visual depictions of utopias versus dystopias through paintings and other artworks, as well as the ethics of citizens trying to survive in dystopian societies (here’s a related lesson plan).
Why kids love dystopian books
I suspect that the dystopian genre resonates with kids so strongly because, to some extent, they are experiencing some of the same challenges as the novels’ characters, albeit on a smaller scale. Characters in dystopian novels often struggle against unfair authoritarian regimes and have little control over their lives.
Students often feel that they are at the mercy of their parents, teachers, coaches, and sometimes peers. Perhaps they identify with the battle for autonomy and freedom waged by their literary counterparts. Yet despite the oppressive conditions that appear in such novels, hope is a prevailing theme in the dystopian genre. The characters ultimately gather themselves to find the courage, knowledge, and resources to battle the enemy. And they generally do it through sheer intelligence and guts.
The stories are compelling, thought-provoking, and prompt readers to think “What would I do in that situation?” In a nutshell, it’s The Little Engine That Could, but placed in a dark, tormented world where survival is ultimately at stake.
Written by Joann Wasik