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What Makes a Good YA Dystopian Novel?

Dystopias are characterized as a society that is a counter-utopia, a repressed, controlled, restricted system with multiple social controls put into place via government, military, or a powerful authority figure. Issues of surveillance and invasive technologies are often key, as is a consistent emphasis that this is not a place where you’d want to live.

In the same way that talking about fantasy books without mentioning a certain boy wizard would be absurd (see Roger Sutton’s “What Hath Harry Wrought?”), any discussion of YA dystopia must acknowledge the impact of the taut, intricately plotted, and haunting Hunger Games trilogy by Suzanne Collins. While YA dystopias existed before it (and many of these were spawned by Lois Lowry’s The Giver, for younger readers), there is no discounting the bump in numbers and popularity since The Hunger Games was published, and the movie has only served to draw more attention. Thus, it’s helpful to know what makes for a good YA dystopian novel, and to have some titles in mind when you get the inevitable groan from teens after they finish Mockingjay and want more to read.

A note on definition: while shambling, brain-eating zombies; nuclear holocausts; electromagnetic space pulses that knock out most of the population; or alien invasions all make for compelling reading, they do not necessarily fall into the category of dystopia. Now, if the survivors of those various tragedies form a messed-up society where freedoms are curtailed in order to protect its citizens from imagined future terrible events, then we’re talking dystopia.

There are four major elements that appear consistently in good YA dystopian novels. Certainly a book need not have all of them, but the best do: a setting so vividly and clearly described that it becomes almost a character in itself; individuals or forces in charge who have a legitimate reason for being as they are; protagonists who are shaped by their environment and situations; and a conclusion that reflects the almost always dire circumstances.

In Across the Universe by Beth Revis, the setting is an interstellar spaceship, Godspeed, which is at once wondrous and claustrophobic to Amy, who was awoken from a cryogenic chamber and must now navigate the physical and social anomalies of this self-contained world. The descriptions are riveting, and the layers of lies that are built around the ship (and keep the generations who live and die within its walls docile) make the ship itself as integral an element as protagonist Amy.

In Fever Crumb, Philip Reeve uses gripping, slightly mysterious, complex language to describe his setting. The city of London and its scrambling, scrappy residents, the strange and slowly disintegrating giant head in which the Engineers live, and the very earliest rumblings (this novel is set centuries before Reeve’s Mortal Engines quartet) of the mechanics that will allow for the moving cities are stunning. The humor built into the descriptions is an elegant contrast to Fever’s hyper-rational approach to life, and the setting acts as an impressive foil against which she must struggle to remain the same rather than be shaped by the larger, much more wild and unpredictable but simultaneously much richer world.

IncarceronA clever setting-as-character example is the world of Incarceron by Catherine Fisher. The prison experiment called Incarceron, a now self-aware and tyrannical entity, shapes the dystopia as much as the people who exist there. Fisher’s protagonists are intriguing and well developed, but even they are less memorable than the brilliantly conceived Incarceron that — having escaped the control of its original creators — sees, influences, punishes, and restricts according to its own standards.

MatchedA bad guy with no depth, vulnerability, history, or context functions as a foil for the protagonist but adds little else to the story. Depth of character makes the struggle between good and evil (against an individual or society) far more vivid. In the Hunger Games trilogy, Snow is one of many worthy villains; interestingly, he is perhaps the more blatantly malign but also slightly more sympathetic villain (in comparison to Coin) to emerge from the series. It is clear that he is following in a line of leaders who made similar choices, and it is equally clear that he is an exaggerated representation of the society in which he came to power. The lack of a specific “bad guy” but rather an example of a well-intentioned society gone horribly awry is presented in Ally Condie’s Matched, where the earnest and well-meaning Society has evolved into an entity that has whittled down the world into manageable, easily digestible amounts: this society allows exactly one hundred songs (and pictures, poems, etc.) and arranges carefully planned love matches that take any guesswork out of romance. It is all safe and cozy and may not immediately appear dystopian — until the reality of not being able to shape anything in your own life truly sinks in.

In Ashes, Ashes by Jo Treggiari, Lucy is prepared to acknowledge that ninety-nine percent of the population is gone and that her choices are few. What she isn’t ready to accept, and what makes this novel so complex, is that she is apparently the only immune person left on Earth, and she could best help the planet’s survival by giving her blood — all her blood — for medical use. The pace is superb, and the vivid descriptions of the new attempts at society are well crafted, but it is the choices the amoral but brilliant scientists make that push Lucy to define herself as martyr or survivor. The fact that the key scientist still feels like the kindest person Lucy has recently encountered complicates things all the more, as it lays bare how intensely vulnerable and alone she is in this ravaged world.

It is convenient to the story to have a rebel grandparent or elder who remembers how it used to be “before” and can account for how his or her offspring is different than the average citizen, but for the most part good dystopian novels don’t just take contemporary characters from realistic fiction and dump them into dystopic settings. The characters who clearly cannot see beyond the ways in which they have been raised force readers to consider not only how they might respond in that society, but also to thoughtfully assess elements of adolescence that carry across setting (snark, pushing at boundaries, curiosity about and interest in the newest technology, hormonal adjustments). Scott Westerfeld’s Uglies series, set in a dystopian environment where resources are plentiful but the use of them is highly suspect, offers characters shaped by having been raised in this world of enforced conformity. While some resist and others embrace it, Westerfeld’s protagonists are carefully operating within the boundaries of his creepy, image-obsessed world.

FeedTwo prime examples from opposite ends of the dystopian civilization spectrum are M. T. Anderson’s Feed and the Chaos Walking trilogy by Patrick Ness. Both address the effects of being permanently tapped into constantly flowing information (in Ness’s world, it is more metaphorical as a virus that causes thoughts to be heard; in Anderson’s capitalist nightmare everything is literally messaged directly into your brain), and both feature protagonists who reflect their environments, even as they catch occasional glimpses of how life could be otherwise. The protagonists are so richly developed, so compelling, and so hopelessly ensnared that they evoke sympathy even as they inevitably exasperate the reader.

Finally, Divergent by Veronica Roth is a movie-ready example of a novel that includes tantalizing snippets of a dystopic society that has led to citizens deriving their identity from belonging to one of five personality-based factions. While much of the focus is actually on Beatrice’s response to not slotting perfectly into one of those factions and her training once she chooses, there is no doubt that she will indeed select from the limited options she is presented, unable to envision what a different path would resemble.

AshesIn terms of how a novel wraps up, hopeful is good, and measured optimism works beautifully, but often you just can’t escape unscathed. In some cases, authors are daring enough (or heartless enough, depending on your tolerance for sad endings) to let their protagonists face seemingly insurmountable obstacles and find that they are, indeed, just that. The shocking conclusion of Ashes by Ilsa J. Bick is one of the coolest new examples of this: while the novel is closer to post-apocalyptic than pure dystopia, there is certainly a dystopic community in which Alex finds herself — a settlement that doesn’t try to exist as the world had been before but is shaped by an entirely new set of morals and standards. This paradigm shift, should the members survive their own chilling ethical choices, will surely result in a quintessential dystopic world.

The Eleventh PlagueThe Eleventh Plague by Jeff Hirsch is also set as an end-of-the-world survival novel, but the strictly controlled elements of the community that has rebuilt itself to resemble how life used to be (complete with creepy baseball games that feel so…eerily incorrect in their very normalcy) seem like an obvious example of dystopia masking as utopia. Life there is better than what exists outside of Settler’s Landing, but the protagonist is forced to conclude that there is no such thing as a true haven anymore.

Little BrotherCory Doctorow’s Little Brother probably represents the purest example on the list — modern technology meets classic dystopic elementseven while the book itself is part instructional guide, part love story, and part rant at the increasingly dictatorial powers that be that consider safety at any cost a reasonable exchange. Small personal victories for the protagonist and his friends are present, but the power of Big Brother is hardly tempered by their work, and the folks who tangled with the government are all permanently scarred by the encounter.

A bonus element from the above titles is the lingering point of consideration with which readers are left — wondering how and where they would fit (disturbing the universe, representing one of the masses, or somewhere in between), and perhaps also contemplating how near or far their own social structure is from what they just read. All the titles above lend themselves to such musings, and the protagonists within are also likely to give some thought to these issues — it is often how they move from quiet discontent to activism. Of course, these questions are moot when you aren’t sure if you are going to survive at all, and there are several dystopian novels that feature characters who (though the reader knows better) would scoff at the notion of philosophical debate, given that they are literally running, fighting, or competing to stay alive. Well-written dystopias, the most memorable ones, offer both: space for asking big-scale life questions along with plenty of adventure and danger to keep things exciting as one cogitates.

Good YA Dystopias

Feed (Candlewick, 2002) by M. T. Anderson

Ashes (Egmont, 2011) by Ilsa J. Bick

Hunger Games trilogy: The Hunger Games (Scholastic, 2008), Catching Fire (2009), Mockingjay (2010) by Suzanne Collins

Matched (Dutton, 2010) by Ally Condie (sequel Crossed, 2011)

Little Brother (Tor, 2008) by Cory Doctorow

Incarceron (Dial, 2010) by Catherine Fisher (sequel Sapphique, 2010)

The Eleventh Plague (Scholastic, 2011) by Jeff Hirsch

Chaos Walking trilogy: The Knife of Never Letting Go (Candlewick, 2008), The Ask and the Answer (2009), Monsters of Men (2010) by Patrick Ness

Fever Crumb (Scholastic, 2010) by Philip Reeve (sequel A Web of Air, 2011)

Across the Universe (Razorbill/Penguin, 2011) by Beth Revis (sequel A Million Suns, 2012)

Divergent (Tegen/HarperCollins, 2011) by Veronica Roth (sequel Insurgent, May 2012)

Ashes, Ashes (Scholastic, 2011) by Jo Treggiari

The Uglies series: Uglies (Simon Pulse, 2005), Pretties (2005), Specials (2006), Extras (2007) by Scott Westerfeld

From the May/June 2012 issue of The Horn Book Magazine.
April Spisak
April Spisak
April Spisak is a former reviewer for The Bulletin of the Center for Children’s Books. After working as a youth services librarian for several years, she returned to the University of Illinois for the PhD program, and is currently a student.
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Julie @ Audiobooks Reviews

April, it`s the great list! Love it! Pinned. About book "Divergent" I was interested for a good whole in the premise and overall story, but that quickly faded away when our main character discovers a romantic interest. Every other chapter at least from that point forward is exposition about how their kisses and touch feel against each other. Its technically PG rated, I guess, but lost my interest in the rest of the story. I won't be continuing the series. Julie,

Posted : Aug 24, 2018 02:59

Chris Jackson, CMA

Philip Reeve is my all time favorite author.

Posted : Mar 13, 2018 08:15


Philip Reeve a great author, deserves a movie on his novel. Unfortunately Novels are most of times better than the movies, Hollywood writers always mess up with the original story or the characters. Great list.

Posted : Sep 24, 2015 03:39


Good dystopias are when you can see your world in theirs, and when you find yourself in the main character's shoes. When you start to believe that this world is wrong, you begin to act like the protagonist, and get pulled in the story. I think that is the one true sign of a good book. When you fight for that imaginary place without a second thought.

Posted : Dec 21, 2013 12:59

The Last Word : Paperback Writer: The Online Home for Ilsa J. Bick

[...] say that I broke several rules, and I did that on purpose. In fact, the end breaks enough rules that a recent Horn Book article talked specifically about this: that the “shocking” conclusion was among the [...]

Posted : Aug 06, 2012 05:01

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