A Tuesday Ten: Dystopian Visions

Dystopias are all the rage right now.  Suzanne Collins Hunger Games trilogy helped to make the whole notion of “dystopias” into something everyone is talking about.  Generally speaking, dystopias are the polar opposite of utopias.  As described by the online dictionary, a dystopia is: “ An imaginary place or state in which the condition of life is extremely bad, as from deprivation, oppression, or terror.”  

Dystopian fiction really isn’t a new thing.  Adult literature has plenty of examples, including  Brave New World and 1984.  Teen fiction has pretty much exploded with dystopian fare since the success of The Hunger Games.  But relatively little of that has trickled down into middle grade fiction.  Part of this is understandable. Dystopian stories are meant to unsettle us, to question things like safety versus risk, consumerism vs. preservation,  religion vs. science.  But that doesn’t mean there’s never been any dystopian fiction for middle grade readers.  Here’s a quick run through of ten dystopian visions, some current, some from decades past.

My apologies, but in the middle of this I seem to have lost the ability to hyperlink text.  When the problem is fixed I will go back and add the links.


The Giver by Lois Lowry (Ember, c1993)

This chilling Newbery medal winner has been a popular one with reading lists–and has gotten itself on a lot of contested book lists.  It’s one of the trickier stories because Lowry doesn’t reveal her hand right away when writing this.  Readers going into this don’t necessarily know they’re going to be confronted with a dystopia.  The world Jonas lives in actually appears to be perfect: no war, no pain, no fear.  Readers might think at first this is a utopian vision–but they quickly are taught otherwise.  Jonas’ perfect community is a world where everything is scripted, where there may be no fear or pain, but there’s also no love.  As Jonas takes on more and more of his role of Reciever within the community readers start to see the darkness that underlies this society.  The absolutely cold calculation of each life, how it will be spent and how it will be ended.  There’s a reason this won the Newbery (the only dystopia novel that has done so, I believe)–this is a book that will make you uneasy, and make you think and consider what you might be willing to sacrifice for peace, safety and contentment.


Among the Hidden by Margaret Peterson Haddix (Aladdin, c1998)

This series hits a bit closer to a near future reality where an oppressive government has taken over and the Population Police forbid any family having more than two children.  Luke  is a secret third child who has had to remain hidden all his life.   He’s never had a birthday or gone outside his house, because he’s a Shadow Child, a child whose very existence is illegal.  Luke’s never thought of risking his safety, until he see’s a face in a neighboring window belonging to a girl who is also a third child like himself.   Does he dare risk contacting her?  This is book one in the Shadow Children series of seven books.  A great series to read and discuss in regards to population control and the rights of a human being versus the state.


The Scavengers by Michael Perry (HarperCollins, Expected Publication: September 2014)

Twelve-year-old Ford Falcon, aka Maggie, lives in a near future where the climate has gone a bit crazy and civilization has been breaking down.  In this future, people are offered two choices: to live in the huge Bubble cities that will protect them and keep them safe and secure, or to live out Bubble, scavenging off the land to survive, fighting off bad weather, solar bears, and GreyDevils.   Maggie’s learned how to handle just about anything–until the day her family disappears.  Now Ford Falcon will need all her courage to find them and bring her family back together again.  This is one of those books that offers a sort of dual option: danger and hardship, but living free vs. safety and comfort but depending on others to survive in a controlled environment.  Which one is the better choice?


Devil on My Back by Monica Hughes (J. McRae Books, c1984)

An old favorite from Monica Hughes.  In this future, post apocalyptic world, one community has put their survival in the hands of a central machine.  This machine gives the elites a direct body hook up to all sorts of information and power while the rest of the society live in servitude.  All of them are prisoners to the whim of the central computer’s decisions. Tomi  is a son of the colony overlord who manages to escape the control of the computer and discover the rebels who are fighting to free the colony from the computer’s control.  The cover is particularly awful on this one, but it’s a great story.


The White Mountains by John Christopher (Simon Pulse, c1967)

The aliens invaded–and won.  Humanity has lived under the thumb of alien overlords for many years and every human child is “capped”  at age 14–a way that the giant tripods have of controlling the minds of the human population.  Rather than be capped himself, Will Parker runs away in search of those still fighting the alien’s dominion.  John Christopher’s view of an alien triumph is frightening, but the struggle against the alien oppressors is much more straight forward than many dystopia visions.  Our villains are clearly other and readers can feel free to root for the human side in the conflict.  This is the first book in Christopher’s The Tripods series.


 Eva by Peter Dickinson (Laurel Leaf, c1988)

This is an unforgettable read.  Eva is a thirteen-year-old who is nearly killed in an accident–in order to save her, her parents transfer her mind to the body of a chimpanzee.  Now Eva is still Eva, but she’s no longer in the body of a human.  Living in a world that seems to be falling apart at the seams,  Eva must struggle to come to terms with her new existence, and perhaps see it as a gift of hope for the future rather than a curse.  This is a very dark and profound tween novel that really made me think.  This dystopia is about a modern/futuristic civilization that is inexorably running down and breaking down–Eva’s world is a daunting one, and even the glimpses of hope offered are not all that positive for the civilization we know.


The Unwanteds by Lisa McMann (Aladdin, 2011)

A fantasy dystopian series, set in the country of Quill, where life is strictly measured and creativity is a crime.  Those who exhibit creative streaks or artistic sides wind up being labelled Unwanteds, and sentenced to death.  Wanteds are those who are strong, intelligent and productive and are sent to the elite schools.  Twins Alex and Aaron are torn apart from each other when Alex is condemned as Unwanted and Aaron honored as a Wanted.  But death for Alex is not so certain.  For beyond the walls of the supposed “death farm”  there’s a magical place called Artime.  It is full of Unwanteds like Alex who are learning how to use their own powers of creativity and magic.  But when the sanctuary of Artime is threatened, it may pit brother against brother . . .  A dystopian tale where we’re presented with a sort of yin/yang set of realms, each one valuing things and embracing ways that the other does not.  This is the first in an ongoing series that currently has four published titles.


Obernewtyn by Isobelle Carmody (Tor books, c 1987)

This is the first book in the seven book series the Obernewtyn Chronicles, a post apocalyptic dystopian future where WWIII has happened, and what is left of humankind is struggling to survive with a much more primitive life style.  After the Age of Chaos, people camed together and formed the Council to help keep them safe.  But the Council fears people like  Elspeth and others born “different”.  Anyone who is different or who exhibits unusual abilities is hunted down and killed.  Elspeth’s only chance at survival is to keep her powers hidden.  This totalitarian world held in the grip of a religious Council isn’t easy to hide from.  And in the end, Elspeth and other misfits may have only one recourse: a place called Obernewtyn.  Psychic powers, dark prophecies and dangerous adventures await!  Dystopian futures where a religious order has strict dominion are not uncommon, but it’s worth including one on this list.


The City of Ember by Jeanne DuPrau (Yearling, c2003)

The city of Ember is located deep under ground.  It is lit only by electrical lights and it’s citizens have learned how to live in the murky depths.  But now things are getting critical.  Supplies are running out, equipment is breaking down and one by one the lights that illuminate Ember are going out.  Our young protagonists, Lina and Doon must follow clues left by the founders that will give them a way to escape the dark and return to the surface world above.  This is the first title in the Book of Ember series which has four titles in all.  The story takes us from the dystopian world below the Earth where things are running down, to the start of a new life and community–and all the struggles that come with it.


This Time of Darkness by H. M. Hoover (Starscape, c1980)

An old favorite of mine.  H. M. Hoover wrote a number of dystopian stories for children including this tale.  Our young protagonist lives in one of the many levels of the worker city that exists under ground.  The people there live in cramped quarters, only being taught enough to do the jobs they’ve been assigned.  Reading is outlawed and the workers are discouraged from having much imagination or intiative. Eleven-year-old Amy has a secret, she’s been taught to read.  She wonders about the world beyond the tunnels and levels she knows.  So when a boy she’s never seen comes in on a supply wagon, and he claims he’s from Outside, she’s willing to believe him.  The two children find their way to escape the worker levels into the city above–but that city may hold its own dangers.  Hoover creates a unsustainable city structure here–one where the seemingly utopian domed cities only function due to the levels of workers endlessly toiling in the earth below.

So there’s my ten!  I bet we can name some more without too much effort!  What are your favorites?

Comments welcome!

About Stephanie Whelan

I'm a children's librarian with a life-long love of all things science fiction and fantasy.

Posted on May 28, 2014, in General Posts, Lists and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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