Catching Up With Dystopia

Learn what some of these popular YA books are about -- and what parents should know about them.

By Allison McDonald



When I was 13, I tried hard to get into the Sweet Valley High books because it seemed like everyone was reading them. I couldn't do it. Instead I read and re-read Anne of Green GablesThe Westing Game, and everything Judy Blume wrote. I craved strong female characters. If the dystopian genre had been big way back then, I never would have slept. There are so many great books with strong female characters, male characters with depth (they aren't just the hero), and big topics for young readers to wrestle with.

That said, not all parents are ready to let their tweens or young teens read books that seem to be targeted at the high school crowd. I am not going to tell you what is right for your children or family. That is your part. My part is to help you feel like you have a handle on what these books are about. Ideally, all parents would have enough time to read everything first. But seriously, who has time for that? When I was researching this post, I dove head first into these books and used my treadmill time, bath time, and my way-after-I-should-be-sleeping time to read them. Expecting parents to be able to pre-read everything is unrealistic, although I encourage any of you who want to go for it. You might be surprised at how well done these YA novels are -- it's my new favorite genre.

The Selection Trilogy by Kiera Cass

I am just going to come out and say I devoured these books. I read the final book in one sitting and barely slept. The author sucked me in with a compelling story about a televised competition between 35 young women from all different castes trying to win the heart of their crown Prince. The cat fights, dirty tricks, and beauty-pageant-like scenes were minimal. Instead, what readers get is a heroine named America who doesn't want to be there and a love story that starts with friendship. As the Prince slowly sends the selected home, the drama isn't all between the young women. There are political problems, angst between the Prince and his father, and of course America's true love shows up.  What would young adult fiction be without a love triangle? Ultimately the value in this trilogy isn't just its page-turning power; it is in the character of America who is brave, strong, and most importantly always herself.  A lot of critics turn their noses up at the lack of depth these books have, but I am of the camp that if a book is entertaining, it's doing its job. Not everything we read needs to be Dostoyevsky. I fell in love with America and her spirit, and would be happy to have her as a positive role model for my daughter.

What Parents Should Know:

  • This book may hook non-readers. The story is entertaining and easy to follow, and if I had a young teen who complained about how boring books are I would reach for this one.
  • There is discussion of physical abuse by a parent.
  • As the trilogy progresses, there is more sexuality. But it is always pretty chaste, and no relationship is consummated until after marriage.

Matched Trilogy by Ally Condie

In this dystopian society, young people are matched with their life partner as teens, matched with their vocation, and everything they do is laid out for them, even when they will die. Cassia believes the society works until there is a blip on the screen when she sees her match for the first time. She sees more than one face. Cassia struggles with her realization that the society is not what she thought it was. She is a good kid who doesn't rebel for kicks. When her feelings for the boy who isn't the one society says she should be matched with blossom, she finds the courage to dig deeper and do what's right - not what has been prescribed for her. Overall, this is a love story squished into a story about breaking down a system that is no longer working for the good of the people.

What Parents Should Know:

  • There is some violence and poor treatment of minorities, but these are presented in ways that put them in a poor light. There is no glorification of either.
  • Parents should get ready for some conversations about the price of government involvement in people's lives as well as how doing what is right doesn't always mean following the rules.

The Maze Runner Trilogy by James Dashner

Of all these trilogies, this one took the longest for me to get into, yet it was the one with the most action from the get-go. I am naturally attracted to books with strong female leads and in The Maze Runner, the main character and most supporting characters are male. Thomas, the main character, has real depth: he isn't sure all the time, he doesn't use force without thinking, and he is vulnerable while being strong. The story is masked in mystery as readers are as clueless as the characters stuck in a maze with no explanation of why. As the story progresses over three books, it becomes clear that the children are part of some experiment and they must decide who to trust to stay alive. There is a deep message about how capable teenagers truly are, and if I was a teen reading this I think I would have taken that message to heart. The characters are solid and intelligence is praised as much as, if not more than, physical strength.

What Parents Should Know:

  • There is some gruesome violence and cruelty in this book, but I don't think any of it was overly gratuitous within the context of a heartless experiment and the treatment of the subjects.
  • The book's theme of sacrificing some for the greater good is a wonderful springboard for discussions with your tween or teen. Is it right to hurt a few to help many? Very thought-provoking.

Delirium Trilogy by Lauren Oliver

Delirium's brand of dystopia is a country with closed borders, arranged marriages, and a cure for love. Love has no place in this society and, at age 18, all citizens have a procedure to stop them from being able to experience it. This trilogy is darker than the other three, and some of the themes about love and attachment might be lost on younger teens, even if the action won't be. Our heroine is Lena who, like many of the heroines in some of the other books, starts out believing in her society until something (or rather someone) sparks her need for the truth. The truth she is seeking nearly kills her, reunites her with people she thought she lost forever, and forces her to become someone new entirely. While Lena's circumstances are much more dramatic than those of teen readers, the emotions she feels will be ones teens can relate to, including friendship issues. This trilogy is not as fast-paced as some — I didn't race through it like many of the other trilogies — but I savored the writing much more. It is beautifully written, and the author's talent is apparent.

What Parents Should Know:

  • A great topic to discuss with your children reading this trilogy is all the different ways that people love.
  • There are numerous references to suicide throughout the book, as well as some violence and battles in the later part of the trilogy.
  • If your teen is mature and found the other books on this list "too easy," then give Delirium a try!

Divergent Trilogy by Veronica Roth

This trilogy is picking up speed because of the recent movie. Its dystopian society is on a much smaller scale than many others, as the whole first book takes place in the futuristic ruins of Chicago. The main character is Tris, a young woman discovering her own gifts while uncovering the reality of the society she has always believed in. The society she knows has factions, which not only separate the people and their gifts, but also keep society working because everyone has a place. However, she soon discovers it's not that simple.  This trilogy is largely about government control for the greater good vs. personal freedom with less of a safety net. And, of course, there is a love story woven into it as well.

What Parents Should Know:

  • It has a fantastic female main character. I loved Tris. I loved her vulnerability and stubbornness, and I loved her relationship with her mother and the way she handled all the obstacles in her way.
  • The whole book is about rebellion. Rebelling against your family norms, rebelling against society, even rebelling against your own fears. Exploring rebellion is part of becoming an adult, but as a parent I would want to know that my child was reading about this so I could be prepared for a dialogue with him/her about it.
  • The other thing I would want parents to know about is that there is a subplot about child abuse. I don't think this would be upsetting to teen readers, but it could be an opportunity for you to talk to your child about abuse.

Are your teens reading dystopian fiction? What books do they love? How did you decide if they were ready for the themes discussed? Tell us about it on the Scholastic Parents Facebook page.

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