New York State School Boards Association

Today's teens love dystopian novels about fighting authoritarian gov'ts

by Gayle Simidian

On Board Online • February 5, 2018

By Gayle Simidian
Research Analyst

What are teenagers reading for fun these days? Novels in which young people struggle against oppressive governments.

As any high school librarian will tell you, teens like novels about dystopias, which are nightmare societies in which individuals are oppressed. Perhaps the best known example is Suzanne Collins' Hunger Games series, in which a teenage character named Katniss Everdeen grows into a symbol of rebellion against a central government.

A lot of teens identify with characters like Katniss, according to Wendy J. Glenn, a professor of education at the University of Colorado Boulder who has studied dystopian literature.

The message teens eagerly absorb is that one can and should fight for what is right - even if adults and the government don't espouse the same beliefs, Glenn said. Katniss "is a remarkable character" because she will fight for justice regardless of the obstacles before her, she said.

Rebelling against the government is also a theme in the young adult novel Uglies by Scott Westerfeld. In that book's imaginary future, the government mandates all youths receive plastic surgery at the age of 16 to achieve beauty.

There is no question that young adult authors are political, and that appeals to young readers, Westerfeld wrote in his blog in 2008. But he thinks the interest in his book is rooted in something else: "I've always said that the success of Uglies is partly thanks to high school being a dystopia: a bell rings and you march to your next station; what you say and wear is monitored; the newspapers are censored - for your own good!"

Paradoxically, dystopian novels are a place young readers can find optimism. Today's adolescents grew up during the Great Recession, notes Nicholas Junkerman, assistant professor of English at Skidmore College in Saratoga Springs. These young people witnessed "the failure of adults to sustain the planet, the economy, social harmony," he said. So it can be appealing for them to read novels that highlight teen characters who try to mend the ills of society, he said.

According to Junkerman, these novels can be springboards for classroom discussions about "freedom, duty, the relationship between individual desires and the common good."

The popularity of last year's video series The Handmaid's Tale is an example of how dystopian fiction appeals to adults, as well. There has been a marked rise in the percentage of novels labeled dystopian by members of Goodreads, the online book recommendation website.

Whether Donald Trump's election to the presidency has anything to do with the trend is open to debate. George Orwell's classic novel 1984 (originally published in 1949) shot to No. 1 on Amazon's bestseller list in January 2017 - the month Trump took office - and put pressure on the publisher to reprint 75,000 novels, according to USA Today.

According to NPR and other media outlets, this resurgence in popularity happened after Kellyanne Conway, a top aide to President Trump, introduced the term "alternative facts" to describe how the White House staff came up with the inauguration attendance numbers.

Gina Seymour, high school library media specialist in the Islip School District on Long Island, noticed the resurgence of popularity of 1984 last year. A student told her that the novel kept "coming up in his social media feed," she told On Board. When the student read the novel last year, he saw many parallels with what is happening today, she said.

While the protagonist of 1984 was Winston Smith, a 39-year-old man, more recent dystopian fiction often involves female lead characters. Like Katniss, these characters possess the strength and comport of traditional male leads while retaining enough femininity to garner wide appeal by both male and female readers, according to The Artifice, an online magazine.

Characters often navigate first loves and peer cliques, just like the average teen. In Divergent by Veronica Roth, the lead character, Beatrice, can't be categorized into one group like the rest of her society because she embodies traits of all the groups, which is viewed negatively by the government. This conveys "that it is okay to be different from everyone else," according to The Artifice.

The power of corporations can also be a theme. Feed by M.T. Anderson, a 2002 National Book Award Finalist, is about a world where ads are fed into everyone's brains via direct internet connections. In the novel, a few young people rebel.

A 2013 study edited by Glenn found that the major themes in these novels often coincide with adolescent development. The researchers examined 16 dystopian novels including Divergent, Feed, Uglies and The Hunger Games series. They noticed similar themes in these novels, including putting people into privileged and less privileged groups, taking away the arts and policing the general public.

Taken together, these themes fit into a broader thematic category that English professors call "inhumanity and isolation," because the protagonists in the novels come to the realization that their civilization is inhumane and that they must take action to rectify society, which often isolates them from others who don't understand them.

Another broader thematic category the researchers found is "agency and conscience," which they say coincides with adolescents' desire to make their own decisions and tackle complex moral issues.

Go to to view the study.

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