Teens are devouring the current popular literature of the dark, grim, and dismal: the dystopian novel. Bleak story lines about leaders who terrorize citizens every year by making them watch teens fight to the death and governments who condone mandatory operations to remove emotion describe two of the popular dystopian novels that teens are reading. But just what is a dystopian novel and how long has it been around? And there's the bigger question: why is this type of novel so appealing to teens?
A dystopia is a society that is broken down, unpleasant, or in an oppressed or terrorized state. Unlike a utopia, a perfect world, dystopias are grim, dark, and hopeless. They reveal society's greatest fears. Totalitarian governments rule and the needs and wants of individuals become subordinate to the state. In most dystopian novels, a tyrannical government is trying to suppress and control its citizens by taking away their individuality, as in the classics 1984 and Brave New World. Dystopian governments also ban activities that encourage individual thinking. The government's response to individual thinking in Ray Bradbury's classic Fahrenheit 451? Burn the books!
Dystopian novels are not new to the reading public. Since the late 1890s, H.G. Wells, Ray Bradbury, and George Orwell have entertained audiences with their classics about Martians, book burnings, and Big Brother. Over the years, other dystopian books like Nancy Farmer's The House of the Scorpion and Lois Lowry's Newbery-winning book The Giver have given younger characters a more central role in dystopian settings.
Since 2000, dystopian novels for teens have retained the dismal, dark setting, but the nature of the characters has changed. Characters are no longer passive and powerless citizens, but teens who are empowered, fearless, strong, and determined to find a way to survive and face their fears. Major characters have influential personalities that oppressive governments attempt to control but cannot.
A recent example of this type of teen dystopian novel is the incredibly popular Hunger Games series (Scholastic, 2008) where the central character is a sixteen-year-old girl named Katniss who is willing to take her sister's place in the annual game where teens from 12 different districts must fight to the death. Katniss commits a deliberate act of rebellion against the Capital that keeps readers on the edge of their seats.
In the dystopian novel Delirium (Simon and Schuster, 2011), the government teaches citizens that love is a dangerous disease that must be eradicated. By age 18, everyone must undergo a mandatory operation to remove the ability to feel love. Lena, who is looking forward to the operation and fears love, meets a boy and together they flee the government and find the truth.
In yet another favorite dystopian novel called Divergent (Katherine Tegen Books, 2011), teens must unite themselves with factions based on virtues, but when the main character is told she's divergent, she becomes a threat to the government and must keep secrets in order to protect her loved ones from harm.
So what do teens find so appealing about dystopian novels? Teens in dystopian novels get to perform ultimate acts of rebellion against authority, and that's appealing. Conquering a dismal future is empowering, especially when the teens have to rely on themselves without having to answer to parents, teachers, or other authoritarian figures. Teen readers can certainly relate to those feelings.
Today's teen dystopian novels contain teen characters who exhibit strength, courage, and conviction. Although death, war, and violence exist, a more positive and hopeful message about the future is being sent by teens who are facing future fears and conquering them.