Required Reading: Dystopic Books Where Kids Meet Tragic Fates


There’s a reason why books like the Hunger Games, the film version of which is expected to shatter box-office records when it premieres this week, are so immensely popular – adolescent and prepubescent readers just love dystopia stories, where the fate of a totalitarian-governed people rests entirely on the shoulders of one kid. Isn’t that what it feels like to be going through puberty, after all? One day you’re a child, and the next day these weird things are happening to you and everyone tells you that it’s normal and you totally don’t buy it for a second?

Well, it just so happens that there are a lot of other novels out there in which horrible stuff happens to a whole bunch of children, which we guess is supposed to be some metaphor for society’s corrupting influence, or something. And don’t worry, they’re not all tragic and depressing! Well, okay, most of them are. But a lot of them are quite good! Check out our picks for kids and adults who are looking for some Hunger Games-like reading material, after the jump.

Among the Hidden by Margaret Peterson Haddix, 1998

In this seven-book series by Margaret Peterson Haddix, the future Earth is ridiculously overpopulated, so the government caps the number of children each family can have at two. Families who accidentally have more children must keep them hidden or face the wrath of the Population Police. Twelve-year-old Luke Garner is a third child, or “shadow child,” and has to live in total isolation until he is given the opportunity to escape. Even then, he and his shadow-child friends are constantly on the run or living in fear; a lot of them end up dead, in fact. That’s a rough life to get stuck with just because your parents didn’t use protection.

The Uglies by Scott Westerfield, 2005

At the age of 16, everyone in this post-petroleum world is required to undergo extreme cosmetic surgery so that they can all be pretty – sort of like that one Twilight Zone episode, only the series keeps going after the main character is transformed, in the books Pretties, Specials, and Extras. The series is a little weird in its approach to cutting and self-harm, so if you do give it to a 15-year-old, the topic might merit some discussion, but overall it’s an interesting take on the importance of beauty in modern society.

The House of the Scorpion by Nancy Farmer, 2002

Matt is a young boy who lives in a country called Opium, which exists between the United States and Mexico (now called Aztlán) and which primarily exports – you guessed it – opium. The State is ruled by Matteo Alacrán, or El Patrón, who enslaves illegal immigrants, transforms them into zombies, and makes them work on his farm. Matt is a clone of El Patrón who was created so that the drug lord could take his organs, and he spends a good chunk of the novel worrying that his 143-year-old genetic donor won’t die. It’s a pretty amazing story, and even though it was written almost a decade ago, it’s still pretty relevant today.

The Giver by Lois Lowry, 1994

Hands up, who didn’t read this in elementary or middle school? Well, you all are missing out, because this Newberry Award winner is definitely worth your time. Jonas is a 12-year-old in a society that has eliminated both pain and emotional depth from the lives of its citizens. Jonas is appointed to become the “Receiver of Memory,” who holds all the memories of past experiences that happened before the society came about. As he is given more knowledge, he becomes horrified about what happens in his village (including sterilization and infanticide) and runs away. The book is followed by two later companion novels, but in our opinion the first is still the best.

Lord of the Flies by William Golding, 1954

Hopefully you read this in school (or at least saw the Simpsons parody), but if not then here’s a recap: a group of young British boys gets stuck on a deserted island and are forced to govern themselves, which doesn’t really go all that well. Really not well, in fact. You know what? Just go get the book if you don’t know what it’s about. Where were you in tenth-grade English class, anyway?

Matched by Ally Condie, 2010

Cassia is a 17-year-old girl living in the Society (It’s always called “The Society,” isn’t it? Gosh, guys, at least Suzanne Collins came up with a name for Panem), which pairs its citizens up with the soul mates using a complicated algorithm and distinct class markers. When she uses her microchip, though, she catches a glimpse of someone she isn’t supposed to be paired with, Ky. Together they fall into a forbidden love and attempt to keep it secret from the government. The book has already been optioned for a movie by Disney.

Ender’s Game by Orson Scott Card, 1985

It’s the far-off future and humanity is at war with a buglike species of aliens, so the government rounds up all the brightest children at a very, very young age and sends them off to Battle School to be trained in the art of war. Ender Wiggin, the book’s protagonist, is naturally the most tactically gifted of the bunch, and must defend his planet against the hoard. He’s also a “third” child as well, and his older brother is a psychopath. The book is actually recommended reading at several lower ranks of the US Marine Corps, and guess what? There’s a movie set for next year.

Partials by Dan Wells, 2012

Humanity is at war with a race of engineered organic beings that are identical to humans. These beings are called Partials, presumably because the name “Cylons” was taken. There are only 10,000 humans left and they all live on Long Island, but they are unable to produce children. It’s up to one girl, 16-year-old Kira (side note: Have you all noticed that the boys in dystopias are always 12 and under, and the girls are always 16 and up? Weird), to discover what’s wrong.

A Game of Thrones by George R. R. Martin, 1996

Okay, this one takes a little explaining so hear us out – maybe Westeros isn’t necessarily a “dystopia” in that it doesn’t take in a futuristic, post-apocalyptic landscape or anything, but a lot of the other books we’ve listed deal with a child coming to terms with the extremely negative aspects of their own crumbling civilization, and isn’t that what A Song of Ice and Fire is all about? Especially in the book version, where Robb Stark, Jon Snow, and Danerys Targaryen are 14, Sansa is 11, Bran is ten, and Arya is nine. And they’re all getting pushed out of windows and engaged to wife-beaters and forced to fight each other! How’s that for horrible stuff happening to children?