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  • Reace Dedon

How Dystopian Young Adult Literature Shaped a Generation

The first dystopian young-adult novel was Lois Lowry’s “The Giver” in 1993. Following its success was a boom of young-adult dystopian literature which amassed millions in revenue through devout readership from young fans. Series like “The Hunger Games,” “Divergent,” and “The Maze Runner” center around familiar themes of capitalism, environmental collapse, and class division. What teen readers most connected with, however, was the protagonists who were able to defeat these systems. These stories were compelling to young adults for their plot and narrative style, but these same readers, now in adulthood, may find these repressive themes all too reflective of the real world. 

The main thread of many of these narratives—Jonas versus The Elders, Katniss versus the Capital, Tris versus the faction system, and Thomas versus WICKED—is the underrepresented majority against the powerful minority. The real world's increasingly volatile political climate which often debates queer and trans lives, systemic racism, and class division echoes the motifs addressed in the most popular dystopian novels from the 2010s.

The efforts of current right-wing law makers is eerily reminiscent of fictional regimes from “The Giver,” “The Hunger Games,” “Divergent,” and “The Maze Runner.” The goal of the Elders in “The Giver” is to enact “sameness” throughout their community with the intention of maintaining a superior race of humans which is conversant with the growing resurgence of naziism and xenophobia. The current economic crisis and the unwillingness of lawmakers to address poverty in the United States while billionaires continue to see profits mirrors The Capitol in “The Hunger Games,” which used class division to pray on the impoverished and turn them against one another. In “Divergent,” those who did not align with predetermined factions, otherwise known as “divergents,” were condemned and murdered. Many readers see this ideology reflected in anti-trans and queer legislation being enacted in states like Tennessee and Florida. The “Maze Runner” series explores the consequences of a sun-scorched Earth and the ability of the human race to survive on a destroyed planet. Recent pleas from environmental scientists for governments to address the human industrial impact on the Earth makes the events of “The Maze Runner” feel like a near future. While these books are seemingly dystopian scenarios on their own, younger generations more easily recognize them in reality. Adults who are familiar with this literature feel compelled, obliged even, to address these disparities.

Being cognizant of these parallels has made younger generations more politically active. Tufts University gauged that midterm elections in 2022 held the second highest youth vote in three generations. It’s easy for this generation to imagine themselves as Thomas, Katniss Everdeen, or Tris Prior when their conflicts so clearly align, albeit through a more modern lens. What has yet to be seen is a resolution in the real world. Jonas escapes his community. Katniss defeats the Capital. Tris destroys the memory potion. Thomas rebuilds society. These books have endings, yet there is no resolution on the horizon for young readers. What they do have is the willingness to make change and the hope that it will be enough.


Art by Lorraine Yang


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