Dystopian literature, especially of the young-adult variety, has exploded in popularity in recent years. Why should you consider teaching these kinds of books?

The Modern World is Pretty Scary—Especially for Young People

Every generation has its fears. I grew up at the tail end of the Cold War, and every once in a while our elementary school teachers would have us run through a drill in which we had to take cover under our desks, getting as low to the ground as possible. We were preparing for the first moments after a nuclear strike.

Kids growing up today probably aren't as afraid of nuclear war, but there's plenty going on in the world that could make even the most optimistic teen a little nervous. For example, here are just a few issues we're dealing with:

  • High levels of economic inequality
  • Drastic increase of corporate power and influence
  • Extreme weather events and natural disasters
  • Global pandemics
  • Mass surveillance of ordinary citizens
  • Criminals extracting personal information (Social Security Numbers, banking passwords, personal pictures, etc.) from supposedly secure websites
  • Increased automation of jobs
  • Economic downturn
  • Online harassment and bullying (which can spill offline when harassers publish personal information—including home addresses—about their targets)

That's a sizable list of scary things! Several of those problems weren't even problems 20 or so years ago. It's no wonder some of us are feeling a little pessimistic. 

Perhaps dystopian texts are so popular these days because . . .

Dystopian Novels Help Us Examine Real Fears

Dystopian fiction can help us understand why we're right to be afraid of certain things. For example, some people might believe that the mass surveillance of citizens by their own government is a necessary evil. But all we have to do is read 1984 to discover what a less virtuous government might do with all that power.

The best dystopian texts take something that already exists in our society and intensifies its effect or power. What if profit-motivated corporations directly controlled governments—or became states themselves? What happens when religious extremists take control of government and pass laws to control women? What are the dangers of putting people into rigid social castes from which they have no hope of escaping?

Dystopian fiction can help us think about all these scenarios without actually having to live through them. They can act as warnings, as suggestions for course correction. And they can help you and your students have discussions about the world as it stands now. Connecting literature to the real world is a great way for students to understand just what makes literature so important.

Dystopian Literature is Entertaining

Why is it that dystopian literature, with all its disaster scenarios and ominous warnings about the future, is so fun to read? There has to be a reason that teens are devouring books like The Hunger Games and Divergent.

Whatever the reason or reasons, there's no denying that these texts are engaging, especially those books under the umbrella of young-adult dystopian fiction. These titles have characters that your students can identify with—protagonists close to their own ages, with similar problems (well, besides living in a nightmare future society).

Students like to read these books. And when students like what they're reading, they're more likely to put in the effort to understand it. That makes teaching them about literary technique a lot easier. And we can all agree that's a good thing.

Imagine a world where every student actually wants to read. Sounds downright utopian, doesn't it?


10 Dystopian Novels for High School Students