Books Kids Want to Read: Top 11 Dystopian Series for Teens in Middle and High School Kids
A dystopia is defined as a place where people live dehumanized and often fearful lives. Dystopian fiction is one of the most broad-reaching genres for middle and high school students. Both boys and girls love the genre, and though it’s existed for decades, primarily for adults, it’s the fastest growing genre for middle and high school kids. Dystopias seem to appeal to the common angst of “life sucks” felt amongst teens and tweens, and it gives them hope; no mater how bad they think their lives are, the situations in the books are worse, and the books’ protagonists always overcome their hardships and end up victorious. It also feeds their imaginations, as the books offer a wealth of “what if” scenarios.
The best part of many dystopian novels is so many come in series; it’s difficult to solve the world’s problems in one book. Kids read the first book in a series, love it, and then want to read the next. This is a great motivator for reluctant readers because they feel a connection to the characters, making them more likely to continue with a series than having to search to find a new book they have no connection to. As an English teacher, I’ve found that the best way to get my reluctant readers to read is to get them hooked on a series. They’ll read all the books, and then they’ll continue with similar books. Soon, my reluctant readers are avid readers, and their favorite genre (and mine, too) is by far dystopian fiction.
These books are great for adults, too, so parents will be able to share books with their kids, as the books listed below are fascinating reads for everyone!
1. The Hunger Games Trilogy by Suzanne Collins
The Hunger Games (2008)
Catching Fire (2009)
This series is absolutely amazing, and my school’s library can’t keep the books on the shelf; there’s a several week waiting list because each time a new kids reads the books, s/he recommends it to friends who then want to read it, too. I have yet to encounter a kid (or adult) who doesn’t like the series. I couldn’t put any of the books down. I read The Hunger Games one morning and afternoon, and immediately upon finishing it, I had to rush to the library to get Catching Fire, which I then stayed up most the night reading.
The trilogy follows Katniss, a resident of a post-nuclear United States (though it’s no longer the United States). The country has been divided into districts, and, as punishment for an attempted uprising against the government years ago, each district must send to kids to compete in the Hunger Games, a nationally-televised fight to the death, where the last person living is the victor, and the victor’s district receives special privileges. The Hunger Games follows Katniss’s struggle to survive the games. Catching Fire follows the fallout of the games, including an all-star match-up of victors being forced to compete against each other. Mockingjay, the last book in the series, follows Katniss as she works to survive the wrath of the Capitol.
The Tomorrow Series and Ellie Chronicles
2. The Tomorrow Series and The Ellie Chronicles by John Marsden
Tomorrow, When the War Began (1993) Tomorrow Series
The Dead of the Night (1994) Tomorrow Series
The Killing Frost (also known asThe Third Day, The Frost) (1995) Tomorrow Series
Darkness, Be My Friend (1996) Tomorrow Series
Burning for Revenge (1997) Tomorrow Series
The Night Is for Hunting (1998) Tomorrow Series
The Other Side of Dawn (1999) Tomorrow Series
While I Live (2003) Ellie Chronicles
Incurable (2005) Ellie Chronicles
Circle of Flight (2006) Ellie Chronicles
These series is by far my favorite of all books, not just within the genre. I only list it behind the Hunger Games Trilogy because it’s not as widely available. It’s an Australian series, but has been gaining international acclaim. Depending on your bookstore it may or may not be available, but you could ask them to order it for you (they’ve all been published in the United States now, so you won’t have to order them from Australia, like I did), or you can certainly find them online. This series is loved by kids and adults alike. In fact, Sweden even paid to have Tomorrow distributed to every student in the country because of it’s wide appeal to all readers, especially reluctant readers.
I list the Tomorrow series and the Ellie Chronicles together because they are companion series; the characters are the same. The main difference is that the Tomorrow series takes place during the war, and the Ellie Chronicles tell what happens after the war.
The series starts when Ellie and a group of her friends are off camping in the bush when their country is invaded and taken over by another country. When the kids return from their camping trip, they discover a much different country, and the series follows them as they struggle to stay alive, find their families, and fight off the enemy. The teenagers perform amazing acts of bravery as they successfully fight against the invading army.
The Ellie Chronicles picks up when the war ends. One might think that when the war ends, the problems for Ellie and her friends end, but life is still very difficult as Ellie is faced with several new problems, including trying to fit in with normal society after living as a soldier or guerrilla for so long.
The Shadow Children Series
3. The Shadow Children Series by Margaret Peterson Haddix
Among the Hidden (1998)
Among the Imposters (2001)
Among the Betrayed (2002)
Among the Barons (2003)
Among the Brave (2004)
Among the Enemy (2005)
Among the Free (2006)
This exciting series follows Luke, Nina, Trey, and Matthias, all third children, as they fight against an unjust government. While the government is corrupt and evil for a variety of reasons, their third child policy is perhaps one of the worst. It’s only legal for families to have two children, and any additional children are illegal. If third children are caught, they are often tortured, imprisoned, or even put to death, and their families face a variety of punishments. All of the third children, also known as shadow children, have faced isolated existences with little contact with the outside world. Most shadow children are kept in their houses away from windows so neighbors don’t accidentally see them and report them. They don’t know anyone other than their parents and siblings.
After Luke meets Jen, a shadow child neighbor, he is prompted to act so that he is no longer living a life of hiding. He, like the other shadow children who for various reasons leave home, is forced to take on a risky false identity. Luke and his friends are taking a significant risk just living, but they decide to go further and fight against the government so that no child is a shadow child anymore.
4. The Maze Runner Trilogy by James Dashner
The Maze Runner (2009)
The Scorch Trials (2010)
The Death Cure (to be released Oct. 11, 2011)
The Maze Runner Trilogy starts with Thomas, whose memory has been wiped of any information regarding his identity beyond his name, entering the Glade. The Glade is basically a small commune filled with teenage boys, also known as Gladers, all of whom are in the same situation as Thomas. The Glade is surrounded by a vast maze filled with Grievers, fierce deadly creatures. Despite the danger, several Gladers act as maze runners, desperately running the maze each day as they search for a way out of the Glade.
The Gladers finally figure out how to escape the Maze and discover that they have been part of a government experiment. The Scorch Trials has the boys put through a second phase of experimentation, supposedly for the good of society. They have all been told they have been infected with a deadly disease known as the Flare, and they have 14 days to get across the Scorch, and area of what used to be Mexico before deadly sun flares almost entirely destroyed the world in the equatorial areas. If they can survive the Scorch, they will be given the cure for the Flare, but many obstacles are standing against them: a group of girls also being experimented on who are out for blood, deadly heat and storms, and the Cranks, people who are at the stage of the Flare where they become blood-thirsty and crazy.
The Death Cure will be published in October, and Thomas and the other surviving Gladers will have to work with WICKED to help save the world.
5. The Declaration series by Gemma Malley
The Declaration (2007)
The Resistance (2008)
The Legacy (2011)
I’m not sure if there is truly a series name for this set of books, but
regardless, The Declaration and it’s
sequels The Resistance, and The Legacy is a great
series. The Declaration is set in 2140 in a world where people can
literally live forever, thanks to Longevity drugs. Because people can know live forever, there
is no longer need for children, unless parents opt out of Longevity (ensuring
their death), and they can have one child.
Any children born to parents who have not opted out are known as
Surpluses; they are confiscated by the government. Most are sent to Surplus Halls, but others
face worse consequences. They are
criminals, just for being born.
Surplus Anna has lived at Grange Hall since she was two, and she’s dedicated to becoming a Valuable Asset, so she can serve Legals as a housekeeper and make up for her existence and her use of Mother Nature’s resources. Until she meets Peter. Peter comes to Grange Hall and tells Anna about her family, who he claims love her. This completely goes against everything Anna has been taught at Grange Hall. The more she learns, though, the more difficult of a situation she is put in as she is forced to choose between staying in the familiarity of Grange Hall or escaping with Peter to the family he claims is waiting for her.
In The Resistance, we follow Peter as he works to help the underground movement by working for his grandfather, an extremely powerful man who manufactures Longevity drugs. Peter is there as a mole, seeking information to help stop the Longevity movement and make being young legal again.
The Legacy sees a virus spreading through the country, and Longevity does not make people immune. For the first time in decades, people are vulnerable to illness, causing chaos in the country. People are also learning the origins of Longevity+, which leaves quite the moral dilemma.
6. The Missing Series by Margaret Peterson Haddix
Torn (to be released August 23, 2011)
and the tentatively titled Caught, Kept, and Revealed, publication dates unknown, though, if keeping with the pattern, 2012, 2013, and 2014.
This series is about a group of kids who discover they are missing from time. In Found, Jonah and his friend Chip, both of whom are adopted, start getting strange notes. Through their investigation, helped by Jonah’s sister Katherine, they find other kids like them who are also adopted and are also receiving the strange notes. They then discover that they are children missing from time, famous children who disappeared throughout the ages, like King Edward V and his brother Richard, Virginia Dare, the Lindberg baby, etc. They were kidnapped by time travelers who make a fortune selling famous children to parents in the future, but a glitch caused them to land in the twenty-first century, and all of the kids were adopted.
In Sent, Jonah and Katherine go back to 1480 with Chip and Alex (King Edward V and Richard, Duke of York). They must help them survive life-threatening situations without altering history.
In Sabotaged, Jonah and Katherine must similarly help another missing child without doing anything to change history. This time they go back in time to Roanoke to help Andrea, who had previously been Virginia Dare, the first English baby born in the United States.
Little is known about the plots of the future books, but Torn will focus on Henry Hudson, and in the last book, Revealed, Jonah’s identity will be revealed.
The Last Survivors Series
7. The Last Survivors Trilogy by Susan Beth Pfeffer
Life As We Knew It (2006)
The Dead and Gone (2008)
This World We Live In (2010)
This trilogy seeks to explore what would happen if an asteroid hit the moon, knocking it out of orbit. As a result, natural disasters start running rampant, starting with tidal waves, earthquakes, and volcanic eruptions. The ash from the many volcanoes blocks out the sun, resulting in a significant cooling of the world.
The best book in the series (though the others are still good) is the first one, Life As We Knew It, which chronicles the experience of Miranda, a 16-year-old girl who lives in rural Pennsylvania. Her family faces many hardships and nearly starves as they struggle to survive the aftermath.
The second book, The Dead and Gone, follows 17-year-old Alex Morales, who lives in New York City. He’s with his sister’s Brianna and Julie. Their parents were at work when the disaster happened, and they have no idea what happened to them. Alex, as the oldest, is forced to try to keep his family alive, doing whatever it takes. He makes difficult decisions and has to do things that most people would never consider under normal circumstances, but he’s willing to do whatever it takes to take care of his sisters.
The final book, This World We Live In, unites Miranda and Alex, when Miranda’s father and step-mother arrive with three strangers, one of whom is Alex. Life continues to be difficult for those who survived the initial disaster, but it’s made worse when the town is hit by a tornado, and Miranda and Alex are left with more difficult situations to face.
8. The Tunnels Series by Roderick Gordon and Brian Williams
Grades 5+ (don’t let the size of the books intimidate you—they’re
long, but the reading level isn’t too high)
Tunnels (originally named The Highfield Mole) (2007)
Spiral (to be published Ocotober 2011)
The Tunnels series takes place in England. Will Burrows’ adopted father has disappeared, and Will and his friend Chester went searching for him. In their search, they end up discovering a world they didn’t know existed below ground known as the Colony. This is where Dr. Burrows disappeared, and as the two venture into the colony, they encounter a variety of problems, which start when they learn that Will was born in the Colony, but his mother, seeking a better life for him, escaped the Colony, and he was later adopted by a Topsoiler (those living above ground) family. The Colony is ruled by the Styx, a ruthless race of people, and Will discovers that his adopted sister Rebecca is one of them who was sent to keep an eye on them. Throughout the series, Will works to stay alive, keep Chester safe, find his family, and hopefully, make it back to topsoil alive.
9. Ember Series by Jeanne DuPrau
The City of Ember (2003)
The People of the Sparks (2005)
The Prophet of Yonwood (2006)
The Diamond of Darkhold (2008)
The first book, The City of Ember, is about a society that exists below ground; people immigrated to the underground city to protect themselves against what they saw as impending disasters that would destroy the world. Life has been fine underground, but then the electrical system that provides their only light starts to fail and their food supplies are faltering. Lina and Doon take it upon themselves to save themselves and everyone else by searching for a way out of the city.
The People of Sparks picks up with what happens once they escape the city and make it above ground. They start settling near an existing town, but conflicts arise between those who lived there and the newcomers.
The final book (I’m temporarily skipping the third), The Diamond of Darkhold, has those of Ember attempting to survive their last winter. Lina and Doon go back to Ember to find something they left behind that will help them all survive the difficult times.
The third book, The Prophet of Yonwood, is actually a prequel to the series, and so while the others should be read in order, this one could be read at any point. The book takes place more than 300 years before the other books, before the Disaster that those who lived in Ember were trying to escape. This book follows Nickie, who is with her aunt Crystal cleaning up her late great-grandfather’s house, which they’re going to sell. At the time, the United States is facing terrorist threats from the Phalanx Nations, and the country is desperate to find ways to survive the impending threats, and the creation of Ember is hinted at.
10. The Giver Trilogy by Lois Lowry
The Giver (1993)
Gathering Blue (2000)
This is a wonderful series loosely connected together, though as a teacher, when I recommend it, I must give a caveat that The Giver has become a staple middle school literature book (generally 7th grade), and you might want to check first before having your child read it. I hate to discourage a kid from reading a book s/he finds interesting, but when teaching a book, if a kid reads ahead or has already read the book, s/he frequently (and usually unintentionally) gives away parts of the book, and that often causes other kids to lose interest in the book.
With that said, however, this is a series, especially the first book, which should be read by everyone. The Giver tells the story of a futuristic society that has removed choice from people’s lives and has strict government control. Jobs are assigned, not chosen. Likewise, husbands and wives are also matched up, and children are not born to the couple, but rather assigned to them.
When Jonas reaches his twelfth year, he is assigned to be a Receiver of Memory. As he learns more and more about his society through his position, he is faced with the difficult decision to stay with his family or to try to escape.
Gathering Blue follows Kira, who has a magical ability with thread and color. Kira is intentionally left an orphan by the government, who seeks to control her abilities.
Messenger takes places in the Village, and its residents are all those who for various reasons have been cast out of their original communities. The main character is Matty, who longs to be the messenger. The Seer detects that a change is coming for the town, that the villagers will soon no longer be willing to take in those who are displaced, and he sends Matty on a journal to locate his daughter Kira.
11. The Uglies Series by Scott Westerfield
I have not yet read this series, though it’s very popular with my high school kids, especially the girls, and I’m told it’s very good, so even though I haven’t read it, I feel that it belongs on the list. It’s quite possible it belongs higher on the list, and once I have the chance to read it, it’s quite possible it may find itself higher.
The series takes place several hundred years in the future when people are all given surgery to make them look “pretty.” Everyone looks more or less the same, and the surgery also has the side effect of causing brain damage that eliminates hate, dissatisfaction, etc., providing, in theory, an ideal world.
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