Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary defines a dystopia as “an imagined world or society in which people lead wretched, dehumanized, fearful lives.” This description sounds dark and gloomy, but as a former English teacher, I’ve always enjoyed reading dystopian novels the most, and my kids have loved them just as much.
It’s true that heavier dystopian reads are best reserved for high school or later. For example, I’m a big fan of “The Handmaid’s Tale” but will leave that one off this list for obvious reasons. However, there’s a reason why “The Hunger Games” and “Divergent” are box office hits for younger audiences — they started as books that middle-schoolers loved.
Even though some people think these novels are pessimistic, the stories encourage students to think about deep, philosophical questions and reflect on our society. And isn’t that a fantastic lesson to hand a child through a book?
Let’s check out some top middle school dystopian novels that will have your students thinking about the power of change.
6 good dystopian books to read with your students
1. “The Giver” by Lois Lowry
I taught “The Giver” every year, and it’s still one of my favorite books. This young adolescent novel takes place in a futuristic society where there is no pain or lies, and everything looks just peachy — that is, until you delve deeper and discover the wacky rules governing this society.
For starters, families consist of a mom, dad, boy, and girl, and let’s just say they aren’t created in the traditional way. And in this society, you don’t choose your job — at the Ceremony of 12, the elders choose it for you. We could go on all day here, but that should get your students pondering about themes like choice and governance.
The lead character, Jonas, just turned 12, and like other kids his age, he looks forward to (and is also a bit anxious about) what his job will be.
I don’t want to give too much away, but I will say that this book touches on themes of the power of memories, government control, and scapegoating. I reserved this book for sixth grade: However, some teachers prefer to teach it in seventh or eighth. The text is straightforward, but the themes are heavy.
“The Giver” is a young adult classic that challenges conformity and authority, so it’s no mystery why it remains a middle school favorite.
2. “Matched” by Ally Condie
Imagine an uncluttered world where there are only 100 songs and books and a government that tells you whom to love. That’s the premise of “Matched” by Ally Condie.
The protagonist, a 17-year-old girl named Cassia Reyes, prepares for a traditional ceremony that will supposedly match her with her true love (talk about eliminating all of the awkward dates!)
She finds out that she’s matched with her best friend — great! But then, she sees another face who isn’t eligible for the ceremony. Can you smell a love triangle brewing?
Let’s say things get complicated, and secrets start to pour out about what’s really going on in this mysterious world.
If your boys can get past the cover, they’ll find that this book is not just for girls and has some excellent themes like the importance of free will and the unpredictability of love.
3. “The Hunger” Games by Suzanne Collins
Okay, you had to know this one was going to be on here, right? We covered The Hunger Games in a previous post, and it’s one of my all-time favorite books.
“The Hunger Games” takes place in a futuristic version of the United States that’s now run by the wealthiest of all its districts: The Capitol. This tyrannical dictatorship puts on the annual Hunger Games, where kids are selected from each district at random to duke it out to the death.
The Capitol organizes the games for its entertainment and to remind the people of the failed rebellions of the past. In other words, its leaders want to publicly demonstrate their power and freakish control.
Sure, there’s some debate about this book because it’s about kids who are thrust into a futuristic arena where they fight each other to the death. Yes, it’s dark, but within this dystopian novel, there are also messages of hope and overcoming obstacles. Plus, the female hero, Katniss Everdeen, is an inspirational young girl who’s a positive role model for students of any age — and any gender.
The story sparks lots of great discussions about human nature, rebelling for a cause, and the power of family and friendship.
Let’s just say that students won’t have a shortage of essential questions to reflect on.
4. “Maze Runner” by James Dashner
Imagine if you woke up in a creepy maze with no memory but your first name? This is the concept behind “Maze Runner” — the first book in James Dashner’s post-apocalyptic trilogy.
The lead character, Thomas, arrives at The Glade, a mysterious place that traps kids together. The only way out appears to be through a maze that functions on some pattern that no one has figured out yet.
Life in The Glade runs on a hierarchy of children who have come up with rules for everyone to follow. Food and supplies are sent through an elevator that also brings in more confused kids. So someone wants them to survive — or do they?
But when a mysterious girl arrives in the elevator with a note stating that she’s the last one, things really heat up.
Students are drawn to this thriller that even has adults biting their nails.
5. “Divergent” by Veronica Roth
“Divergent” is a trilogy that takes place within a futuristic society where people are grouped into factions according to their personalities to keep them under control. The protagonist, Tris, must go through a series of tests to join the risk-taking Dauntless group or else be relegated to the dreaded Factionless.
This action-packed adventure explores the importance of family and adult
After its release in 2011, this novel took middle schools by storm, and most of my students were reading it on their own. Seriously, my students were the ones who got me hooked on the series. Don’t you love it when that happens?
6. “Uglies” by Scott Westerfield
This 2005 hit follows Tally Youngblood, who lives in a futuristic society where, at the age of 16, everyone undertakes full-body plastic surgery to go from an “Ugly” to a “Pretty.” But after discovering some disturbing facts about this process, Tally refuses the procedure. So, does that mean she’ll remain an “Ugly” forever?
This book remains popular with middle schoolers because adolescents are at that age of physical change and may get hung up on how they and others look. “Uglies” is a great read that tends to relate to many students and puts a whole new spin on the famous quote that “beauty is only skin deep.”
The point of dystopian novels
Dystopian novels are often a hit with middle schoolers even though they explore sensitive topics. But isn’t that the beauty of reading? Books are meant to motivate us to ask the big questions and to reflect on how we as a society (and individuals) can change.
All in all, these dystopian novels teach powerful lessons and ask philosophical questions that not only get kids thinking but also benefit adults.
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