Dystopian science fiction and fantasy appeals to many kids in middle school (possibly not a coincidence), but though kids that age might be drawn to the young adult titles, those often have levels of violence and romance that are still too much for 9-12 year olds (I’m looking at you, Hunger Games). Fortunately there are plenty of middle grade friendly dystopias whose disastrous futures and oppressive governments will entrance young readers without giving them nightmares.
The Giver, by Lois Lowry
This is the classic middle grade dystopia; though published more than 25 years ago, it’s still enduringly popular. 12-year-old Jonas lives in a world that has eliminate inequality and violence. But the flip side of this “sameness” is that all color and emotional depth has been sacrificed. Only one member of the community, the Giver, still has access to memories from the time before the Sameness. And Jonas is chosen to be his apprentice. Overwhelmed by new emotions and new knowledge, Jonas struggles with his assumptions, and finds himself hurtling toward the ending of his old safe life.
Though The Giver is still widely read and taught in schools, there are plenty of new middle grade dystopias to choose from. Here are some of my favorites.
Dreambender, by Ronald Kidd
After the Warming with its disastrous floods, survivors determined not to repeat the mistakes of their ancestors founded a city where technology and the arts are forbidden. Everyone is assigned a job by the authorities; 13-year-old Callie works as a “computer,” crunching numbers with pencil and paper, though she dreams of singing. But the authorities of the City aren’t actually in control. Instead, there’s a secret enclave of dreambenders who reach into the dreams of the City’s residents and twist away any subversive thoughts of anything forbidden, like music. Jeremey, a boy Callie’s age, is one of the newest dreambenders. He’s keen to do well, but then he enters Callie’s dreams and can’t bring himself to eliminate the beautiful songs he hears there. Forbidden to do any more dream bending because of this transgression, he sets out to find her in real life. When the two join forces, their efforts change their world. Though they face opposition, victory comes pretty easily, and so it’s a good pick for younger readers not quite ready to be truly emotionally wrenched, but ready to have their horizons expanded by disturbing what-ifs.
The Roar, by Emma Clayton, and its sequel, The Whisper
In an overcrowded and flooded London, where life is a brutal struggle, a boy named Mika refuses to believe his twin sister is dead. He’s right; in fact she’s desperately flying a stolen pod fighter homeward, escaping from imprisonment in a mysterious spaceship. But before they’re reunited, a new Program is announced that will make the kids of London “Fit and Happy”. It’s virtual reality video game, based on flying pod-fighters in combat, offering fabulous prizes to kids who have nothing. Despite his growing unease, Mica knows that if he is a winner, he has a better chance of finding his sister…But as the Program gets more difficult, the kids realize they are pawns in a much larger game with the future of humanity and the natural world at stake. The powers they’ve been acquiring could tip the balance in their favor if they can unite to form an army of their own. Especially recommended for kids who love video games that involve blowing up space ships, and those who care about the environment.
A Whisper of Horses, by Zillah Bethell
The only horses Serendipity has ever seen are statues and paintings. There are no living horses in the city of Lahn Dan (London), a walled enclave run by a dictatorial government, whose people are trapped in a rigid caste system and by their belief that outside the guarded walls is a land made toxic by the gases of a past war. When her mother dies, Seren find she had a sketch map showing the impossible—horses outside the city. Inspired by her new dream of horses, and with little to keep her in the city (she’s a member of the lowest social order), Seren escapes to the other side of the wall. There she travels along crumbling old roads through a world with more life in it than she’d guessed. But she’s being hunted by the government of Lahn Dan….and her quest becomes a perilous game of cat and mouse. Horse loves might be a bit disappointed that Seren doesn’t meet the horses till the very end, but her journey to find them is exciting enough to compensate!
Mysteries of Cove: Fires of Invention, by J. Scott Savage, and its sequel, Gears of Revolution
The children of Cove know that pollution caused by misused technology drove their ancestors underground, and that creativity could destroy their society. No one is allowed to change the way things are, because everything works just right. Trenton is the sort of kid who sees machines and wants to improve them. When he meets Kallista, daughter of a maverick inventor who apparently caused a fatal explosion, he finds a partner in criminal creativity. Kallista’s father left her the plans for a coal-powered “dragon” that’s more than a fun project. Instead, it’s needed to combat a deadly threat lurking outside of Cove. Creativity can save the settlement, but it takes a disaster before its leaders acknowledge this. In the sequel, Trenton and Kallista set off on their mechanical dragon, following more clues from her father, through skies full of real dragons, to another outpost of humanity with its own dangerous secrets….These are great books to give to any young reader fascinated by making things, particularly “steampunk” sorts of things, especially if they like dragons.
The Firefly Code, by Megan Frazer Blakemore
Mori and her friends live in a company town where everything is beautifully organized and carefully planned, including the kids themselves—they are a mix of genetic engineering and nature. Then Ilana arrives, even more perfect than everyone else. Almost too perfect…but just right for Mori, who becomes her best friend. When Mori and the other kids start exploring the abandoned home of a company founder, they find out that the utopia in which they live has dark secrets. And they learn that Ilana, though she seems perfect, might in fact be a lot more flawed than is good for her. With Ilana’s survival at stake, Mori must question everything she’s taken for granted about her sheltered life and decide if it’s worth keeping. Though it has pretty broad appeal to young speculative fiction fans, it’s especially great for the girl who loves books about middle school friendship drama, but isn’t quite sure she likes science fiction.
Edge of Extinction: the Ark Plan, by Laura Martin
Civilization collapsed when the dinosaurs were brought back to life. They brought a virus with them that almost wiped out humanity, and then made themselves at home in the wild. Survivors banded together in underground communities run by totalitarian governments, keeping remnants of civilization intact. Sky has never been outside her community, but when she finds a letter from her father who left many years ago, she decides to follow the instructions he left her and travel to Lake Michigan to find him. With her best friend, Shawn, she sets off into the dinosaur-infested outside world. But Sky and Shawn are woefully unprepared to survive in an ordinary world, let alone one full of predators! The dinosaurs aren’t the only ones hunting them—the government of their community also has a mysterious interest in wanting to bring them back. It’s an exciting adventure, with the dystopian framework adding tension to the survival story.
The Last Wild, by Piers Torday, and its sequel, The Dark Wild
Everyone knows that animals no longer exist in the world; they have been eradicated by the government to prevent disease. So when twelve-year-old Kester Jaynes, locked away in a home for troubled children, meets a flock of talking pigeons and a strong-minded cockroach, he thinks he’s going nuts. But the animals are real, and they have come to Kester to ask for help saving the last bit of the wild, where there are still living creatures. To save the animals, Kester will have to trust them, and trust a stubborn girl named Polly who also knows that there is more of the wild still left than the dystopian government will admit to. If Kester and his allies, both human and animal, can persevere, they can find the key to undo the mass extinction and heal the planet. If they can’t, humanity is doomed.
Unnaturals: The Battle Begins, by Devon Hughes, and its sequel, Escape from Lion’s Head
In a toxic, overheated future, a violent entertainment keeps both the rich and poor enthralled. Mutated animals, the Unnaturals, which are pitted against each other in the arena. Castor, an ordinary stray dog, never wanted to be a fighter. Nor did he want enormous wings and eagle talons. Castor and the other animals in his batch of Unnaturals seem to have no choice. It’s either fight each other or be tortured. Then Castor finds a most unlikely friend in the veteran fighter Pookie, a Chihuahua crossed with a giant spider, who helps him believe he can stay true to himself and maybe even find a way to escape….Though Castor doesn’t know it, he has human allies as well-two kids who are appalled by the brutality of the battles and who put themselves in harm’s way to help the creatures escape. The sequel takes Castor and his fellow mutants on a dangerous journey toward freedom. Animal-lovers might find the horror of the animals’ mistreatment hard to take, but will find themselves absorbed by this gripping story of survival.
Parched, by Melanie Crowder
This one is set in a near future version of southern Africa, where rising sea levels have turned fresh water undrinkable, and the coastal cities have collapsed into chaos. Desperate men come to Sarel’s farm, and kill her parents. But they do not find her, or the farm’s secret well. For now, she can keep herself and the family dogs alive…and the dogs themselves wonder, in bits of narration from their doggish perspective, what will become of them. In one of the crumbling cities, a boy named Musa has a gift for finding water. But there’s no water left in the city to find, and the thugs who control him and his gift are losing patience. He escapes into the countryside, meeting Sarel just as her own water runs out. Maybe he can find the water they need to have a future, but the men who owned him are still hunting for him….This one isn’t for the faint of heart, what with beloved people (and then the dogs) being shot, brutal child-enslavement, and a depressing near future. But it’s tremendously engrossing, a good eye-opener for the kid who’s always taken water for granted, and a great one for fans of stories about kids surviving without grown-ups around.
Icebreaker, by Lian Tanner, and its sequels, Sunker’s Deep and Battlesong
Three hundred years ago, civilization collapsed in a wave of anti–technology fervor. Ever since then, the Oyster, an ancient icebreaker, has been circling around and around the southern sea. The Oyster was part of a plan to salvage civilization for the future, but this purpose has been forgotten, and its inhabitants have broken into three warring tribes. Twelve-year-old Petrel is an outcast who belongs to no tribe. In the dark depths of the giant ship, her only friends are two utterly extraordinary rats. Then a boy is found alone on an iceberg, and Petrel saves him. But he’s been sent on a mission from the Devouts of the anti-technology government to find and destroy the Oyster, along with its secrets. The second and third books expand the scope of the series beyond the single vessel, sending Petrel and her friends out to directly confront the Devouts. The vividly described settings, the strange future world, and the great cast of characters make for fascinating reading.
What are your favorite dystopian novels for young readers?