YA Science Fiction
Tendai, Rita, and Kuda are bored with living in the compound. In 2194, Zimbabwe is a dangerous place and their father (Zimbabwe’s chief of security) insists that they stay behind the high locked walls and never venture outside. But curiosity leads the three children to sneak out to explore the slums. Unfortunately, their sheltered life has not prepared them for the world outside and almost immediately, they are kidnapped. Frantic, their parents resort to hiring Zimbabwe’s most talented detectives: three mutant outcasts known as the Ear, the Eye, and the Arm. As the detectives use their special abilities to track the children, Tendai, Rita, and Kuda attempt to escape from their captors and wind up on a wild and dangerous adventure all across the impoverished country.
The dystopian worldview and suspenseful plot of this 1995 Newbery Honor book will be appealing to many fans of the Hunger Games and similar sci-fi novels. In addition to crafting an exciting plot, Farmer uses the extreme division of classes in her futuristic world to explore the tension between progress and tradition as well as themes of social responsibility. This book has been one of my favorites since my childhood, and I highly recommend it to middle grade and teen sci-fi fans.
After getting this question for the 80th time this summer, I thought I’d share some of my suggestions. Here are some older, slightly different, or less popular dystopian suggestions that you may find on the shelves:
The Looking Glass Wars by Frank Beddor
Although fantasy and not sci-fi, The Looking Glass Wars is a dark, action-packed adventure trilogy about the overthrow of a dystopian regime.
Uglies by Scott Westerfeld
This may not be checked in either, but if it is, HG lovers are sure to appreciate another dystopian thriller with an angsty love triangle.
The Bar Code Tattoo by Suzanne Weyn
This dytopian book is less popular than HG for a reason: it is not nearly as intense or action-packed. But it may tide readers over until the HG comes in.
The Ear, the Eye, and the Arm by Nancy Farmer
Nancy Farmer’s dystopian vision has a sharp division of classes similar to that in Panem, but this story is from the perspective of the rich kids–kidnapped and trying to survive in the slums–and the mutant detectives hired to find them.
The House of the Scorpion by Nancy Farmer
If they want HG for the action, this is not a good pick. But if their in it for the social commentary, Nancy Farmer’s dark vision of the twisted future of human cloning and drug lord rivalries is thrilling in its horror.
Ship Breaker by Paolo Bacigalupi
Despite its Printz win several years ago, Bacigalupi’s dytopian novel about impoverished teen shipwreck divers has declined in popularity. But adventure of Nailer’s attempt to save the life of a rich girl while dodging the wrath of his abusive father should have enough dark, violent action to appeal to HG fans.
Among the Hidden by Margaret Peterson Haddix
A little older and for a little bit of a younger audience, you may find on your shelves this dystopian thriller about a illegal child trying to survive on the run in an oppressive society.
Finn has never known any world except Incarceron. He was born in a cell, with one of the red eyes of the prison staring at him, mocking him. Some prisoners, like his blood brother Keiro, don’t believe that there is a world outside of the prison. But Finn believes, and he is determined to escape–even though the prison itself is alive and determined to stop him. When the violent prison tribe to which Finn belongs kidnaps a woman from a more peaceful tribe, Finn finally has the opportunity to learn something of his past and to gain a crystal key that may somehow unlock the prison. Through the key, he finds that he can communicate with a girl on the outside called Claudia, daughter of the warden of Incarceron. Claudia is betrothed to the heir to the throne in her own world, but she is really just a pawn in a political game between her father and the queen. But when she gets in touch with Finn and realizes that Incarceron is not a utopia as the government claims, she also begins to discover more dark secrets behind the throne. In order to unravel these secrets, Claudia must find a way to rescue Finn from Incarceron before her wedding day arrives.
Somewhere between science fiction and fantasy, Catherine Fisher’s dark dystopia will likely appeal to teens who enjoyed series like The Hunger Games and The Looking Glass Wars. The storytelling is gritty and fast-paced and the world of the prison is intricately imagined. Incarceron is followed by a sequel, Sapphique.
Read alikes for Incarceron include Finnikin of the Rock, The Looking Glass Wars, Reckless, The Replacement, The Hunger Games, and Ship Breaker. If you like dark dystopian novels, you may also be interested in this booklist.
In Ender’s world, it is not a good thing to be a third child. Earth has a strict law limiting families to only two children, and Ender is a third. This makes Ender’s parents suspect for possibly holding unconventional beliefs about the morality of contraception, and it makes Ender feel like a mistake, an unwanted and potentially dangerous creation. Only Ender’s sister, Valentine, makes him feel truly loved, protecting him as much as she can from the torments of their older brother, Peter. Peter is still bitter that he was not quite brilliant enough to be selected for an elite school that trains future military officers for the ongoing war between the Earthlings and the insect-like aliens called the “Buggers.” When Ender is of age, it initially seems that he will not make the cut for Command School either, as the government removes the implant that has been tracking his intellectual development. But after an incident at school where Ender fights back against a bully, fatally injuring him, the government returns and offers Ender a place at Command School. Overcoming the disadvantage of his small size, Ender excels at the tests thrown at him, most of which are framed as “games” that challenge him intellectually. But the greatest challenge may be navigating the social and political tensions at the school in order to prove that he has what it takes to lead an army against the Buggers.
Ender’s Game is a sci-fi classic. There is plenty of outer-space action, but the main focus of the novel is on character development and the relationships that fuel the social and political subtexts. I highly recommend this book to teen and adult sci-fi fans!
If you liked Ender’s Game, you might like the Foundation series by Isaac Asimov.
Meg tends to get into trouble at school. She’s very stubborn and quick-tempered, and although she’s brilliant at math, she can’t seem to complete the work the way her teachers want her to. Most of the fights she gets into with her peers revolve around defending her little brother Charles Wallace from accusations of being stupid or different–and around defending her firm belief that her father is coming back. Although he’s been gone for years on a secret mission for the government and they’ve had no contact, Meg, her brilliant scientist mother, and Charles Wallace (who is, in fact, the most brilliant of them all) are convinced that he is coming back. But what Meg does not expect is that one stormy night, three mysterious old women will whisk her, Charles Wallace, and their neighbor Calvin off the face of the Earth, to some distant planet where their father has been fighting an evil darkness that threatens to engulf the universe. Now, her father is imprisoned, and it is up to the three children to rescue him before the darkness overwhelms his soul.
This year marks the fiftieth anniversary of this classic children’s book’s release. A Wrinkle in Time is not just a great sci-fi novel. It explores themes of love and family, the balance between independence and relying on a parent, and the coexistence of courage and fear. This is a great coming-of-age novel that starts a fantastic sci-fi series. I highly recommend it to children and to teens!
Matt spent his early life in a secluded cottage, raised by Celia, a maid for El Patron, the 140 year old drug lord who rules over the land of Opium. But when Matt’s attempt to communicate with three new children leads to a serious injury, he is suddenly whisked into the strange world beyond the cottage. There, he learns that he is a clone of El Patron, a sub-human creation that many people consider to be equivalent to livestock. El Patron decides to protect Matt and raise him with the education and lifestyle befitting of a drug lord’s son, but Matt senses something sinister about the old man and his complicated family business, although Celia and his new bodyguard Tam Lin will not explain it to him. Matt will have to come to grips with his identity as a clone, the reason he was created, and the truth about El Patron’s Opium empire–because his life may depend on it.
Another great Sci-Fi novel from Nancy Farmer! She builds a vivid and terrifying dystopian landscape that explores potential moral consequences of cloning, as well as providing a commentary on how humans treat other humans, particularly immigrants and the working class. The novel has a nice blend of action and philosophical musing and will certainly be relatable to anyone who has ever struggled to find their identity or place in society. I highly recommend it to lovers of dark Sci-Fi novels!
Thanks for the suggestion, Grace!
In a parallel reality to Victorian England, a plague wipes out most of the country’s population–including the first one-hundred-thirty-nine people in line for the throne. The remnants of the British government must locate the next closest heir and his daughter, Ermintrude, both of whom are abroad.
At the same time, a giant tidal wave destroys a particular island nation. Only young Mau, who was away on a journey to become a man, has survived. He has left his boy soul on the island, so he arrives back at the Nation—not a boy, not a man, soulless—to bury the bodies of everyone he has ever known. The wave also wrecks the ship carrying Ermintrude back to England. The princess alone survives the wreck and leaves her old identity behind, changing her name to Daphne. Together, Mau and Daphne try to fathom the tragedy and rebuild their lives as other survivors begin to arrive on the island.
Pratchett does not conceal the grotesque reality of death. Nor does he avoid the intense spiritual and emotional questions that accompany the clash of cultures in a post-apocalyptic world. The characters wrestle with identity, cultural heritage, language, racial prejudice, religion, friendship, love, and grief. The philosophical questions are subtle and inconclusive, deftly woven into the narrative. And underlying all of it is Terry Pratchett’s quirky sense of humor–especially poignant in this dark context. Although written for young adults, Nation resonates with a broad audience. It will keep you thinking even after you put the book down!