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I’m on the tail end of a Hunger Games movie rewatch, and already feeling the pain of the nearing end. What the heck is it about young adult dystopian books that has me (and everyone else) absolutely hooked? Are they it purely appealing to nostalgia? Who knows!
Either way, I’m prolonging the feeling by writing a post about the best young adult dystopian books. These are not your “society is going downhill” books — they are the books that take place once that has already happened. From tyrannical governments to predetermined fates, this list has all the tropes characterizing the YA dystopian genre.
What is a dystopian book?
Way back in the 1500s, Thomas More originated the utopian novel with his book Utopia, in which he describes a seemingly perfect society. But as any writer knows, things are more fun when they go wrong, so the idea of a dystopian was sure to follow.
And follow it did, leading to a boom of books and TV shows that really doesn’t show any sign of slowing down. From Fahrenheit 451 to Blade Runner, dystopian stories have a rich history and continue to spark creativity in each new generation.
As you might be able to guess, a dystopian society is one where things are going very, very wrong — usually the result of a dictatorship or technological innovation or war or environmental disaster . . . You get the idea.
One important distinction to note is that while dystopian is often seen as the opposite of utopian, it’s not really that simple. They share many of the same traits–that’s why you often see a story progression of a character living in a “perfect” world suddenly realising things aren’t quite so wonderful. Dystopias and utopias masquerade as each other, and sometimes it can be difficult to tell them apart.
Books about dystopias are usually seen as cautionary tales, but they are also fantastic entertainment. Few “trends” in the book world have such longevity. Maybe we like dystopian novels for the same reason I believe we like true crime — when things are tough, it can be easier to get by through reminding yourself of how lucky you are. And boy, are we lucky to not be going through the same stuff as some of the teenagers in these books.
Because there are just so many dystopians out there to choose from, I’ve narrowed this list down to Young Adult books. As always, that doesn’t mean anything about the age of people reading the books, it simply denotes that the main character is a teenager. YA is for everyone.
The Best Young Adult Dystopian Books
Released: October 14, 2008
Series: The Hunger Games
Sequels: Catching Fire, Mockingjay
Adaptions: 2012 movie
Winning means fame and fortune. Losing means certain death. The Hunger Games have begun. . . .
In the ruins of a place once known as North America lies the nation of Panem, a shining Capitol surrounded by twelve outlying districts. The Capitol is harsh and cruel and keeps the districts in line by forcing them all to send one boy and one girl between the ages of twelve and eighteen to participate in the annual Hunger Games, a fight to the death on live TV.
Sixteen-year-old Katniss Everdeen regards it as a death sentence when she steps forward to take her sister’s place in the Games. But Katniss has been close to dead before-and survival, for her, is second nature. Without really meaning to, she becomes a contender. But if she is to win, she will have to start making choices that weigh survival against humanity and life against love.
Like it or not, this is the definitive example of how to write a YA book. I’m sorry, but truly, Collins crafted a work of art, and there’s no way I couldn’t list it as number one. Seriously–want to learn how to write the perfect story? Study this book.
Fun side story: When I was like 14 I stayed with an Austrian family for a few days and got to go to school with them. In their English class, their teacher gave all the students a scolding because they clearly hadn’t read their homework book. That book? You guessed it–The Hunger Games. In her exasperation, the teacher pointed to us American kids sitting silently in the back and exclaimed, “American kids read this for fun!” Yes, we sure did.
Later that evening, the girl was doing her “homework” and cracking open The Hunger Games. Now, they are all remarkably good at English, so she really didn’t have to ask for help, except with one tricky passage. “What does this word mean?” she leaned over and asked me, pointing to the line.
“Tribute.” The word was “tribute”. I swear to god I’m not making this up. I had to explain the line, “I volunteer for tribute.”
Released: November 15, 2011
Series: Shatter Me
Sequels: Unravel Me, Ignite Me (See the full Shatter Me series here.)
Adaptions: TV show was widely rumored but later scraped
One touch is all it takes. One touch, and Juliette Ferrars can leave a fully grown man gasping for air. One touch, and she can kill.
No one knows why Juliette has such incredible power. It feels like a curse, a burden that one person alone could never bear. But The Reestablishment sees it as a gift, sees her as an opportunity. An opportunity for a deadly weapon.
Juliette has never fought for herself before. But when she’s reunited with the one person who ever cared about her, she finds a strength she never knew she had.
Shatter Me is one of the most indulgent series I know–a seriously binge-able series of young adult dystopian books about a girl with powers and her fight to overthrow the government holding her captive.
Juliette is also, in my opinion, a fantastic character. I think we all know by now the tragic trope of the YA dystopian heroine, a plain-but-also-beautiful girl with a basic personality and no thoughts of her own. Juliette isn’t that, and has a wonderful arc throughout the series. Mafi is also masterful at making a very hated character likeable.
Released: October 6, 2009
Series: The Maze Runner
Sequels: The Scorch Trials, The Death Cure
Adaptions: 2014 movie
When Thomas wakes up in the lift, the only thing he can remember is his name. He’s surrounded by strangers–boys whose memories are also gone.
Outside the towering stone walls that surround them is a limitless, ever-changing maze. It’s the only way out–and no one’s ever made it through alive.
Then a girl arrives. The first girl ever. And the message she delivers is terrifying: Remember. Survive. Run.
Ah, The Maze Runner. When I was in high school, my school assigned Killing Lincoln as a one-book-one-school summer assignment. Clearly, it didn’t go well, because the following year they did a U-turn and gave us The Maze Runner instead. I was the only person in my group who had actually read beyond the first book, and everyone else convinced me to spoil it for them. What’s a book girl good for if not that? That was my last year, so I’m not sure if the school’s delve into young adult dystopian books stuck around or not.
Anyways, James Dashner had a fall from grace a while back, so The Maze Runner is a little duller in my eyes. The story, however, is still fantastic and probably the closest thing you’ll find to The Hunger Games. Maybe buy it from a used bookstore.
Released: April 2011
Sequels: Insurgent, Allegiant
Adaptions: 2014 film
One choice can transform you. Beatrice Prior’s society is divided into five factions–Candor (the honest), Abnegation (the selfless), Dauntless (the brave), Amity (the peaceful), and Erudite (the intelligent). Beatrice must choose between staying with her Abnegation family and transferring factions.
Her choice will shock her community and herself. But the newly christened Tris also has a secret, one she’s determined to keep hidden, because in this world, what makes you different makes you dangerous.
I first read Divergent back when I eagerly bought sequels on their release date, and oh boy it was difficult waiting for the next instalments. This dystopian world is classic in it’s catalyst–upon turning a certain age, people are sorted into factions that fit them best, determined by a higher authority. Who doesn’t love a story with that premise? As one of the most famous young adult dystopian books, Divergent doesn’t disappoint, and by the third book, goes some truly wild places.
Released: November 29, 2011
Sequels: Prodigy, Champion
What was once the western United States is now home to the Republic, a nation perpetually at war with its neighbors. Born into an elite family in one of the Republic’s wealthiest districts, fifteen-year-old June is a prodigy being groomed for success in the Republic’s highest military circles.
Born into the slums, fifteen-year-old Day is the country’s most wanted criminal. But his motives may not be as malicious as they seem.
From very different worlds, June and Day have no reason to cross paths – until the day June’s brother, Metias, is murdered and Day becomes the prime suspect. Caught in the ultimate game of cat and mouse, Day is in a race for his family’s survival, while June seeks to avenge Metias’s death.
But in a shocking turn of events, the two uncover the truth of what has really brought them together, and the sinister lengths their country will go to keep its secrets.
Out of all the books on this list, Legend is the one I read most recently and can seriously vouch for. I do find some of the age gaps (especially in the latter books) a little uncomfortable, but perhaps that’s just because I’m older than most people are when they read this one for the first time. Nevertheless, I am on the last book and fully happy I picked these up — they are good.
Released: November 30, 2010
Sequels: Crossed, Reached
Adaptions: Rumors in early 2010s, appears to have been scrapped
In the Society, Officials decide. Who you love. Where you work. When you die.
Cassia has always trusted the Society’s choices. And when her best friend appears on the Matching screen, she is certain he’s the one–until she sees another face flash for an instant before the screen fades to black. Now she is faced with impossible choices: between Xander and Ky, between the only life she’s ever known and a path no has dared to follow . . . between perfection and the truth.
Matched feels like a cross between Divergent and Delirium. Sorted by the higher-ups into an “ideal” partnership, but also tempted by another path. There’s a bit more romance to this one, if you prefer love mixed in with your young adult dystopian books. Plus, these covers are just iconic.
Released: February 8, 2005
Series: Uglies, Imposters (spin-off)
Sequels: Pretties, Specials, Extras
Adaptions: Upcoming Netflix film
Tally is about to turn sixteen, and she can’t wait. In just a few weeks she’ll have the operation that will turn her from a repellent ugly into a stunningly attractive pretty. And as a pretty, she’ll be catapulted into a high-tech paradise where her only job is to have fun.
But Tally’s new friend Shay isn’t sure she wants to become a pretty. When Shay runs away, Tally learns about a whole new side of the pretty world–and it isn’t very pretty. The authorities offer Tally a choice: find her friend and turn her in, or never turn pretty at all. Tally’s choice will change her world forever.
A terrifying book when you look at everything happening on Instagram and other socials, but very enjoyable when you don’t think about the parallels. This is one of those young adult dystopian books where the line between utopia and dystopia are blurred–at first.
Released: August 16, 2011
Sequels: Ready Player Two
Adaptions: 2018 movie
In the year 2045, reality is an ugly place. The only time Wade Watts really feels alive is when he’s jacked into the OASIS, a vast virtual world where most of humanity spends their days.
When the eccentric creator of the OASIS dies, he leaves behind a series of fiendish puzzles, based on his obsession with the pop culture of decades past. Whoever is first to solve them will inherit his vast fortune–and control of the OASIS itself.
Then Wade cracks the first clue. Suddenly he’s beset by rivals who’ll kill to take this prize. The race is on–and the only way to survive is to win.
A sort of technological Jumanji. Also reminiscent of The Hunger Games or The Maze Runner.
Sequels: The Testaments
Adaptions: 1990 movie, 2000 opera, 2017 television series
It is the world of the near future, and Offred is a Handmaid in the home of the Commander and his wife. She is allowed out once a day to the food market, she is not permitted to read, and she is hoping the Commander makes her pregnant, because she is only valued if her ovaries are viable.
Offred can remember the years before, when she was an independent woman, had a job of her own, a husband and child. But all of that is gone now…everything has changed.
I don’t think much needs to be said about this one. The Handmaid’s Tale is a classic among the young adult dystopian books, and is the book most people call to mind when they think of dystopian novels. Atwood has been a champion of anti-censorship for years now, and when you read the horrifying tale inspired by her real fears, you can understand why.
Technically, it’s not young adult, but readers of all ages enjoy The Handmaid’s Tale, so I think it fits. If you’re looking for a similar read to The Handmaid’s Tale, I’d definitely suggest checking out The Farm by Joanne Ramos.
Released: October 18, 2019
No one speaks of the grace year. It’s forbidden. In Garner County, girls are banished for their sixteenth year to release their magic into the wild so they can return purified and ready for marriage. But not all of them will make it home alive.
Tierney James dreams of a better life–but as her own grace year draws near, she quickly realizes that there’s more to fear about the grace year than the brutal elements and the poachers in the woods. Their greatest threat may very well be each other.
The Grace Year isn’t technically YA, but it does focus on teenagers, so I’d say it’s appropriate for this list. I was reminded more of The Maze Runner when reading this, not because of the trials faced but because of the infighting created just by being forced together. If you were a fan of L0rd of the Flies but want a more modern and female-centric version, you’ll like this story. I’d also like to take a moment to plug my full review of The Grace Year.
Released: November 6, 2007
Sequels: UnWholly, UnSouled, UnDivided
Adaptions: Rumored upcoming film-turned-TV series
After America’s Second Civil War, the Pro-Choice and Pro-Life armies came to an agreement. According to their Bill of Life, human life may not be terminated from the moment of conception until the age of thirteen. But between the ages of thirteen and eighteen, the child may be gotten rid of by their parent through a process called “unwinding.”
By repurposing a teen’s organs and other body parts in living recipients, the unwound child’s life doesn’t technically end. According to society’s leaders, unwinding leads to a healthier and safer community, as troublesome and unwanted teens are used for the greater good.
Curtis is a rebel whose unwinding was ordered by his parents. Rita, a ward of the state, has been slated for unwinding due to cost cutting. And Lev, his parents’ tenth child, has been destined for unwinding since birth as a religious tithe. As their paths intersect, they start to fight for their own destinies. But do they stand a chance of escaping their fate or proving their lives are worth saving?
It’s been a long time since I read this series, but it won’t be disappearing into the background anytime soon. Unwind has made its way into schools and become almost a modern day classic among young adult dystopian books. Although, I’ll admit, I’m not sure if this book has survived the current US school system climate.
Released: April 12, 2011
Sequels: Endurance, Outpost
New York City has been decimated by war and plague, and most of civilization has migrated to underground enclaves, where life expectancy is no more than the early 20’s.
When Deuce turns 15, she takes on her role as a Huntress, and is paired with Fade, a teenage Hunter who lived Topside as a young boy. When she and Fade discover that the neighboring enclave has been decimated by the tunnel monsters–or Freaks–who seem to be growing more organized, the elders refuse to listen to warnings.
And when Deuce and Fade are exiled from the enclave, the girl born in darkness must survive in daylight–guided by Fade’s long-ago memories–in the ruins of a city whose population has dwindled to a few dangerous gangs.
There’s a bit of controversy about this one, but in all honesty I don’t know enough about it to comment and it’s been a long time since I read Enclave. I have, however, been lucky enough to meet Ann Aguirre and thought she was very nice in person, so I feel a bit of loyalty here. I also do remember enjoying the book, so here it is on the list of young adult dystopian books.
Series: The Giver Quartet
Sequels: Gathering Blue, Messenger, Son
Adaptions: 2014 film
Life in the community where Jonas lives is idyllic. Designated birthmothers produce newchildren, who are assigned to appropriate family units. Citizens are assigned their partners and their jobs. No one thinks to ask questions. Everyone obeys. Everyone is the same. Except Jonas.
Not until he is given his life assignment as the Receiver of Memory does he begin to understand the dark, complex secrets behind his fragile community. Gradually Jonas learns that power lies in feelings. But when his own power is put to the test–when he must try to save someone he loves–he may not be ready. Is it too soon? Or too late?
Told with deceptive simplicity, this is the provocative story of a boy who experiences something incredible and undertakes something impossible. In the telling it questions every value we have taken for granted and reexamines our most deeply held beliefs.
This is another classic like The Handmaid’s Tale, and one that you’ve likely heard of. What a lot of people don’t know, however, is that The Giver isn’t a standalone, and is in fact the first book in a quartet. Yep, you don’t have to leave Lowry’s beloved story behind at the end of The Giver, rather, it continues on in Gathering Blue, Messenger, and Son. Have you read the full thing?
Released: January 1, 2011
Series: Delirium Trilogy
Sequels: Pandemonium, Requiem
Adaptations: 2014 Hulu pilot
In an alternate United States, love has been declared a dangerous disease, and the government forces everyone who reaches eighteen to have a procedure called the Cure. Living with her aunt, uncle, and cousins in Portland, Maine, Lena Haloway is very much looking forward to being cured and living a safe, predictable life. She watched love destroy her mother and isn’t about to make the same mistake.
But with ninety-five days left until her treatment, Lena meets enigmatic Alex, a boy from the Wilds who lives under the government’s radar. What will happen if they do the unthinkable and fall in love?
I remember watching this on Hulu and wishing they would continue the series, but alas. Regardless, the books are amazing young adult dystopian books and I highly suggest picking them up.
Released: April 14, 2012
Series: The Selection
Sequels: The Elite, The One
Adaptations: Two CW pilots (2012, 2013, not picked up), upcoming Netflix film
Prepare to be swept into a world of breathless fairy-tale romance, swoonworthy characters, glittering gowns, and fierce intrigue perfect for readers who loved Divergent, Delirium, or The Wrath & the Dawn.
For thirty-five girls, the Selection is the chance of a lifetime. The opportunity to escape a rigid caste system, live in a palace, and compete for the heart of gorgeous Prince Maxon. But for America Singer, being Selected is a nightmare. It means turning her back on her secret love with Aspen, who is a caste below her, and competing for a crown she doesn’t want.
Then America meets Prince Maxon–and realizes that the life she’s always dreamed of may not compare to a future she never imagined.
I’ll be honest — I remember reading this one once upon a time, but have since forgotten pretty much everything except for the fact that I loved it in the time of all the Hunger Games-esque stories. Guess it’s time for a reread.
Sequels: Hunger, Lies
Adaptations: Long rumored, but only adaption is a 3-minute teaser trailer from 2022
In the blink of an eye, everyone disappears. Gone. Except for the young. There are teens, but not one single adult. Just as suddenly, there are no phones, no internet, no television. No way to get help. And no way to figure out what’s happened.
Hunger threatens. Bullies rule. A sinister creature lurks. Animals are mutating. And the teens themselves are changing, developing new talents–unimaginable, dangerous, deadly powers–that grow stronger by the day.
It’s a terrifying new world. Sides are being chosen, a fight is shaping up. Townies against rich kids. Bullies against the weak. Powerful against powerless. And time is running out: on your birthday, you disappear just like everyone else. . . .
It took me looking back on this one to realise everyone in this book is fourteen and under. The kids on the cover of that first book cannot be 14, y’all.
If you’re looking for a series you can really get lost in, I present to you: The Gone series by Michael Grant. This is one of those uncommon young adult series that appealed to both girls and boys, and was an absolute hit thanks to its universal attraction. There’s also like, nine young adult dystopian books across two series — and pretty hefty ones, at that. You’ll be preoccupied for a while with these.
Also, here’s the short Gone trailer that was just recently produced, and in my opinion, it’s a little terrifying.
Released: May 5, 2008
Series: Chaos Walking
Sequels: The Ask and the Answer, Monsters of Men
Adaptations: 2021 film (Chaos Walking: The Knife of Never Letting Go)
Todd Hewitt is the only boy in a town of men. Ever since the settlers were infected with the Noise germ, Todd can hear everything the men think, and they can hear everything he thinks.
Todd is just a month away from becoming a man, but in the midst of the cacophony, he knows that the town is hiding something from him — something so awful that Todd is forced to flee with only his dog, whose simple, loyal voice he hears too. With hostile men from the town in pursuit, the two stumble upon a strange and eerily silent creature: a girl. Who is she? Why wasn’t she killed by the germ like all the other females on New World?
Propelled by Todd’s gritty narration, readers are in for a white-knuckle journey in which a boy on the cusp of manhood must unlearn everything he knows in order to figure out who he truly is.
The Knife of Never Letting Go is interesting in the way that it is written, and admittedly a little confusing when you first dive in. That’s because everyone’s thoughts are said aloud, and if you don’t know what’s happening, the little seemingly random asides can be hard to understand. The newness of this quickly wears off as you get deeper into the story, however, and it’s a fast read.
The Knife of Never Letting Go was also recently adapted into a movie starring Tom Holland and Daisy Ridley, which I completely missed but will now need to go back and view.
There you are, 17 of the best young adult dystopian books as determined by me, a survivor of the YA dystopian era. Did you miss any of these books when you were on your dystopian tirade? Or maybe you’re just starting, in which case, I envy you.