Dystopian literature: more than just the end of the world to teens

By Jessica Finden

Jessica Finden explores how dystopian literature might be helpful in encouraging teens to explore and come to terms with their fears about the future.

It’s not the end of the world…

Can you remember what it was like to be a teenager? The constant worry – about your identity,  whether or not you fit in with your friends, your family, and your overall place in the world. The catch

Image of tally counter showing 1984

phrase, ‘it’s not the end of the world’ is regularly bandied about when referring to teenage angst. Dystopian fiction is often known as a genre which focuses primarily on ‘the end of the world’  and as such, is a popular genre amongst teenagers. But despite its gloomy subject matter, high school students benefit from reading dystopian texts as this genre provides them the opportunity to face their fears about the future, while offering hope for what is to come. This is why fiction, and particularly dystopian fiction, must be a part of any school library; it provides more than just ‘end of world’ scenarios for students.

Why is it popular?

The appeal of dystopian fiction stems from its ability to target a broad audience – both male and female, teenager and adult  (Gander, 2012). Dystopian fiction provides readers with characters who face challenges that reflect real-world events and who can still make a difference despite these obstacles. This is evident in Neal and Jarrod Shusterman’s novel Dry, a story that touches on the very real concern of what happens when water runs out. Dry shows its secondary school readers that while there are indeed deadly repercussions of this scenario, humans are resourceful and there is usually help on the way. 

According to Scoles & Ostenson (2013) dystopian literature aligns with adolescent development, as it provides a platform for them to delve on societal and moral issues at a point in an adolescent’s life when they are able to understand bigger and more complex concerns. Campbell (2014) supports Scholes & Ostenson’s observation, noting that the teenage years are a time of great upheaval and dystopian fiction provides an outlet for the uncertainty that surrounds growing up and living in a world that appears to be on the precipice of an apocalypse. Hive by Australian author A.J. Betts is set in a world that initially seems very different to our own. Hive allows secondary school readers to stretch their understanding of what might happen in the future. It provides a safe space to consider how people might respond to the uncertainty of humanity’s survival.

2020 and 2021 have showcased just how real dystopian literature can be. COVID-19 has shown the world that we are not as removed from pandemics, oppression and control as we once originally thought. This is another reason why dystopian fiction is so popular with teenagers, it allows them to play the ‘what if’ game and see the devastation through to the end. The road to winter by Mark Smith and Where the world turns wild by Nicola Penfold are both dystopian texts that touch on the idea of a virus taking over the world. Each offers a unique perspective on how it might play out, Penfold’s written for early secondary readers and Smith’s for secondary students. These texts, while obviously set in the future, have uncanny links to our current pandemic. Ultimately, topical narratives are the ones that tend to be the most popular.

Value to the collection

Reynolds (2007) argues that teenagers need more from texts than just a warning of the risks and problems created by previous generations, stating that they need ‘new kinds of texts and new approaches to problem solving’ (p.154). Dystopian fiction allows readers to consider the possibility of the end of the world and  in doing so, it challenges its readers to see beyond the here and now and predict what their future may look like. Crocetti & Barr’s (2020) research discusses the need to integrate science-based concepts within other disciplines, such as English and History. While they are suggesting that science-inspired picture books and graphic novels be used across the disciplines, it is evident that the same argument can be applied to the value of using novels with science-based issues within the Science curriculum.

The issues and themes raised within the dystopian genre are varied and topical. They are issues which speak to the concerns of their readership and provide glimmers of hope for a seemingly dire future. Teenagers are aware of the failings of previous generations; Greta Thunberg is a perfect example of a teen speaking out and holding the people in power accountable for their choices. Climate change, the increase of natural disasters, pandemics, water scarcity, and pollution are all issues raised within dystopian texts and are current-day fears. Short (2018) writes about the trends in children’s literature and says that diversity within literature has a strong focus within reading communities but can often by problematic to find (pp. 292-293). Recent dystopian texts such as The interrogation of Ashala Wolf by Ambelin Kwaymullina help to fill the diversity divide by providing a story offering a unique combination of Indigenous legends and connections to nature (Hodge, 2020), while using the popular dystopian genre to do so.

Using literature beyond the English classroom has its benefits; it provides students with multiple opportunities to read and allows them to access texts that may not be standard for English teachers. Garrow (2012, p.41) highlights that well-known literature is an effective means of reaching reluctant or struggling readers. Popular literature goes beyond just helping reluctant readers within an English classroom, it also provides all levels of readers with the opportunity to make links between a fictional text and what is happening in the real world. It can provide them with a foundation of interest which allows the Science or Geography teacher to link back to. ‘Thus, teachers can use dystopian literature to generate student interest in relevant classroom topics, by relating it back to popular fiction.’

Role of the teacher librarian

Students within the early secondary school age group are continuing to seek out their identity (Travers & Travers, 2008, p.12) and dystopian literature allows them to access diverse characters in challenging settings and situations. Teacher librarians may draw on their knowledge of current,

Students within the early secondary school age group are continuing to seek out their identity and dystopian literature allows them to access diverse characters in challenging settings and situations.

popular texts to guide teachers towards texts that not only support  the curriculum but allow students to continue to expand their empathy and understanding of real-world or potential real-world areas of concern. If teacher librarians can support staff by providing them with engaging and topical literature suggestions, students who baulk at the reading part of their English subject may find reading pleasurable if the context has changed.

A teacher librarian can support a Science or Humanities teacher by developing a list of literature that links to the curriculum. They could supply the department with a short summary of the main themes or issues within the text and develop activities with the teacher to support the use of the text. By supporting different departments, a teacher librarian will be able to broaden their reach as students who may not frequent the library have a new opportunity to engage with the space and resources. If the school has the aim of building on or expanding its reading culture, one of the best ways to do so is to engage staff (Buchan, 2020) and this is made easier by showing staff the benefits of using literature within their learning and teaching frameworks.

Bringing about change

Setting the wheels in motion for the use of dystopian fiction beyond the English department is no easy feat. The challenge will lie in convincing department heads that the integration of literature within their units of work is beneficial. But with the support of the teacher librarian, this expansion of literature into other subjects will provide the opportunity for students to engage with texts in a more meaningful way, which ultimately is what we strive for.

Bibliography of literature

Betts, A.J. (2018). Hive. Pan.

Kwaymullina, A. (2012). The interrogation of Ashala Wolf. Walker Books.

Penfold, N. (2020). Where the world turns wild. Stripes.

Shusterman, N., & Shusterman, J. (2018). Dry. Walker Books.

Smith, M. (2016). The road to winter. The Text Publishing Company.


Buchan, J. (2020). Keeping teens reading. National Library of New Zealand. https://natlib.govt.nz/blog/posts/keeping-teens-reading

Campbell, A. (2014). Why is dystopian fiction still so popular? The Guardian. https://www.theguardian.com/childrens-books-site/2014/nov/18/hunger-games-dystopian-fiction-appeal-to-teenagers-alex-campbell

Crocetti, G., & Barr, B. (2020). Teaching science concepts through story: Scientific literacy is more about the journey than the destination. Literacy Learning: The Middle Years, 28(3), 44–52.

Gander, L. (2012). Dystopian novels: have you read one lately? Library Media Connection, 31(1), 28–29.

Garrow, H. (2012). Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark. Library Media Connection, 31(3), 40–41.

Hodge, (2015). How Australian dystopian young adult fiction differs from its US counterparts. The Conversation. https://theconversation.com/how-australian-dystopian-young-adult-fiction-differs-from-its-us-counterparts-44518 

Scholes, J., & Ostenson, J. (2013). Understanding the appeal of dystopian young adult fiction. The ALAN Review, 40(2). https://doi. org/10.21061/alan.v40i2.a.2 

Short, K. G. (2018). What’s trending in children’s literature and why it matters. Language Arts, 95(5), 287-298.

Travers, B.E., & Travers, J.F. (2018). Children, literature and development: interactions and insight. Children’s literature: a development perspective. John Wiley & Sons.


Jessica Finden

Teacher Librarian

Carmel College

Having worked as an English and History teacher for 10 years, and the past 4 years as a teacher librarian, Jessica is passionate about finding ways to link literature and curriculum in a meaningful way. She is currently completing a Master of Education (Teacher Librarianship).