The stories all follow the same general outline: A girl lives her whole life thinking her society is normal. She prepares for the day when she is old enough to be be categorized by a system prescribed by her society. She meets a boy. She begins to realize something is off with the world she lives in, that maybe it isn’t as perfect as she thought it was. She discovers the truth and she and the boy lead a reformatory revolution. Split that story up into three young adult novels, and you have the “Divergent” series by Veronica Roth. Or the “Delirium” series by Lauren Oliver. Or the “Matched” series by Ally Condie, or the “Uglies” series by Scott Westerfield, or a variant of “The Hunger Games” or any of the young adult female-led trilogies that hit stores and teenagers between the years of 2010 and 2015. This literary phenomenon was mostly ignored (as most young adult fiction is) by older generations. But the weird Millennial-Gen Z mashup generation that went to middle school in the early 2010s received the full brunt of its force. Dystopian novels took bookstores and middle schools by storm, and even self-professed seventh-grade literary snobs (like my past self) could not ignore the love.
This specific breed of young adult fiction had a remarkable ability to hold the attention spans of tween and teenage readers, even in a period when this age group was, for the most part, getting their first smartphones. Something made them magnetic, even after reading was no longer considered “cool.” These series achieved the effect in two ways: they organize their stories into a series format, which kept readers reading, and they employ just enough plot twists to keep the reader engaged without feeling tricked. Their prose is simple, usually in the first person, and involves more action than description, which is perfect for a book written for a mass of thirteen-year-olds. Furthering their popularity, series like “Divergent” and “The Hunger Games” were turned into movies with attractive leading actors and aggressive marketing teams.
Much of the tension in these novels stems from governmental restriction and control. In “Matched,” the government controls who you love; in “Delirium,” the government controls whether you can love at all; in “Divergent,” the government controls your behavioral traits (which determines who you love), and so on. Almost every young adult has problems with some form of authority figure. These novels paint these figures in an overwhelmingly negative light, but family and guardians often remain relatively unscathed. The family, in fact, is usually a source of support and an object of devotion and love. Even when it seems like parents are the “bad guys,” setting boundaries and enforcing curfews, novels from this specific subgenre remind the reader that they have our best interests at heart. Perhaps this comes from the writers themselves being parents — they are more inclined to show characters that are most like themselves in the most positive light possible, even in a story where they are writing from a 16-year-old’s point of view.
The dystopian novels of the 2010s take the universal fears and frustrations of young adults and cloak them in science fiction and dramatic action. Middle school is a constant battle to fit in and find out who you are. It’s probably the first time you had a real crush on someone else. These books, with their categorizations and romantic subplots, frame these problems not as inconsequential — how most middle schoolers are told — but instead as absolutely crucial. In the same way a sixth grader might be choosing which table to sit at for lunch, Tris chooses which faction she will call her new home. Young teenagers do not need fiction to solve their problems — people of this age have been having the same issues, in one form or another, for a very long time. Instead, young adult readers simply need fiction to validate their emotions in a world that tells them those very emotions are superfluous. Looking back, a sixth grade crush or choice of dress for the eighth grade formal seems utterly insignificant. But at the time, it feels like the decision of a lifetime. Middle school years are defined by big emotions attributed to little things: being melodramatic and crying because a paper fortune teller told you your crush would never like you back is an integral part of being a young adult. The role of these dystopian novels, then, is to give readers a space in which they can fully experience those emotions without being condescended for their “unimportance.”
At their core, all these series rely on the idea that human nature cannot be categorized, no matter how hard humans try. The evil authoritarian societies try to confine human nature to one aspect. In the beginning, before the main character and the reader uncover the sinister underbelly of the particular society, this seems perfect. After all, categorization makes things so much simpler: Imagine a world without all the messy emotions and trial-and-error of trying to find yourself. Life would be much more straightforward if we all knew our explicit, definite role in society — where, exactly, we fit in. It would be nice if we all knew exactly where we belonged by our early teens, but these books gave our middle school selves the answer we didn’t really want to hear: that easy categorization might seem like utopia, but is actually just a gross oversimplification of human nature. This dystopian literary phenomenon, though perhaps unoriginal and overly romanticized, validated the larger existential and emotional frustrations our generation experienced at the time of their peak popularity.