When I recently made a post about young adult dystopias, I received several comments asking for my "best of" or favorites list. While I have not by any means read all of the books on my list, I am making good headway: obviously, I draw my list specifically from those books I have read. I will mention the premise of each work I recommend, but I will avoid all spoilers. If I include every book I like, this won't be a short list, so I'll try to stick to my very top recommendations. I hope this is of interest/use to you!
And so, without further ado...
Mary's Country by Harold Mead (1957)
This book deserves to be much more widely read than it is. My understanding is that it came out too soon after both 1984 and Lord of the Flies, and became characterized as a mixture of the two, although that's a gross oversimplification to this haunting and sensitive novel. This is the story of what happens to the isolated young people who were being groomed for leadership in a totalitarian regime when their country is hit by the enemy's biological weapons, and the children are free to flee on their own. It is a beautiful story about what makes us human and what gives us hope.
The Tripods Series by John Christopher (1968-1988)
This post-apocalyptic series about struggle against enslavement by alien invaders is a classic for a reason, and a terrific study of independent thought and the human spirit.
The Missing Person's League by Frank Bonham (1976)
If you can find a used copy of this novel, grab it. I actually read this book first when I was nine or ten (if you're a thirtysomething American like me, you may remember how we could buy paperbacks at school from that insert in Weekly Reader), and it stuck with me over the decades. It's still a very compelling story today. In a future world of environmental collapse, a young boy faces the fear of a dying Earth and the mystery of his missing family - only to discover that the two are linked.
The Last Children of Schewenborn (also spelled Schevenborn) by Gudrun Pausewang (1983)
This is an unflinching and unsentimental look at a German family's life after a nuclear apocalypse. It's all the more powerful for its stark, steady style.
The Tomorrow Series by John Marsden (1994-1999) and The Ellie Chronicles (2003-2006)
For a time, there were ongoing discussions about "What's your next Harry Potter?" In other words, what would be the next series to catch fire in you and require rapid consumption and multiple rereadings? Without a doubt, this series is mine. I picked up the first book just to get a sense of the series, and the next thing I knew, I'd devoured all of the books and was ready to go through them a second time. Set in a near-future Australia that is invaded by an unnamed enemy nation, this series follows a compelling group of teenagers through the harrowing and life-changing experiences of war and its aftermath, while struggling with the big questions that both inevitably raise.
The Aughts (It was very difficult to limit myself here!)
How I Live Now by Meg Rosoff (2004)
This is a dark and compelling psychological study of a U.S. girl who finds herself in the U.K. countryside with her cousins when war erupts and the world turns upside down.
The Inferior by Peadar ó Guilín (2007)
I can't think of a more subtle, fascinating, and disturbing exploration of what it means to be civilized. This novel follows the brutal daily realities of what seems to be a primitive hunting society, only to reveal that not all is as it seems. The moment I can preorder the sequel, I will.
Bad Faith by Gillian Philip (2008)
This is a very clever murder mystery set in a future U.S.A. in which the church and state have joined forces. (Imagine the Department of Homeland Security run by televangelists. I told you this was a dystopia.) The voice of the young protagonist is one of the most engaging I've read.
The Hunger Games, Catching Fire, and Mockingjay by Suzanne Collins (2008-2010)
What can I possibly say about this series that hasn't already been said? Read it!
Neptune's Children by Bonnie Dobkin (2008)
I'm surprised this little gem of a novel hasn't received more attention. When an international group of children are stranded in an amusement park in the U.S.A. after a biological weapon attack rapidly kills all adults, they build a life together - and a government. But whoever controls the park, controls the other children, and power corrupts.
Candor by Pam Bachorz (2009)
This is another excellent work with very meaningful philosophical implications. Do those kids who live in that exclusive gated community seem perfect? Maybe they have no choice. What follows is an unsettling and inspiring meditation on individuality, free will, and coercion.
Genesis by Bernard Beckett (2009)
This is a one-of-a-kind masterpiece I can't recommend highly enough. Imagine an isolated island preserved from world plague by its remote location. Now imagine the inhabitants creating a community based on Plato's Republic. Whatever you expect this book will be, I promise, it will surprise you.
Dark Life by Kat Falls (2010)
Although I've already read several YA dystopias published in 2010, none of them have impressed me as much as those above. I was pleased, however, by how much the dark adventure of this book - set on an overcrowded Earth in which "pioneers" are moving to underwater communities to harness the resources of the ocean - reminded me of the classic "juveniles" by Robert A. Heinlein that I enjoy so much, especially Farmer in the Sky. So there.
And now, for your edification and entertainment, here's the Periodic Chart of Women in Science Fiction:
"The only thing binding individuals together is ideas. Ideas mutate and spread; they change their hosts as much as their hosts change them."
- Bernard Beckett, Genesis