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A Zombie Apocalypse- Why Do Teens Like Dystopian Literature?

A Zombie Apocalypse. That was the title of projects kids were working on in a grade seven classroom I visited recently as a university education supervisor. The lengthy assignment required students to do all kinds of reading, writing and critical thinking as they contemplated a dystopian future in which most of the earth’s inhabitants had died. Only a few hardy survivors were left to combat powerful zombies who had taken over the world.

I questioned the teacher about the assignment and she pointed out the many curricular outcomes the project addressed but she also said she had chosen a theme she knew would capture her students’ interest and imaginations. “Kids this age love end of the world survival scenarios,” she said.  “That’s why the Hunger Games movies and books are so popular.” 

My friend Melinda has written several dystopian novels

A quick check of dystopian literature for teens on the websites of several major book retailers revealed a myriad of titles with names like The Eleventh Plague, Gone, Divergent, Ashes, The Maze Runner, Wither, Uglies and The Bar Code Tattoo.

I was curious about what attracts today’s young teens to stories about a future time when the world has fallen into a chaotic state brought about by environmental disaster, totalitarian governments or dehumanizing societal norms. Are they attracted to these stories because they honestly believe our world has no hopeful future?

Joann Wasik a Boston librarian thinks teens like these books and movies because characters in them typically struggle against unfair circumstances that leave them feeling they have little control over their lives. Teens often feel that way too. They are at the mercy of parents, teachers, coaches and must follow rules and regulations they didn’t make. Wasik says some special interest groups want to ban dystopian books from classrooms. ‘Dystopia’ comes from a Greek word meaning ‘bad place’ and these novels portray a grim future.  But Wasik thinks they serve an important function in helping kids see how power can both corrupt and also be used for the greater good. The teacher I observed introducing the Zombie Apocalypse project was using it to help kids recognize and appreciate the human rights they enjoy in Canada and not take them for granted.

An Arizona librarian, Jennifer Kendall, thinks teens are attracted to dystopian stories because their heroes, who are usually teenagers, get to perform ultimate acts of rebellion against authority and have to rely on themselves.  

Moira Young a columnist for the London newspaper, The Guardian says its silly to read all kinds of things into kids’ fascination with these end times books and movies. They are simply exciting stories where a hero, frequently someone their age, confronts evil and in many cases overcomes it. It’s a tried and true literary theme that’s always attracted, readers.

Collage of Dystopian Teen Novels from the Ed Times Youth Blog

Tara Anderson, a North Carolina librarian and PhD candidate in education, claims teens understand the future of our world may be difficult.  They know the economy and the environment are struggling. Especially in America, there are deep political divisions over ethical and social issues. Family life is changing. Divorce rates are high. However, in many dystopian novels and movies, one person is the catalyst to bring about positive change and young people believe it could be them.

I asked the teacher who had planned the apocalypse project what she had in mind for the next assignment for her students. “I’m going to have them design a utopia,” she said, “ a perfect world where everyone’s human rights are respected and people live in peace and harmony. I want them to imagine what that would be like.” 

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