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Notes from a Children's Librarian: Dystopian YA

Strong female characters dominate these dystopian tales for teens, with common themes of environmental decay, orphanhood, and the question of knowing who to trust.

Book Cover Blood Red Road

Our children's librarian columnist, Julie Booker, brings us a new view from the stacks every month.


Strong female characters dominate these dystopian tales for teens, with common themes of environmental decay, orphanhood, and the question of knowing who to trust.

In the award-winning Blood Red Road, by Moira Young, 16-year-old Saba lives in the middle of nowhere with her twin brother Lugh, her little sister Emmi and her Pa. But when her father is killed and her brother kidnapped, Saba must head out into the world to find him. She's captured by peddlers and taken to a “Big Wrecker” city where plague, hunger and war have felled skyscrapers and reduced society to chaos. She becomes enslaved as a cage-fighter who earns the title of '”Angel of Death,” because her opponents die and Saba never loses. A group of rebels help her escape so she can continue her quest to find her brother. This story is told with a distinctive voice, using clipped language, great dialogue and over-the-top characters, such as Lewis Ex Eye Vee, a crazed villain who has adopted the original Louis XIV, the Sun King's persona. The never-dull storyline includes a strong romantic plot thread that continues in the sequel. Grade 6+ 

Book Cover Airborn

In Kenneth Oppel's Airborn, familiar references to places like Paris and the ocean “Pacificus” give way to a dreamland setting, replete with a sailing airship kept afloat with a fictional gas, hydrium, which smells like mangos. The ship's cabin boy, 15-year-old Matt, who's adept at climbing masts and mending sails, is escaping the sadness of his father's death when he meets the fearless rich girl, Kate. She is searching for cat-like flying creatures her grandfather recorded in his journals. A suspenseful run-in with pirates, compounded by ship troubles, leads to a harrowing climax as Matt tries to save his beloved ship. The descriptive language stands-out: "We were close enough to hear the ocean's impatient sigh, to see the thuggish slouch of her surface, calm enough, but there was no hiding the immense strength of her mile-deep muscle." Grade 5+

Book Cover The Secret Under My Skin

The Secret Under My Skin, by Janet McNaughton, begins with terms such as “technocaust,” “work camps,” “UV visors,” “Memory Day,” and with street kids working in a landfill. What unfolds is a picture of Gros Morne National Park, in the year 2368. Orphan Blay, 16, is chosen from the work camps to help train Marrella, the “bio-indicator,” for her initiation ceremony. Marrella is a selfish bratty girl who has sensitivities to sun and chemicals due to the environmental collapse of the 22nd century (known as The Dark Times), but in learning about Marella’s past and the lies used to repress her community, Blay uncovers her own gift for understanding the natural world. Does she stay in her helper role or does she step forward to fulfill her destiny? Grade 5+

Book Cover Flux

Flux, by Beth Goobie, features a 16-year-old surviving alone in the “Outbacks.” Since her mother's disappearance two months ago, Nellie's been using her ability to ”flux”—feel vibrations that allow her to move into other levels of existence. Flux helps her temporarily escape the Skulls Gang and their leader, Deller, who's lost his brother to suspicious characters from the “Interior.” The Skulls shave Nellie's hair, exposing the scars that indicate she's been tampered with, just like the other kidnapped children. Nellie gradually allows her hardened self to trust Deller and to challenge the lies they've all been told. This book ends with many unanswered questions, which lead, naturally, to the sequel. Grade 7+

Book Cover Ashes Ashes

In Ashes, Ashes, by Jo Treggiari, Lucy's been living in a makeshift hut on the outskirts of a New York City destroyed by earthquakes and tsunamis, rampant with wild vicious dogs. The towers have collapsed and the concrete roads are accordioned. Smallpox has ripped through the community, with some disfigured survivors and also those who had been vaccinated. 16-year-old Lucy was never vaccinated, however, which makes her a wanted specimen for the “Sweepers.” Lucy meets Aidan and his family of friends who have created a communal farm, complete with nightly campfires. Should she trust it? Should she trust him? Grade 6+

On her first day as teacher-librarian, Julie Booker was asked by a five-year-old if that was her real name. She's felt at home in libraries since her inaugural job as a Page in the Toronto Public Library. She is the author of Up Up Up, a book of short stories published by House of Anansi Press in 2011.

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