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Dystopia Novel Study

Dear Students,

The world can be a scary place. Every generation notices things that need to be changed – devastation of the environment; pervasive poverty; continual prejudice and discrimination.  But hope seems to be a human quality that keeps us going.

Some authors have explored the world of the future and have tried to imagine what could cause a major change and what the results of that change may be.  For instance, some writers consider a natural disaster that topples cities and ruins infrastructures, which once supported communication, transportation and distribution of basics like food and water.  Survival of the fittest takes over.  Other authors consider how political issues polarize a country and cause civil war.  Who wins?  How are laws and governments reorganized?  How can one group of citizens be “losers” to the other and still live side by side?

Other questions that these fantasy situations may evoke include: Will a catastrophe unify us as “citizens of planet Earth,” or will an apocalypse forever alter the world as we know it?  Who will survive?  What will be left to live on?  What parts of human nature will survive and gain control – competition and fear, or compassion and humanity? These are the questions that authors of dystopian novels ponder.

A dystopia is a view into the future with something gone wrong in society – it’s almost like another world, or our world turned upside down.  Usually in a dystopia, individual freedom is lost due to an authoritarian or totalitarian government.  Social controls are meant to “keep everyone safe” – from themselves.  Instead these same controls are one-sided and people who don’t fit the social norm are persecuted or destroyed.  Within such a controlled society, there is still an imbalance of power and someone ultimately gains more from the system than others.  The most unsettling question is, Are there countries already like this today, or are there any situations from our history that resembled a dystopia?

The setting of a dystopian novel usually includes mass poverty, warfare, or a militaristic police force.  Quite often young people are targets – either they are used by adults or are expendable in order to conserve resources.  At the same time, young people often become symbols of hope and change; their negative experiences have driven them to protest the status quo and seek a new order.


Here’s what to look for in a dystopian novel:

  • A catastrophe – either natural or manmade –has altered the world and its citizens
  • Science and technology have “perfected” humans, but unnaturally so to the point where humans are more machine-like and heartless than their ancestors.
  • Futuristic or technical terminology
  • Generation gaps between young and old –  elders who survived the catastrophic change and agreed to a controlled system to avoid fatal errors from the past; the next generation of youth who question the status quo and resist rules, seek change, or take over power
  • A government or an institution that tries to “make everyone equal” but at a cost to individuality, autonomy and creativity
  • Victims hiding or escaping the constrictions of a government
  • Sub-cultures planning a rebellion or vindication
  • A quest – to travel through unsafe settings, to deliver information or something valuable, to incite others to rebel … and more
  • A coming-of-age theme – a young person matures quickly and learns their place in the order of things or their mission in life
  • Social classes that are divisive, usually based on those who “have” and those who “have not”
  • Antagonists – a government that has taken all individual rights and decision-making away from the people; a police force of bullies who abuse power; neighbor versus neighbor, turning each other in to the authorities out of fear or for personal gain…and more.


Dystopian Novels:

    1.  The Last Book in the Universe (Rodman Philbrick) – Spaz is an unexpected hero.  Raised on the streets of the Urb, a harsh, concrete city ruled by neighborhood gangs, Spaz meets Ryter.  At first Spaz plans to rob Ryter and take advantage of this elder, living in the depths of poverty and deprivation.  But Ryter becomes Spaz’s mentor and his sidekick on an adventure that takes Spaz “home” to his estranged family that lives on the Edge – close to the utopia of Eden.  Ryter has a secret – he is the only man with a book, yes, a true book with written text and paper pages. What is so important about this book?  Is it worth stealing, or should it be destroyed?  Meanwhile, Spaz keeps running into this beautiful girl, Lanaya, who is a “proov.”  She comes from Eden, a perfect world encased in a biosphere and populated by genetically improved humans.  Will Spaz complete his mission to see his little sister before she dies?  Will Lanaya help him or betray him?  Will Ryter survive the rigorous adventure?  And who will preserve the last book in the universe?  Join Spaz on his quest as he encounters every level of power in this mixed-up world turned on its side after the Big Shake.
    2. Among the Imposters (Margaret Peterson Haddix) – Luke Garner has lived his childhood in a hidden room on his family’s farm in order to survive as a “third child.” In an overpopulated world where food has become a luxury, society has decided to curb population growth by having any “third child” killed.  The Population Police are sent out on cases to find and turn in these fated children.  Most families work out a system to hide their “extra” children, but sometimes neighbors will be pressured into spying on and turning in fellow citizens.  This is the second book in a series called The Shadow Children.  Luke has been taken from his family and placed in Hendricks School for Boys.  According to Luke’s fake i.d. he is Lee Grant, a rich boy who died in a skiing accident.  He acclimates to his new school slowly and wonders why no one seems to notice him, especially when he sneaks out of school through an unlocked door and spends hours in the adjacent woods. No one notices him except for “Jackal Boy,”   who persecutes Luke / Lee supposedly to toughen him up and help him fit in quickly at the school.  Luke’s suspicions about his safety and the identities of those around him prevent him from doing what every third child desperately wants – to speak his name out loud and claim his true identity. Who can Luke really trust?  Does he have any allies?  Is he the only third child to have tried hiding out in this school? Imagine your life as a third child and what the tension of being discovered can do to your mind, your heart, your spirit.


  1. The Hunger Games (Suzanne Collins) – Who hasn’t heard of the famous Katniss Everdeen?  To spare her delicate sister Prim from having to fight in the brutal Hunger Games, Katniss volunteers herself as tribute for District 12.  She’ll be sent to the Capitol and trained to compete in a technologically fabricated “arena.”  Two tributes from each district allow for possible allies in the battle, but who can you really trust when only the last person standing wins?  Katniss leaves behind not only her sister, but her mother and Gale, her rebel friend who hunted with her back in District 12 by climbing over the electric fence into the enigmatic District 13.  Since she has some archery skills, Katniss has an advantage, but what good is a weapon when even the environment of the arena can turn hostile?  Why does this barbaric system continue?  For one, the Capitol has no regard for its citizens outside of its own district, yet they glean the best resources from every district around them for self-preservation.  That’s why food has become a commodity, not a right for every citizen.  Second, not only is it a game of survival, but also the  winner of the Hunger Games will help supply her district with extra food and resources to improve life even for a limited time.  How can Katniss, a lowly subject of District 12 that has won the Hunger Games only twice over 74 years, compete against the richer, better-fed children of other districts closer to the Capitol?  What motivates Kat to survive?  Will she and Peeta, District 12’s other tribute, become allies, friends, or lovers?  Remember, all of this occurs under the watchful eye of the TV camera.  Like the gladiator games of ancient Rome that attracted massive crowds, the Hunger Games is reality TV gone amok with a viewing audience across an entire continent.  Hold your breath – it’s going to be a bumpy ride!
  2. The Clone Codes (Fredrick and Patricia McKissack) – America has changed a lot by 2170 — clones, cyborgs, traveling through time for history class via virtual reality — but its citizens are still struggling with questions about freedom and human rights as they have throughout history. Leanna Deberry is an 8th grader in St. Louis Missouri, who is only worried about doing well in her classes, hanging out with her best friend Sandra, and trying out for her school’s swifting team. But everything changes for her the day her mother is arrested in her own home and accused of being a member of The Liberty Bell, a “terrorist” organization dedicated to winning equal rights for the clones who serve humans. Leanna is forced to flee her home with only a backpack containing her commglasses, a change of clothes, and a virtual scrapbook that contains the true story of The Liberty Bell. She must evade the bounty hunter Joe Spiller and his flesh-eating biobots, hide out in dangerous Gypsy City, and make unlikely allies as she conceals her own identity and tries to piece together the mystery of her own life. Will Leanna become the newest member of The Liberty Bell and dedicate her life to fighting slavery and tyranny? And can she learn more about The O, a race of aliens that has worked with The Liberty Bell throughout history to protect humanity? Read The Clone Codes to enter a fast-paced future world with echoes of America’s fascinating history.

(Review at: )

  1. Unwind (Neal Shusterman) – Note: This is the most mature book among your choices for this novel unit.  Do not choose it if you have personal issues about futuristic books that victimize young adults.  There is violence and disturbing passages about how children are “harvested” for their organs. 

The Second Civil War has been fought in the United States over the issue of pro-life versus pro-choice.  A compromise is reached –once a child turns thirteen, he can be “unwound.”  He will be sent to a harvest camp and operated on to remove all his vital organs and limbs to be used as transplants for those in medical need.  Who would voluntarily do such a thing?  Connor’s parents, who cannot control their “problem child,” file for him to be unwound.  Wards of the state or orphans like Risa, growing up in state institutions are expendable due to budget cuts.  A religious family can “tithe” one offspring and sacrifice him to the greater good as Lev’s parents have.  After all, if you’re unwound, you’re not really dead.  Your essence lives on in your new owners.  However, if you conform to society and have exceptional abilities, then you can start a “normal” life at age 18.  This disturbing and fascinating story is told from several characters’ points of view.  Their stories are woven together as they all end up in “the graveyard,” and then finally are sent to Happy Jack Camp, a harvest camp for Unwinds.  Will they escape the camp, or change the system through rebellion? What sacrifices are they willing to make in order to avoid being unwound?

  1. The Giver (Lois Lowry) – Imagine a world of “Sameness.”  Everyone sees the world in tones of gray, people are educated only enough to become a working citizen, and your future and career are decided for you by the community.  Even family units are organized by the government – you’re matched to a compatible mate and you apply for children, one boy and one girl.  Children are bred at a birthing center by women who have been assigned this job, and babies are raised in the Nurturing center before being placed with families.  There is no more violence, war, crime or poverty.  Even nature has been controlled so the weather is the same every day.  And there is a price – no love, no connection to nature or to Elsewhere, the world outside the Community, no color, no memory of history and its successes and failures, no music.   At the Ceremony of Twelve, you are assigned your job and begin training for your career.  Jonas is special.  His number is passed over and at the end of the Ceremony it is announced that he will become the Receiver of Memory.  Love, pain, and knowledge still exist, but only in the mind of The Giver, an elder who acts as a wise advisor. As Jonas starts his training, he begins to realize how much his community is missing by never having seen animals, or gone sailing, or even experienced natural sunshine.  Will Jonas survive his training as he telepathically receives every memory and emotion from his community’s past before Sameness?  The last trainee couldn’t handle it.   Will Jonas be able to help Gabriel, a foster baby staying at his house for a year, get settled?  If there is no disease and people live beyond their usefulness as a worker in the Community, what happens to the elderly?  Find out what a culture of Sameness is like and if it is worth the sacrifices only the Giver and now Jonas know about.



Expectations for Novel Study

  1.  Discussion:  Divide the novel into THREE sections.  You will meet with your discussion group after each section is read and use the Discussion Questions to analyze the story.  Record your answers to any of the discussion questions BEFORE you meet with your group.  Adjust or add to your answers based on contributions from your group. Your group will process the discussion and evaluate how well each member was prepared for discussion and how involved in the discussion each person was.  Be sure to create a discussion format that includes everyone in the discussion and is fair.  NO ONE should dominate the discussion.

Discussion Questions:

  1.  What catastrophe or apocalypse has caused changes to life, culture and community in this dystopia?
  2. What details about the setting and the characters prove that this is a fantasy set in the future?
  3. What are some advances in science, medicine or technology that are part of the setting?  What are the benefits and the disadvantages of these technological advances?
  4. Why are some people dissatisfied in this dystopia?  Do they seek ways to change or alter the system or the government?  If so, how do they take action to affect or change the system?
  5. What is the mission of the protagonist?  How successful is he or she?
  6. What character do you learn the most about? What are at least two of his/her traits and what evidence proves these traits? What do you admire or dislike about this character?  What are some events that have a lasting effect on this character?  In what ways did this character change by the end of the story?
  7. Does anyone die – either before the story begins or during the plot?  If so, how does the death affect the main character or the plot?
  8. What allusions are used by the author such as quotations from famous books, poems or people or references to other stories, myths or legends?  What other books or stories does this novel remind you?  Explain any connections.
  9. Cite some effectively written passages from each section of the novel.  Look for the author’s use of description, of figurative language or of language that creates mood?
  10. What do you think the author’s message is from writing this book?  What is the author trying to tell you or to warn you about?

**Use the answers to write a book summary and critical review as a blog post at the end of the unit. **


  1. Creative Contribution to the Novel Study – Choose ONE to develop and publish. (24 pts.)
  2. I.                    Create a “Stuffed Character” model.  Follow these directions:
    1. Materials:  Character Symbols worksheet (pg. 48); two long pieces of bulletin board paper in white or a light color; creative materials to dress up the body; scissors; stapler; glue; markers
    2. Choose a main character from the book you’ve read.
    3. Lie down lengthwise on a sheet of paper and have a classmate trace an outline of your body with black marker.  Cut out the shape, place it on the second sheet, and cut around the outline:  Now you have duplicate full-body shapes – one for the back side and another for the front side of you stuffed character.
    4. Follow the direction in Character Symbols and complete all parts.  Draw each symbol large on the body:  though bubble on the head, speech bubble near the mouth, heart shape in the center of the chest, hand symbol on top of the hands, strength symbol on the arms near the muscles, weakness symbol on the knees.  Write the explanation from your Character Symbols page in each symbol and then illustrate the character as you pictured him or her.
    5. Staple the front and back of the body together, stuffing it with crumpled newspaper as you go.  Be careful not to overstuff.

(Source pg. 40, 48 Independent Reading Management Kit: Literary Elements)

  1. Create a journal from the protagonist’s point of view to summarize key events in which he/she was involved and how the character is being affected or changed by each event.  A minimum of five events that cover the beginning, middle and end of the book should be described from the character’s point of view.  Use creative writing skills to create the character’s “voice.”
  2. Create an interview script between a talk show host and the protagonist of the novel, as if he/she survived the events of the novel.  Use questions that probe the character’s personality, what happened to him/her, and how he/she was affected by the events in the story.  Perform the interview for the class with costumes and props relevant to the novel’s setting.
  3. Create a Plot Chart by following the directions (a-f)

Materials: 12 x 18 construction paper; Plotline Guidelines worksheet; colored pencils, markers, pens

  1. Use a piece of construction paper and fold it into 9 sections.

(Continued on next page)


  1. Label each block (may type, print and paste labels and captions on chart):
1 – Title of Book and Author 2 – Introduction: Setting 3-Introduction:Characters  (Protagonists)Allow room for illustrations in each square
4 – Introduction: Characters (Antagonists) 5 – Introduction: Main Conflict 6 – Rising Action
7 – Rising Action 8 – Climax  9 – Falling Action and Conclusion
  1. Read about Plotline Guidelines
  2. Review the book you’ve read to determine the characters, the setting, and the five plot elements described in the Plotline Guidelines.
  3. In each block on your chart, draw a scene from the book that illustrates the appropriate elements.
  4. Under each illustration write a caption (may type) to explain how the scene you chose corresponds with the title, setting, character, or plot point.

(Source: pg. 24, 31 Independent Reading Management Kit: Literary Elements)

Evaluation Rubric: Creative Contribution

Format is well-developed and organized Format follows the directions Format is cluttered or disorganized Format is incomplete and unorganized
Content is above expectation and thoroughly relates to story details Content meets expectations and relates story details well Content is general and not extensive. Content is inaccurate or incomplete.
Creativity was used to individualize the response:  original artwork showed artistic ability above expectations; original writing style with above grade level ideas and vocabulary Creativity was used to individualize the response: original artwork was used and met expectations ; writing style was competent and well done for grade level Creativity was not apparent: clip art or stenciled artwork was used; writing was thorough, yet not at final draft level, or showed little individual voice or style Creativity was not apparent: little to no artwork enhanced the project; writing was full of errors or below grade level