The Uglies and Pretties books may not have the household recognition of the other books on this list, but any amount of time spent with YA books and readers thereof will tell you it’s a damn popular series. And why wouldn’t it be? Feature a world literally built on the physical insecurities of put-upon teenagers, it’s a veritable marketing goldmine. For those who don’t know, it’s about a world where normal people are “uglies”, and the government then gives the “uglies” plastic surgery to become “pretties” –who live in a sparkly city and get to have parties all the time. The downside is that all the new pretties seem to have lost their former personalities. In fact, there may be something very, very wrong with them.
Yes, it’s another dystopian series. Two in a row. But, the focus of this one is quite different than for The Hunger Games. It’s about appearance, perfection, impossible ideals, and what people might sacrifice for these ideals. Not a bad initial plot point, even if I (disclaimer) really, really do not care for these books. So, if you want stories primarily about dystopian societies, I suggest the list for The Hunger Games, because here we’re looking at Uglies, Pretties, Specials, and Extras for their discussions of identity, social control, and independence.
So, what recommendations can happen this time from Pushy Librarians?
- The Stepford Wives by Ira Levin
If The Hunger Games owes its largest debt of gratitude to Battle Royale, this series owes a huge debt to The Stepford Wives. Like Uglies, Pretties, et cetera, this book looks at a society where there are certain impossible standards for perfection. In order to achieve these standards, you may literally end up losing yourself. In Stepford Wives, the focus isn’t on a dystopian government, but rather a small town. A family moves in, and soon discovers that every woman in the town is perfect, beautiful, docile, and basically the ideal, 1950s housewife. How did this happen? Why did this happen? Why does an interesting, powerful woman suddenly become a docile, demure lamb? And does the heroine’s family want this to happen to her, too?
Ira Levin is known mostly for two books, Rosemary’s Baby and this one. Both are frightening novels based on the subject of gender identity and use horror or science fiction tropes to tell a story that illustrates these points symbolically. Like Tally in Uglies and Pretties, the story is about a normal woman who discovers a dark truth about the transformations that her peers have undergone. It’s a short but eerie story, and one of horror’s most memorable.
- The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald
What does this have to do with a dystopia? you may ask. Well, it’s not a dystopian novel, really. But, it is a novel about a society that is corrupted and lost in his former convictions and purpose, the romantic ideals of the past turned against the characters, their lives set in a vapid world in which they desperately search for meaning and booze… It’s also a story about a glitterati world, where people appear to be perfect and beautiful, and which contains a dark secret. And, it’s a story about transforming yourself to fit into this world –at any cost.
Oh, and love triangles. I know how much you YA fans love your love triangles. Well, this is one of literature’s greatest love triangles, so you’re welcome. You may put away your Tally, David, and Zane, it’s Daisy, Tom, and Gatsby time!
The story is about a man who moves in next to a rich neighborhood, his closest neighbor a mysterious man whose life story is simply too incredible to be true. This neighbor is Gatsby, who spends all his time throwing amazing parties and being the focus of interest for those around him. But, these are not parties for the sake of the party. These are not happy parties. What is Gatsby’s secret? What is his connection to the beautiful Daisy?
The Great Gatsby has the distinction not only of being a thought-provoking examination of the Jazz Era, its glitter and its dark side, but also of being one of the most beautifully written books in the history of literature. You heard that correctly. Also, Stephen Fry agrees, so you have to listen.
- We Have Always Lived in the Castle by Shirley Jackson
Perhaps your interest in Uglies and Pretties is more concerning the focus on young adult insecurity and being an outsider in society? And, suppose you already read Ender’s Game? Well, you’re in luck! Shirley Jackson, ladies and gentlemen!
Jackson is probably best known to readers for her often-assigned-in-school short story, “The Lottery”, a story about a local tradition that involves something absolutely horrific. It’s kind of like The Wicker Man, but about society as opposed to religion, and with less naked dancing and Celtic folk music.
We Have Always Lived in the Castle is the story of a young woman who lives with her sister in an old mansion, outcast by the town due to the unresolved murder of the rest of their family. The story focuses on the town’s prejudices against the girls, which may actually be quite well-founded, but even more so on our heroine’s outlook on life. She’s brainy but childish, angsty, rebellious, angry, a practitioner of sympathetic magic, superstitious, anti-social, and misanthropic. Like many of Jackson’s heroines, from The Haunting of Hill House to The Bird’s Nest, she’s part misunderstood creative spirit, part demon, an anti-hero to rival Catcher in the Rye, but with some postmodern Gothic trappings. If you thought that Tally should have been a more active and interesting character to warrant how put-upon she is, look to this:
“My name is Mary Katherine Blackwood. I am eighteen years old, and I live with my sister Constance. I have often thought that with any luck at all, I could have been born a werewolf, because the two middle fingers on both my hands are the same length, but I have had to be content with what I had. I dislike washing myself, and dogs, and noise. I like my sister Constance, and Richard Plantagenet, and Amanita phalloides, the death-cup mushroom. Everyone else in our family is dead.”
- Othello by our man, The Bard!
Shakespeare has something for everyone, and the idea of fitting into a seemingly perfect society is certainly no exception! Shakespeare basically rules this idea, in fact, with his play, Othello. This is the story of the titular Othello, a great warrior, talented man, and husband of the beautiful Desdemona. Unfortunately, this is Ye Olde Olden Times, and Othello is something that Europe didn’t like: a black man who isn’t shining shoes. He’s an African who fights on the side of Europe, and works to fit into European society, which appears to be so proper and cultured –from the outside. Inside, he is met with massive discrimination, even after his war triumphs, and all that due to marrying a white woman. Enter Shakespeare’s most devious villain, Iago, who seeks to warp Othello’s insecurities into suspicion and conspiracy until he is tormented into committing one of the most tragic crimes in Elizabethan theatre.
Othello is a very complex play. On the one hand, the main character does something truly despicable by the end. On the other hand, you can’t help but feel sorry for him and Desdemona and how they simply played their parts in society, and were manipulated by Iago. It’s a tragedy, beautifully written, and will certainly make readers consider the issues of society and the roles that it sets up.
- The Stranger by Albert Camus
Or, maybe you just don’t get society at all. Uglies and Pretties addresses the idea of a society that is basically meaningless, and that is the impetus for the heroine to resist and try to escape and assert her individuality. The Stranger offers a world where maybe there is no escape. And maybe it isn’t because everyone is brainwashed by an evil government, but because things don’t make sense in the postwar world. The novel poses this question: should I kill myself or have a cup of coffee? And that’s the tone of the entire book.
If your interest is in the outsider, the person looking in and seeing the emptiness in the world, you may want to read a book in which the protagonist is so, so much more cynical and anguished than even you are. And when he eventually commits a brutal murder, would you be surprised if I told you he doesn’t seem to really care?
Oh, well, we could at least have coffee…
- Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? by Philip K. Dick
Philip K. Dick. To say his name around any sci-fi fans is to invoke great piles of gushing. He’s one of the most influential and important sci-fi writers in history. His works have been adapted into iconic movies, including this one, which became Blade Runner. His work is creative, subtle, and poses ethical and philosophical questions for the readers, beyond the usual good vs. evil found in many books.
Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep is about a post-apocalyptic future where much human and animal life has been depleted, and life-like androids work on off-planet colonies. Well, they’re supposed to. The androids may be artificially made, but they’re not without consciousness, and they come to earth and disguise themselves as humans. It’s up to our main character, a bounty hunter, to round up the renegade androids. The question remains, however, do these robots have their own individual consciousness worthy of respect as humans? Do they have souls? What is life and what are we, in ourselves?
The book shares many similarities with Fahrenheit 451, including government mood-control, the use of media as a sedative, and the general populace’s lack of interest in the world around them. However, Philip K. Dick’s world is stranger and more experimental, reminiscent of almost a Gravity’s Rainbow kind of reality, where everything is just… off.
Like Uglies and Pretties, it deals with fitting into a society, and who is considered better than who. What, exactly, is it to be a human being? And, could a good human being also be a robot?
- Animal Farm by George Orwell
Orwell, again! But, really, we can’t suggest books for readers of dystopian series without Animal Farm coming up! Animal Farm is an unusual, little book, because although it’s about a controlling government and has many tropes of a traditional dystopian novel, it’s about animals. It’s literally about animals that take over a farm –only to discover that not all animals are created equal in the eyes of the leaders.
Animal Farm may seem a far cry from the series we’re doing here. But, in fact, it has many similar aspects. For one thing, the dystopia of Uglies and Pretties is revealed to be an answer to a former bad government. The bad decisions of the series come from reactions to earlier bad decisions, gone corrupt. That’s basically the entire premise of Animal Farm! Sometimes, the solution isn’t better than the disease, and may even be quite similar. While Uglies and Pretties actually does not address a previously failed government system so much as ecological depletion, and so doesn’t give a great deal to work on and see where the past could have done better, Animal Farm’s archetypes and understanding of real-world problems (like for-profit ruling elites vs. Stalinist ruling elites), is a much punchier and more intelligent compare/contrast scenario. It’s a thoughtful look at control and corruption, and definitely worth a look!
- Mrs. Dalloway by Virginia Woolf
Uglies and Pretties may focus on teen insecurities in general, but its protagonist and narrator is a teenage girl. The market it appeals to is mostly made of teenage girls who feel misunderstood and who do not feel like they can or even want to live up to the pressures around them, especially those of physical beauty. This is a pretty universal theme, and one that many teenagers face, perhaps especially girls with all the emphasis on fashion and makeup around.
Mrs. Dalloway is a novel about feel like an outsider and being frustrated with the societal pressures around you. It is a dream-like story, about one afternoon, with a narrative that pops in and out of heads and reveals the struggles of each character to conform to their situation in life and also struggle to understand the changes in the world around them. If Holden Caulfield inspired leagues of angsty, frustrated teenaged boys, Mrs. Dalloway focuses on the domestic woman and her place in the world.
It’s a melodic, tragic, poignant look at longing, apathy, ennui, desire, sorrow, and depression, and if all the teen angst left you wanting to step it up a notch, now’s the time to do it.
- Persepolis by Marjane Satrapi
This is our first autobiography. You’re welcome. Oh, and it’s also a graphic novel. You’re welcome again.
You see, sometimes you don’t need dystopias to live in an oppressive society that has specific roles for your life and strict rules that you cannot break. Sometimes, that’s real life. This is the world of Marjane Satrapi, a spunky, intelligent, creative girl growing up in Iran during the conflict between Iran and Iraq. She sees the Shah fall and the rise of theocratic Islamist extremism. She has to cover herself, segregate from the community, and sees those she loves persecuted and even killed. Throughout it all, she remains strong, and tells her story with wit, humor, and clarity, never asking for pity, but always pushing onward. She’s a strong role model for anyone, and the book is important and moving, and worth recommending to young readers as well as adults. If you want your youthful narrator and strong female protagonist, it really doesn’t get better than Persepolis.
- The Bluest Eye by Toni Morrison
Like Persepolis, this is a story that doesn’t need dystopia to discuss a corrupt society. The story is about a black community, living in segregation, and each character’s reaction to this environment. There is a tragedy coming up, where all the injustice, anger, and struggle comes to a head in the life of a little girl who feels that if she were only blue-eyed, she would be accepted.
Uglies and Pretties focuses on the more superficial desires to look perfect, like movie stars, and the way media imagery and ideals affect those around them. What if you were in a society where not only where these ideals a problem, but that the entirety of who you were meant that you could not match this idea? What if from childhood the dolls you were given to play with looked nothing like you, and the movie stars and beauty queens looked nothing like you, and the people who lived in nice houses and had the best jobs and influence looked nothing like you, and all the politicians and powerful people of the world looked nothing like you? Don’t think “what if”. For many people, this was and in many situations still is a huge problem. In the age of segregation, it was even worse. Our character is driven through her tragedy by loneliness and abuse, and believes that if only she could change who she was, even just her eyes, she could change her fate.
It’s a tragic and incredibly harrowing story that is also important and beautifully-written by Nobel Prize in Literature writer, Toni Morrison.