Best YA Books About the End of the World | TJ Withers-Ryan

I have always found books helpful in a crisis.

I’m not saying I’d sit down in a burning house and open my ebook reader…

But in that burning house, it’s because of the books I’ve read that I’d know to recognise whether the fire is getting out of control based on the colour and movement of the smoke.

It’s because of books that I’d know to check if a handle is hot before opening the door to another room.

It’s because of books that I’ve already spent time tonight about what I’d grab if I had to run out the door – my baby, my phone, and a blanket or jumper to keep the two of us warm.

So when the Australian government announced pandemic status for coronavirus yesterday, I had already been thinking in “prepper” mode for weeks, preparing for the end of the world, buying canned food, NOT toilet paper. 🙄

And the reason I have prepped, not panicked, is all because of a few AWESOME series of YA books that got me thinking about what different survival scenarios might require of me.

How I might be challenged.

How I could rise to the occasion.

I also found myself less scared after reading books, fiction, about things that could potentially happen for real in my lifetime – things like famine, climate destruction, and war.

Clarification: I’m not saying the world is ending. But a lot of scary things are happening. My country, Australia, has had more bushfires in the past months than it’s had per year at any point in history. Coronavirus is rapidly spreading across the globe and although it’s usually not deadly, it’s (so far) also looking not very stoppable. Climate change is flooding entire states and wiping cities off the map, while other states are crying out in the worst droughts of more than a decade. My only point is that it’s worth being prepared for all the big things that are happening, and more big things that might be in our future.

So here are my favourite reads for young people at the end of the world, in no particular order. I’ve tagged them with movie style ratings (PG, M, etc.) so you can make your own decisions about whether or not you’re mature enough to read each book.

IMPORTANT NOTE: If you are feeling anxious or depressed about the world events happening around you, please talk to an adult you trust. This might be your parents, a trusted teacher or your school chaplain, or even a professional counsellor. They can help you talk about these big events that cause big emotions, and help you find ways to stay upbeat and cope practically and emotionally with whatever life throws your way. If you’re feeling like all hope is lost, I’d encourage you to try the Beyond Blue online chat or their phone helpline.

1. Not A Drop to Drink by Mandy McGinnis (M)

Theme: Water scarcity.

I never wanted to buy my own rainwater tank until I read this book.

A young woman and her mother live on an isolated, rural property where they have one of the only water sources left for miles – a lake and a rainwater tank.

They have stayed alive so far by fighting off the wandering people and animals who try to kill them and steal their water source. But when someone wanders in looking for help, they face hard decisions about how much to help while still surviving themselves.

2. The Sky So Heavy by Claire Zorn (M)

Theme: Nuclear fallout.

This gripping story about two brothers has some practical reminders about things like boiling water to kill all the bacteria, germs, and more.

I found it very scary because it all seemed so plausible – people hoarding food, dying of radiation poisoning if they drank non-boiled water or ate the snow off the ground.

My takeaway from this story was that cities are not a safe place to be in crisis situations. (People be crazy.)

3. Tomorrow, When the War Began by John Marsden (M)

Theme: War invasion.

This series is a classic for good reason. The premise is that I’ve of Australia’s nearby neighbours has invaded, and it’s got everything – action, romance, serious drama, even some comedy.

You’ll laugh, you’ll cry, you’ll stay up way too late reading “just one more page”.

It made me rethink how I see the world – in a good way.

It’s also a good reminder that you can never stock up on too much Panadol and two-minute noodles – you know, for those times you’re stuck in the rainforest recovering from a bullet wound.

4. Life As We Knew It by Susan Beth Pfeffer (PG)

Theme: Climate change.

This isn’t normal climate change, though – not like The Day After Tomorrow or anything like that. In this book, huge climate changes are caused by the moon being knocked off course by an asteroid.

I basically used their “apocalypse grocery shop” as a guide for our own stocking up on food and essentials. Very sensible!

When food becomes scarce, daylight is almost nonexistent, and there’s only electricity for an hour a day, the family in this story has to make some scary choices about how they’ll survive. It’s not spoilers to say that it soon becomes clear that if not all of them can survive, they start to choose who they will feed the most, protect the most, to make sure at least some of their family survives. It’s quite dark but really interesting.

5. Before She Ignites series by Jodi Meadows (M)

Theme: Climate change, war, racial tensions, religious extremism.

I cannot recommend this series enough. I LOVED it. I loved the characters, the world building, and the way the imminent threat of the end of the world was built up.

In this series, the end of the world means earthquakes that eventually cause the islands this nation lives on to rise up out of the sea volcano-style, killing everyone who’s left on the island at the time.

Meanwhile, fantastic magic and religious fanaticism mix in this intricately designed world.

And that’s only one tiny aspect of this epic series. You’ll just have to read it and see.

6. How I Live Now by Meg Rosoff (M)

Theme: War.

Trigger warnings: The main character’s development involves recovery from anorexia, and from memory the love interest is one of her cousins, although I can’t remember, might’ve been a second cousin.

When the heroine gets trapped in another country during an invasion, she learns a whole new way of living frugally.

I found the character development in this story just beautiful – from selfish to altruistic, from caring about no one (not even herself) to caring for others and for herself.

7. When My Name Was Keoko by Linda Sue Park (PG)

Theme: War, invasion.

Life for Korean people during World War II was pretty bleak. Starvation was rife because their Japanese occupiers took everything from their clothes to their food to their house plants…

Their prettiest high school girls were taken to the front lines to serve as “comfort women” (sex slaves) for the Japanese officers.

Even their names were taken away, replaced with Korean names.

I learned a lot about Korean and Japanese culture and history from reading this book, and I learned about different types of food that you can eat if you have to, like millet (chicken feed) and lizards.

I also loved the contrast between Keoko’s narration, as she is young enough that she struggles to remember life before the invasion, and her older brother, who struggles to accept the occupation.

8. Watership Down by Richard Adams (PG)

Theme: Refugees.

My parents read this book to us a chapter a night when I was quite young, and they’d explain why things were happening when the story got a bit scary in places.

I don’t remember ever thinking, “This is what it must be like for refugees, fleeing for their lives, never knowing if they’ve found a safe home yet, never knowing who they can trust.” But that’s definitely what I think when I read it now, as an adult.

9. The Quiet at the End of the World by Lauren James (PG)

Theme: Human race extinction.

This one is less scary, less violent, and more philosophical. You’ll enjoy it if you enjoy pondering the “what if?” type questions.

What if you were the last hundred people alive on earth?

What if instead of fighting each other for the last few resources left, you were all working together in harmony for everyone’s survival… but the human race as you knew it was still ending? What would you care about? How would you want to spend your life?

Honorable mentions

After the End by Amy Plum was fascinating because it’s not actually the end of the world in the book. The premise is a prepper community in Alaska that teaches their kids that the world has already ended. The kids have all grown up living off the land, hunting and gathering their food, and learning combat skills to protect themselves against bandits who occasionally stumble into their territory.

The Martian by Andy Weir taught me how to grow potatoes using my own poo as fertiliser. If I had to. Thank God I don’t, right now, anyway. Another case of the movie is great but the book is even better – read it!

(C) TJ Withers-Ryan, 2020.

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