Reading Recommendations

We asked our Orwell Youth Fellows for reading, watching and listening recommendations on this year’s theme of ‘Who’s in Control?’ To start us off,  2022 winner Oluwatoni Adesanya has written this review of the Netflix documentary ‘How To Become a Tyrant’. Check back throughout the year for more recommendations, and scroll to the end for reading recommendations from other past entrants to the Prize

If I said to you, ‘how do I become a tyrant?’, you’d likely be surprised. Taken aback. Shocked. And probably deeply concerned because a tyrant is one thing most people would never want to be. Tyrants tend to leave sorrow, despair, rebellion and distressed people in their wake. So if I told you there was a show that answered this exact question, you’d likely ask, in turn, why a (theoretical) instruction manual for potential dictators even exists.

Did I start watching ‘How To Become A Tyrant’ out of my morbid curiosity? Yes. Do I regret it? No.

‘How To Become A Tyrant’ is a refreshing look into the lives of some of the most famous dictators on the planet. It’s relatively objective, in the way in which we are told and shown what they’ve done, and it’s not just flooded by the obvious criticisms. This means we know exactly why these are ‘bad’ people in a world where few things are morally black and white, why they stand out in all their gruesome glory, and why their names are carved into the rigid stone of history – for all the wrong reasons, of course.

‘How To Become A Tyrant’, as the title suggests, is also a discreet comedy concealed beneath its depressing subject matter. The show is based around the idea of a dictator’s play-by-play handbook, with lessons such as ‘Consolidate Your Power’. In fact, it is expressly pointed out where any dictator ‘strayed from the handbook.’ There’s also a running script of jokes, descriptive anecdotes and some tasteful cartoon animations scattered throughout, ultimately providing just the right amount of levity, that could accompany such dark subject matter. This show doesn’t take itself too seriously, and in a world where things politically, socially, economically and environmentally are becoming more and more dire, that is a much-needed relief.

Finally, what I like most about this series is that dictators have an early life and a personal life, which isn’t often the first thing we associate with them, and we get to see elements of those. After all, most people aren’t born with the ambition to become an all-powerful government official – there’s usually something wrong with the socio-political climate of a country that makes people feel defeated; makes them feel that extreme actions and policies are the only way to ‘fix’ things. These issues drive dictators to the height of their power and, more importantly, allow them to remain there for so long.

Are there some things about this show that aren’t perfect? Yes. Unfortunately (and I mean this as ironically as possible), there aren’t that many female dictators mentioned at all, and being produced by the US, one can never be sure there isn’t a slight bias towards said US or other Western countries- especially with the worldwide prevalence of the US as a military, economic and diplomatic power in the 20th century. However, the show ultimately succeeds in educating the viewer while keeping it relatively light and easy to follow. I think it’s a show you should watch if you’re interested in some morbid history, current events, politics, maybe economics – and my personal favourite: some research for the Orwell Youth Prize 2023 on the theme of Who’s in Control? And besides, what’s the worst that could happen? You’re not going to, I don’t know, follow the Dictator’s Handbook, are you?

Oluwatoni Adesanya was a winner of The Orwell Youth Prize 2022. You can read her winning piece ‘The Power of One’ here.

All winners and runners up of The Orwell Youth Prize are invited to join the Orwell Youth Fellows programme. The Fellows participate in monthly meetings, work together on collaborative writing projects, meet guest speakers and attend Orwell Foundation events. You can find out more about Oluwatoni and all the Orwell Youth Fellows here, and get a copy of their climate crisis zine Axial Tilt here.

Reading Recommendations – from lockdown and beyond!

Throughout lockdown, we asked youth prize entrants what they’d been reading in this strange period, and we’re sharing the literary suggestions that helped keep them inspired! We’ll be adding to this throughout this year too, so check back soon for more recommendations!

‘At the moment I am reading The London Eye Mystery and I am really liking it.’ Summer Greene, A Junior Entrant, has been reading ‘The London Eye Mystery by Siobhan Dowd.

 ‘The Lie Tree’ by Frances Hardinge is fantastic. It is a gothic children’s fantasy novel set in the Victorian period. ‘I am Malala’ by Malala Yousafzai is another one of my favourites. It is an enlightening work of non-fiction.’ Favourites from Junior Entrant Sophie Harrison.

‘I have been reading one of my favourite books again, Little Women [by Louisa May Alcott] -simple escapism, really lovely especially in uncertain times such as these! I’ve also been reading Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy [by Douglas Adams]-two very different books- which is such a funny and clever book.’  Two favourites from Junior Entrant Alena Cartmell. 

‘I have also just completed reading ‘The Handmaid’s Tale’ by Margaret Atwood and have found her dystopian novel to be most enthralling. It has kept me occupied for hours as the sense of mystery and tension is cleverly built through the narrative with the forever changing structure from past to present enhancing the intensity.’  Senior Entrant Molly Harmon on Atwood’s most famous novel. 

‘For older audiences, I would recommend the book Vox [by Christina Dalcher]. Its is very empowering for females, promoting equality.’ Entrant Piya Patel recommends Vox. 

‘I have recently finished reading Aleksander Solzhenitsyn’s ‘In The First Circle’. It is an extremely powerful novel about political prisoners in the Soviet Union during the Cold War. The alternating perspectives give the reader insight into various ideologies and experiences at the time.’ –  Senior Entrant Lauren DeBruin

‘I am currently re-reading Sylvia Plath’s ‘The Bell Jar’, it truly makes you aware of the society around us and the progress we’ve made within the equality between men and women whilst still highlighting how far we have to go! I would truly recommend this amazing novel and Plath’s poetry, ‘The Bell Jar’ is such an interesting read when looking at Plath’s life. I have been possessed by Sylvia Plath.’  Senior Entrant Molly Luck 

‘I’ve recently finished – and would greatly recommend – The Starless Sea by Erin Morgenstern.This is a book for those who want to truly get lost in a story and this is one that you can never quite pin down. The author’s unique style links together multiple perspectives to weave a unique and elaborate world that the characters illustrate through their travels across time and space within it. Not only is the description and prose beautiful, but for those who appreciate decorative books, the hardback cover is stunning.’  Junior Entrant Phoebe Shea

‘I’m currently reading ‘Witness to my Life [The Letters of Jean-Paul Sartre to Simone De Beauvoir 1926-39] and would highly recommend it!’  Junior Entrant Will Jump.

Other recommendations from youth prize entrants include:

The Catcher in the Rye – J. D. Salinger
Aristotle – Collected Works
Dante – The Divine Comedy
Ralph Ellison – Invisible Man
So this is love by Elizabeth Lim
Speechless by Kate Darbishire
Small Island by Andrea Levy
Animal Farm by George Orwell
My Friend Fear by Meera Lee Patel


Of course, we also recommend reading Orwell,  happily, you can find lots of Orwell to read on our website for free!