Saturday, December 31, 2011

Beware those origami dragons

"The Hunger Games meets Harry Potter," a clip from Kirkus Reviews trumpets on the cover of  Lisa McMann's new book The Unwanteds. Those are a couple of mighty big book jackets to fill, but after reading this dystopian fantasy, I can see the reviewer's point. I didn't pick up the book based on that blurb, but on the rave review from a fifth grader at my school.
As the novel opens, a group of 13-year-olds are set to be "purged" from the land of Quill. This is an event that happens yearly. The young people are divided into three groups. The Wanteds, those deemed the strongest and most intelligent, will be sent to university. The Necessaries, judged to be average but harmless, are kept to perform menial labor. The Unwanteds, children who have been caught expressing hints of creativity, are sent to their deaths.
We discover by Page 20 (it's also on the book flap, so I'm not spoiling anything) that instead of being eliminated this year (and for many years) the Unwanteds have been saved by magician Marcus Today. He brings them to Artimé, his wondrous haven, where creativity is encouraged and nurtured.
The tale focuses on a pack of boys and girls. Alex, who's the Harry Potterest of the bunch, was purged because he drew in the mud. His artistic talent flourishes in Artimé. He's also a twin, but his brother is a Wanted. That provides Alex with intense heartache and sets up danger later on.
Sticking with the Harry Potter/Hunger Games theme, Lani is a bit of a cross between Hermoine and Katniss.
Quill is a gray, dreary protectionist state run by the evil High Priest Justine. Justine has cut Quill off from all contact or trade with any other people, so the infrastructure and machinery is decrepit.
But Mr. Today and the other leaders of Artimé (who include animals and magical creatures) are convinced that their community will be discovered one day and a battle is inevitable. The children receive magical trainingto prepare
The weapons are quite wonderful. They're based on the artistic talents of the children and teachers. Origami dragons burst into real flame when they hit their targets. Clay balls coat their victims rendering them unable to move. Actors can recite soliloquies that make their victims feel magical daggers plunge into their chests. Most of the weapons are meant to slow the enemy, not kill.
The Unwanteds, while not as complex as Harry Potter, is a good bet for 9- to 12-year-olds who are on their umpteenth reading of the Potter books and need something fun and fresh. It's also a good choice for those tweens who hear the Hunger Games hype and aren't ready for the stark violence of that series. This is a far gentler read.
The Unwanteds is the first in a series.

Here's a cute video of Author McMann talking to Max Burkholder – Max on Parenthood – about the book. He "really, really, really loved it."

-Rebecca Young


Anonymous said...

Curious! It sounds a little too close to the ideas in The Hunger Games. I guess that happens all the time in children's literature. Look at all the copies of Diary of a Wimpy Kid! I am torn between whether or not to get this for my daughter (12) who loved both the HP and The Hunger Games. Will it be stale or fresh?

Rebecca Young said...

It's true. Once there's a smash success in the children's book world, it tends to prompt a trend. I can't even count the number of vampire books that came across my desk after "Twilight." "The Unwanteds" was not as startlingly original as "The Hunger Games" – or "Harry Potter" for that matter. But it did have many imaginative aspects. And one thing I especially liked about it was its gentler bent than "The Hunger Games." I'm a school librarian and our fifth graders know about "The Hunger Games" and want to read it. I'm hesitant to recommend it to many of them. When we got back from winter break and I talked about reading this book and described the artistic weapons, it started them on a binge of dreaming up art-related weapon ideas of their own. (It was one of those fifth graders who read, loved and recommended this book to me. She's a voracious and advanced reader who has read "The Hunger Games" and seemingly everything else. She's reading "The Count of Monte Cristo" right now!)
-Rebecca Young

Anonymous said...

Thanks Becky! You sound like an amazing librarian. I have blogged about my son's elementary school librarian who is, shall we say, parsimonious with her books. She doesn't really like kids either. I am going to see if I can find this book in the library. And Count of Monte Cristo! Wow!