The Astonishing Life of Octavian Nothing, Traitor to the Nation, Volume I: The Pox Party
A lot or a little?
The parents' guide to what's in this book.
What parents need to know
Parents need to know that this book has won many children's literary awards, including the National Book Award and a Michael L. Printz Honor. Its story deals with slavery and the Revolutionary War, and consequently there's disturbing brutality and violence, especially the vicious beatings endured by slaves. One man is tarred and feathered, throats are slit, and soldiers and horses die. There's a bit of salty language and some sexual references, including nudity and a mention of "the clap." Ultimately, the book's language and style make it a better choice for mature teens who are up for a challenging read.
- Parents say
- Kids say
What's the story?
Octavian, a prince, and his mother, a princess, are kept in luxury and given a classical education in Revolutionary-era Boston by a group of scientists and philosophers who call themselves The Novanglian College of Lucidity. But Octavian and his mother are really slaves, and their treatment is just one of the experiments conducted in the household. They're not free, and they're always subject to the whims of their keepers -- a brutal truth that's brought home to them when the College gets a new source of funding and the nature of the experiment changes. Meanwhile, the country inches toward war, and the scientists have an unusual solution to the smallpox epidemic that's ravaging the countryside.
Is it any good?
This novel is intellectually complex, rich in language and ideas, and highly original. It's written in an approximation of the style of a classically trained 18th-century writer, combined with an almost postmodern, episodic, time-shifting structure. Booklist calls it "both chaotic and highly accomplished, and... it demands rereading," and even the author told NPR, "It really is for older teens, in my mind."
Indeed, for gifted teens with a taste for high-level language, extended philosophical discourse, and complex literary structure, this will be a rare treat. But it may not resonate with younger teens or those not up for a real challenge.
Talk to your kids about ...
Families can talk about the book's violence and brutality. Is there ever a limit on how much violence should be in a young adult book, even one based around historical events? Is reading about violence any different than watching it on TV or playing a violent video game?
This book has won several children's literary awards. Even though it's a well-executed novel, it may be difficult for most teens to read. Should awards for YA books be given to books solely based on their literary merit -- or should they have to resonate with a wider range of today's teens?