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The Astonishing Life of Octavian Nothing, Traitor to the Nation, Volume I: The Pox Party

Book review by
Matt Berman, Common Sense Media
The Astonishing Life of Octavian Nothing, Traitor to the Nation, Volume I: The Pox Party Book Poster Image
Slavery-themed award-winner is a challenging teen read.

Parents say

age 14+
Based on 4 reviews

Kids say

age 11+
Based on 8 reviews

A lot or a little?

The parents' guide to what's in this book.

Educational Value

Readers will get a painful sense of slavery's horrors and how complicated America was around the time of the Revolutionary War. The book's language and style will definitely push readers, who might enjoy delving into the publisher's reading guide with a parent or teacher.

Positive Messages

This book (and its sequel) will help readers think about a complicated time in American history, The main character will help readers connect deeply with the horrors of slavery and also get them thinking about some big identity questions.

Positive Role Models & Representations

Octavian comes of age in this book, not only understanding the complexity of the world around him but also getting a better sense of his own identity.


Slitting of throats; severe beating and flogging of children and adults; fatal animal experimentation; a man is tarred, feathered, and beaten; soldiers fight and are wounded and killed; description of an autopsy; horses are massacred; various atrocities mentioned. Characters experience all of the bigotry and mistreatment that go along with slavery.


Nudity and a nude portrait, mention of "the clap," mention of ogling breasts, animal insemination.


"Slut," "bastard," and "s--t," each used once. Characters refer to Native Americans as "heathens," "barbarous," and "savages."

Drinking, Drugs & Smoking

Pipe smoking, drinking.

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.

User Reviews

  • Parents say
  • Kids say
Adult Written bycarlrosin May 28, 2011

Complex novel that challenges its readers in many ways

Challenges well-loved myths about America: slavery is an ugly, hypocritical truth during the push for "liberty"; economic/market concerns interfered w... Continue reading
Adult Written bySuzieS February 17, 2011

Not for everyone, but it deserves an audience

The subject matter is disturbing and aimed at the serious, thoughtful reader.
Teen, 13 years old Written byDecalis April 9, 2008

Utterly Amazing... But like wading through frozen molasses.

Firstly, this is a purely amazing book. The writer must be a certifiable genius to coordinate the language, customs, and philosophy with the time period. It is... Continue reading
Teen, 16 years old Written byBucephalus92 March 11, 2009

Good, well written

I read it at fifteen, but a mature 13 year old could definitely handle it.

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? 

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