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
Compelling tale of slavery, experiment in Revolutionary era.

Parents say

age 14+
Based on 4 reviews

Kids say

age 11+
Based on 9 reviews

Did this review miss something on diversity?

Research shows a connection between kids' healthy self-esteem and positive, diverse representations in books, TV shows, and movies. Want to help us help them? Suggest a diversity update

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, how complicated America was around time of Revolutionary War. Book's language and style will definitely push readers, who might enjoy delving into the publisher's reading guide with a parent or teacher. Lots of opportunities to discuss difficult issues, from human experimentation to personal freedom.

Positive Messages

All humans have value. Freedom comes from within; it's not something to be bestowed on a person by someone else. Even people you trust may betray you.

Positive Role Models & Representations

Octavian comes of age in this book, not only understanding complexity of the world around him but also getting a better sense of his own identity. A victim of a terrible betrayal, he must decide how to respond. A few White citizens are kind to him, but that kindness usually comes with a price. Supporting cast is rich in diversity, 


Slitting of throats; severe beating and flogging of children and adults. Fatal animal experimentation. A man is tarred, feathered, beaten. Soldiers fight, are wounded and killed. Description of an autopsy. Horses are massacred. Various atrocities mentioned. Biological details of pox party itself may disturb sensitive readers. Characters experience 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," "savages."

Drinking, Drugs & Smoking

Pipe smoking, drinking.

What parents need to know

Parents need to know that The Astonishing Life of Octavian Nothing, Traitor to the Nation, Volume 1: The Pox Party is set in 18th century Boston during the time of the American Revolutionary War. It features a Black main character living among White people and deals with slavery and the war. Author M.T. Anderson doesn't flinch from the story's disturbing brutality and violence, especially the vicious beatings endured by enslaved people. One man is tarred and feathered, throats are slit, and soldiers and horses die. The biological details of the pox party -- where humans are intentionally infected with disease -- may nauseate some readers. Readers should also beware of the emotional toll inflicted upon Octavian as he witnesses atrocities and is betrayed by those he trusts. There's a bit of salty language ("slut," "bastard," and "s--t," each used once), characters refer to Native Americans as "heathens" and "savages," and there are some sexual references, including nudity and a mention of "the clap." Ultimately, the book's language and style make it best for mature teens who are up for a challenging read. This book won many children's literary awards, including the National Book Award for Young People's Literature and a Michael L. Printz Honor.

User Reviews

  • Parents say
  • Kids say
Parent of a 10-year-old Written byMrRoberts October 10, 2009

Deeper concepts from a challenging read.

This book demonstrates the extreme side of Enlightenment philosophy. The vocabulary used is excellent as is the style; the book is written in the style fitting... Continue reading
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
Teen, 14 years old Written bySalvatore January 5, 2010

Great story, historical basis.

I was 14 when I read this (still am), and found it to be just right and actually with an interesting voice. The narrator is supposed to be neutral for the most... Continue reading
Teen, 15 years old Written byCharlieGBlaG21 April 23, 2019

Great Book

Octavian is the main character in this book and he explores so many hard topics and decisions and this book would be great for intermediate readers to introduce... Continue reading

What's the story?

At the start of THE ASTONISHING LIFE OF OCTAVIAN NOTHING, TRAITOR TO THE NATION, VOLUME 1: THE POX PARTY,  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 enslaved, 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. Young Octavian will be tested physically and emotionally as he searches for the truth about his value as a human being.

Is it any good?

Historical novels often play fast and loose with the facts, but this coming-of-age story is well-researched and completely compelling. Octavian Nothing is intellectually complex, rich in language and ideas, and highly original. Author M.T. Anderson uses an approximation of the style of a classically trained 18th century writer, combined with an almost postmodern, episodic, time-shifting structure. For 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.

Octavian is a fascinating character who will help readers connect deeply with the horrors of slavery and also get them thinking about some big identity questions. The supporting cast is rich in diversity, and the narrative brims with thematic exuberance. This volume is the first of two. Few readers will be able to resist seeking out the concluding installment.

Talk to your kids about ...

  • Families can talk about the level of violence and brutality in The Astonishing Life of Octavian Nothing, Traitor to the Nation. Does the fact that it's based on historical events make it appropriate? Is reading about violence any different from watching it on television or playing a violent video game?

  • What limits should be set on medical experimentation? How has human testing been valuable, and when has it been harmful?

  • What is freedom? Does it come from within, or is it bestowed on individuals?

  • What did you learn about American slavery that you didn't know before? 

Book details

Our editors recommend

For kids who love stories of the American Revolution and Black history

Themes & Topics

Browse titles with similar subject matter.

Top advice and articles

Common Sense Media's unbiased ratings are created by expert reviewers and aren't influenced by the product's creators or by any of our funders, affiliates, or partners.

See how we rate

About these links

Common Sense Media, a nonprofit organization, earns a small affiliate fee from Amazon or iTunes when you use our links to make a purchase. Thank you for your support.

Read more

Our ratings are based on child development best practices. We display the minimum age for which content is developmentally appropriate. The star rating reflects overall quality.

Learn how we rate