The Pox Party: Octavian Nothing, Vol. 1 Book Poster Image

The Pox Party: Octavian Nothing, Vol. 1



Slavery-themed award-winner is a challenging teen read.

What parents need to know

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

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."

Not applicable
Drinking, drugs, & smoking

Pipe smoking, drinking.

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.

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.

Families can talk 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? 

Book details

Author:M.T. Anderson
Genre:Historical Fiction
Book type:Fiction
Publisher:Candlewick Press
Publication date:October 1, 2006
Number of pages:351
Publisher's recommended age(s):14

This review of The Pox Party: Octavian Nothing, Vol. 1 was written by

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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 a masterful work of art, but it is very, very, very difficult to read. I've always read several years beyond my grade level, and I found this difficult, and I think that it is definitely late high school level reading. I know a lot of people that would have found the language wholly opaque. Don't be discouraged though, because it presents a wide range of emotion, science, and psychology that's absolutely fascinating!
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.
Parent 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 with the nation's ethical considerations; the Enlightenment had an ugly irrational side; the Revolution was not quite so clean as "good guys beat bad guys" (e.g., England may have been more enlightened than the colonies about slavery); etc. I think this is a wonderful development, because it gets us to think critically about those glossy myths, but these much-needed epiphanies could be painful for a reader who believes that America is exceptional and exclusively good. This novel will also help build strong context/content knowledge, but could be a huge struggle for a reader who has a shaky grasp of history and/or geography, and especially one not familiar with the often-beautiful but syntactically dense and vocabulary-rich 18th century style, which Anderson uses to great effect.
What other families should know
Educational value
Great messages
Great role models
Too much violence
Too much swearing