Welcome to my blog. I often think I was born with a book in my hand. I have always enjoyed reading, but more importantly, talking about books. This blog is partially about reviews, but is really a forum to talk about what I'm reading, and express all of the thoughts and feelings that there simply isn't room for in a professional review. I look forward to hearing your thoughts on your favourite books as you follow my reading journey.

Friday, August 5, 2011

The Unwanteds: A Magical Middle-Grade Debut

Every year in the Quill, 13-year-olds are sorted into three categories: Wanted, Necessary, and Unwanted. Naturally, Wanteds get the education, the plum jobs, and money. Necessary's get no special treatment, but are the working class, doing all of the lowly jobs that need to get done. And then there are the Unwanteds. Unwanteds are creative and artistic- qualities which have no value to the Quill society, and are sent to a special farm for elimination. Alex and Aaron are twins. Straight-laced Aaron is classified as Wanted, and immediately rises to the top. Alex on the other hand is Unwanted, and is marked for elimination.

Upon arrival at the "Death Farm", Alex discovers an amazing secret. The farm is actually a magical mirage, and behind it lies a magical world called Artime. In Artime, children are encouraged to foster their creative talents, and are sorted into disciplines to cultivate their magical abilities.

Life in Artime is almost perfect. Alex quickly makes friends, and everything he could ever imagine is at his fingertips. But- it's highly unusual for twins to be separated, and Alex's quest to be reunited with his brother results in a magical battle for the survival of Artime, and forces them both to choose sides once and for all.

In her middle-grade debut, Lisa McMann has created a rich, and vivid magical world that young readers will appreciate and enjoy. The world of Quill is literally all work and no play. There is no place for creativity or imagination, and life is colourless and strictly monitored by the government to keep it that way Inspired by the ongoing cuts being made to school arts programs around the U.S, the Quill is an extreme example of what life would be like without the arts.

Artime, on the other hand nearly rivals Hogwarts as a magical school for children, and I was reminded of Harry Potter several times while reading it. Children take only subjects that interest them, everything they can dream of is available to them, and entire sections of the world only exist when they are needed to save room. Unlike in Harry Potter, however, the students don't immediately begin magical training- first they have to find their artistic aptitude, as this is where the magic comes from. This was an element of the story that I particularly enjoyed, and kids will love the idea of creating weapons out of origami or reciting a Shakespearian soliloquy to put your opponent to sleep. But don't worry- even though there is ultimately a war, the violence is nominal and not especially scary.

The character of Alex is well-developed, and like Harry Potter, he is a boy who does not fit into his existing world, but really finds himself in his magical surroundings. The path isn't easy, however, and he will experience ups and downs with his new friends as most children do. When it seems like his friends are succeeding and leaving him behind, he becomes sullen and jealous, and increasingly brooding. McMann also charmingly deals with the subject of first crushes, and when one of the girls starts playing tricks on him, he doesn't realize that it's because she likes him- or that he likes her too. I also liked the twin aspect of the book (I so wanted to be a twin when I was a kid) and the connection that Alex just can't seem to let go of. Aaron also has a great deal more depth to him than what initially is obvious, and while he's not as noble-hearted as Alex, he's not purely evil either.

The publisher is referring to this as a dystopian novel, and to some degree it is, but I'd push it more towards dystopian fantasy or fantasy with dystopian elements. The plot moves quickly, the writing is solid, and as either a gentle introduction to the genre, or as a fantastical read for Harry Potter fans, The Unwanteds will absolutely hit all the right notes with its readers. Recommended for ages 9+.