Aladdin/Simon & Schuster: 390 pp., $16.99, ages 8-12
As public school districts across the country get butchered with all the sensitivity inherent to a rusty hatchet, parents are processing the loss in novel ways. Take bestselling author Lisa McMann, who brainstormed the concept for her middle-grade debut “The Unwanteds” after art and music classes were cut from her children’s school.
Artistic kids were being punished, believed McMann, who reimagined their punishment as something other than the real-world decline of imaginative thinking. In “The Unwanteds,” every resident in the bland, mostly colorless community of Quill is marked as Necessary, Wanted or Unwanted (if they sing, paint or dance), in which case they are shackled, taken to a death farm and forced to face the Great Lake of Boiling Oil.
This annual ritual, or purging, takes place when children have reached the inauspicious age of 13. By then, their parents and other town members have observed each individual’s tendencies to determine if a child can stay in Quill, with its “identical houses planted closely together like rows of sweet corn,” or needs to be banished.
Creativity is perceived as weakness in this dystopian subsistence community. As its iron-fisted governess frequently intones, “Quill prevails when the strong survive.”
Clearly, “The Unwanteds” is a classic story of good versus evil, with good being defined as independent and imaginative and evil as unquestionably following the rules. McMann has wisely geared her book to a slightly younger readership than her usual audience of high schoolers, who might find the premise here a bit overt. But for middle graders awakening to more entrenched school hierarchies among the brainy, brawny and artistic, it will be an exhilarating and vindicating read, especially for students who fall into the latter camp.
At the center of the story are twin brothers Aaron (Wanted) and Alex (Unwanted), the only children of parents who are both Necessary. Alex is caught drawing pictures in the dirt, an infraction that lands him on a rickety bus with a girl prone to singing, a boy who excels at soliloquy and other kids with irrepressibly artistic spirits.
The purge and its subsequent bus trip take place in the book’s first few pages, so the death to which the Unwanteds are sentenced isn’t imminent. In fact, it’s quite the opposite of what they’d long been led to believe. It’s a paradise of sorts, where the children are, for the first time in their lives, encouraged to speak their minds and given private instruction to not only hone the intrinsic talents that made them Unwanteds in the first place but to enhance them with magic so they’ll be able to wage war with their art.
Meghan, a singer, learns tunes that will make the enemy sleep. Alex, an artist, trains in “defensive painting” so that he can draw himself out of dire situations. To use the author’s own classification system, McMann is clearly an Unwanted herself. She renders the scenes in dreary Quill and its Technicolor counterpart, Artime, with fantastical detail, building up the motivating forces that eventually draw the sides into conflict.
While most of the book takes place in the more colorful world of Artime and revolves around its main character, Alex, McMann occasionally returns to Quill to check in on his brother, Aaron. Twins being twins, the two share a bond that won’t allow the brothers and the two philosophies they represent to stay apart.
The action in “The Unwanteds,” and the book unto itself, prove McMann’s premise. Art is a powerful weapon indeed.