The Astonishing Life of Octavian Nothing by M. T. Anderson

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  • Title: The Astonishing Life of Octavian Nothing: Traitor to the Nation, Volume I: The Pox Party
  • Author: M. T. Anderson
  • Publisher: Candlewick Press
  • Year Published: 2008
  • ISBN: 0763636797
  • List Price: $11.99 (paperback)
  • Page Count: 384
  • Age Range: 13+ yrs
  • Genre: historical fiction
  • Award(s): Printz Honor Book; National Book Award Winner; School Library Journal’s Best Book of the Year; Gustavus Myers Center for the Study of Bigotry and Human Rights Outstanding Book Award Honorable Mention; complete list available here.

Author information: M. T. Anderson has written many books for young adults and children, notably the Octavian Nothing saga and the stand-alone novel, Feed. His website can be found here, but it is slow to load due to heavy visuals. On his site, readers can find a biography of the author, a list of his titles, links to lectures and interviews Anderson has given, a link to his blog, and a list of upcoming author events.

Reviews: Booklist and School Library Journal both gave this novel a starred review, citing its powerful themes of freedom and struggle as well as its use of historical facts to give the readers a clear picture of the time and place in which the book occurs. Both reviews mention that it can be challenging and take some time to acclimate to the novel’s storytelling format, but they did not think this detracted from the overall strength of the novel. These reviews, as well as excerpts from others, can be found on Amazon.com.

Readers annotation: How far is Octavian Nothing willing to go to get his freedom?

Summary: To Octavian Nothing, it’s normal to weigh his feces every day, live in a home where people answer to numbers rather than names, and receive a classical education in the arts and sciences. But after his mother is almost raped, his life changes with the discovery that he’s a slave and an experiment to see if Africans and Caucasians are of the same species. This realization leads Octavian to question his identity and future. Under the harsh ownership of Mr. Sharpe, Octavian is tormented and forced to work until his owners host a pox party that changes his life again. His mother dies and he attempts escape, which takes him into the heart of the American Revolution.

Evaluation: Written in a colonial style and from multiple perspectives, this novel looks at America’s early and often ugly history through the eyes of a young slave. Although the style can be challenging, readers who are willing to make the effort will become absorbed in Octavian’s world, which Anderson expertly crafts by blending historical fiction and speculative fiction in an innovative way.  Readers can relate to Octavian, despite the differences in time period and circumstances, because fundamentally he is just a teenager who is trying to discover his place in the world and cope with the loss of his innocence. The book does leave many unanswered questions, which could potentially frustrate readers who do not want to invest in a sequel, but those who find Octavian’s story compelling will be eager to read the next book. Ultimately, Octavian forces readers to examine their preconceptions of the world and explore the themes of injustice, loyalty, and freedom.

Rating and appeal factors:

  • Quality: 5/5  This novel is wonderfully executed and the use of a variety of formats, such as a first person narrative as well as letters from secondary characters gives the book an authenticity and truly places it in the per-Revolutionary War era. Anderson also does a masterful job of blending different genres in this novel to create something fresh and compelling.
  • Popularity: 2/5  The technical strength of this book–its historically accurate voice–is also the main deterrent for readers. Many teenagers will not be willing to put in the effort required to adapt to the language and will end up putting it down before the storyline has a chance to grab them.
  • Appeal factors: The character of Octavian Nothing is sympathetic and easy to relate to, even in spite of the differences between his character and modern readers. This book will also appeal to lovers of historical fiction, fans of Anderson’s other works, and readers looking for a book with strong African-American characters.

Read-alikes: 

  1. The Monstrumologist by Richard Yancey could be a good fit for readers who enjoyed Octavian Nothing. Both books rely on period language to create a believable and immersive setting, and both books depict the darker side of scientific experimentation.
  2. Those who want to read more about the slavery experience during the Revolutionary War would enjoy Laurie Halse Anderson’s Chains. Although this book is intended for a slightly younger audience than Octavian Nothing, it examines similar themes of sacrifice, freedom, and courage.

Book talk ideas: “At long last, you may no longer distinguish what binds you from what is you.” Imagine being the subject of a experiment meant to prove that you and people like you are inferior. Imagine having the only life you’ve ever known taken away from you, and imagine that in order to survive, you have to run. An option to make this book talk interactive would be to ask teens to define concepts such as “injustice” or “courage”.

Discussion questions/ideas:

  • Why do you think Anderson uses a variety of formats to tell this story? What is the impact of the pages that are almost entirely scratched out after the death of his mother?
  • Is evil black and white in this novel?
  • What struggles do you think Octavian would face today?

Reason for reading: When I was an undergraduate student, I took a class about children’s literature and read M.T. Anderson’s Feed. I really enjoyed that novel and have been meaning to read more of his work, and this class was the perfect opportunity. I also wanted to choose a novel that had a non-white protagonist, because I feel like many award-winners, intentionally or not, feature white characters and I wanted to have an award-winner under my belt so that I could hopefully recommend it to readers in the future.

Additional relevant information: This book is the first of two following the life of Octavian Nothing. The second, The Astonishing Life of Octavian Nothing, Volume II: The Kingdom on the Waves, also won a Printz Honor.

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