Recently there was an article published in The Wall Street Journal criticizing Young Adult literature for being too dark. I think the author might have a slight heart attack if they read the first few chapters of Lisa McMann‘s new middle grade book, The Unwanteds.
In a gray, regulated world reminiscent of the clone-suburbia of A Wrinkle of Time, the people of Quill are grouped into three categories once they turn 13: Wanteds, Necessaries, and Unwanteds. The Wanteds, deemed the strongest and most intelligent, are educated with hopes of becoming part of the Quillitary, maintaining their troops and their defenses against enemies being the most important thing to the people of Quill. The Necessaries perform manual labor in order to keep the citizens of Quill in food and water, and the Unwanteds, who are identified and deemed unworthy by exhibiting any signs of creativity or emotion, are executed, which should make eighth grade seem a lot brighter to young readers.
Luckily, unlike pitch black middle grade series Among the Hidden in which the unwanted children really are sentenced to death, unbeknownst to people of Quill, a wizard by the name of Mr. Today has created a magical land of Artime where generations of Unwanteds hone their artists talents and learn to execute the magic connected to their disciplines.
The Sorcerers Stone, The Order of Phoenix, The Hunger Games, and Fame we meet our young hero, Alex. Alex is as thrilled as anyone else to suddenly be in a such a wonderfully different world then the one he grew up in. He can take art lessons when so much as drawing stick figures in the mud was enough to get him on the unwanted list, he can hang out and laugh with his friends when relationships didn’t really exist in Quill. But he still misses his twin brother, Aaron, a Wanted with his sight on being the right hand man to the evil High Priest.
And so as he masters the art of folding origami dragons that can fly and breath fire and sculpting clay that can tramp an enemy indefinitely, Alex works on creating a door to connect Artmie to Quill, sure if his brother only knew of this other world he would come back with him, and equally sure any risk of exposing Artime is well worth it.
What makes The Unwanteds so unique is the melding of a magical world where characters the readers’ age are taught to float and stun in the connection to a very real world: an arts school. In Artime students who have a way with words battle with “slam” poetry, thespians attack with stunning soliloquies, artists become imperceptible with invisibility paintbrushes, and musicians use singing charms to knock their opponents out.
Still, for die-hard fans of the more traditional middle grade fantasies, the familiar characters are there. Mr. Today is obviously Dumbledore, with a stake in each child’s education but with a special soft spot for the protagonist, complete with a troubled youth he feels he can never redeem. There are crushes that, so early in the series are all but buried in the excitement of discovery, and later, battle, but still persist. And there are Artime’s own creatures and other magical items: tubes used throughout the school to transport food and students and hybrid animals that live in the jungle or teach class.
The Unwanteds is constantly exciting, new with just enough familiarity to ground a reader wary to stray from their beloved series, and written at a middle grade reading level without being condescending. The Unwanteds will be released August 30th.