Anderson, M.T. The Pox Party: The Astonishing Life of Octavian Nothing, Traitor to the Nation, book one. Candlewick, 2008. ISBN 978-0763636791. 384 pp. $10.99
Young Octavian–a black boy born to an African princess but a slave nonetheless–has his life chronicled in narrative, letters, diary entries, etc, detailing his upbringing in a wealthy household as a science experiment.
This particular title has won a Printz Honor Award as well as the National Book Award for Young People’s literature, and quite deservedly so. Many librarians and educators question if teens will voluntarily pick up this tone, written in the formal educated speech of the late eighteenth century. Because the themes of the novel–identity, loyalty, duty– are YA issues, they will surely be of interest to YA readers. Once the reader gets into the cadence, the formal educated speech is a treasure; just as Feed’s inventive vocabulary required a certain level of deciphering, so does Octavian.
The voice of an experiementally educated black in an historical time period is unique and clear, and a voice not yet heard in the canon of YA literature. The format is daring and innovative. The convention of the reader figuring out what is going on alongside the protagonist is effective showing not telling. When such unspeakable things happen to the narrator that he can no longer share his story, the novel switches to letter format that has a strong impact. The technique of using thick dark strike throughs to convey difficulty in expression is also brilliant. What is NOT being said reveals a great deal about the character.
Set during the American Revolution, the initial focus is a scientific society, rather than the rebellion. The accuracy is high; details are based in fact and meticulously researched. And the faintly hideous cover art hints at a dark event to come that is shudderingly real and very discomforting.
A must have for all collections, this can be cross-marketed to adults who may be fans of titles dealing with this time period.