Tuesday, March 20, 2007

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

I imagine that it is pretty rare for a book with the word "astonishing" in the title to actually be astonishing. I am glad to report that The Astonishing Life of Octavian Nothing, by M.T. Anderson, lives up to its promise. This is an extremely powerful novel, well deserving of the 2006 National Book Award for young adult literature, as well as inclusion on the 2007 Printz Award Honor Books list.

The Astonishing Life of Octavian Nothing is a fictional slave narrative about a young African boy growing up in pre-revolutionary Massachusetts. Two things are distinctive about this narrative: the sophisticated voice of the narrator, and the way in which other fictional accounts of his life are interwoven into the story. I probably also should add that the events that this boy experiences are quite bizarre, but also plausible. Its this combination that makes the book such a good read.

History teachers in particular will enjoy this book, and perhaps want to include it in a study of colonial America. At the end of the novel, there is a very interesting commentary by the author about his use of historical documents and materials. I was most taken by the depiction of the revolutionary army at the start of the American Revolutionary War, as well as the motivations presented for independence. I couldn't help but think of the way the insurgency in Iraq is depicted in today's press, and I wonder if this would be something that middle school and especially high school teachers might make connections to as they discuss this novel.

American literature teachers who are teaching or using slave narratives might also want to incorporate this novel as a way to flesh out some of the issues and complexities surrounding the African experience in the Americas in the 1700's. The language in this book is quite sophisticated, but I think that it could be used with more struggling readers or in more general curriculums as a text that provides challenge but content that is engaging.

Run out and get The Astonishing Life of Octavian Nothing. This is the first book in a series, so you'll want to be prepared for what comes next.

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