I have loved Lisa McMann’s previous novels for teens/YA: the Wake, Fade, Gone trilogy and Cryer’s Cross. I was thrilled to hear she had started a middle-grade series, The Unwanteds, though it took me way too long to get to it! This first novel in the series didn’t disappoint, with its action-packed story set in a magical dystopian world.
In the land of Quill, practical skills and conformance are given the utmost importance. Each year, thirteen-year olds are sorted into categories: Necessary, Wanted, and Unwanted. The smartest, strongest children are declared Wanted and go on to attend the university, while those who have needed skills or can do manual labor are classified as Necessary and begin their jobs. Any child who has shown even the tiniest glimpse of creativity or artistic talent, though, is labeled Unwanted and is eliminated, as their tightly controlled society won’t tolerate anyone not willing to fit the mold.
On the day of the Purge, thirteen-year old twins Alex and Aaron attend the ceremony with their parents. As expected, the High Priest Justine calls out Aaron’s name among the list of Wanteds, and then she reads through the list of Necessaries. Finally, she reads the list of Unwanteds, including Alex’s name because he was caught drawing with a stick in the dirt when he was ten years old. With just a whispered good-bye from his brother and not a word from his parents, Alex is taken away, chained to the other Unwanteds, and sent on a bus to the Death Farm, where he faces death in the Great Lake of Boiling Oil.
When Alex and the other Unwanteds face the Eliminators, though, they are stunned to discover a hidden magical world run by Mr. Today, a colorful and odd magician. His land is called Artimé, and it is designed to foster creativity and artistic talent among its residents. This is a startling change for Alex and the other children just arriving: not only are they allowed to live, but in Artimé, creativity is actually encouraged instead of being a death sentence. In addition, this new world is filled with things the children have never seen before: strange magical creatures, statues that walk around, and bright colors everywhere.
All is not just joy and art, though, in Artimé. Mr. Today fears that a battle may be coming in their future that would put Artimé at risk. So, Alex and his fellow students are not only learning to be creative, they are also learning how to use their artistic talents in battle.
One reviewer described The Unwanteds as “The Hunger Games meets Harry Potter,” and that is an apt description since this series encompasses both a dystopian world and a hidden, magical school where students are trained in magic. However, the world McMann has created is wholly unique and very intriguing, a world where art and creativity are so powerful that they can be used to fight battles. The novel is fast-paced and full of magic and action, friendships and battles (and even a touch of romance). This series will appeal to a wide range of middle-grade readers – both boys and girls – but especially to those kids who enjoy artistic endeavors…and anyone who appreciates nonconformity! This first novel was a great start to the series, and I can’t wait to read the rest.
390 pages, Aladdin (an imprint of Simon & Schuster)
NOTE: So far, five books have been published in The Unwanteds series, and McMann says she plans a total of seven.