I don’t usually do book reviews…

I don’t really do book reviews. I love reading enormously and I am passionate about the books that I love and about the books that I don’t love. There are many great writers who craft brilliant analytical and thoughtful book reviews, so my voice isn’t really needed in that realm. I’ve always found recommending books a sticky proposition, too. I’ve received enough honest,”This book is amazing!” reviews of books that I ended up not enjoying or that I never finished to know that books are intensely personal. For example, I’m the only person on Earth who really didn’t like All the Light We Cannot See. I appreciated it, but I just didn’t enjoy it.

Having said all that, there are books that just take my breath away. They may not be for everyone, but I would feel remiss if I didn’t shout their virtues from the rooftops.

The Astonishing Life of Octavian Nothing – Traitor to the Nation by M.T. Anderson is one of those books.

I can’t even remember what drew me to read it in the first place. I checked it out of the library at Lake Braddock Secondary School where I worked and it transported and changed me.

Here’s the summary from the book jacket:

“Raised by a mysterious group of rational philosophers, young Octavian is dressed in silks and given the finest of classical educations. His regal mother entertains the scholars with her beauty and wit, but Octavian questions the purpose behind his guardians’ fanatical studies. As the disquiet of Revolutionary Boston grows around him, Octavian dares to open a forbidden door, only to discover the hideous nature of the experiments – and his own chilling role in them.”

It’s an incredible book. You really should read it. It should be required reading for all high school students. I don’t usually say these kinds of things, but really Octavian is that important to me.

The reason that I am thinking about it again is that I am going to cover a high school class for a friend where I will get to lead a discussion about Octavian. To prepare, I have been rereading the section that we’ll be discussing. Just reading the 50-ish pages has me transported again. I can’t wait to hear what the high schoolers think. The story has so much to say of rebellion, obedience, the power and danger of learning and the importance of the arts. The history it contains and the myriad ways that Africans were manipulated and physically and emotionally abused is so vibrantly rendered as to wake up any modern reader to the vast and limitless evil of slavery. Octavian is an African in Revolutionary America who is given the finest classical education in the arts, languages and sciences. His place in the world is so confusing and so rapidly altered that he must simply work to decipher how he must behave to avoid brutality.

Here’s one of my favorite passages.

“I missed my studies with Dr. Trefusis inveterately, for reading, once begun, quickly becomes home and circle and court and family, and indeed, without narrative, I felt exiled from my own country. By the transport of books, that which is most foreign becomes one’s familiar walks and avenues, while that which is most familiar is removed to delightful strangeness, and unmoving, one travels infinite causeways, immobile and thus unfettered.”

The whole book is that beautiful and powerful.

Go read it.



The NoVa Teen Book Fest is coming!

Last year I attended the NoVa Teen Book Fest for the first time and wrote about it here.  I had attended several festivals and readings of Young Adult fiction and what always frustrated and annoyed me was, there were hardly any actual teens or young adults in attendance.  While I love that adults read YA books, I know that the authors of the books prefer to speak to teens and get their perspectives on the stories they tell and so do I.

When I arrived about halfway through the day to the NoVa Teen Book Fest, the first thing I noticed was that there were teenagers – everywhere and only a handful of weird adults like me in attendance. It was fantastic. I still have clear memories of talking to some girls in line to get their books signed. I asked them how the book was and they made a series of squeaks and groans and finally told me that it was the most amazing book ever.  I then asked them what made it so great and their analysis and joy poured out of them as fast as they could speak!  I couldn’t wait to read the book and was honored that they’d given me their unfiltered review of a story that was so precious to them.

This year’s festival is going to be amazing again. I am counting the days.

The details are at the NoVa Teen Book Fest website. You can get your free tickets here.

The author line up this year is terrific. Jason Reynolds will be there again this year. He writes the most amazing and moving books and is a fantastic human. I hope to see him on some panels because his manner and way of expressing himself is so compelling. I always come away with a new perspective when I hear him speak or read his books. You should really stop reading this and go get any/all of his books and read them. They’re all fantastic.  Julie Murphy will be there, too. I loved Dumplin’ and I hope that teens at the festival have read it or will buy it and read it. Willow Dean is such a fantastic character and her friendship with Ellen is one of the most genuine female friendships I’ve ever encountered in fiction.  I saw Julie in the lobby of the hotel I stayed in during the ALAN workshop and felt compelled to tell her how much I loved Dumplin’. She was nursing a badly hurt foot and invited me to share her cab to the workshop and we talked while we rode. It’s always reassuring when someone whom you admire turns out to be a spectacularly kind, personable and funny human in real life. I am looking forward to seeing her again.

So what I am trying to say is that you should absolutely come to the NoVa Teen Book Fest. I will be there. I will be volunteering. I will be fawning over authors and listening to conversations among teens about books that they love and watching them realize that they’re in a place where everyone gushes about books and characters as if they are actual stories they’ve lived and people they’ve known.

Pro-tip – Pre-order books for the festival. I will be doing this as soon as I finish this blog post. You can order all the books you want by the authors who will be there and then get them signed without having to shlep them all to the festival with you! Pre-order books here.