The Unwanteds is Lisa McMann’s middle grade debut novel about a dystopian nation that forbids creativity. When children in Quill turn thirteen, they are assessed by the all-powerful Governors and put into one of three categories: the Necessaries, who do the tedious and menial work, such as digging graves and harvesting crops; the Wanteds, the shining stars of Quill who are sent to the University to study for high ranking government positions; and the Unwanteds, members of society who have been scorned after being caught doing horrible, forbidden things such as singing or drawing in the dirt. Each year, the next batch of Unwanteds is sent outside of Quill to the Lake of Boiling Oil, where they are mercilessly killed … or so the officials think, anyway.
When the Unwanteds arrive beyond the city gate, they find themselves in the new, vividly colorful world of Artimé, created by an eccentric magician named Mr. Today, who has been leading the Unwanteds to safety for years. He introduces them to the very concepts that are forbidden in Quill—such as painting, writing, singing, dancing, and acting—and even teaches the children how the creative arts can be used as powerful weapons should the leaders of Quill every discover their hideaway. And of course, that’s exactly what ends up happening.
The main characters of McMann’s novel, Alex and Aaron Stowe, are a pair of identical twins with radically different fates. Alex is condemned as an Unwanted while Aaron becomes the most elite of his class of Wanteds. Alex is easy to sympathize with from the beginning, but Aaron quickly makes himself out to be one of the central villains. Although I could relate to Alex somewhat, the characters are a bit dull personality wise. To be fair, though, there’s only so much characterization you can squeeze into such a short book, and McMann does admirably by including a wide range of diversity in the characters’ backgrounds.
I typically don’t read middle grade fiction because I usually find the language and plot elements to be too simplistic for me to enjoy. This is somewhat true of The Unwanteds but once I gave myself a reality check (i.e. a good mental slap about the head) and began to see it as a novel instead of a ‘book for kiddies’, I started to get into it. I’ve always been a creative kind of person, and although no one has ever threatened to boil me alive because of that, let’s just say I understand the distress that comes when others don’t recognize or appreciate your genius.
In the end, The Unwanteds is about what I expected: it’s plot-driven instead of character-driven and lacks complexity. The first half of the book is slow going as McMann explains the mechanics of Quill and Artimé, but the climax is fast paced and satisfying. Overall it’s a quick, easy read with a cool new twist on magic and creativity. However, I don’t agree at all with the “Harry Potter meets Hunger Games” description toted on the cover; those are shoes that I don’t think any book could fill, and ultimately it set me up for disappointment.
Sydnee is a freshman at Wayne State University pursuing a degree in Journalism. She is obsessed with hunky heroes, explosions, melodrama, and magic—all things that make a frequent appearance in her stories. Her blog is http://syd-dreams.blogspot.com. Find her on Figment at http://figment.com/users/62-Sydnee-Thompson.