The Unwanteds: Book 1, by Lisa McMann, 400 pp, RL 4

The Unwanteds, the first book in Lisa McMann's Unwanteds series came out in 2011 and the blurb on the cover, "The Hunger Games meets Harry Potter," didn't grab me, despite the fact that I read and admire both series. I was  burned out on dystopian settings and wary of any book that is compared to Harry Potter. But, The Unwanteds won the California Young Reader Medal medal for best intermediate novel and many kids in my library were intrigued by the book because of this. The California Young Reader Medal is a program that was started in 1974 that allows the young people of California to read, nominate and vote on their favorite books in a given year. Presentation of the books and voting happens in classrooms, school libraries and public libraries. The great thing about the program is that kids are repeatedly exposed to the nominated books (they have to read all nominees in a category in order to be able to vote) and knowing that a book won a medal means something to them because of their participation in the selection of the winners. While the whole process is very fun, from the perspective of a school librarian, the best part is the fact that the contest creates an awareness of books in kids who are not readers and/or exposes readers to new works.

I decided it was time for me to read this book that was voted best middle grade novel of 2013-2014 by the kids of California. While the comparisons between The Hunger Games and Harry Potter are apt, I think that world that McMann creates for The Unwanteds is much more like The City of Ember by Jeanne DuPrau, which is set in a society with no new resources, and the Charlie Bone series by Jenny Nimmo, in which Bloor's Academy instructs students in the creative and magical arts. Both of these are fantastic books that I read before I started this blog and really need to review here. Hopefully, you are already aware of them. The Unwanteds begins in the city of Quill, which is a spare, grey walled city with barbed wire stretching from wall to wall, covering all open sky. The city has practiced isolationism for fifty years under the rule of the High Priest Justine and, without other cities to trade with, functions on scant resources. The motto of Quill, an oft repeated mantra, is "Quill Prevails When the Strong Survive." This keeps the Quillians focused on their goal of being prepared to fight the enemy, an enemy that yet to materialize, and accepting of the annual culling that keeps them "strong." The yearly purge segregates thirteen-year-olds into Wanteds, Necessaries and Unwanteds, and keeps the population lean and focused. Alex, the main character of The Unwanteds knows that he is an Unwatned, having been cited for drawing in the dirt with a stick when he was ten. All forms of creativity and emotional expression are outlawed in Quill. As the book begins, Alex and his fellow Unwanteds are headed out of the city on a rickety old bus, lead by the Governors, to their deaths.

Instead, after being left outside the walls of the city with hooded gaurds in what seems to be a desolate land that is nothing more than a "building, some weeds and a - a lake. A Great Lake of Boiling Oil," they discover Artimé, a magical land with enormous animal mash-ups (platyprots, octogators, turtles with wings named Jim) and statues that can come to life, overseen by Marcus Today, the very Dumbledore-esque mage. The children are taken to a great mansion where all the Unwanteds from the past fifty years have lived and learned the creative arts - writing, painting, drawing, sculpting, acting and music - as well as being given Magical Warrior Training, which draws on the creative arts. Despite this paradise they have entered, there is tension from the start for this newest group of Unwanteds. Alex Stowe is a twin with a brother, Aaron, who was designated Wanted and is attending Wanted University, training to become a Governor one day. Alex cannot stop thinking about his twin and is plagued by dreams where they are living happily in Artimé until Justine appears. Marcus Today knows that Alex and Aaron could be the downfall of Artimé and he begins to prepare for a battle. There is also Samheed, an angry actor who was destined to be a Wanted until Aaron reported him for dramatic behavior, and his older conspirator, Will Blair, son of a general. Then there is the talented, tiny, fierce Lani Halouki, purged before she even reached the age of thirteen by her father, a Governor.

It's clear early on that a major battle is coming by the end of the book and that the separate worlds of Quill and Artimé will clash and never be the same as this series plays out over what I think will be five books. The magic in The Unwanteds that springs forth from paintbrushes, pencils and iambic pentameter written and spoken is pretty exciting and it is really interesting to see the two hugely popular genres blended here. Mc Mann is a solid writer and brings a few new ideas and images to a setting that feels very familiar. She has written two other trilogies of YA books as well as a few YA stand alones. McMann has also authored one of the books in the Infinity Ring series of books that, like the popular 39 Clues series and the newer Spirit Animals series, employs bestselling kid's book authors to write installments for the various series. Even without winning California Young Reader Medal, The Unwanteds is very popular and will be on the shelves for a long time.

Book 4 is due out September 2, 2014

Source: Purchased Audio Book

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