Book Review: “The Unwanteds” by Lisa McMann

Amazon.com: The Unwanteds (1): 9781442407695: McMann, Lisa: Books

Book Details:

Year of Publication: 2011

Genre: Fantasy (Middle Grade)

Format (How I Read It): Paperback

Goodreads Synopsis:

When Alex finds out he is Unwanted, he expects to die. That is the way of the people of Quill. Each year, all the thirteen-year-olds are labeled as Wanted, Necessary, or Unwanted. Wanteds get more schooling and train to join the Quillitary. Necessaries keep the farms running. Unwanteds are set for elimination.
It’s hard for Alex to leave behind his twin, Aaron, a Wanted, but he makes peace with his fate—until he discovers that instead of a “death farm,” what awaits him is a magical place called Artimé. There, Alex and his fellow Unwanteds are encouraged to cultivate their creative abilities and use them magically. Everything Alex has ever known changes before his eyes, and it’s a wondrous transformation.
But it’s a rare, unique occurrence for twins to be divided between Wanted and Unwanted, and as Alex and Aaron’s bond stretches across their separation, a threat arises for the survival of Artim that will pit brother against brother in an ultimate magical battle.

Book Review

Themes: Art is powerful. Fear is a difficult thing to unlearn. Creativity is a strength.

“Because we don’t punish bad ideas, orrr thoughts, orrr intentions. Because the moment we do, that’s the moment ourrr worrrld takes its firrrst step towarrrd becoming like Quill.”
“But if it’s for our own good and safety-“
“Claire,” Mr. Today said quietly, “once we start interfering with free thought, where do we stop?”

Character Development: I thought the characters in this book were okay, but they seemed kind of surface-level. They were also kind of annoying at times. There was a lot of whining, and moping, and sulking that made the book feel bloated, repetitive, and entirely too long. While this behavior isn’t abnormal for characters (and people) at this tween age, we didn’t need to read about it over and over again to get the point. Considering this is a series, though, I’m sure the characters get developed more as the series continues. I did feel like the adult characters seemed a little more complex at least!

Plot/Pacing: The pacing of this novel was really slow. It doesn’t pick up until about 300 pages in (and the book is about 400 pages long). A lot of time is spent on world-building, which I appreciate! And it does seem like a very interesting dystopian world with a fascinating magic system (art as magic? So cool!), but there still needs to be a story at the same time. I felt similarly about Dragons in a Bag (review HERE), but felt this one did it a little better since there at least was some action at the end.

Writing Style: The most interesting element of the writing style is that this story was told from a third-person omniscient point of view. So the narrator could be anyone at any time, and it switched frequently (especially between chapters). At first I thought the chapters would alternate between Alex and Aaron’s perspectives, which would have been fine, but this wasn’t the case. I thought the 3rd person omniscient POV made me feel really emotionally detached from the story. It’s so hard to invest in the characters since we’re jumping around all the time. It also takes away any sense of suspense because you know everything that’s going to happen before it happens (since we always know what every character is thinking and doing at all times).

“Bingeability”: Low. The concept is great, but it’s too long and the plot takes too long to get moving.

Emotional Investment: Low. The 3rd person omniscient POV takes away all the suspense, so it’s hard to feel invested.

Windows and Mirrors: Types of intelligence. Art (music, painting, acting, etc.).

“I’d rather die fighting to keep us free to do as we wish, fighting to be free to come and go as we please, fighting so we no longer need to hide. Fighting the fear that all of you were programmed since birth to have. Fighting against Quill’s bigotry, which says brains and brawn are better, or more important, than creativity.”

Overall Thoughts: In my opinion, the best middle grade books respect the intelligence of the reader. Kids deserve to read good books, therefore a good “kids’ book” is simply a good book. In this story, every single thought, feeling, and action is spoon-fed to the reader. We are told everything that is happening or is going to happen for every character, so there’s no room for prediction or interpretation for the reader. Readers (even young ones) are much more capable than this book gives them credit for, and should be allowed to make inferences and have information revealed to them in a more clever and respectful way. That is probably what bothered me most about this book.

There are also some odd choices made that make it unclear who the target audience even is. The characters, dialogue, and writing style are pretty immature, which makes it seem like this would be targeted toward readers on the younger end of the middle grade spectrum. However, the story also includes some romance and quite a bit of violence (at least at the end), which makes it seem like it’s geared toward older readers (maybe tweens). It was really odd to read. In terms of the violence, there are references to guns and killing (which doesn’t thrill me as a classroom teacher), and the end itself is pretty explicitly violent with characters being murdered in battle. As far as the romance, it’s relatively tame but also entirely unnecessary. Romance is also not something I would want to read aloud to young students (I can already hear the giggles and whispers).

Overall, I really wanted to like this one. It’s such an interesting concept, and the blurb on the front cover describes it as a cross between The Hunger Games and Harry Potter. I was really excited about that prospect! However, it’s entirely misleading. The only thing it has in common with the former is that children are being forced into violent situations and are essentially being sacrificed. The only thing it has in common with the latter is… magic. The story did pick up at the end, and I’m sure subsequent books in the series are much better, but it was just too hard to get into for me. However, I think for certain younger readers (especially those interested in art) it could be a good option!

Recommendation: Initially, I was thinking this could work as a read-aloud. However, as I kept reading I realized the story was too slow, too long, the ever-changing narrator perspectives would be confusing, and there were elements (romance and violence) that I wouldn’t be comfortable reading out loud. However, if you do use this in your classroom (or as a guardian at home), I did have some ideas on activities and lessons that could be done with it! It would inspire some great art projects for sure. I was thinking it would be fun to draw the animals from the book, since most of them are described as being a cross between two different animals. It would be fun to imagine what those combinations would actually look like! It would also be great to pair with a lesson about setting, since the dystopian setting and magical mansion were so vivid. I will absolutely be keeping this in my classroom as an option for independent reading as I think there is definitely an audience for it. However, as an adult, I was pretty disappointed by this one.

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Thank you for reading my review! Leave a comment letting me know if you’ve read this one or have any questions about it, and keep an eye out for my next review!

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