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The Astonishing Life of Octavian Nothing: Vol. 1

The Astonishing Life of Octavian Nothing, Traitor to the Nation, Volume 1: The Pox Party

It sounds like a fairy tale. He is a boy dressed in silks and white wigs and given the finest of classical educations. Raised by a group of rational philosophers known only by numbers, the boy and his mother — a princess in exile from a faraway land — are the only persons in their household assigned names. As the boy’s regal mother, Cassiopeia, entertains the house scholars with her beauty and wit, young Octavian begins to question the purpose behind his guardians’ fanatical studies. Only after he dares to open a forbidden door does he learn the hideous nature of their experiments — and his own chilling role in them. M. T. Anderson’s extraordinary, National Book Award-winning novel reimagines the past as an eerie place that has startling and urgent resonance for readers today.

National Book Award Winner

Los Angeles Times Book Prize Finalist

Michael L. Printz Honor Book

Boston Globe – Horn Book Winner, Fiction Category

Gustavus Myers Center for the Study of Bigotry and Human Rights Outstanding Book Awards, Honorable Mention

Book Sense Book of the Year Honor Book

Julia Ward Howe Young Readers Award

New York Public Library Books for the Teen Age

Cooperative Children’s Book Center Choices List

Bulletin of the Center for Children’s Books – Bulletin Blue Ribbons

Booklist Editors’ Choice

ALA (American Library Association) Best Books for Young Adults Top Ten

Publishers Weekly Cuffie Award

The Horn Book Fanfare

Kirkus Reviews Editors’ Choice

New York Times Book Review Notable Books of the Year

School Library Journal Best Books of the Year Best Books of the Year

Publishers Weekly Best Books of the Year

Book Sense Children’s Pick Top Ten

Junior Library Guild Selection

Booklist Top 10 Historical Fiction for Youth

Booklist Top 10 Black History Books for Youth

“The story’s scope is immense, in both its technical challenges and underlying intellectual and moral questions. . . . Readers will marvel at Anderson’s ability to maintain this high-wire act of elegant, archaic language and shifting voices.” – Booklist, starred review

“Octavian’s narration…quickly draws readers into its almost musical flow, and the relentless action and plot turns are powerful motivators.” – The Bulletin of the Center for Children’s Books, starred review

“A historical novel of prodigious scope, power and insight. . . . This is the Revolutionary War seen at its intersection with slavery through a disturbingly original lens.” – Kirkus Reviews, starred review

“Fascinating and eye-opening. . . .This powerful novel will resonate with contemporary readers.” – School Library Journal, starred review

“Anderson’s imaginative and highly intelligent exploration of the horrors of human experimentation and the ambiguous history of America’s origins will leave readers impatient for the promised sequel.” – The New York Times Book Review

“Imaginative and important.” – The Wall Street Journal

“Exhilarating.” – Minneapolis Star Tribune

“THE ASTONISHING LIFE OF OCTAVIAN NOTHING is a rare achievement.” – Toronto Globe and Mail

“Gripping, thought-provoking and occasionally horrifying. . . . This is first-class literature, a deserved winner of this year’s National Book Award for young readers.” – Seattle Post-Intelligencer

“Anderson once again shows the breadth of his talents with this stunningly well-researched novel.” – Publishers Weekly

“A brilliantly complex interrogation of our basic American assumptions. Anderson has created an alternative narrative of our national mythology, one that fascinates, appalls, condemns – and enthralls.” – The Horn Book

“Historically grounded, emotionally and philosophically complex, Octavian Nothing will compel readers to think differently about history and its echoes in the contemporary world.” – Book Page

“The latest from M.T. Anderson, whose previous novel FEED was a National Book Award finalist, is as challenging, brilliant, technically ambitious – and, let’s not forget, jaw-droppingly good — as any book you’ll get your hands on this year.” – The Rake Magazine

“This is historical fiction that reads like a horror novel and a mystery at the same time.” – Portsmouth Herald

“The most daring and demanding of the fall books. . . . Even more extraordinary is Anderson’s powerful, nuanced revelation of the deep hypocrisies, the pernicious relationship between ‘rational’ inquiry and cruelty; political expediency and the god of ‘reason’; ideas of democracy and true ‘Observation’ of evidence.” – Toronto Star

Click here for an Octavian Reading Group Guide.

On the Octavian Nothing Books

I grew up in Stow, Massachusetts, one of the littlest of the little New England villages that first opposed the British troops when they marched out to Lexington and Concord that spring morning in 1775. Some of my earliest memories are of the Bicentennial celebrations in 1975 – Minutemen marching on the green, President Ford delivering a speech from Old North Bridge, and a hippie in striped pants, a metallic hat, and bug-wings who claimed that he was a refugee from the coming Tricentennial, and told us to watch out for aerosol.

Growing up in the Boston ex-urbs, we all took the history around us for granted. I got my hair cut in the town that sent the first detachment of militiamen over the hill against the British at the bridge. My orthodontist worked in a faux-Colonial building in the town where Paul Revere was captured by the Redcoats. He inserted my head-gear there. The whole stretch of early American history – from the age before the invasion of the Europeans to the settlements of the Puritans, the villages of the Revolution, the flourishing of towns, the rise of the mills in the new Republic – all these things seemed incredibly intimate, because the traces of them were all around us. We lived casually in that past. Eighteenth century houses were given two-car garages. Old textile mills, half run-down, were revived in my childhood and turned into industrial parks. Walden Pond, which Thoreau had written about with such rapture, was just another place to go swimming. We were used to the distant echoes of history.

Something about that struck me at the 225th anniversary celebration of the Battle of Old North Bridge. It was a huge event: Hundreds of reenactors, Patriots and Redcoats, had gathered at the site to run through the battles, and one of General Gage’s great-great-great-etc. grandsons was there in a Barbour jacket, reading a moving elegy for the British soldiers who had died on that morning two hundred and twenty-five years before (though tourists with more sense of history than hospitality were yelling at him to go back home to Britain, you bloody limey).

I went to several of the battles that day. I was standing in a field, watching several hundred Redcoats approach in neat, cruel lines – and like an inevitable machine, drop rank after rank and fire right at me. They rose, finally, screamed, and charged, bayonets out. The effect was terrifying.

I started to think: What would it be like to be standing here – untrained – facing them with a gun I used to shoot turkeys? What would it be like to be standing here, not knowing that we would win? Not knowing that we would – or that we should! – separate from England at all? What would it be like to face that army, thinking of myself as British, and them as my own country’s army? What would it be like to be uncertain again? What would it be like to live through this without the victory pre-ordained?

This thought stuck with me. So a couple of years later, I decided to write a book from the point of view of someone who wouldn’t know the outcome of the war, and who had to make a hard choice between sides. I wanted to recapture the feeling of the unknown, the unclarity of that decision. And that’s where the idea for the book came from.