"Octavian Nothing places unnecessary demands on reader and teacher alike"

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The Astonishing Life of Octavian Nothing is an arduous and complex novel from the mind of popular young adult writer MT Anderson. It is the story of a young boy, Octavian, who is raised by a collection of scientists and philosophers at the Novanglian College of Lucidity in colonial America. Life at the college is pleasant until the young and curious Octavian enters the forbidden room at the college to discover he is the scientist's greatest experiment. Octavian learns he is the subject of a study to determine whether or not African Americans are the same as other white colonists or a different species all together. As tensions rise between the colonies and their British oppressors, the college comes into financial hardships and so becomes controlled by a group of men who have a lot riding on the results of the college's experiment. The new directors of the school are bound to do whatever is necessary in order to determine that Octavian doesn't pass the test. Although Octavian knows that the impending war could result in American freedom, he wonders whether or not it will result in his own freedom?

The Astonishing Life of Octavian Nothing explores racism, scientific ethics, the confusion of growing up and the tumultuous times leading up to the Revolutionary War in great depth. While Octavian Nothing is clearly a well written and stylized book, and contains many sophisticated literary elements, in the end, its main character's lack of an emotional connection to the reader makes the book laborious to read . It's clear that Octavian's emotional distance, a result of his being a scientific experiment, helps further the authors emphasis on the ethics of science. Unfortunately, this leaves the emotionally unattached reader not really caring if anything happens Octavian Nothing by the end of the story, not to mention in the second volume of the series. In the end this novel seems more like a novel of ideas than of remarkable plot or characters, which doesn't always lead to an immersive read but a thoughtful read. The teacher needs to think carefully about the type of readers and the needs of the reader before assigning this novel.


Recommendations for Teachers
Consider yourself warned: this book is a challenging novel verging on the edge of adult fiction. That being said, with a little creative planning and some effort, this book could fit in with an upper level English course, such as an AP course and honors course. Ways to do this could include leading students through literature which is similar to the literature in Octavian that depicts a writing style from a specific time period. For example, using revolutionary literature in the U.S. or Enlightenment literature one could familiarize with the writing style used in Octavian. One could even look at literary allusions mentioned in the text. The instructor should also try to make these exemplary texts accessible and stress the importance of ideas in them, as ideas are central to the reading of Octavian. Introducing a vocabulary list before reading the novel that introduces students to loftier terms used in the novel. These practices may ease student anxiety while reading the novel. If you are willing to put the time into it, The Astonishing Life of Octavian Nothing is rich with language and subject matter that could be used to delve into a variety of themes and topics that are even addressed in the typical high school literature anthology. Perhaps one of the best way to teach this book would be to make it the main text of your class and provide a list of other paired readings. For instance several books to use to look further into scientific ethics would be Frankenstein and Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde or even The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks. You could read selections from these works and have students compare and contrast the main ideas, writing styles and diction used. This could lead to having students researching current scientific ethical debates and discussing the change in scientific ethics. How far is too far? Compare the characters of Frankenstein and Octavian as scientific experiments; how do their births into and from science affect the way in which they view the world and interact with it?

Discussion questions for Frankenstein And The Astonishing Life of Octavian Nothing could include topics such as:
  • How are the Monster and Octavian similar? How are they different?
  • Do we feel sympathies for these characters? Are these tragedies that befall them beyond their control? Or do they cause them?
  • What about the creator? Compare and contrast Dr. Gitney and Dr. Frankenstein? Are they tragic characters?
  • What do these stories say about scientific progress? Can you think of real life examples of science going too far? Or do we sometimes limit scientific discovery with ethics? Discuss.
  • Octavian and the Monster are both extremely alone. Do you feel one craves for a companion more than the other?
  • Octavian has his mother taken away from him and he rebels by running away. The Monster has his companion taken away from him before even knowing her and rebels by destroying all that is dear to Frankenstein. Do you feel that the Monster has gone too far or that Octavian has not gone far enough in rebelling? What does these stories seem to be saying about loneliness and loss?
  • Dr. Frankenstein and Dr. Gitney are both characters possessing tragic flaws. What would you say those are? Are their flaws similar or different?

The Astonishing Life of Octavian Nothing would be great paired with your student's American History class discussing the Revolutionary War as both courses would exist to further the understanding of the war and the book itself while helping to show that not all of life can be put into boxes of this course and that course. To emphasize themes of race and slavery in The Astonishing Life of Octavian Nothing your class could also read selections from Frederick Douglass' biography or My Bondage, My Freedom and related them the changing in treatment of Octavian as the experiment changes and as the war becomes nearer. Other units that could be pulled out of this book over the course of a semester could revolutionary war literature i.e. The Midnight Ride of Paul Revere by Henry Longfellow. Essays could follow this exploring the different aspects seen within this novel and other works.
About Name of Author


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Matthew Tobin Anderson grew up in the Boston area. He was born November 4, 1968. He attended Harvard, Syracuse, and the University of Cambridge. Anderson worked at Candlewick Press, the publisher for Octavian Nothing. He also was a professor at Vermont College, and was a music critic for sometime before arriving at his career in writing novels, young adult adventure novels, as well as picture books. Anderson once spoke of how his writing process:
"I eat broccoli. I think about the plot. I pace in circles for hours, counter-clockwise, listening to music. I try to think of one detail in the scene I’m about to write that I'm really excited about writing. Until I can come up with that one detail, I pace. I put on another CD. I hum along. I get an idea. I prepare to begin. I shake out my fingers. I sit down. I type the first word. I erase it. I type in another first word, and consider the second word.
The phone rings. It's a friend calling to tell me a great story about running into her ex-stalker at Cinnabon. We talk for an hour and a half.
My time for writing is up. I go to bed. I feel guilty and miserable. Oh well. Better luck tomorrow."
While embracing his eccentric writing style, Anderson has found a role as one of the dominant authors of Young Adult Literature with ten novels published to date. His novels Feed, Thirst, and Octavian Nothing have received much literary praise and numerous awards while garnering him the National Book Award for Octavian Nothing in 1996. Although Anderson writes as a Young Adult author this does not mean that the works he has written are simplistic in any manner, as is certainly the case with Octavian Nothing which displays not only a high level vocabulary but complex themes and unique style as well. He defends the intellect of teens and his writing saying, "It's insulting to believe that teens should have a different kind of book than an adult should. Teens like challenges. They know the world is complicated, and they can tell when a book is simplifying life." Clearly this is an author that respects his audience and hopes to gain respect for his work in return.

Multimedia (Video or Audio)
This is an interesting and highly informative look into the mind of M.T. Anderson. It's important to note his comments near the end of the video about the difficult writing styles used in his books. He talks about how when he was a teenager, he (and others of his age) were reading books written for adults. "Young Adult Fiction" simply wasn't an option. He seems to raise the same high standard for teen readers of today- to realize their potential to digest tough vocabulary and unfamiliar settings in literature. A video such as this might be helpful to show to students complaining that the book is too difficult for them!




Additional Resources:
10-15 links pointing to credible and relevant information about the author, the work, its critical reception, or the teaching of it. You may further categorize these with subheadings. Each link should have a brief tag describing the resource, as in:
  • Milkweed: A Teacher's Guide - Newspaper In Education (NIE) Teacher's Guide to Milkweed; Complete with chapter questions, response activities, and additional resources
  • Jerry Spinelli Home Page - Check out the artist's official site where you can contact him directly, check out the FAQs, or find out if he will be coming to your city on a scheduled tour!
  • Washington Post- Profile of M.T. Anderson in which he defends his writing and teen ability to read challenging writing.
  • NPR Interview with M.T. Anderson on writing.
  • Amazon Review -Review of The Astonishing Life of Octavian Nothing on Amazon including an interview with M.T. Anderson.
  • New York Times - The New York Times review of M.T. Anderson's The Astonishing Life of Octavian Nothing.
  • Discussion Topics- Discussion topics provided by the author in printable form
  • Hot Topics Interview - An interview with M.T. Anderson and his time with the work.
  • Defying Genre and YA Lit- Author announces the death of genre claiming that YA literature is beyond classification. Octavian is discussed.
  • Teaching Octavian- A fantastic resource for teachers who plan on teaching Octavian to the class.

- Travis Klooster, Emily Hoffman, Sean Mapes, Jacob McDougal, and Ben