"All books are either dreams or swords,/You can cut, or you can drug, with words." - Amy Lowell, 'Sword Blades and Poppy Seed'

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Children/YA--The Girl Who Owned a City

Nelson, O.T. The Girl Who Owned a City. New York: Laurel Leaf, 1977.

"A killing virus has swept the earth, sparing only children through the age of twelve. There is chaos everywhere, even in formerly prosperous mid-America. Gangs and fierce armies of children begin to form almost immediately. It would be the same for children on Grand Avenue but for Lisa, a ten-year-old girl who becomes their leader. Because of Lisa, they have food, even toys, in abundance. And now they can protect themselves from the fierce gangs that roam the neighborhoods. But for how long? Then Lisa conceives the idea of a fortress, a city in which the children could live safely and happily always, and she intends to lead them there." (description from book cover)

Overall Rating: **** (out of five)

  • Strong Female Character.  As an antidote to some young adult fiction that girls read these days, it is nice to have a book where the main character is not worried about boys.  Rather, Lisa is worried about surviving by some method other than violence.
  • Premise.  The appeal of post-apocalyptic fiction is seeing ordinary people survive and even thrive.  What is more interesting than seeing the weakest and most unprepared members of society, children, attempting to face what we might consider grown-up challenges.
  • Violence. There is fighting, children with guns, and other potentially problematic behaviors in this book.  Usually, this is limited to the "bad guys" of the story, but in some cases the good guys, too.  It's not on the scale of The Hunger Games.

 I was not sure if this book would stand up, since I haven't read it since I was young.  I was pleasantly surprised that I still found it to be an enjoyable and moving novel.  Though it was written in the '70s and the privations brought about are different than they might be now, I think that modern children will still recognize the difficulties in surviving in a world without adults. The children in the book don't have to worry about losing the internet, or computers, or video games, or mp3 players, or cell phones.  But they do have to live.  Lisa, our heroine, tries to make the best of the situation, using her intelligence to survive.

One thing O.T. Nelson never does is pass judgement on Lisa.  While she tries to avoid violence, her methods and plans are ambitious, and at times of dubious practicality.  She places a great emphasis on ownership, and her own power.  But her motives and thoughts and actions are all presented without bias, allowing readers to make their own determinations about what the children do, which is a rare quality in books for younger audiences.  It allows the book to have different layers of meaning to be appreciated at different ages, which increases the depth of the book.  It is an interesting and thought-provoking novel, at just the right level for older children (maybe around fifth grade).

I think this book would work well for parents to read as their children read it, to provoke discussion.  I am always in favor of parents being able to discuss books with their children, but I think that this book would particularly lend itself to that.  If nothing else, it shows that a world without parents and rules may not be the paradise that some children imagine.  It is a book full of lessons without being preachy, and there are very few other books for young audiences dealing with these topics. I recommend it for any children or adults who enjoyed The Hunger Games.

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