If I were you, I definitely would want more details after Kirkus (and others) makes a bold statement like, “Hunger Games meets Harry Potter“. Is it realistic to namedrop two of the three biggest titles of the decade? (It would be the YA trifecta if the Death Farm was run by a sparkly vampire.)
I think the world of Unwanteds is split into part dystopia and part fantasy. The book starts out as main character Alex is about to be Purged, sent to to his death for showing artistic ability. The advance copy that I read has a letter in it from McMann explaining the inspiration for the story. Since I’m an educator in Arizona, I’ve seen the budget cuts to the arts. My brother’s a music teacher and one of my closest friends used to be a drama teacher until cuts were made. I get the Purge.
There’s quite an allegory that can be drawn from the story, but the narrative does not suffer. It would have been very tempting for McMann to get preachy or throw in some obvious jabs at current politicians and she refrains, unlike some authors (I’m looking at you, Dante Alighieri).
Unwanteds reminds me so much of The Phantom Tollbooth by Norton Juster, which makes sense, since McMann says she drew inspiration from similar greats like Roald Dahl and C.S. Lewis. Despite the dangers, it’s a world you kinda want to live in. Each student has their own talent, a specialized artistic ability, they use to make the world a better place. Teachers help the students hone their craft into powerful weapons.
There’s an ensemble cast, so even though the main character, Alex, is talented in visual arts, there are other characters for students to identify with. The teacher that speaks in iambic pentameter is a particular favorite of mine, although it’s tough not to side with a painting instructor that is part crocodile/part octopus (don’t get me started on the squirrelicorn warrior).
The story does have elements of the monomyth, but hey, that story’s entertained for a couple of centuries. What McMann does with the archetypes is great. The old mentor that runs the school could have easily been another Dumbledore, yet I felt like Mr. Today (whose name has significance) stands on his own. In one part, he asks the ruler of the dystopia to name any secret Mr. Today is hiding. Throughout the book, Mr. Today emphasizes the need for transparency and how fear is not the way to get things done. That’s a lesson that I hope many readers hold onto after finishing the book.
Unwanteds is its own book and doesn’t need the comparison to Hunger Games and Harry Potter to succeed, but if it draws students to this great book, then I’m all for it. Librarians, get this book. It’s already starting to gain popularity and I agree that it deserves it (and I’m not just saying that because Lisa McMann’s going to be on our campus this Wednesday).