• It’s the birth date of Patricia Beatty (1922-1991) Turn Homeward, Hannalee, Lupita Manana.
  • In 1789, The Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen is approved by the National Constituent Assembly of France. Read The Red Necklace: A Novel of the French Revolution by Sally Gardner.
  • On this day in 1920, the 19th amendment to United States Constitution takes effect, giving women the right to vote.
  • It’s National Dog Day. Read Dog Day by Sarah Hayes, illustrated by Hannah Broadway, Dog Days by Jeff Kinney, and Good Dog, Carl by Alexandra Day.
  • It is also National Cherry Popsicle Day. Read The Kid Who Invented the Popsicle by Don L. Wullfson.

Today I’m looking at another audio book, like The Golden Compass created by Listening Library, for Audio Book Appreciation Month. M. T. Anderson’s The Astonishing Life of Octavian Nothing: The Pox Party has had a profound effect on good seventh and eighth grade readers, although it may be most appreciated by high school students and adults. If you are trying to hook middle schoolers—or anyone—into this title, I suggest picking up the audio recording of it.

Readers first meet an elegant and refined eighteenth-century Boston resident, Octavian Nothing, who boasts knowledge of the classical subjects and lives with his mother in the Novanglian College of Lucidity. But the first section of this book ends with a shocking revelation: Octavian is really a slave, the subject of experiments by scientists and philosophers of the Age of Reason—to determine how well Africans can learn and think. During a Pox Party, where they inoculate everyone against the dreaded smallpox, Octavian’s beloved mother dies, leaving him senseless and speechless, unable even to compose descriptions in his diary. Although most of the book is narrated from Octavian’s point of view, letters, newspaper clippings, and scientific studies pick up the narrative when he cannot talk. In this two-volume work Octavian eventually becomes a soldier in the American Revolution—but for the British in Lord Dunmore’s army.

Any summation of Anderson’s complex and exciting story always misses the mark. With shifting points of view and understanding, with language that comes out of the eighteenth century, with a profound vision of hypocrisy and evil, Octavian Nothing shows the American Revolution in a different light: What did the fight for freedom mean for those who were enslaved? Were Anderson merely interested in philosophy, of course, the novel would fail. But he has brought Octavian and an entire cast of characters vividly to life. He has crafted a story that has haunted me as a reader from the first minute that I picked up this incredible book until today.

If you love books for children, M. T. Anderson’s work is simply too good to miss—even if you don’t have a young person to share it with. It sets new standards for writing; it treats readers with the ultimate respect. In the last decade, two books—Mark Haddon’s Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time and M. T. Anderson’s Octavian Nothing—have raised the bar for how great novels can be that have been created by writers for the young. For any of my readers who have resisted this book, try the audio version—it helps listeners understand the cadence and rhythm of the language. Just be sure to have a copy of the book close by. You will definitely find yourself going back—or forward—to read more.

Here’s a passage from The Astonishing Life of Octavian Nothing: The Pox Party:

At the head of the stairs in that gaunt house there was a painting of pleasant woodland in the Golden Age of Man, that sweet epoch when nude nymphs and youths would meet on the greensward in the cool of the morning to discuss architecture, the affections, or trigonometry. The painting was executed by one of our guests, Mr. 07-03, a young man with wild, unkempt hair, a passionate disposition, and prodigious talents. He had engraved a series of plates depicting the flora of the New World, and had, as well, published articles on the pursuits of the woodpecker, the musk of the bear, and the motion of electricity through water, the last of which experiments left him with a permanent jitter and no sense of smell. He painted the picture to represent Mr. 03-01’s dream of a perfect world, one where all men and women, united in rationality, pursued knowledge together beneath the green leaves of summer and the distant blue of sacred mountains. Such, said the men who raised me, was the hope of our nation.


Originally posted August 26, 2011. Updated for .

Tags: African American, History, Multicultural, Revolutionary War, Science


  1. Sarah von Moritz says:

    I rarely read books for pleasure with a pen in hand to take notes, but I did with this one. It absolutely blew me away. Anderson’s writing is brilliant and beautiful. I sent more quotes to friends and family from this book than any I’ve ever read. I was happy to see that Candlewick repackaged the paperback edition in recognition of, and to thus enhance, its massive crossover appeal–I hope it entices more readers of all ages!

  2. The felicitous combination of OCTAVIAN and National Dog Day has put me in quite the celebratory mood. Champagne? Chocolate? Both? Or perhaps a new puppy.

    OCTAVIAN is an extraordinary achievement and one of the best books I’ve ever read. It is heartbreaking; I have rarely been so emotionally invested in a character.

  3. Pam Roberts says:

    Thank you for the tip! I’ve just ordered the audio version of OCTAVIAN from the library. I must say, I thoroughly enjoyed the audio versions of the “His Dark Materials” series, probably more so than the books. The cast of readers was excellent. Another book that I feel is almost better in audio is the original “Redwall”, with its full cast of characters. Also: the four “Peter and the Starcatchers”books, as read by Jim Dale, who also narrated the Harry Potter series. Swashbuckling meets anti-gravity matter!

  4. G.Perry says:

    Yup. I just ordered the audio book from the library myself.

  5. Helen Frost says:

    Octavian Nothing works perfectly in so many ways. The story is excruciating, but the writing is so beautiful you can keep on reading even when you’d prefer to turn away. And yes, this is one for all ages. Thanks, Anita.

  6. Jessica says:

    This is one of my all time favorite books but I never thought to check out the audio version. I’ll have to give it a listen!

  7. I reread parts of this book now and then and I am, every time, astonished by the complexity and the simplicity of the story. It’s brilliant writing about things that matter!

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