Book Battle: The Revolutionary War

Both Chains by Laurie Halse Anderson and he Astonishing Life of Octavian Nothing Traitor to the Nation: The Pox Party. by M. T. Anderson look at the Revolutionary War from the perspective of a black slave. To view this moment in American history, one traditionally full of discussions about independence and representation in government through this lens takes us away from clearly defined views of history into the grey zone of complicated moral quandaries. I see these books as challenging the way our more conservative society is working to canonize the founding fathers, and honoring the fact that all people in all parts of history are flawed. Chains wins this battle, being the more exciting and having better characters. Octavian Nothing spends too much time setting the scene for the ultimate betrayal, but is less gripping and did not keep my interest as well.


Anderson, Laurie Halse. Chains. Atheneum, 2010. 320 pages. $17.99 ISBN-13: 978-1416905851

Isabel and her sister Ruth are sold to a loyalist family in New York at the brink of the Revolutionary War.

Genre: Historical Fiction

Ages 10-16

Rating: 5 out of 5 for quality, 5 out of 5 for popularity.

Scott O’Dell Award, 2009

National Book Award Nominee for Yong People’s Literature, 2008

YALSA Best Books for Young Adults, 2008

When Isabel’s master dies the will said she and her sister would be freed, but the nephew who inherits has other ideas and quickly sells of Isabel, aged 13, and Ruth, aged 5, to a mean loyalist couple from New York. Isabel’s life is hard, full of kitchen drudgery and cleaning, bossed by a nasty woman who is afraid of Ruth’s epilepsy. Isabel is constantly watching out for her little sister and trying to keep from being in trouble with the owners, but because the Revolutionary War is underway, she is also asked to spy on the owners by the rebel army.  This book explores the deep irony of revolutionaries demanding liberty from England, but who cannot even imagine giving the slaves they own freedom. It is an exciting narrative with complex characters, interesting and tragic situations. Isabel is a wonderful character who deals with moral questions and situations in an authentic way. This book is well reviewed by librarians and young people are clearly drawn to this author for her willingness to be honest.

Read Alikes

Flygirl by Sherri L Smith

Sophia’s War by Avi

Jefferson’s Sons by Kimberly Brubaker Bradley

Book Discussion Questions

  1.        Anderson does not shy away from the problems of a call for liberty for only some people. Have your thoughts about the revolutionary war changed after reading this book?
  2.        Curzon believes in the fight for independence, why doesn’t Isabel?

Book Talking

Isabel wants to be free, as do many of the colonists around her, but because of the color of her skin, she is less likely to benefit from the push for liberty.


Author website

Interview with author about historical accuracy

Author talks about censorship



octavian nothing

Anderson, M.T. The Astonishing Life of Octavian Nothing Traitor to the Nation: The Pox Party. Candlewick, 2006. 368 pages.  $17.99 ISBN-13: 978-0763624026

Octavian, a slave raised as a prince in a philosophical society, finds trouble and increasing tensions at the start of the Revolutionary War.

Genre: Historical Fiction

Age: 15 and up

Rating: 3 out of 5 for quality, 5 out of 5 for popularity.

National Book Award Winner, 2006

Printz Honor Book, 2006

Boston Globe-Horn Book award for Fiction and Poetry, 2006

YALSA Best Books for Young Adults, 2007

Octavian and his mother live in decadence and wealth in a philosophical society run by Mr. Gitney. Secluded and well educated, it is only with the onset of the Revolutionary War and the changes in finances that cause Octavian to realize the realities of his enslavement, and of the conditions of slavery in the colonies. After Mr. Gitney hosts a pox party in an attempt to inoculate his friends and relatives with the small pox, Octavian runs away and joins a rebel militia. Told in beautiful, rich language as a testimony by Octavian, it is also filled in with letters and other documents to give it the feel of a court case. It has the unique perspective of a slave evaluating the complications of the colonists demanding liberty for themselves but refusing it for the enslaved blacks. It looks at the brink of a war from a perspective of militia men, slaves, and philosophers. It is a fascinating mix of characters. That all being said, it was a very hard book to get through. It starts slow, building up the strangeness of Octavian’s upbringing and the odd characters he is surrounded by. The excitement of the plot point lasts only briefly before the author changes voices and tells the story through letters sent from a militia man to his family as he befriends Octavian and prepares to fight battles. This section is hard to understand because of the language, and of less interest because to get the story about Octavian, the reader has to read through other tidbits about characters that are not fleshed out or interesting. I can absolutely see why this won awards for young adult literature, for it is literature, but it is not fun, in fact it can be quite gruesome.


Chains by Laurie Halse Anderson

Day of Tears by Julius Lester

47 by Walter Mosley

Book Discussion Questions:

  1.        Why does the nature of Octavian’s experiment change? How does this change Octavian?
  2.        Why didn’t Octavian try to make it into Boston to try to fight for the British?


This is the beginning of the Revolutionary War, Boston is unsettled, and the Novanglian College of Lucidity is trying to determine the classification of Africans by experimenting on the intellect and psyche of Octavian, who was raised by the College since infancy. Things are changing and this book has runaway slaves, war battles and a party of upper class intellectuals and merchants who all willingly submit themselves to smallpox.


Author Website

Acceptance Speech for the Boston Globe-Horn Book Award

NPR Interview



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