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YA Author Rendezvous

Creativity Unleashed: Books for the young and the young at heart

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ayn rand

The Girl Who Owned a City by O. T. Nelson

The Girl Who Owned a City by O.T. Nelson - Young Adult Author RendezvousWritten by Tracy Lawson

At a recent talk, I cited The Giver by Lois Lowry (1993) as the first YA dystopian book, but at the time I hadn’t read The Girl Who Owned a City by O. T. Nelson. First published in 1975, it has been in the curricula in elementary and middle schools for years, and many adults of my generation cite this book as their first taste of the dystopian genre.

A book about post-apocalyptic Chicago might first bring to mind the Divergent series by Veronica Roth, but The Girl Who Owned a City might best be compared thematically to Atlas Shrugged by Ayn Rand. I don’t say this lightly–Atlas Shrugged is one of the heavy hitters of the genre, but consider the situation in this children’s book:

A great plague has swept the country, killing everyone over the age of twelve. Without public utilities, services or adult supervision, children band together in family groups for protection, and must forage and steal in order to get the food and supplies they need to survive.

Though it doesn’t fit my stated definition of a dystopia as a twisted version of perfection, it’s an excellent example of post-apocalyptic science fiction. Lisa, the ten year-old protagonist, makes some interesting observations about human nature as she struggles to survive and defend her home and the other children in her suburban Chicago neighborhood against marauding pre-pubescent gangs. In doing so, she becomes aware of her desire for liberty in a way that makes this a very timeless, and timely, read.

In one scene, Lisa discusses a group of children who’ve been adopted by her friend Jill. The children whine and bicker over their few communal toys, and Jill is constantly admonishing them to share. Lisa thinks the children will be happier if they are given jobs, and the opportunity to earn new toys that will belong to them, and only them. Out of earshot of the children, Lisa says, “I’ve been watching your children for days, Jill. Just watching and thinking about them. They do too much sharing and it isn’t working at all. They have nothing of their own—no real duties, no real way of helping. It’s nice to share things if you want to, but it’s stupid to force people to share or be nice. These are things people have to do on their own. Otherwise it’s no good.”

Jill argued that the children are frightened. They’ve lost their parents and their sense of the world. They need coddling, not jobs.

Lisa replied, “I don’t think they’ll ever be happy if you do everything for them. They need to work and be proud of themselves. They need to be able to say to themselves, “I worked hard and did a good job and earned my toy.”

The narrative goes on to say, ‘Lisa wanted to say something about how she had lost her own fear by solving problems and staying busy. It seemed to her that fear was what you felt when you waited for something bad to happen, and fun was what you had when you figured out a way to make something good happen.’

Despite Lisa’s attempts to create a neighborhood militia to protect the children on her street from the Chidester gang, and her idea to learn to drive a car so she could go to a grocery warehouse for food and other supplies, the gangs stage multiple attacks. She despairs until she notices a school building which has a wall around it, like a fortress. She decides to move everyone from her neighborhood into Glenbard and make it into a walled city. Everyone is enthusiastic about the plan, but after they move in and organize the school according to Lisa’s vision, some of the children begin to grumble that she calls Glenbard her city. Lisa’s response is a response worthy of a young Ayn Rand protagonist:

“Lisa, why do you keep calling it your city—saying it’s your property?”

“Because it is! I thought I told everyone that on the very first day.”

“But we’ve all helped build it, haven’t we?” argued Jill. “The kids are starting to call you selfish. They don’t like it when you call it yours.”

“Selfish? I guess I am. But there’s more to it than that. Don’t forget, it was my discovery. The place was sitting here empty…I found it. I planned it, filled it with my supplies, now I run it.

“I know you like to share things, but it just doesn’t work the way you’d like it to. In the first place, nothing would ever get done. With no one in charge and no one to make decisions, the group would argue all the time about whose property should be shared. And then …they’d be too busy to accomplish anything.

“I do own this place. I didn’t force anyone to come here…Call me selfish if you like, but I don’t want to own anybody. I don’t want anyone to own me…Freedom is more important than sharing, Jill. This is my city. I plan to run it well and build it into something good. But I have to do it the way I think is best.”

Lisa decides the best way to run her city is to offer something better to her citizens than they can find anywhere else.

Anthem and City of Ember: A Comparison

The City of Ember by Jeanny DuPrau - Young Adult Author RendezvousWritten by Tracy Lawson.

City of Ember by Jeanne DuPrau is a perfect stepping-stone to prepare middle grade readers to embrace and appreciate Ayn Rand’s 1938 novella Anthem.

The main characters in both books seek light, though in Ember the literal search for light is necessary for survival, and in Anthem, the light is not as much about the electricity discovered by the young man Equality 7-2521, as the illumination of the mind and soul that comes with an intellectual awakening.

The underground city of Ember was created and stocked with supplies to last two hundred years, which its Builders assumed was long enough to protect its people from the fallout from a nuclear war. An escape plan was in place, but somewhere along the way, the instructions detailing exactly how to get out of the city were lost.

Now, the city has survived well past its life expectancy, and the citizens of Ember are running out of food, clothing and supplies. Their electric generator is slowly dying, and temporary blackouts become more and more frequent. A few people try to venture into the vast darkness beyond the lighted city, but return in defeat.

Life goes on within the city, and twelve year-olds are given their first work assignments. Lina is assigned to work below the city in the Pipeworks, while Doon draws the job of messenger. Paper is scarce, and messengers have the very important job of delivering verbal messages all over town. Both children are disappointed with their job assignments. First jobs are for a three-year period, and may be switched if the young worker shows more aptitude for another job. But Doon can’t wait that long. He knows that the light brought by electricity is essential to Ember’s survival, and he’s determined to find a way to make electricity that can be carried, so people can search for a way out of the dying city. He asks Lina if she’ll trade jobs with him, and she happily agrees.

Lina and Doon discover corruption within the government. The mayor has been keeping a secret stash of supplies for himself so that when everyone else runs out, he’ll still have food and light bulbs. But they also find the Instructions for Egress left by the original Builders. The instructions have been badly damaged, and they have to literally piece together what remains and solve the puzzle that will help them find the secret door out of Ember.

When they report the Mayor’s hoarding to the city guards, they are accused of spreading vicious rumors, and a warrant is issued for their capture. The only way to escape from the guards and save everyone in the city is to follow the Instructions for Egress, which leads them to the thing they most fear—the rushing Underground River.

City of Ember offers an introduction to many dystopian themes, including:

-corrupt leaders that cling to a crumbling society

-a system where individuals are assigned jobs with no regard for their aptitudes or preferences

-frustration for individuals who can make legitimate contributions to better society, but are turned away by those in power

-the freedom found in exile for those brave enough to seek it

Anthem by Ayn Rand - Young Adult Author RendezvousIn Anthem, as in City of Ember, there are secrets to be discovered and adventures to be had in the tunnels under the city streets. But Anthem paints a grim picture of a collective society that punishes any form of individual expression. Family units exist in City of Ember, but in Anthem, children never know their parents. They are raised by the state, educated by the state, and given life Mandates, assigning them to jobs when they are fifteen years of age.

Equality 7-2521, the protagonist in Anthem, desires more than anything to be assigned to the Home of the Scholars and to be allowed to study science. He hopes to advance technology beyond the latest invention, which was found only one hundred years before, of how to make candles from wax and string. When he is assigned to be a Street Sweeper, he is crushingly disappointed, but accepts the Mandate as a way to atone for his sins against his brothers. For any thought that does not consider everyone is a sin. But he is unable to keep his thoughts strictly collective.

He singles out one young woman, Liberty 5-3000, and holds her in higher esteem than any other woman, which is strictly forbidden. In his mind, he calls her the Golden One.

He collects things that interest him and hides them in a tunnel under the street. After two years of study he builds an electric lamp. He presents his invention to the Council of Scholars, but instead of being grateful for his service to society, the Council demands that the lamp be destroyed. He escapes with the lamp, but is damned to exile the Uncharted Forest. Two days later, the Golden One joins him in exile. After many days they come upon a house from the Unmentionable Times, and sets about learning the wonders of the civilization that has passed away.  They live as a young couple in love, and start a family. Equality 7-2521 takes the name Prometheus, who in mythology was the bringer of light, and renames the Golden One Gaea, after the mother of the earth.

In both City of Ember and Anthem, the main characters find freedom in exile, and plan to share the wonders of their new worlds with people who are trapped in the societies they left behind.

What Ember doesn’t, and shouldn’t, examine are the horrors of life in a totalitarian collective society that brainwashes its population with statements like, “What is not thought by all men cannot be true” and eliminates the singular pronoun from the language to deprive people of the sense of independent thought.

Ayn Rand states in her introduction to the 50th anniversary edition of Anthem that “reason is the property of the individual. There is no such thing as a collective brain.”

I’ve mentioned in other posts that the nucleus of the idea for COUNTERACT, my first novel, began as a writing prompt proposed by a student I was mentoring. His exact words? “What if everyone were on LSD and all thoughts were communal?”

If there is no such thing as a collective brain, collective thought would only be possible if it were coerced.

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