In fiction, as in life, a young person’s 13th birthday is often an important milestone. And in the land of Quill, the setting for Lisa McMann’s middle-grade dystopian fantasy series The Unwanteds, turning 13 seals one’s fate to live or die. The Unwanteds (S&S/Aladdin, 2011) and two sequels to date, Island of Silence (2012) and the just-released Island of Fire (Sept.), boast a total of 250,000 copies in print. The books follow the adventures of identical twins Aaron and Alex Stowe, who have been sentenced to different destinies per Quill’s annual Purge ceremony. Aaron is a Wanted, one of the 13-year-olds exhibiting signs of intelligence and strength, and is off to university. Alex is an Unwanted, among the lot deemed “creative,” and sent to face elimination at the Death Farm. (A third group, the Necessaries, is sentenced to perform the menial tasks of Quill.)
The system has been working just fine for 50 years, according to Quill’s high priest, Justine. But what readers know that she doesn’t is that the Death Farm is just a front: the Unwanteds end up in a fantastical place where they are encouraged to hone their talents, and where they learn magic. An eventual showdown between worlds – and brothers – is in the offing.
“I thought it was such a fresh idea when I first read it,” said Brandi Stewart, children’s book buyer and event coordinator at Changing Hands Bookstore in Tempe, Ariz. “It has that magic quality with a little bit of dystopia. One review described it as Harry Potter meets the Hunger Games. I wouldn’t have dubbed it that way, but we do say ‘yay’ when [the publisher] puts those titles on Lisa’s books.”
McMann first gained a following with her bestselling YA trilogy Wake and continues to put a lot of effort into connecting with her fans. Simon & Schuster has sent her on tour for each of the Unwanted titles, and Phoenix-based McMann has made Changing Hands, her local store, the first stop each time. “We are so lucky she lives here,” Stewart said. “We do a pre-order promotion for the new books and Lisa puts together her own prize packs of fun items that have become collectibles for the kids.”
For Island of Fire, McMann visited the store on September 1 before heading to other stops around the country including New Orleans and Oxford, Miss. “Even on Sunday, typically our slowest day, she had more than 75 people at her event,” said Stewart. McMann is a “Club Read” author at the store and her titles have been selections for its monthly tween book group. “The kids are devoted to her,” Stewart added, “and she is really good with them.”
Simon & Schuster has advertised the series on Poptropica and Funbrain Web sites, and included an extended excerpt in a Funbrain Reading Arcade Takeover feature. On the school and library front, the publisher has produced a full-series curriculum guide and brought the author to multiple conferences. And an Unwanteds trailer and a dedicated Web site have increased the books’ presence as well.
S&S’s Liesa Abrams, who edits the series, believes there’s every sign that they’ll continue their solid performance. She chalks up their appeal to a variety of factors, among them “a great mix of strong boy and girl characters and the wonderfully true metaphor that artistic creativity is a form of magic.” A total seven Unwanteds titles are planned, with volume four scheduled for September 2, 2014.