Since I keep getting hung up on a few things that irked me about the this book, I think I need to get them out of the way first, before I move on to the things I enjoyed.
- Name Dropping: From McDonald's (on the first page) to Kroger to even Charlie and the Chocolate Factory and The Lord of the Rings, there were recognizable names all throughout the book. And even though Hirsch chose carefully and selected brands and books that are likely to stand the test of time, every time I read a "name" it pulled me out of the world they were in, and back into my own. I realize that maybe that was the point, to show that this could be the world that waits just around the corner, but I just didn't like it. It felt like a commercial. Happily, these references subsided as the story developed.
- Dropping the phrase "son of a b*tch" three pages in to the story. It's the only curse word in the entire book and there it is in the first chapter! This made me uncomfortable because I pictured a 7th grader (the book's audience is ages 12+/grades 7+) going wide-eyed* and wondering if the rest of the book was right for them. Then I thought about the parent who would read the jacket summary and perhaps the first one or two chapters before purchasing the book or while reviewing their child's library selections. Language that early in a book typically signifies you're in for more and worse as the story develops. Needless to say, by Chapter 2 I was ready to pitch this book into my "do not buy" pile. But I kept reading, and while the story that unfolded wasn't what I expected, it was pretty good.
- The title. The book isn't about the Eleventh Plague. It's about the surviving and rebuilding in the wake of the Eleventh Plague. It's about trying to build a community when everything has been torn down. There's still action, for sure. But it's not about the fall of society that happened due to the Eleventh Plague. It's about the struggle to make the remains of the world something worth fighting for, when forces are combining to destroy what little is left. It would have been so much cooler to call it the The Twelfth Plague.
So what did I like?
- Realistic Setting and Backstory: I liked that the story drew heavily from reality (which I realize some may say lies in contradiction to my first dislike). Twenty years prior to the story's present, a group of "American students backpacking in China were caught where they shouldn't have been and mistaken for spies," which wouldn't have been a big deal, but "oil was running out, and the Earth was getting warmer." Sound familiar? Then the USA nukes China and in response, China unleashes a souped-up version of the flu, known as P11, on the American populace and invades the west coast. Hundreds of millions die and civilization crumbles. That's a sweet set up.
- Protagonist Stephen Quinn: He's fifteen and he's angsty. He's lost everyone he ever loved and has trust issues. He's a lover and a fighter, and he's a reader. The complete package.
- The Drama: I was pulled into both the fight/action sequences and the light romantic sub-plot. Those pages flew by and I could very easily put myself into the world and feel like I was fighting and struggling alongside Stephen.
A Hunger Games read-alike it is not. Not everything post-apocalyptic with teenagers is "like" HG. Would fans of Hunger Games enjoy it? Probably. Most people probably wouldn't get hung up on the things I did, and thus transition easily into the story that drives the novel forward. I'll definitely be interested to see what other people think as reviews start popping up (likely closer to the September release date).
The Eleventh Plague by Jeff Hirsch
Scholastic, hardcover $17.99
Release Date: September 2011
Review copy provided by ARC picked up at BEA.
Note: Quoted sections in review are from an uncorrected proof. Text is not final.
*You're probably reading this and thinking "if you think they haven't heard worse, you must live on another planet." I know that our world is filled with violence and cursing and bad things. And I know my 6th graders have seen Hot Tub Time Machine and There Will Be Blood. They can take it. But have you seen a middle schooler's reaction when there's an unexpected curse (or as my kids say, "cuss") word? It's humorous to me how strongly they react when they don't see it coming. They'll mark the page and show it to me and ask if I knew it was there. 7th and 8th graders will turn books back in after finishing them and tell me that although they read and really liked the book, I should be careful about checking it out to other students, who might not be able to handle it.
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