|OCULUM, 2018, DCB Available here|
My classic, middle-grade, science fiction dystopia is an SYRCA Diamond Willow award nominee 2020, and has just been named to the Forest of Reading Kid's Committee Summer Reading List 2019!
To celebrate, I thought I'd re-post my
"5 questions people are probably going to ask me about this book." Enjoy!
Q: Elevator pitch: what is Oculum about?
A: Humanity is recovering from environmental collapse, and two sets of children, one living a life of luxury inside an insular domed world and one living in the rubble outside, must somehow combine the best of both their worlds.
Q. What does Oculum mean?
A: Oculum (noun) is Latin for "eye." In architecture, a circular oculus allows light and air into domed structures like the ancient Roman Pantheon. Some modern domes use an oculus, too.
Q: Why did you choose "Oculum" for the title?
A: I chose "Oculum" as the title because I wanted a word that sounded slightly weighty and ancient, as well as modern and futuristic. Latin words do that well!
Half of the story takes place in a domed world, known as "Oculum" to its inhabitants. Similar to the ancient Roman Pantheon and other structures (like Rogers Centre in modern day Toronto for example), the circular top of the dome of Oculum is opened (and closed) to the sun and stars, using a simple but impressive mechanism. In this case, the opening and closing of the dome is managed by an army of robot keepers.
Also, this story takes place as humanity begins to recover from a plague, environmental disaster and general collapse. The words, "Oculum aperui" mean "I opened an eye." While the book isn't didactic, I like the idea that we need to "open an eye" to what we're doing to the planet. Generations past and future will be watching (keeping an "eye" on us, if you like), to see what we do to save and preserve our world now, and what we do if we get a second chance to rise from the rubble.
Q: What made you want to write a middle-grade dystopia?
A: The idea for this book started with a vivid dream I had many years ago, of a mother with robot arms as she tucks a human child into bed. They weren't my arms (or my child), but the sweetness of the robot Mother's love for her human charge really stayed with me. I've always wanted to explore the idea of a middle-grade dystopia, since they are quite rare, and here was the kernel of the idea: a robot Mother's love.
Who is she? Who made her? Why is she in charge of a human child? What's the child like who has only had cool, metallic arms to tuck her in every night? Do they talk of love? What kinds of love might survive the end of the world, anyway ...
Q: What challenges did you face writing a middle-grade dystopia, and how is it different from young adult dystopia?
A: When I started to look around the modern dystopia genre, I didn't find that much written for a middle-grade audience. There's plenty of great YA dystopia though, and while there's lots of overlap, there are also some subtle differences between YA and MG, mostly in the slightly gentler, more hopeful tone.
Could that be the reason for the relative lack of modern MG dystopia? It's hard to get the right dystopian message across in a gentler tone? I guess it's possible. Of course, if you know of good recent MG dystopias that I've missed, please let me know!
I read a few MG dystopias for younger readers as a kid, though, most notably John Christopher's "White Mountains Trilogy" from the '70s and John Wyndham's "The Chrysalids."
I think the shining example of middle-grade dystopia is Lois Lowry's "The Giver," which is an astonishing book and I urge you to read it asap if you haven't! Monica Hughes' "Invitation to the Game" is another great book in the genre (she was also a Canadian author).
There was the challenge. As a middle-grade author (Oculum is my 10th book for middle-grade readers), I wanted to see if I could explore a dystopia in a meaningful way with younger kids.
So, I set out to write Oculum. I wanted to touch on environmental ruin, collapse, how society might restructure itself as it renews, and what would we lose and what would we value in the new world? What would happen to books, art, literacy, music? Who would raise the children? What fragile symbol could I use to represent what we stand to lose if the planet dies forever? (A peach.) And finally, how to do this all in a slightly hopeful way?
It WAS a challenge!
In the end, I created a dystopia with two first-person voices. The first voice is Miranda1 inside the dome (at 13, the oldest girl in Oculum). The second voice is Mannfred (12), a boy living rough outside the dome in the rubble, with his friends and Grannie, who feeds and clothes them.
In Miranda's isolated world inside the dome with the robots and the younger children, the world is picture perfect, but there is no love or freedom. In the ruined City outside the dome, Mannfred and the other children know death, disease, hunger, and love, but they are fairly isolated without much social interaction. So that was one way to get into a middle-grade dystopia: with two voices from younger characters who have both been quite isolated.
And a few other MG tactics I used...
Violence: I wrote a gun into the story, but it plays a different role than it might in a YA dystopia (barter instead of destruction).
Language: Cranker, one of the main characters outside the domed world of Oculum, does swear but in a humorous way: "Festering gobs" and such (along the same lines as "sufferin' succotash" as my editor said). He was fun to write!
Romance: There is love in the story, but it's the love of friendship. The main characters in the dome, Miranda1 and William1, do hold hands and know that they will be together always, but romance is for the future.
Star-Trekking the Future: Gene Roddenberry wrote Star Trek in the '60s in part to reflect a better future for humanity, including characters rarely seen (a woman as a bridge officer, an alien alliance/Vulcan etc). In Oculum (my story, my party), I created a few characters you rarely see, including a strong older woman in Grannie. I also wanted to show a gentle, whole boy, in Mannfred. Older women can be tough and vital, young boys can be brave, but also loving.
Hope: Mannfred (Mann for short) is the main character outside the dome. He has the last word, and I loved writing the final chapter from his POV. He's a great character anyway, a big, gentle 12-year-old who is happy to carry the family's baby (and who has no stomach for fighting, although he always wins since he is so big). As for a hopeful ending ... you'll just have to read it to find out how I handled that!
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