Review: All Good Children by Catherine Austen

All Good Children
by Catherine Austen

ISBN-13: 9-781554-698240
Publication: October 2011 from Orca
Rating: 5 ♥ / 5 ♥ – I loved it

Quick-witted, prank-pulling graffiti artist Maxwell Connors is more observant than the average New Middletown teenager. And he doesn’t like what he sees. New Middletown’s children are becoming frighteningly obedient, and their parents and teachers couldn’t be happier. As Max and his friend Dallas watch their classmates transform into model citizens, Max wonders if their only hope of freedom lies in the unknown world beyond New Middletown’s walls, where creativity might be a gift instead of a liability.

All Good Children by Catherine Austen has reminded me of what I want and like in a dystopian story, and delivered it with heart-pounding intensity that left me turning the pages long into the early morning when I should have been sleeping. It isn’t even the action in the book that’s so crazy; it’s the calm way events are accepted – no, wanted – by the majority of Middletown, and the anxiety being felt by those who are daring to oppose the system.

Max and his family live in Middletown, USA – a city that is very much like a large gated community. Until now, everything has been good in Middletown, but Max soon realizes something fishy is going on when seeing the other first graders in his sister’s class. They are too well behaved for children 6 and 7 years old. Soon, the good behaviour winds itself up through the grade levels until it reaches his own. Max and his friend Dallas avoid the behaviour changing vaccination and slowly watch every kid they know change – and not always for the better. Things are getting stressful, and Max knows they need to leave before he and Dallas are caught and changed.

As someone who teaches elementary school kids day after day, I found myself thinking “I wish my kids were this well behaved!” As All Good Children continued, though, the more horrified I became, and realized that no matter how disruptive or headstrong my students can be, it is much preferred to the calm, peaceful, robot-like obedience of the students in Middletown. I think my horror also came from the cavalier attitude that Catherine Austen wrote her adults as having towards the procedure (not all of them, mind you. Some of the teachers and parents are just as horrified as Max and Dallas about what is happening). How could anyone in a position of authority just disregard basic human rights like they are? The saddest part of the story is what happens to Max’s neighbour Xavier after his behaviour is changed, and the disregard the adults show for his situation.

The characters in All Good Children are amazingly portrayed. Max is strong, loving and takes care of his family and friends, but he’s also a bit of a troublemaker who doesn’t think twice about fighting and likes nothing more than to take advantage of a chance to graffiti a wall, play football and laze around avoiding homework. One of the reasons this book impacts so hard is because of how attached you get to the characters. All the tension and anxiety bleeds through the pages and it’s impossible not to cringe and laugh and want to cry.

Another aspect of All Good Children I really enjoyed? Max is African American, Dallas is white, there is a flamboyantly gay classmate and it just is, and accepted. I didn’t even fully clue in until maybe a third or so of the way through the book that Max, our main character, is African American. Catherine Austen does give character descriptions as the story goes on, and Max himself mentions the difference in skin colour near the end when he and Dallas begin planning to leave Middletown since his family wouldn’t be able to claim Dallas as a member, but other than that? No big deal, as it shouldn’t be, and I loved that.

The behaviour modification that the government is forcing on the country’s youth in order to make society better is just what I’ve been missing in my dystopia – a promise that this procedure will make everything ok and that our world will be the better for it, and yet it is so wrong. All Good Children is chilling and will definitely make you think twice the next time you wish you could just make someone behave the way you want them to. Perfect obedience may seem like a good thing, but when it sacrifices creativity, passion and open minds, nobody benefits, and Max is determined to keep his own personality at all costs.

All Good Children by Catherine Austen is shortlisted for the CLA’s Young Adult Book Award, and I can definitely see why!

ARC received through Orca and Librarything‘s EarlyReviewers program in exchange for my honest review. Thank you!