Also published on this date: Shelf Awareness for Wednesday, May 1, 2013

Wednesday, May 1, 2013: Kids' Maximum Shelf: The Testing

Houghton Mifflin Harcourt: The Testing by Joelle Charbonneau

Houghton Mifflin Harcourt: The Testing by Joelle Charbonneau

Houghton Mifflin Harcourt: The Testing by Joelle Charbonneau

Houghton Mifflin Harcourt: The Testing by Joelle Charbonneau

The Testing

by Joelle Charbonneau

In Joelle Charbonneau's taut psychological novel, her first for young adults, the Earth has been ravaged by the Seven Stages War, and its inhabitants suffer--economically, ecologically and emotionally. Few people own cars; food, fuel and paper are precious, and water is scarce. But 16-year-old narrator Malencia ("Cia") Vale remains hopeful that if she's selected for the Testing, she'll be able to change things for the better.

It's been 10 years since the last graduate was chosen from Cia's colony, Five Lakes (formerly known as the Great Lakes region), for the Testing--to determine the best candidates for University and to identify possible future leaders of the United Commonwealth. Is that by accident or design? As Ms. Jorghen's assignments got more difficult, Cia wondered if "our old teacher misdirected the Commonwealth into thinking we weren't bright enough to be leaders. And if so, why would she do such a thing? Because she hated to see families separated or because she truly believed something sinister would be lurking for us on the other end of our journey?"

This dystopian novel stands out for its nuanced exploration of the tension that often develops between parents and children on the cusp of adulthood. How much can they continue to protect their children, and when is the right time to arm them with the truth, no matter how painful it is? A rift develops between Cia and her mother, as the teen expresses her hopes for being chosen for the Testing and sent to the Commonwealth's base in Tosu City. Cia also feels some tension with her oldest brother, Zeen, who seems to resent her chance to be chosen.

When Cia is chosen, her father confides to her his recurring nightmares that seem to be connected to his own experience of the Testing. He also explains that her mother's distance stems from the possibility that the Testing could mean the family will never see Cia again. "Go to Tosu City prepared to question everything you see and everyone you meet," her father cautions her. "That might be the difference between success or failure." On the eve of her departure, Cia takes Zeen's Transit Communicator, a device that serves as a compass, a calculator and a communication system. ("I wish Zeen were here to give me permission--to tell me he forgives me for being chosen when he was not.")

Charbonneau creates adult characters as complex as her teens. Michal Gallen, the official who transports Cia and the three other candidates chosen from Five Lakes Colony, seems to show some preference for Cia. He sees her discover a hidden camera and he smiles--in approval? Can she trust Michal? Against her father's warning ("Trust no one"), Cia confides in Tomas--another Five Lakes candidate--about the camera; romantic feelings develop between them.

The author fully exploits the possibilities of standardized testing as a gauge to determine a young person's future in our own society, and asks teens to question whether it's truly a measurement of their self-worth. Everything, it seems, is a test. One candidate commits suicide. Another makes a wrong decision about an inedible plant and winds up dead. In a test to gauge teamwork, one teammate sabotages the rest. In another test, each individual has 10 minutes to choose three items for a journey on the outside. Then the worst happens: Cia begins to doubt Tomas when another candidate tells her, "Watch your back, Cia. Your boyfriend isn't the nice guy he's pretending to be." The seed of doubt had been planted earlier for Cia. Even though the candidates all start out alone, Tomas told Cia to meet up by the fence, and when they connect sooner than planned, Cia learns that he withheld their destination from the rest of their group. Despite her vague suspicions, Cia thinks, "With every day that passes I am more certain that I am falling in love with him."

They travel through an oasis-like setting that turns out to be explosive, and the shell of a bombed-out city (the former Chicago) that harbors other dangers. Cia verbalizes her internal struggle as she faces her fourth test, "While the fourth test measures many of the same areas as its predecessors, it's also designed to gauge not only the choices we make, but how we live with those choices once we've made them."

Charbonneau puts her characters through not just tests of physical, ethical and emotional stamina, but also tests their loyalties to friends, family and to the Commonwealth itself. They encounter half human–half feral beings and, when Cia must kill one in order to survive, her guilt overwhelms her. She begins to wonder if the "mysterious benefactor" who lingers outside the fence for the Testing and leaves her food and supplies just when she needs it, is onto something.

There is nothing standardized about this Testing. Charbonneau's imagination will surprise readers at every turn, including the chilling ending. She wraps things up satisfyingly while still hinting at other revelations to come in books two and three of this planned trilogy. --Jennifer M. Brown

Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, $17.99, hardcover, 336p., ages 12-up, 9780547959108, June 4, 2013

Houghton Mifflin Harcourt: The Testing by Joelle Charbonneau

Joelle Charbonneau: Audition as the Ultimate Test

Photo: Pete Stenberg

Joelle Charbonneau, known for her humorous adult mysteries, started out as a stage performer who turned to teaching. Her teenage students study music, theater and opera. "Not only do they have to do the ACT and SAT and college applications, but they also have to audition," Charbonneau said. "I'd say to myself, 'It can't get any worse. I wonder what could be worse?' " The answer is: The Testing, her first book for young adults.

What are your thoughts about leadership? The United Commonwealth attracts some tough characters.

I look at the president's job and think, who would want that job? They look one way when they enter, and another way when they come out four or eight years later. That's part of the cost of being a leader. Who do you choose? Do you pick the person you like, or the person who would push the button? I was intending to write about the ACTs and SATs. It became so much more to me.

At the heart of the novel is this idea of competition at the peril of one's peers--do you think that's what testing encourages?

I know it does. I've been doing theater and music since I was a kid. In general, the person who's the lead isn't often the most important person in the play. You're only as strong as your weakest link. In The Testing, a lot of people wouldn't consider Cia a leading lady. She'd be more of a supporting character. In this case, she's forced into the spotlight.

Is a real leader someone who's necessarily [been elected] the president? Or is it the person who questions? You should care when something affects anybody, not just you. Cia does question, and that's what makes her unusual. She'd like to be a leader because she'd like to make a difference, not because she wants to be the leader.

We sense envy on the part of Cia's brother, Zeen, as if he would have liked to be eligible for the testing, but no one had come from the Commonwealth to test during his young adulthood.

We get to explore a lot more about why the Testing came about, and why they've chosen some of these methods. In book three, I get to bring them all out in the open. The Testing is secret, but there are enough people in Five Lakes to create a conspiracy to keep people out of it. You don't want to make waves. If something's working, you don't need to expose it.

Did you have an outline of all three books? Or do they unfold as you write them? Have you finished a draft of book two?

I never have a clue where I'm going. By page 60 or 70 I take a left turn in Albuquerque and there's no way back. I had no idea where it was going. Every action that happens propels it along, sometimes in a direction that I'm not sure where it will take it. I've finished book two, and it should be in ARC form any day. The series was supposed to be a book a year. Now it's every six months.

The Testing has been very different from my mysteries. The craft is the same; that I have always in my head. But there are so many more scenes, and it's complicated. Why did I make a heroine who's so smart--in science and engineering? I'm studying the mechanics of a bridge!

Cia's father raises the question of trust. But you also raise the question of whether Cia can trust her father. Will we learn more about that in future books?

The second book takes place in Tosu City. We only get glimpses of what happens in the past. We do get to see some family dynamics. The end of book three should also give the idea that kids go off to college, and home has not changed, but you have. What do you do with that? A lot of that Cia has to work out in her own head. We do see the father a bit in the prequel, a short e-book, available on the series homepage, and soon on other e-retailer websites.

Can you talk about the suicide of Cia's roommate? That's the first tragic consequence of the Testing.

The trailer [for the book] included the suicide. It's something students deal with all the time. They get to college, and they're only ready to succeed. It's the first time they're confronted with the idea that they might fail. We push too hard for people to want to get the A as opposed to just learning. When confronted with the idea that they're not the best, they fold.

Tell us more about the parallel you see between The Testing and the audition process that your performer-students go through.

Sometimes it's a question of are you confident enough in your own abilities? I have to warn my students there's a warm and fuzzy quality to a school, and then there are others where snarkier kids go. They're always trying to psyche you out. If they can, they will outperform you. I have always wanted to be judged on my own merits. The question is: Are you willing to trust your own abilities, or do you want to bring others down in order to shine brighter, even if it will bring the whole show down? --Jennifer M. Brown

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