I was motivated to write a review of this book because it was recommended so enthusiastically by my 12YO daughter. She’s recently read it at school, and enjoyed it so much she persuaded me to order it on Amazon so she could have her own copy. The cover design , with the menacing image of a bar code overlaid on a human eye, hints darkly at a dystopian tale of a population under the thumb of a totalitarian government.
It’s a book aimed at teens with a younger reading level, and tells the story of Riley, a teenage girl who lives in a country referred to only as “the island”. It’s a place where every aspect of life is controlled by the Third President through smart wristbands and 1984-style TV screens which spy on citizens, and where all foreigners have been – allegedly – expelled. When tragedy strikes Riley’s family, it’s the catalyst which leads to her finding out the true nature of this seemingly perfect society, and joining an underground movement plotting to reveal how the government has been deceiving and controlling the population.
Published only last year, it’s a timely and topical story which encourages young readers to think about how the future landscape of society might look after the dust has settled on the political earthquakes we’ve witnessed recently. It challenges young people to think about where some of the anti-immigrant rhetoric we hear from certain politicians and media outlets could eventually lead us. “The island” could be a fictitious country, but it could equally well be either Britain or America:
Riley knew about the Outsiders. Everyone did. They’d arrived on the island year after year, fleeing their own lands to escape disease and war. The island embraced them at first, but things began to change. After a while, there wasn’t enough to go around. Then crime began to rise – awful crimes that terrified the nation.
“Thank goodness for the First President,” Riley’s father said. “He was a proper leader. He saw the problem and he fixed it.” He nodded firmly at the President on the screen. “And like his father and grandfather before him, this fella is made of the right stuff.”
What surprised me at first, but on reflection I really liked about Silent Nation, was just how simply it’s written. Beverly Sanford and her publishers, Badger Learning, have created a book to engage more reluctant readers including those with dyslexia. At 14,000 words it’s longer than a short story, but not as long as a standard novel, and as the publishers point out, it features “dyslexia friendly design, with bite-sized generously spaced-out chunks of text, and off-white paper to reduce visual stress on sensitive eyes”.
The style of writing is very simple too – there’s no ambiguity or shades of meaning for the reader to interpret. When Riley is unhappy, Sanford tells us so, in no uncertain terms. There’s no need to interpret how she’s feeling from the look on her face, or her behaviour, or a clever metaphor – or any of the other writer’s tricks an adult reader might be on the look out for. Admittedly, it surprised me that my 12YO, who is a confident reader for her age, would enjoy something that I might initially have thought wasn’t challenging enough for her. But when I look at the detailed analysis of language and sentence structure which she has to do for her English homework, perhaps she and many other young readers are all a bit fed up of having to constantly analyse what they read. It’s no wonder that she got so much enjoyment from a book which simply cuts through the cr*p and tells her a good, fast-paced, thought-provoking story.
Because ultimately, that’s what Silent Nation is: a good, engaging story. I recently read Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury, another dystopian short novel (I blogged about that here, if you’re interested) but there’s no way I’d recommend it to my daughter, because Bradbury’s use of language would be a massive barrier to her engaging with the plot. That’s not to say that I don’t appreciate clever, complicated storytelling – Fahrenheit 451 is well worth a read. But ultimately, the writer’s job is to keep the reader wanting to know what happens next. This means knowing your audience as a prerequisite, and Beverly Sanford deserves top marks for writing a book which young readers will enjoy. I thoroughly recommend it.