[This is a Parental Guidance review, and will contain spoilers]
In a world not unlike our own, Max, along with his mother and little sister, deal with class warfare, infertility, genetic screening and manipulation, the aftermath of a flu epidemic, and behavior modification with pharmaceuticals.
Not too shabby for a novel of only 300 pages. All Good Children could have easily become a 'kitchen sink' story, but these issues are related and woven together effectively, so I didn't feel bombarded with a mish-mash of controversial topics.
Synopsis of All Good Children
Max is a 'best-of-three', which means his parents were able to screen three embryos and choose which one was most desirable. However, his little sister Ally is a 'freebie', and this is reflected in her innocence and simplicity. Only the wealthy can afford to keep trying for an 'ultimate'. After the death of his father in the flu epidemic, Max's family lands squarely in lower-middle class bracket, a place in the community Max is not accustomed to occupying.
They live in New Middletown, a corporation-owned city, and an attempt at a utopian society. Which usually means you've got the exact opposite of what you are trying to achieve.
Max has to compete at school with the ultimates - junior gods and goddesses - and since he is a passionate, artistic, and emotional young man, he gets into more than his fair share of fights, both verbal and physical. To his credit, he is fiercely loyal and protective of his friends, and he defends them to his own hurt.
For entertainment, Max and his friends use the futuristic equivalent of an iPad, called RIGs - Realtime Integrated Gateway. They regularly watch Freakshow, which is a reality series based on Freaktown, a city populated with people suffering from major birth defects from a chemical spill.
Max cares deeply for Ally, and while walking her to school every day, notices subtle changes in the behavior of the kids on the playground. The younger children are waiting calmly by the doors, while the rest are throwing balls and running around, exasperating the supervisors. Ally expresses her concern that some of her friends are "fuzzy" and "slow".
This trend continues, and Max's alarm increases daily. He begins to understand what is really going on in his community, and now has to decide to go with the flow or take action.
I was pleasantly surprised to read about a mother as more than a footnote character. She is a widow with few resources, determined her children will receive the best education she can afford to provide them. As with many modern working mothers, this means her children are often left to themselves. In the beginning of the story she seems rather uninvolved, but she listens to their problems and anxieties without dismissing them. Later, when her children are in peril, she steps up to protect them, regardless of the cost. This sets her apart from many of the other parents in this story, who are all too glad to see their children drugged into submission.
And that is what these 'immunizations' are--the result of a program called the New Educational Support Treatment, or "Nesting".
"You're crazy, Max Why would they do that? We're their children, We are the future of this country."
"Maybe the future of this country requires a lot of slaves."
The treatment was initially used for those with mood disorders, and to help the elderly be calm and compliant. The argument for using it on children was that the misbehavior of a few infringes on the freedom of others to learn without distraction, and wastes classroom time because teachers are too occupied dealing with the antics of kids like Max. Max has never considered that his pranks have cost others time, money, and most importantly, impacted their GPA and got them sent to a throwaway school.
'Nesting' is mandated by the state, and embraced by most parents, but a few teachers are saddened that the spark of curiosity and creativity is gone from their students. The football team becomes a joke. Max and his friend are pretending to be 'zombies', but the stress is getting to them, and they are close to cracking. Eventually, their façade gives way, and they must escape from New Middletown. The more of the outside world Max sees, the more his view of it, and himself, changes.
"I don't think the world is exactly what we've been told."
Max's artistic side, which he often expressed by vandalizing school property with graffiti, becomes his family's salvation. And they find out that the rest of the world isn't too pleased with the experiments in New Middletown.
In the acknowledgements, the author states:
I swear I did not intend to write this as George and Harold Meet Teen Zombie Nerds in Stepford. It just came out that way.
Some themes evident in this novel were-
loyalty and friendship
the worth of a human based on their appearance, intelligence, and abilities
the price of conformity as the loss of creativity and individuality
the power of hope
art as medium of inspiration and conveying a meaningful message
As I was reading, the thought occurred to me that quite often in stories involving a push towards submission and conformity by an overbearing authority, a false dichotomy is erected for the hero to tear down with his courageous individuality. The opposite of submission is by default rebellion, not creativity. But why can't a person can be even-tempered, productive, and hard-working, as well as joyful, innovative, and unique?
In All Good Children, Max does eventually see that the boisterous expressions of his 'individuality' actually did have a cost--one that he himself did not have to pay. He was highly gifted, and could easily do homework assignments and pass tests with half his brain tied behind his back. Other classmates, while intelligent, did not have this knack, and if they did not receive the attention and instruction they needed, could end up in a trade school. His theft of art materials and vandalization of the school cost time and money, and made the Nesting program look very attractive to an administration tired of dealing with unruly children like Max. When Max turns his artistic talents in a more legitimate direction, he finds art is a powerful medium, even a beacon of hope.
The most obvious theme is the forced medication of active children in order to produce a compliant audience for academic instruction. If that doesn't sound familiar to you, you don't watch the news. Any parent can get sucked into the idea that they can prescribe a solution to their child's behavioral issues. Parents want their kids to be the 'good' kids, the successful kids. Max's mother, while embarrassed by his fighting and mischievousness, is not willing to pay the high a price for him to become a model child. She does give all the other kids the shot in order to save her own son. This wasn't viewed as heroic, however.
Sensitive, Objectionable, or Mature Content:
Sexual situations or references: Max thinks the thoughts that most boys think about girl's breasts. He kisses one girl that he has a crush on. An older man, while drunk, ogles a young girl's behind. A boy talks about wishing a girl would 'do' him. One of the boys in the school is gay, and there is quite a bit of teasing and pranking this boy, mocking his homosexuality.
Violence/gore: while not graphic, Max gets into a couple of fights, and takes a steak knife to school. A boy attacks a teacher and nearly kills him.
Substance use: a kid smokes a cigarette, a father gets very drunk and belligerent.
Profanities and obscenities: there were about 16 anatomical terms, 11 scatological, and 4 instances of the f* word. There were several sexual comments, some rude gestures and name calling, most notably 4 uses of the word 'faggot'. One use of the word 'god', small 'g'.
Mature: Some content and conversations about sperm donors and the screening of eggs and embryos.
Religion: The only mention of religion is where Max sees something that is "like God talking to me. I don't like it."
Peril: most of the teachers and parents are thrilled that their kids are now calm and compliant. Some are very hateful and hostile, which is obviously hypocritical since they are determined to make most of the children unemotional robots. Some of the changes in Max's friends after the shot are very unpleasant, and one boy dies.