Author: Pam Bachorz
Source: ARC from author at KidlitCon
Like Dulac, Candor is the perfect place. The houses are spacious, the families are loving, and kids mind their parents. Just like the good old days, right? If the good old days had subliminal messages, embedding morals in everyone's brain. (We'll talk about the Donna Reed show some other time.) Oscar Banks isn't just a citizen of Candor, he's one of the founders. It was his dad's brainchild, right down to the subliminal messages hidden in the constantly-playing music. Oscar is a glowing example of all that Candor parents want their teens to be: bright, obedient, hard-working, clean in body and mind.
Well. Body, anyway.
Because Oscar Banks has a secret: for a fee, he'll smuggle rebellious teens out of Candor, right out from under his father's nose. He'll supply them with alternative subliminal messages that counteract the ones their parents are using on them. Then he'll get them out of town and far away from the parents who wanted to fix their imperfect child.
When he meets Candor's newest resident, Nia Silva, he just sees another possible client. Then he becomes fascinated with this tough, funny, artistic girl who'll do just about anything to make her parents unhappy. But--as Oscar knows only too well--Nia's only a few Messages away from becoming a perky pastel clone who'll use her pencil for math problems instead of drawing.
If he helps her escape Candor, she'll disappear from his life. If he doesn't, she'll just . . . disappear.
Out of everything intriguing about this book, I think Oscar takes the cake. He's not some activist, fighting the Man, or an idealist, fighting for his beliefs about personal choice and identity. He is instead deeply pragmatic: accepting that there is very little he can do about the situation in Candor and getting what personal benefit he can out of it. Because make no mistake, Oscar's not doing this out of the goodness of his heart. For him, it's a money-maker. He picks and chooses clients based not on how much he likes them or how egregiously their parents are making them change, but how much ready cash they have on hand. While he could probably get away, he doesn't, because for the moment it's more profitable to stay where he is.
It's also his way of self-preservation. Even though he's been exposed to the messages longer than any other teen in Candor, his secret keeps his inner self alive. Unlike the other kids, who've all been molded into the perfect, interchangeable teen, Oscar is himself. Self-involved, cynical, disdainful, manipulative, and greedy, but himself. Instead of the messages, it's Nia who changes him--or rather, his own feelings for Nia change him. By the end of the book, there's someone who's more important to him than Oscar. The ending, while clutch-at-your-face-worthy, is also the best way of showing how far Oscar has come and how much he's changed.
One of my favorite little details in the book was when Oscar burned a CD for a client with the message "I am worthy." That's all it was: "I am worthy." The effect of this message is startling: with only a few repetitions, the two people who listen to it revert dramatically back to their former selves, battling the Messages that have been chipping away at them since their arrival. Because isn't that what's really behind all the other Messages? "You are not good enough the way you are. You need to change. Good people do this. Good people are like this. If you want to be good, you'll change."
There are some loose ends in here, most notably the fate of Oscar's mother. We're simply told that she "left" and while I hoped for a little bit more to the story, it never came, which makes me wonder if the author was headed that way and the story changed on her.
It's a good thing this is sci-fi. Because this could never happen, right? A society could never willingly tell people all day long, "You need to look like a celebrity to be beautiful" or "you need to have gadgets to be happy" or "if you're a good person, you'll go along" or . . . oh. Never mind. This enormously thought-provoking novel will have kids asking, "Just how much is me and how much is the Message?"