Library time at the Marlboro School is something of an oasis in the midst of a hectic day. Students in this reading group are serving each other tea and cupcakes, and getting ready to settle in to their discussion of The One Safe Place.
The novel is set in a future where the world his hot and inhospitable, and water is a precious commodity. Seventh grader Lilly Hillenburg starts by summarizing the plot. As she explains, the main character Devin is left alone on his farm after his grandfather dies. And he finds he can’t take care of the entire farm on his own.
"So he sets off to the city, where his grandfather told him to go if he ever needs extra help," she explains. "So he sets free all the animals and he goes off to find the city. And on his way there he notices how different the world is compared to his farm. He gets to the city and it’s very dry there. And he tries to talk with people but they just ignore him."
The city is teeming with orphaned kids living on the streets. After a rough night on his own, Devin meets a girl named Kit who shows him the ropes. There are rumors of a place where only the luckiest kids get to go. A place where children can have all the water, food and toys they want. And they have a chance to be adopted. Kit says the rumor isn’t true, until one day Devin is invited to go. He brings Kit with him to the Gabriel H. Penn Home for Childhood.
Once Devin and Kit get to The Home, they get a tour from a boy named Luke. Devin notices something is off with some of the other children. And many of them don’t seem happy, despite living in what seems like paradise. When they get to a large gym, Devin notices some other people acting strangely, too. There are very old people watching the kids from the shadows. The children call them The Visitors.
The kids think The Visitors are there to adopt them, but the truth is something far more sinister. The Visitors are choosing a child to swap minds with for a little while, so they can experience childhood again. But there’s something different about Devin’s mind, and many of his senses are crossed. He can taste colors and see sounds. It's a condition called synesthesia.
After reading The One Safe Place, this group of Marlboro students has some questions for the novel's author, Tania Unsworth.
Cyrus Burt: Are the things at the home your idea of a utopia?
Tania Unsworth: I think they are a kind of utopia. But they’re the utopia an adult might imagine would be suitable for a child. So the home has been created to present a kind of paradise for childhood so that these old people can swap their minds with children and go to this kind of paradise where everything they imagine is fun about childhood is there. So it’s a kind of adult ideas of what would make a child happy. And, obviously, it’s not a utopia at all because it’s missing the one thing that really does make children happy, which is love and security and true safety ... It has the appearance of a utopia but, of course, you know it’s the opposite of that.
Nieve Whitehouse: What was your inspiration for the book The Once Safe Place?
Tania Unsworth: I think it came when I went to the dentist one day. And I really don’t like going to the dentist, like a lot of people. And I was sitting in the waiting room and I suddenly thought, ‘Wouldn’t it be great if I could take my mind somewhere else.’ Not in my imagination, but literally somewhere else. I thought it would be fantastic to be able to swap minds with someone who was having a really good day. And then when all the horrible, nasty stuff had been done on my teeth, I could swap minds again and be back in my body and it would all be over and done with. And I just kept thinking about this and thinking how great it would be. And then I also thought, well, it would also really be actually terrible if we could do that.
Samantha Mills: As I read the book I noticed that the authority and adult figures weren’t very responsible or nice to the children. And I was wondering, what made you choose that about all the adult characters and why there wasn’t at least one character that was kind and sweet and loved children?
Tania Unsworth: Well that’s a really good question and you’re right, the adults are pretty awful. I’m not sure why I made them all awful. I do have one adult character who is very nice, although he doesn’t appear in the book he’s really only in Devin’s memory, and that’s his grandfather who has raised him with love. And later on in the book when Devin gets into difficulty, he sort of hears his grandfather’s voice in his head telling him to be strong and hold onto himself and remember who he is. So, the grandfather was a sort of a positive adult in the book, but you’re right the rest are absolutely disgraceful. And I have no excuse for that. I think when I was a kid I kind of thought that lots of grownups were kind of evil, so maybe that was part of it.
Broden Walsh: I was wondering how you knew that older people yearn for their childhood back. Did you get this information through interviews, personal experiences, a guess, or is it just fiction?
Tania Unsworth: I think, actually, that’s one of the best questions about this book that I’ve ever been asked. How do I know that adults want to get their childhood back? Well, I’m an adult myself and I had a very happy childhood. And as I was coming out of it, I was quite aware that it was passing. I don’t know if other children have that feeling around the age of 11 or 12 that things are changing and feel sad about it. And I wanted to get older, but I also felt sad. And that feeling of sadness kind of stayed with me a little tiny bit into being an adult. And I think that, perhaps, in the back of their heads, a lot of adults kind of yearn for that time when you’re really innocent and young and you don’t have a lot of problems and you see the world in a certain way. And that’s something you sort of carry through the whole of your life, I think.
Marou Rosner: Would you appreciate the home if you were in their position but knew the consequences?
Tania Unsworth: I think if I was a kid in that situation, just like the other kids, to begin with the home would seem like a refuge because life outside was so tough. And to begin with all I would think about is the fact that there’s food there and water, company. But I think, very quickly, I would want out of it. I think if I’d known beforehand I wouldn’t go, to be honest, because what it does to the kids’ heads is really, really bad and sort of irreversible. And, yeah, I’m not sure I’d have gone in there.
The dystopia that Tania Unsworth creates in The One Safe Place forces the reader to imagine dark elements of humanity. But fortunately for these Marlboro School students, they can reflect on those concepts of selfishness and survival in the oasis of their school library -- complete with tea, snacks and stimulating literary discussions.
Dorothy’s List is sponsored by the VPR Journalism Fund.