Book: Janne Teller. Nothing. New York: Atheneum Books for Young Readers, 2010.
Genre: Realistic Fiction, Young Adult Fiction, Horror, Suspense
Audience: Grades 7-12 (and up)
Read-Aloud: Good Book
Summary: The story follows a Danish 7th grade class as their classmate Pierre Anthon decides that life has no meaning. He sits in a plum tree day after day telling the other children about the ultimate futility of life so they set out to build a pile of meaning from things that mean something to each of them. They start with one child, then that child gets to pick what the next has to give up which escalates the conflict to unimaginable and grotesque heights. Eventually their pile of meaning gains international attention and culminates in one final act as they struggle to show Pierre that he is wrong.
Themes: The search for meaning is the main theme that drives this novel. The existential conversations that the children have with each other and with Pierre serve to guide their actions throughout the novel and each new revelation leads to a newer form of sacrifice. This theme should resonate in the minds of students especially as many of them are in their own search for meaning and may feel just a Pierre does.
The other theme that goes along with the search for meaning is that of sacrifice. The items sacrificed for each child get larger and more important as the child who had to sacrifice previously enacts their own vengeance against the person after them. Eventually the students build a tower of items ranging from superficial items (like green sandals or a bike) to deeper items (like a dead baby or a girl’s virginity).
Connections: As I mentioned previously, this novel would resonate well with students struggling to find their own personal meanings in life and the things that mean most to them. I would use this text in a unit that deals with personal sacrifice and the effects of group mentality novels such as Lord of The Flies or various war novels. It would also work well as a stand-alone novel where one could ask students what they would sacrifice in order to prove to Pierre that life does indeed have meaning. Or a teacher could have the class enact their own version of building a pile of meaning by taking turns picking what each person would have to sacrifice.
Reaction: I loved this novel and would definitely recommend it to anybody looking for another text to use in a classroom. While the themes and actions that occur in the novel or often mature and with the existential conversations going over students’ heads being a very real possibility, I feel that the novel would do very well in a classroom discussion. The story is beautifully written with great descriptions and prose being prominently displayed throughout. The students feel very realistic as well, interacting with each other and their environment in much the same ways as one would expect a group of 7th grades to act, which would definitely be relatable to students.
Reception: One reviewer at goodreads.com said that, “A great dark book about meaninglessness, what people do when they are confronted with the idea that maybe there is no meaning, and through the different children many of the ways that this question is side-stepped/answered by people in our society are shown to be empty shells of delusion”
Another reviewer at inthegoodbooks.com said that, “Then the sacrifices become almost macabre, the last one especially. But even this felt realistic. The character’s actions were believable and justified, and I liked how the author didn’t try to make her characters unnaturally good. Let’s face it: Bruno Mars won’t catch a grenade for his girlfriend, and Edward wouldn’t kill himself if he thought Bella was dead (you know, if they were real). People aren’t inherently self-sacrificing and good. I really liked how this book happily demonstrated that.”