The Girl Who Owned a City by O.T. Nelson

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In The Girl Who Owned a City (first published 1975, reissued 1995), O.T. Nelson creates an entirely unbelievable post-apocalyptic scenario for middle-grade readers. In the story, the world population of adults has died of a rapidly spreading plague within the last month. All that remains in ten-year-old Lisa’s immediate world are other children, all under the age of twelve. Lisa is now responsible for her younger brother’s food and safety. Using her intelligence and her problem-solving abilities, Lisa discovers previously untouched sources of food, gathers her street into a commune, and moves them all into the local high school, of which Lisa is made supreme ruler.

original cover

Such a (ridiculous) story may have worked fantastically, but O.T. Nelson’s prose is painful, the characters one-dimensional and selfish, and the ordinary things about the story are entirely unbelievable.

I love it.

As with yesterday’s post about D’Aulaires’ Greek Myths, I could not read this or write about it without an extreme bias. I read this book first as an eight-year-old. My ten-year-old brother and I would pretend all the adults were dead and we were moving into the local high school. We’d figure out where we’d find food (looking at maps and in phone books) and we’d decide on which of our friends we’d invite to our “city.” We dreamed about driving the car without parental supervision. It was a blast.

I should also add that the novel takes place in what was then my near-neighbor town of Lombard, Illinois.  The school sequestered in the novel is Glenbard high school, which my mother attended when she was a teenager. When I drove past the high school as a child (very infrequently, but maybe twice a year), I’d recall The Girl Who Owned a City with fondness.

Reading it as an adult brought back the memories, but it also was pretty disappointing. The novel is a pretty badly written book with lots of loop holes. For a really great break down of why it’s awful, see the post by Anastasia at Birdbrain(ed) Book Blog. She apparently didn’t have great childhood memories of it, so had only negative things to say! Imagine that!

To her list of plot gaps, I’ll also add that I was a bit skeptical of Lisa being first for everything. I don’t think twelve-year-old kids would hesitate to teach themselves to drive. I don’t think it would take them a whole week of no adults for them to go behind the wheel (a rather terrifying thought).

Wikipedia indicates that the author wrote the book to be an easily accessible introduction to Ayn Rand’s philosophy of Objectivism, and that may be why Lisa came across as selfish. I didn’t like how she determined she was “owner” of the high school city, and I don’t think the other youngsters would have reacted as nicely as they did. There were few deaths in this novel. It was the opposite of Lord of the Flies: all the children learned to get alone rather than succumb to the chaos surrounding them.

In the end, the people rally for her leadership, yet for the most part she was telling people what to do in a dictatorial setting. I’ll note that as an eight-year-old reader, I didn’t know or care about Ayn Rand, and Lisa’s selfishness did not make me dislike her. But I obviously was rather blind to this book in general: I just liked it.

At any rate, if you are a child interested in a post-apocalyptic middle grade story, or a survival story, it is a fun read. Bonus points if you are an imaginative kid who will act out the scenarios yourself! For those readers who don’t have fond memories reading it as a youngster and who do have plenty of other reading choices, though, it may be too flawed to enjoy.

Reviewed on November 22, 2010

About the author 

Rebecca Reid

Rebecca Reid is a homeschooling, stay-at-home mother seeking to make the journey of life-long learning fun by reading lots of good books. Rebecca Reads provides reviews of children's literature she has enjoyed with her children; nonfiction that enhances understanding of educational philosophies, history and more; and classical literature that Rebecca enjoys reading.

  • I’m afraid to reread some of my childhood favourites for just this reason! For example, I adored the Animorphs series, and I’m sure if I gave some of the books a try now I’d laugh hysterically.

  • I love going back to reread childhood favorites. I know they’re going to be silly and probably badly written most of the time, but the memories are worth it. 😀

  • “an easily accessible introduction to Ayn Rand’s philosophy of Objectivism”

    I laughed out loud. Just the philosophy I want to introduce my child to AS SOON AS POSSIBLE.

    I totally relate to the experience of continuing to love a childhood favorite despite its now-recognizable flaws, though. It sounds like this was a fun walk down Memory Lane for you. 🙂

  • That’s nuts that the high school in the novel is your mom’s school! I don’t think I even knew it was a real place!

    I didn’t read The Girl Who Owned a City as a child, but I did experience it with kids. A few years back I worked as an aide in a Deaf middle school. One of the English teachers I worked with did a storytime with her class during which she signed this book to them. Maybe her translation was better than the original, or maybe I enjoyed watching the kids enjoy the book, but I ended up with rather fond memories of The Girl Who Owned a City!

    I do worry about being disappointed with my childhood favorites if I reread them as an adult. I think it’s part of why I’m often hesitant to reread!

    • Erin, sorry for the late response. I do imagine that I will be disappointed for some of those childhood favorites. But I think it’s okay — it did it’s job back when I was a child!

      Cool story about the signing of this story. I wonder how it would transfer. I studied sign a little and one of my friends was a translator and married a deaf man!

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