74 pages 2 hours read

Lisa McMann

The Unwanteds

Fiction | Novel | Middle Grade | Published in 2011

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Summary and Study Guide


The Unwanteds is a 2011 young adult fantasy novel by Lisa McCann. It is the first in a seven-book series that tells the story of the conflict between a dystopian state and a magical world. 

Plot Summary

The book begins in the authoritarian state of Quill. Alex Stowe stands beside his twin brother, Aaron, listening to High Priest Justine announce the names of the Unwanted, artistic individuals who are killed in an annual Purge. Alex hears his name and is led away while Aaron stays behind. 

On the bus to the Death Farm, Alex sees the familiar faces of Samheed and Meghan, as well as an unknown girl who introduces herself as Lani. They are led into a building and through an iron gate. Before they can be killed, a giant winged tortoise appears and leads them away to a magical world named Artimé. 

Where Quill was drab and colorful, Artimé is wonderous and full of joy. The Unwanteds meet Mr. Today, the wizard who made Artimé. He tells them that, like all Unwanteds, they are now welcome to live in his world and learn magic. The Unwanteds meet older children who passed through the Purge, including Meghan’s older brother Sean. They are told they now have the freedom to be as creative and artistic as they please. While most children are enthusiastic about the idea, Samheed thinks it is stupid. 

The children are shown to their rooms; Alex’s is filled with art supplies and a magical blackboard. The children travel around Mr. Today’s mansion by tubes. They can eat when they want, and they attend art, music, and theatre classes. Each has a specific skill to perfect. Mr. Today’s daughter, Claire, teaches the students who excel at singing. Alex’s skill is art, and he learns to paint and draw, activities that are forbidden in Quill. 

While the other Unwanteds soon advance to Magical Warrior Training (where they learn magic), Alex is not allowed to advance. He becomes resentful, especially when Lani teases him with magic. There is tension between Samheed and Alex, especially when Samheed reveals that it was Aaron who informed on Alex and had him sent to the Death Farm. Alex does not want to believe. He soon becomes a skilled artist but is still not allowed to begin Magical Training. Frustrated, Alex ignores everyone and nearly endangers Artimé when he fails to listen to a message and almost appears to the people of Quill. Meanwhile, in Quill, Aaron quickly rises through the military ranks of the Wanted and excels in his classes. He is promoted and introduced to High Priest Justine.

Mr. Today worries about holding back Alex any longer. He allows Alex to begin magical training but remains concerned about the bond Alex still shares with Aaron. Alex begins his Magical Warrior Training and soon excels. He works hard to catch up but becomes uneasy when Samheed begins spending more time with a boy named Will Blair. Alex does not trust Will. 

One night, unable to sleep, Alex discovers the hidden hallway that contains Mr. Today’s office. Samheed catches him and tells him when he can go inside. Alex returns to the hallway and goes into the office, where he sees live pictures of Artimé, Quill, and Aaron’s dorm room. Alex spends days thinking about what he saw and learns that 3D drawings of doors can act as a magical portal. Alex often sneaks into Today’s office and watches his brother; he begins painting a door to try and reach Aaron and bring him to Artimé. 

Mr. Today talks with Alex about his actions. Alex reveals that Aaron also shared an artistic inclination, but Alex took the blame, saving his brother from the Purge. Alex wants Aaron to come to Artimé, but he does not tell Mr. Today about the picture of Aaron’s dorm room door. Alex overhears Will and Samheed discussing work on a similar door; they plan to kill Aaron and take his place in Quill. Alex decides to get to Aaron first.

He visits his brother but is unable to convince him to come to Artimé. Before Aaron returns to Quill, Mr. Today meets him. Mr. Today believes that war with Quill is now inevitable, and he orders everyone in Artimé to begin training for a battle. The next day, Aaron convinces Justine to accompany him to the Death Farm. They pass through into Artimé and are shocked to discover the vivacity of the magical world. They go back to Quill before returning to the Death Farm days later with the Quillitary. Will is killed by the Quillitary while attempting to switch sides, causing Samheed to see the error of his ways. 

War breaks out between Quill and Artimé. All the Unwanteds fight. When the conflict pauses, Mr. Today takes Alex to the palace in Quill to lock Justine out. There, Aaron attacks them. Alex is hurt and taken back to Artimé. Justine holds Mr. Today’s daughter hostage but is taken down by one of Lani’s spells. Mr. Today makes peace with Gunnar Haluki, Lani’s father and the second-in-command in Quill who has been a spy for Artimé. A peace is brokered between the states. Alex meets with Aaron, then the two go back to their separate worlds, forever estranged.