Do you remember the first time in your life when you started to question things adults had taught you? Do you remember the first time you thought about why you were here or what your purpose was? Do you ever find yourself still grappling with questions like these? If so, you will identify with the protagonist of Rebecca Rupp’s most recent middle-grade novel, Octavia Boone’s Big Questions about Life, the Universe and Everything.
This story is just about as close to a Philosophy 101 course for kids as one could get. We follow precocious 'tween freethinker Octavia O'Keefe (of Georgia O'Keefe fame) Boone on her self-imposed quest to answer Life's Big Questions, which include, but are not limited to things like:
Is there a god? If so, why would (s)he let bad things happen? What is the right kind of person to be? Why do bad things like Hurricane Katrina and 9/11 happen? What is the meaning of life? Why are we here? What is the good life?
Octavia's bright but flighty mother, Ray, who's recently joined up with the kookie fundamentalist religious group "The Redeemers" and quit her lucrative job at a law firm is also grappling with some of the same questions, except her answers are infused with "saving" oneself and how one can best serve god. Her father, on the other hand, answers life's Big Questions through poetry and art and other forms of creative expression. Neither response satisfies Octavia.
The major issue lurking beneath the surface of this otherwise clever and insightful book is that the characters' motivations do not always ring true. At the end of the story, for example, I was still left wondering how and why an otherwise smart, skeptical lawyer (Ray) would join a religious cult and abandon her daughter and husband. Octavia, however, is a wonderfully appealing character with a questioning spirit and wit evocative of Anne of Green Gables, and readers will cheer for her from start to finish. And though her meditations and observations may occasionally be a little forced, Octavia’s story is a great introduction into the world of Big Questions in philosophy for young readers. Those wanting to understand the most fundamental questions of the universe and who also believe these questions do not only belong in the realm of ivory-tower intellectuals alone will also love Jostein Gaarder’s Sophie’s World.