Thursday, December 22, 2011

Little Brother [YA Book Review]

Thank Goodness the Timing Was Right

Just over ten years ago I was teaching in a school right across the water from the World Trade Center when our world changed forever. My brother was overseas in the Marines, my mother was home alone and I stood before classroom of students who didn't know if their parents made it to work that morning and whether or not they should be happy if they did.

I was scared. I was angry. And I was comforted by the enormous military planes that flew literally next to my classroom window. As I drove home from work on roads filled with military vehicles I didn't, for one moment, worry about my privacy, my rights or my freedom. I didn't consider the trade-off for security, however, when it became apparent that security = less privacy, I didn't argue.

I wasn't a bad guy. I had nothing to worry about. I was on the same side as the security force. Those who were questioned deserved it for some reason.

That was then... I don't agree with those beliefs any more. I don't know what changed my mind, or when I began to see the light, but I know if I had read this book before coming to this epiphany, I would have hated it. I think I would have been furious. I wonder if this book alone would have been nough to change my mind.

The Synopsis

Our protagonist, Marcus Yallow, is a high school student with some amazing computer skills. He does not just surf the Internet, he creates the waves. He is well versed in alternate reality gaming (live and/or virtual), cryptography, hacking, working around a system's software and building his own hardware. His closest friends can do the same. This is how they "play."

The story begins, simply enough, with Marcus and his friends cutting out of school to get a jump on the latest clue in their ARG (alternate reality game) in one of the seedier parts of San Francisco. They are armed to the tee with techie gear to help them with the game when all of a sudden an explosion rocks their world. San Francisco was attacked by terrorists and everyone in the city is in a panic. As Marcus and his friends try to make their way home, they are picked up by the Department of Homeland Security.

Marcus, who has a history of being uncooperative with authority figures, is suspected to be a terrorist and treated as such. Little Brother is the story of how one American teenager, with the intelligence and skills to do so, took on the DHS along with an entire underground movement to show them how flawed their security system was.

My Review

The title of Little Brother is a nice tip of the hat to George Orwell's Nineteen Eighty Four and I argue that this book is just as haunting as the Orwellian classic, particularly if you live in America. I found the book fascinating from page one. Marcus, or w1n5t0n as he was known in the beginning of the story, is an intriguing character - he begins as a kid just looking to have a good time until circumstance turns him into a political activist. His ability to transform his skills once useful in his gaming and hobbies into the tools needed on the cutting edge of homeland security is fascinating. This book is full of suspense, espionage, politics, techie-talk, math and somewhere, in between all of the drama, is the incredible coming of age story of a kid in California that had to grow up way too fast.

There were so many points in my reading where I longed to be in my classroom again! Cory Doctorow does an amazing job of describing some fairly complex mathematics topics that I would love to share with students. The real-life applications of the concepts taught in the seemingly intangible world of mathematics seemed to jump off the page as Marcus teaches us about the intricacies of code, the problems with a test being only 99 percent accurate, and just living in a world of playing against probabilities all beg to be shared with high school students who can't see where mathematics could possibly come to life. In addition to the mathematics alive and well within these pages was the the overwhelming need for this book to be used in either an American History or Political Science class! There are a number of debates in Marcus's classes that simply beg the reader to put down their books for just a moment to engage others in a discussion about the Bill of Rights, the founding fathers and what it truly means to be an American.

I highly recommend this book. I dare to go so far as to say it is a must read for young adults. Marcus and his friends find ways to make a difference in their world without violence, without threats, without terror. This is not to say that they are free from danger. The book is exciting and thrilling, but also inspiring. I think it is an important book for those who may feel left out of the political discussion because our system deems them too young to vote.


I have to add one note about the Afterwords in this book. At first, when I saw that there was an Epilogue and multiple Afterwords I couldn't stop laughing. I thought the book would never end! However, when I read them I found them to be incredibly informative and useful. Each afterword was written by another "expert" in one of the fields addressed in the book. There was also a recommended reading section for anyone who's interest was piqued and wished to learn more about the worlds of security, cryptography, and even hacking. The value in each of these sections was that each of these topics were explained in a way so that the reader could understand their legitimacy. I found each of the afterwords valuable and a perfect end to a book full of thousands of new personal curiosities.

Have you read Little Brother?
Do you see computer hacking as a bad thing or a person's right to explore their own software/hardware?
Do you ever feel like "Big Brother" is watching over you?

This book was read and reviewed as part of my YA Read-a-Thon. This December I am reading as many real-life YA novels as I can in one month's time! Join in, check out the list of books that were recommended to me HERE. Or check into my YA Read-A-Thon Store to buy the books from

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