In just their second day back at school, students at Plum Grove Junior High in Rolling Meadows already were contemplating morality, abortion, tissue harvesting and other thought-provoking and often divisive issues.
The discussion came courtesy of a visit by Neal Shusterman, author of the wildly popular young adult science fiction novel "Unwind" and its much-anticipated sequel, "UnWholly."
Shusterman led two question-and-answer sessions with the Palatine Township Elementary District 15 school's seventh and eighth graders, confident that his novels' subject matter is not only appropriate, but valuable.
"One comment I get a lot from parents is that they never knew their kids had such deep thoughts," Shusterman said. "These books open up discussion between parents and kids on issues that would otherwise be difficult to talk about."
Plum Grove was the first of about 30 schools Shusterman, a Southern California resident, plans to visit across the country in the next few months. His appearance Tuesday coincided with his latest novel's release.
Students were most curious to know how Shusterman came up with the idea behind the "Unwind" series, which the author plans on making a trilogy. The third book is due out in about a year.
Shusterman said it began with a news report about some teens in England who were terrorizing their neighborhoods. He was struck by the extreme attitude of fearful residents, who said they wanted to "do away" with them. Shusterman then heard about a study that showed a large number of people vote based on a candidate's stance on abortion.
"How did this issue get so out of control that it's basically defining our whole society?" he said.
Shusterman ultimately merged the two issues to form a plot, which centers around an America in which a second civil war was fought over abortion. In the aftermath, parents are allowed to sign their troublesome teens over to harvest camps to provide much-needed transplant tissues.
The sequel to "Unwind," which was recently named one of NPR's top 100 best-ever teen novels, largely follows Cam, who's made entirely out of the parts from other teens.
Learning Resource Center Director Sue Baez said "Unwind" was a favorite title among students last year, leading her to enter Plum Grove in an online lottery. Once she learned it had been selected to host Shusterman, who waived his usual appearance fee, students began creating movies and commercials about the announcement.
"Our curriculum has changed with the times," Baez said. "Our world is a very different place, and these types of books and lessons can make children think about why things are done the way they are."