Friday, March 4, 2011

Book Review: Things Not Seen, by Andrew Clements

     "It's after the shower. That's when it happens. It's when I turn on the bathroom light and wipe the fog off the mirror to comb my hair. It's what I see in the mirror. It's what I don't see.
     I look a second time, and then rub at the mirror again.
     I'm not there.
     That's what I'm saying.
     I'm. Not. There."

Bobby Phillips is a normal 15 year-old-boy, with a normal life. Until one morning. He takes his shower in the dark, like normal. He turns on the bathroom light when he's done, like normal. He wipes the steam from the mirror and looks in, like normal. But no one is looking back. Which is definitely not like normal. He's invisible. And he has no idea how it happened, or how to get back to normal. When he tells his parents, they all realize this can't get out until they can find a way to fix it. He can't tell his friends. He can't go to school. And unless they can figure this out, he can't have a life. But then one day, he meets Alicia at the library. And even though she's blind, and he's invisible, he begins to think that Alicia is the only one who can really see him. 

For Teachers and Librarians:
Invisibility, and its opposite, comes in many forms. Your teen students may identify with Bobby, and with Alicia, in a variety of ways. And teachers, librarians, and guidance counselors will find many ways to incorporate Things Not Seen into the curriculum:
  • Emotional: Bobby feels invisible to his parents, even before he actually is invisible. He feels like they put work before him, and don't notice who he is or what he wants. Alicia feels all-too-visible to her parents, whom she feels are smothering her because of her blindness, and not giving her room to be who she wants to be. How do they each find ways to make their presence and wishes felt? What are the consequences or positives of those actions? Bobby unexpectedly has to fend for himself for a few days, without his parents. Discuss: how did he feel during this time? What mistakes did he make? What did he learn? What did he do well? Has something similar happened to your students? How did they work through it?
  • Social: Bobby and Alicia form a friendship at first based on only partial honesty. How does Alicia react when she learns the truth about Bobby? How does Bobby feel about not letting her know at first about his invisibility? How does he feel after she knows? What stresses do Bobby and Alicia's friendship go through when one of them finds a solution to their individual dilemma, but the other does not?
  • Career Study: Bobby loves the library, and finds solace there. He has a great love of classic literature, thanks to his mom's influence: she's a literature professor at the University of Chicago. Mr. Phillips is a physicist. Mr. VanDorn is a scientist. Mrs. VanDorn was former public relations worker, then became a writer and consultant. What careers are your students considering, and why? Do their parents' jobs influence their lives? How?
  • Literature and reading: Have your students list the titles Bobby mentions liking or reading, and then find them in the library. Discuss: what makes a book a classic? How do these old classics compare to modern classics, and to popular literature? What books do your students consider classics? What books have had a profound effect on them, and in what ways?
  • Disability: Both Alicia and Bobby have had sudden physical changes that drastically altered the life they used to know. How has Alicia's blindness affected her life? Her career ambitions? The way she perceives other people? What event from the book makes her feel that maybe her life is not as limited as she believed her blindness made it to be? Bobby is facing the possibility of a lifetime of invisibility. How does this affect his hopes for his future? The way he perceives other people? The way he thinks and feels about himself?
  • Writing/Critical thinking: Discuss the pro's and con's of actual invisibility, both as Bobby sees it, and as your students would see it. How does Bobby think invisibility will affect his future? How would your students feel in his place? Compare/contrast the pro's and con's of whether or not Bobby should reveal his invisibility. Perhaps a creative writing assignment: what would they do if they could be invisible for a day? A week? A month? A year?
  • Here is a great link to Language Arts and Social Studies lesson plans, with an invisibility theme: Things Not Seen Lesson Plan (from
For Parents, Grandparents, and Caregivers:
Things Not Seen is a book for you to read, as well as your teen. It is very much about the relationship Bobby and Alicia have with their parents, as well as how they each navigate the twists and turns of their respective lives, often thinking they are going it alone. This book gives adults a very realistic peek at what goes on inside a teen's head, and how important it is to them that their parents see them, and get them. But it also gives teens a view into how very much their parents love them and want to be there for them - even if they don't always know how to do that. The important theme here is, we all have to talk to each other, and listen to each other, so we can really see each other and help each other. And besides all that? It's a great story, with some interesting twists you don't see coming. It is by turns funny, and touching, and wrenching, and, just gotta read it.

For the Teens:
So. Things Not Seen. It's a pretty cool story. I mean, invisibility? Seriously? Sounds like it would be a blast, right? Well, when it happens suddenly and without explanation to Bobby Phillips, the only thing he feels is scared. And then worried. Sure, he felt like his parents didn't even see him half the time, but now they really can't see him. And neither can anybody else. When he goes downstairs and tells his parents, they're scared and worried, too. As Bobby and his parents work through how to figure this all out, they realize they can't let this get out. Bobby can't go to school. He can't let anyone see him - or see that they can't see him. And as far as he can figure, he has no future. Then one day, he bundles up in head-to-toe clothes and heads to the library, where he literally bumps into Alicia. He finds out she's blind. As their friendship builds, for the first time in quite some time, he's starting to believe he's finally found someone who sees him. Could she be the one who can finally help him figure this out? And fix it? 

For Everyone Else:
Things Not Seen is a book that teens through adults will enjoy reading, and really get into. You find yourself feeling like it is completely plausible that a kid could turn invisible, and that there is a logical explanation for all of this. But is it fixable, or is Bobby looking at a lifetime of not being seen? There's only one way to find out. 

Wrapping Up:
Things Not Seen. It has invisibility. It has suspense. It has a wee bit of danger. It has a lot to think about. And it has some very funny moments - like when Bobby flits through the library naked and invisible. At worst, it will make you think twice before you sit down on those chairs at the library research tables. But at best, it will make you go out and find this book, and get reading.

Title: Things Not Seen
Author: Andrew Clements
Pages: 176
Reading Level: Young Adult
Publisher and Date: Philomel, 2002
Edition: First (Library hardcover copy)
Language: English
Published in: United States
Price: $16.99
ISBN-10: 0-399-23626-0
ISBN-13: 978-0399236266


  1. Oh, I absolutely adore this book. When it was newly published, I sold dozens of copies just by telling kids, "Bobby wakes up one morning to discover that he's invisible." It was such a great handsell.

    Very thorough and professional review, Kim. Lots of food for thought there.

  2. Ditto! I love this book, too! I love to recommend it to kids because it is such a weird idea that is so believable. I love how Clements has no bad or evil characters, just people doing the best that they can to solve their own problems, which sometimes causes them to scare or annoy other people.

    Great review! Very thorough and useful!

  3. OMG I <3 THIS BOOK!!!!!!!!!

  4. I loved this book im a 12 year old it was so exiting i read it in 2 days

  5. i loved this book so much i can never find a book that i actually like to read but all i did was grab this book off the self and I LOVED the book


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