Others See Us takes place at the summer estate of Jared's grandmother, which she and her late husband had bought years before. Scattered across the property are four cottages, which Jared suggests are really more like comfortable houses, one for his mother and her brother and two sisters. The main building is a gothic, three-story, gabled house overlooking the sea. The estate's exact geographic location is unclear, although it is in an area where most of the summer residents, including Jared's own family who recently toured Europe, have money.
Near the main house is a swamp filled with toxic waste formed by dumping from a nearby mill. The waste inside, Jared discovers, gives anyone who comes in contact with it the ability to see into others' minds. For the most part, the estate and the swamp are merely background for the battles waged within the minds of Jared, Annelise, Lindie, and their grandmother.
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In some respects, Others See Us is a more "literary" work than Sleator's other novels. The book begins with an epigram by Scottish poet Robert Burns, "Oh wad some power the giftie gie us/To see ourselves as others see us!" This quote sums up the novel's notion, reiterated in its title, that humans often wish to see themselves as others see us. Sleator soon makes it clear, however, that people's real thoughts about one another are generally not what they say.
In developing this idea, Sleator creates several characters, in particular Jared, Annelise, Lindie, and their grandmother, who are more developed and complex than some of those in his other books. Sleator also gives the novel both credibility and immediacy through its use of a generally likeable first person narrator and through Annelise's diary entries, which effectively reveal her true character.
More importantly, the novel excels in its descriptions of Jared's probes into others' minds, especially those of Annelise and his grandmother. These descriptions make the main plot more plausible and give it substance.
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Sleator's novels frequently draw on interesting social issues to create a suspenseful story. In this case, the novel's premise is that toxic chemicals could alter humans in potentially dangerous ways, although Jared, his grandmother, Annelise, and Lindie fortunately feel few negative effects.
Of greater concern is Sleator's suggestion that humans are frequently petty and selfish. While Annelise is a real sociopath, most of her other relatives also have few real redeeming qualities. Even the novel's hero and heroine, Jared and Lindie, are ruled by their passions. Jared has nothing on his mind but being alone with Annelise, a possibly controversial plot element since she is his cousin; Lindie has cheated in order to achieve recognition by being admitted to an Ivy League school. Their grandmother is, evidently, also a thief, blackmailer, and self-imposed judge of others.
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Topics for Discussion
1. Before Jared reads Annelise's mind and discovers the content of her diary entries, are there any clues about her true character?
2. Why do you suppose that Jared's grandmother really gives him and Lindie the swamp water to drink?
3. How does Jared differ from the other members of his family? Is he a sympathetic narrator? Why or why not?
4. Jared and Lindie are left with a number of questions at the end of the novel? Why does Sleator not provide more concrete answers about their future and their grandmother's true character?
5. How does Sleator manage to create suspense throughout the novel? What questions, for example, does he raise in the reader's mind early in the novel?
6. Compare and contrast the way that Jared, Annelise, and Lindie react to and use their new powers.
7. What is the significance of the novel's title and the epigram by Robert Burns?
8. As Jared soon learns, his cousin Lindie cheated to get into Harvard. Why does he find her a more sympathetic character than Annelise? Is there a difference between her act of deception and those of Annelise?
9. Discuss the character of Jared's grandmother. How can she rationalize stealing and blackmailing and, at the same time, pass judgment on Annelise? Why do you suppose that Sleator leaves her motives so ambiguous?
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Ideas for Reports and Papers
1. Write an essay in which you describe what the interiors of your mind might look like to Jared if he stumbled inside it. For instance, what buildings might it contain? How would they be decorated?
2. Since the novel ends ambiguously, write a continuation suggesting the future relationship between Jared, his grandmother, and Annelise.
3. Research the topic of "telepathy" and write a newspaper article presenting current scientific views about whether or not it could be possible.
4. Read another young adult novel, such as Harriet the Spy (Louise Fitzhugh, 1964), which deals with the public disclosure of an individual's secret, private feelings. Compare its treatment of this idea with that of Others See Us.
5. Compare and contrast Sleator's treatment of the corrupting nature of power in Others See Us with that of one of the following: Shakespeare's Macbeth, William Golding's The Lord of the Flies, Robert Cormier's The Chocolate War, and Sleator's own The Green Future of Tycho.
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Like many of Sleator's novels, Others See Us features a protagonist who is forced into conflict with other members of his family and whose own parents are overly-concerned with appearances. For instance, Barney's parents in Interstellar Pig, like those of Jared, are classconscious snobs who care too much about what others think of them. In The Green Future of Tycho, the protagonist's siblings evidence some of Annelise's vindictiveness. Both of these books, much like Others See Us, are also concerned with the deceptive nature of appearances. Rivalry between relatives is the focus of Sleator's Fingers, in which eighteen-year-old Sam suffers from a lifelong jealousy of his brother Humphrey, a musical prodigy.
Telepathy, of course, is a common plot-device in science fiction novels and films. For example, the twins in Robert Heinlein's Time for the Stars (1956) develop the ability to read each others' minds. The television series, Star Trek: The Next Generation features a major character, Counselor Troi, who can read the emotions of others.
Many important works, for both adults and young adults, have also explored how individual people are affected by learning how others really see them. In Moliere's play, The Misanthrope (1666), Alceste, the title character, proceeds to offend everyone else by sharing his honest thoughts with them. In Louise Fitzhugh's groundbreaking children's novel,...
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For Further Reference
Codell, Cindy Darling. Review. School Library Journal 39,10 (October 1993): 156. This review argues that although Sleator's Interstellar Pig and The Duplicate are better crafted, the protagonist of Others See Us is likeable and his grandmother is absolutely fascinating.
Daggett, Margaret L. "Recommended: William Sleator." English Journal (March 1987): 93-94. In a highly laudatory essay, Daggett explores the reasons that Sleator's books appeal to her high school students. She focuses on books written before 1987.
Davis, James, and Hazel Davis. Presenting William Sleator. New York: Macmillan, 1992. A critical biography which explores Sleator's life and works....
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