October 8th, 2008

book magic

Unsung Book Week: HOUSE OF STAIRS

As explained here, I've made this week is Unsung Book Week at my blog. Feel free to join in and share your favorite less-talked-about books, either in the comments or at your own blog.

My local library didn't have a huge selection of YA books, and most of what they had was a little dated. However, I am thankful for that, because otherwise I might not have stumbled on this little book that was published six years before I was born, and has stuck with me for the more-than-a-dozen years since I first read it:

HOUSE OF STAIRS by William Sleator




What it's all about:

One morning, five teens wake up to find themselves trapped in a huge room filled with stairs and platforms. Walls, floor, and ceiling are too far away to be seen; it's just them and the stairs. And a food dispenser that requires them to do an increasingly complicated "dance" in order to receive the strange pellets that are the only available nourishment. At first the dance is just a series of movements and sounds, but gradually the dispenser begins to reward the teens every time one turns against another. As the demands become more and more cruel, Lola and Peter make a stand, refusing to participate. But can they hold out long enough, against the others' aggression and their own hunger, to win this terrible game?

Why it is awesome:

As a psych major, I take particular pleasure in seeing how the "house of stairs" makes a perfect example of behavioral conditioning: reinforcement and punishment, shaping and chaining. But as a teen I didn't know that--I just knew this was a simple yet horrifying picture of how people can be manipulated by their own needs, and how desperate situations can bring out both the worst and best in people. It's short on pages, but long in its ability to unsettle, in the most unshakable way.