Mitty Blake is assigned a paper for his advanced biology class at St. Raphael’s in New York City on a virus or disease that could be used in bioterrorism. While other students are doing research on anthrax and typhoid, Mitty is home watching television and being his slacking self. Slacking, that is, until he comes in contact with 100-year old smallpox scabs. At that point, he is dying to find out everything about the disease. If he infected himself via the smallpox scabs, his family, his friends, his school, his city, and, essentially, his entire country is at risk!
Mitty Black is the average Upper West Side Manhattan kid. His parents have white collar jobs, a house in Connecticut for the weekends, and during the week they stay in their upscale apartment. Mitty attends the best private school in the city – St. Raphael’s – and spends every moment therein getting by with the least amount of effort possible.
Code Orange opens in Mitty’s biology class with his teacher, Mr. Lynch, describing a term paper about which Mitty remembers nothing. When his best friend, Derek, reminds him about everything that he needs to do, he just sighs, decided that he’ll get it done in the six hours right before the paper is due. Olivia, the girl on whom Mitty has had his eyes for quite some time, is the most studious of any student at St. Raphael’s; as such, she nags Mitty to get on top of his term paper to avoid failure – thus, being removed from the advanced biology class, and the two will not be in the same class anymore.
Mitty’s mom is a successful interior designer. She collects old books to be put in the library of people who want classic, sophisticated looking bookshelves, full of books they have never read. Therefore, the books do not have to be interesting, accurate, or contemporary. They just had to look used. The edges of the pages need to be yellow or brown, the covers dusty.
While searching through his mother’s old books, Mitty comes upon smallpox scabs from the 1902 smallpox epidemic in Boston. He handles them with his fingers, sneezes, and breathes in their dust. At first, Mitty does not think he is contagious. The more he reads about smallpox, however, the more he wonders if, perhaps, he is.
He continuously studies up on smallpox over the next two weeks, and eventually starts noticing symptoms of the virus in himself. Other students are noticing symptoms of their own viruses, but Mitty’s are worse. He cannot shake the idea that, because he handled smallpox scabs, he may have the virus and may be giving it to everyone with whom he comes in contact – which, in his little area of New York City, is at least half a million people each day.
Mitty decides to get online and seek some wisdom from major hospitals and doctors. Each response comes back the same: he may not have the virus, but if he handled smallpox scabs, he should get himself to a hospital just to make sure; then, get the CDC to take a look at the scabs. He did get a few responses from people who said his e-mail had been forwarded to them, but they were, overall, of no particular interest.
When he is finally convinced that he has smallpox and is days away from dying, he writes a letter to his parents, leaving them with the idea that he needs to kill himself. He needs to take his life for the sake of his friends, his family, New York City, and humanity at large.
Walking back from school the day after writing the letter, he is kidnapped by some men who turn out to be terrorists, wanting nothing less than to kill of New York City and send America into absolute chaos and peril from the smallpox virus.
Agents from the FBI and CDC show up at school the following day, meeting with Derek and Olivia to try to get answers. They, of course, had no idea that Mitty thought he had the smallpox virus. They had no idea that he had been kidnapped. They had no idea that there were terrorists who wanted to take out America with a bioterrorism attack. Mitty, sick by this time, yet committed to not allowing evil men to “dance in [his] streets,” fights with everything he has – which is not much in the cellar of what looks to be an old broken down building – to take down the terrorists and keep his country safe.
In the end, he is diagnosed, not with smallpox, but with a concussion, dehydration, and some other minor sicknesses. He has become the hero he wanted to be. He kept his family, his friends, and his nation safe from what could have been the worst terrorist attack in history.
I really enjoyed Code Orange. It was an incredible page-turning bio-suspense thriller. Carolie B. Cooney definitely did some great work when she wrote this novel. It is recommended for children ages 12 and up, and I definitely would not go any lower. Some of the descriptions of smallpox made my stomach turn, but that added to the suspense in the book.
In the Classroom
I could use Code Orange as part of a social studies lesson, perhaps alongside a discussion about 9/11. I could use it for regular English literature, as there is a great lesson therein to be gleaned regarding heroism. It forces us to think about what we would do in Mitty’s situation. He fought even when he didn’t think he could fight, all for the sake of his country. - KD