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Battle of the Books

Round 1 Match 1: Charles and Emma vs Claudette Colvin

Charles and Emma: The Darwins’ Leap of Faith
by Deborah Heiligman
Henry Holt
Claudette Colvin: Twice Toward Justice
by Phillip Hoose
Melanie Kroupa Books

Judged by Jim Murphy

I noticed that last year several Judges opened with confessions of one sort or another. I thought I would follow suit. Confession No. 1: when I first read about Claudette Colvin: Twice Toward Justice and Charles and Emma: The Darwins’ Leap of Faith way back in 2008 my first pained reaction was: what fabulous ideas…why didn’t I think of them!?!? Sadly (for me) but happily (for readers) I had a similar reaction to a number of 2009 nonfiction book ideas. So if you sense envy in my discussion, you’ll know why and forgive me.

Now a fabulous concept does not necessarily make for a fabulous book, but I can honestly report that both Claudette Colvin and Charles and Emma are fabulous, fabulous books. Which leads to Confession No. 2: when I finished reading them I wanted to declare the contest a tie and be done with it. This would help me avoid having to single out one title over the other and disappointing one author. Then I remembered that we’re being paid the big bucks to make these hard decisions (we are being paid big bucks, right?), so I went back for a second and third read….

I’ll begin at the beginning, when I took the books out of their respective envelops. The first was Claudette Colvin and I have to say my eyes opened wide when I pulled the book out. It was like a cheerful burst of spring, a friendly yellow glow with a dash of pleasant blue/green here and there. And there in the middle is young Claudette, her eyes thoughtful and searching, her smile shy and hopeful. There’s little hint of the book’s powerful material on the cover aside from some pieces of newspaper headlines, ribbons of type that surround Claudette like the petals of a flower. It’s a dramatic and inescapable invitation and a brilliant jacket concept.

But what about what’s inside? From the very beginning of the book we know that fifteen-year-old Claudette is a strong, determined individual justifiably angry at how she and other blacks are humiliated daily by prejudice and Jim Crow laws. And when she is ordered to give up her bus seat to a white woman we know she isn’t about to swallow her indignation and comply. Not that day or any other day for that matter.

Her story is told in cleanly divided sections. Claudette’s first-person narrative sections provide family and personal history and let us see what led up to her arrest and what happened afterward. Phillip Hoose’s third-person sections give us historical context, lead us through Claudette’s court appearance, and flesh out other areas of her life. Together these two very different voices are highly effective in focusing and driving forward Claudette’s story to its history changing conclusion. She is a young woman intent on a mission of justice, even if it means standing alone, and we want to see her triumph.

The jacket for Charles and Emma is less instantly vibrant, but the colors are warm and comforting and certainly focus your eyes on the black cutout silhouettes of the two main players, both facing each other with stiff determination. It’s a quiet, nonthreatening standoff. Additional tension is provided by an anthropoid ape approaching Charles from the rear with unknown intentions (but trust me nothing good ever comes when wild animals slink up on you). There’s also Emma’s oversized cross, which dangles there between them, clearly important, clearly weighty.

The people we meet in the text, however, are much different than what their representations might have led us to expect. Yes, they are wealthy and privileged, as their clothing suggests, and strong and determined in their own ways. But they are also riddled with self-doubts and anxious about, well, everything. It’s not only the question of whether their marriage can survive her religious convictions and his faltering beliefs; they worry about their children, Charles’ health, their parents, how Charles’ work will be received, about the hereafter and many other of the big questions about life and death and in-between.

I have to confess that during the early pages I thought “Get over it you rich twits! There are people out there who are really suffering!” But here is where author Deborah Heiligman’s narrative voice, so very neatly integrated with the numerous first-person’s quotes of Charles and Emma, works so well. She clearly likes these two people and wants us to also (or at least wants us to get to know them as individuals) and she wants us to see how they fit in (and didn’t fit in) with their times. It’s a very complex and layered approach to biography, one that moves along smoothly and gracefully, all tied together by a sweet and enduring love story.

Confession No. 3: even after rereading these books several times, and even as my deadline for a decision came and went (sorry about that folks), I still couldn’t quite come to a final decision. Each book worked very well in its own way and each book featured unique, interesting individuals young readers should meet and learn from. Every time the scales tipped toward one book, I would think of something about the other to put the scales back in balance.

It was here that the narrative approaches to each book came in to play. Claudette’s first-person accounts (gathered when she was an adult) present her fifteen-year-old self with immediacy and passion; but I kept feeling this youthful view needed more analysis and introspection from her adult self to make this more than a one note story (as important as that story is). Hoose tries to provide this, but the distance between their voices makes it all feel less organic and convincing. Heiligman, on the other hand, is right there with Charles and Emma, expanding and interpreting their words in an unobtrusive way that not only brings their stories very much alive, but lets us see complex individuals operating in a complex world. And that’s why I choose Charles and Emma as the winner of this round of the battle.

Jim Murphy

And the Winner of our first match is…

Argh!  This is a horribly evil match.  First, CHARLES AND EMMA and CLAUDETTE COLVIN are arguably the two most decorated books of the year and as such they should have earned higher seeding, enabling them to meet up much later in the tournament.  (I know, I know, the books weren’t seeded, but rather matched up alphabetically by title, but still!)  I mean, both books are worthy of the finals—and here they are meeting in the first round?  Ridiculous!  And second, there is something anti-climactic about having the underdogs face each other in the first round.  Yes, I know it’s a paradox, but in terms of popular opinion, I still think Team Nonfiction has to be considered the underdogs—despite all the accolades.  For me, then, this match is sort of like college football BCS-busters TCU and Boise State playing each other in the Fiesta Bowl.  What’s the point?  And how was Jim supposed to choose between such excellent books?  Me, I would’ve flipped a coin.

— Commentator, Jonathan Hunt


  1. Arrgh! (sorry commander I couldn’t help it) Jim, what were you thinking? BTW, I love your books and wish i had written them. Or any books for that matter. But really, I thought Claudette was more accessible than Charles. So I lose this one. Thanks for nothing, Jim! 🙂

  2. if it makes you feel any better 32 others agreed with you and chose Claudette when filling out their own brackets. 19 people chose Charles and Emma. More comments and commentary to come at:

  3. I read both books and I totally agree with you, Jim. Although I like “Claudette Colvin”, “Charles and Emma” is a superior book.

  4. I hadn’t read CHARLES & EMMA (yet), so it was hard for me to predict this round. One of the best things about the Battle of the Books is when the judges explain their decision. Jim Murphy’s well-thought-out explanation convinces me I should give CHARLES & EMMA a try, and it makes clear the strengths of both books.

  5. I was really surprised by the outcome of this battle. I’ve read both books, and although I personally enjoyed them both (and maybe Charles and Emma more), I felt that Hoose did a fantastic job of showing the distance Claudette Colvin had covered from her teen years to adulthood and how she looks on her contribution to civil rights looking back.

    I also think Claudette is a better book for young people. The pictures are more compelling, and the topic is more compelling. Charles and Emma is fascinating, and I think it’s a terrific book. But is it written for teens? Hmm…that would figured in big time for me if I had been the judge. Well, Jim Murphy had a huge task; good job for taking it on. Now I’m hoping that enough people voted for Claudette to make it the undead title.

  6. Whack! Bang! And so we begin. This was tough, tough, tough (like any of the following matches will be easier). I appreciated Jim’s analysis and – like I KNEW I would – going back over both of these books again looking through his eyes and his perspective.

  7. So Team CharlMa marches on! (or is it Team Emles?)

  8. When the titles were first announced I had only read eight of the books. Interestingly it worked out that I had covered one in each bracket. I figured that if each of the books I’d read made it through I would be off the hook to catch up with the others.

    I’m out in the first round.

    I appreciated Mr. Murphy’s comments about the lack of evolution of Colvin’s view as she matured. That being said there is no doubt that Claudette Colvin is one of the most important and ground-breaking books to grace school-age library shelves in some time. It was a powerful story to share with my students.

    Now I need to go and hound the patron that has Charles and Emma checked-out.

  9. I have to agree with Jim’s final call. His bottom line is the writing itself. I found the sections of CLAUDETTE COLVIN not written by Hoose derailed me a bit, as interesting as they were. Good call, though I agree that this pairing should have come later in the Battle.

    Have I qualified for that tee-shirt???

  10. Battle Commander says:

    Julie, gotta post on your blog about the Battle to be in the running for a t-shirt!

  11. I honestly don’t know whether to be happy for Charles & Emma or sad for Claudette Colvin. I agree, it’s a total shame that they met in the first round like this.

  12. The tension is dramatically presented in this account, and the Commentator is right on: flip a coin! In truth, though, to follow the insights of Mr. Murphy reading these two stellar books teaches me a lot about reacting to books. This is great, even if I don’t always agree with the judges (smile).

  13. Oops – I’ve posted on my blog now! Thanks for the heads-up.

  14. I’m still learning from you, as I’m trying to reach my goals. I definitely enjoy reading all that is written on your website.Keep the information coming. I loved it!


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