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Battle of the Books

Big Kahuna Round

The Ring of Solomon
by Jonathan Stroud
Hyperion
A Conspiracy of Kings
by Megan Whalen Turner
Greenwillow/HarperCollins
Keeper
by Kathi Appelt
Atheneum/Simon & Schuster

Judged by Richard Peck


Kahuna Kudos

Her Ladyship, Katherine Paterson, said last year she found herself in a pickle over three fine finalists.  It appears to be an annual issue, and this year the pickle’s on my plate.

On the evidence of these three winning reads, we have moved past the hard and gritty edges of the Printz winners and the conventions of the old-line Young Adult novel: that photographic realism, that plot told in a straight line.

We seem to have awakened into a new era–A.R. (After Rowling) in richly blended melanges of fact and fantasy, looping plotlines, shifting viewpoints, and, often enough, thick tomes in series.  A lot of good reading to keep us occupied until the summer debut of the final Harry Potter movie.

Fiction–stories–are alternate worlds that question the readers’ real ones.  And here before us we have three worlds that are alternate indeed: (1) a completely fabricated sub-continent of warring city states (2) a prosaic stretch of the Gulf-of-Mexico shoreline woven with myth in a child’s mind and (3) ancient Israel revised by a vast cast of supernatural beings.

In short: magus, mermaid, marid. I don’t know about you, but I feel turned every way but loose.

But these books all reach for young readers, and so they are on the Great American Theme: Coming of Age, being young in an old world and beginning to find your way.

And so down to cases.  Of the three A Conspiracy of Kings addresses the most adult concerns and makes the greatest demand upon the reader.  It is about the altering alliances and dark diplomacy of power politics: palace pacts forged and broken.  Betrayal.  Betrothal.

This chronicle of spilt blood, flying arrows and barons, and a stabbed horse makes resonant reading in the same season as “across the Middle Sea” the forces of Cyrenaica and Tripliana clash across actual geography.  But this will ring no bells with the intended readers who don’t know where Libya is, and won’t be hearing about it at school.

Megan Whalen Turner’s book is about the making of kings.  Embedded in its many layers is a boy, Sophos/Sounis, coming of age parentless, abducted, enslaved, and that all-time favorite, misunderstood.  Throughout, the ages of the characters are muffled.  But there is the clash and passion of adolescent friendship, between Sophos and that major figure from earlier volumes: “He would have given Eugenides his heart on a toothpick if asked.”

I don’t think this fourth-in-a-series stands wholly alone.  Too many evocative events echo from earlier books: “‘I will forgive him because I have heard him scream when someone pulled a sword out of him that could have just as easily gone into me.’ “

But this busy, bloody tale reads as an ornate allegory of peer-group allegiance.  And the setting is closely observed: Greco/Adriatic with one fiery glimpse of what looks like Pompeii. It all seems to be happening before the invention of gunpowder.  It’s all longbows and sword play, until the surprising appearance on page 204 of a pair of Chekhovian  dueling pistols.

Come to think of it, this story may be set in the future.

That stretch of Texas coast between Galveston and Corpus Christi isn’t the first place you’d look for moody mysticism and magic, not to mention mermaids.

But how well it works for Kathi Appelt’s Keeper, the girl and her story.  She’s lived her ten years in the “world unto itself” of Oyster Ridge Road, a faintly post-hippie enclave, where Keeper is outnumbered by adults and animals.  They form a snug and caring circle around her.  Yet they are all surrogates, and she yearns for her long-vanished mother, Meggie Marie.  (Even the name inspires no confidence.)

To cope with this maternal absence and abandonment, Keeper has recast her mother as a mermaid who has swum away.  By this childhood logic, Keeper herself has merblood and the borrowed lineage of “Signa and Lorelie, the siren, the ningyo, and the rusalka and the Meerfrau,” all the mystic mother figures of the deep.

Kathi Appelt’s story captures that time at the outer edge of childhood when the fantasies that have always kept you safe no longer work.  Keeper’s fantasy folds all in a single action-packed twenty-four-hour period (though it feels longer), the night of the blue moon.  Keeper’s belief in her aquatic DNA leads her into a series of descending missteps.  She frees clamoring crabs meant for the gumbo, and before she knows it she’s literally out of her depth, in pursuit of a mermaid mother.

This book is a keeper for its gentle tone in chronicling that jarring moment when you can no longer afford to be as young as you’ve been.  Every book for the young is the story of a step, and in these pages a girl takes a big one.  Where it will lead her, we’re less sure.  But that’s what sequels are for.

And now to The Ring of Solomon.  There is no Nathaniel here from Jonathan Stroud’s trilogy.  And this is prequel indeed: Jerusalem, circa 950 B.C., during the building–and rebuilding of King Solomon’s temple.  No wonder it was a marvel; it was conjured by magic.  Every brass column, every stretch of cedar floor.  And the Ring on Solomon’s finger makes all things possible.

There on the building site is our familiar friend, Bartimaeus the Djinni, already as old as the stones he chips.  He name-drops Gilgamesh of old Babylon and all the pharaohs of Thebes.  Nefertiti too.

Bartimaeus amply fulfills the young desire to read about older characters.  He’s two-thousand years old.  Moreover, he gives new meaning to the phrase shape-shifter. There is no sex in these many pages, but we can never be sure of Bartimaeus’s.  In the opening scene our protagonist is a lissome young maiden in a misfiring attempt to lure a magician to his doom.  “‘Why so shy, my lord?’ she whispered.”

I thought of Susan Hayward, but then I’m in age somewhere between the intended reader and Bartimaeus.  More frequently he’s a handsome, golden-eyed Sumarian youth, white-winged.  And once in a while a pygmy hippo in a skirt, a dead ringer for one of Solomon’s wives.

All this variety can be pretty freeing to the young reader who may feel constrained by being trapped in the same inadequate body day in and day out.  It worked for me.

Even the viewpoint flits.  At moments when Bartimaeus  is stuck in a bottle or some other tight corner, the spotlight falls on Asmira, a mortal maiden capable of mayhem (and acrobatics), sent by the sour Queen of Sheba to murder the King and steal his empowering Ring.

“‘Steal the Ring?  Kill Solomon?’” says Bartimaeus.  “‘…I might as well eat myself feetfirst, or put my head under the bottom of a squatting elephant.  At least those options would be entertaining to watch.’”

But of course this odd couple won’t become thieving assassins.  They will in fact find the sudden self-knowledge we expect in books for the young.  But their epiphanies are gussied up beyond reason by wordplay and action/adventure, and more special effects than Avatar and Rango put together, all in full color.

At 398 pages with footnotes, this tale is no Tweet.  If it’s for the ten-and-up readers, they’re in for more bracing vocabulary than they’ve ever seen in one place.  And a lot of outrageously British anachronisms: chuffed, treacly, knickers.

This read may be for the somewhat jaded young, with its breezy bits of camp.  Bartimaeus again:  “‘So, bang went my last lingering hope that she wanted me to help change the color coordination of her bedroom.  Which was a pity.  I could have done wonders with those silks.’”

Think Old Testament Noel Coward.

You could have fooled me.  I didn’t expect I’d pick as winner four-hundred pages of magic fantasy with Biblical allusions and a footnote on the Songs of Solomon.  But I do.

Because its very length and the wit of its diction are stinging retorts to both the grade-level textbook and Facebook.

And because the fun is in how the tale is told, the yarn spun.  Jonathan Stroud doesn’t control language; he unleashes it.  The real magic here is in the turning phrase, and how much our texting young need that, and the liberation of laughter.

— Richard Peck


Well, it’s no secret I’m a big Richard Peck fan, so I’ve been looking forward to this final decision with relish, especially since we have three excellent books (three fantasy books).  I could have been very happy with any of these as the winner.  I probably would have opted for A Conspiracy of Kings, but I can certainly understand how The Ring of Solomon stands alone better, relatively speaking.   (The two books go head to head again at the end of the month for the Los Angeles Times Book Prize).  I appreciate Richard’s commentary on each book, and as I reflect on Ring going the distance, I remember that each judge—Adam Rex, Patricia Reilly Giff, Karen Cushman, Richard Peck—has spoken of the book in nothing less than glowing terms.  It is indeed the mark of the post Rowling era that young adult literature has embraced a wider variety of genres, forms, and narratives.  What a wonderful world.

— Commentator Jonathan Hunt



WINNER OF THE 2011 SLJ’S BATTLE OF THE KIDS’ BOOKS

THE RING OF SOLOMON
by JONATHAN STROUD

published by Hyperion

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Roxanne Feldman About Roxanne Feldman

Roxanne Hsu Feldman is the Middle School (4th to 8th grade) Librarian at the Dalton School in New York City. She served on the 2002 and 2013 Newbery Committees. Roxanne was also a member of 2008-2009 Notable Books for Children, 2015 Best Fiction for Young Adults, and the 2017 Odyssey Award Committees. In 2016 Roxanne was one of the three judges for the Boston Globe-Horn Book Awards. You can reach her at at roxannefeldman@gmail.com.

Comments

  1. Wow–what a way to finish this year’s battle! Thank you, Mr. Peck, for such an eloquently entertaining analysis. And thank you for choosing the same book that I did and making me look smart 😉

  2. I called it!–sort of. Did you bet the mortgage?

    Thanks SLJ and authors and participants. It was fun.

  3. Woe! Sadness!

    *arm falls off*

    *heads home to eat brains*

  4. Hello everyone! I feel as though I’ve been basking in the love that all of you have shown my Keeper. Many thanks to the commentator and commanders, to the judges, and especially to all of you who have shared Keeper’s story in your classrooms and homes with your young readers. Gosh, I just feel so honored in the face of your support, especially since I know that there are some elements of the book that require taking a risk on your part.

    I confess that I haven’t read Ms. Turner’s books. (Yes, I know, a deep failure on my part). And while I haven’t read Jonathan Stroud’s newest, I have read the Bartimaeus Trilogy and stand in awe of it, so I can only imagine that The Ring of Solomon is worthy of all of its accolades. What a brilliant mind hath Mr. Stroud! Count me as a huge fan. (Darn, I wish I could do footnotes!)

    To be in the company of the other fifteen contenders here has been a privilege. I’ve read many of the other titles and I think that any of them could easily have been the official winner. The thing I love about this particular tournament is that each title is given at least “one shining moment,” on the court, a thoughtful/thought-provoking moment, which elevates the discussion so much further than “what I liked/what I didn’t.” Heck, I learned things about Keeper here that I didn’t even know.

    And speaking of . . . a sequel, Mr. Peck? Hmmm…

    Thank you again, one and all!
    Kathi

  5. Meredith says:

    I’ve been on the waiting list for Ring of Solomon since the list came out, and now I really need it to come in!

    I must admit, I was rooting for Conspiracy (I worship at MWT’s feet), but I also enjoyed Keeper, and if Ring of Solomon can best both of those, then it must be pretty great.

  6. I have often thought that if a person wanted to walk around behind Richard Peck and sweep up all of his discarded thoughts they could gain enough fodder to become an excellent writer. I could read lines like:
    This book is a keeper for its gentle tone in chronicling that jarring moment when you can no longer afford to be as young as you’ve been.

    And,

    This chronicle of spilt blood, flying arrows and barons, and a stabbed horse makes resonant reading in the same season as “across the Middle Sea” the forces of Cyrenaica and Tripliana clash across actual geography. But this will ring no bells with the intended readers who don’t know where Libya is, and won’t be hearing about it at school.

    And,

    Think Old Testament Noel Coward.

    Over and over and over again.

    So Bartimaeus it is, as I’m sure he always knew it would be.

    Great battle everyone.

  7. Kathi, it’s been an honor indeed to be part of the Battle and I am extremely flattered to have returned as the author of an Undead Book. I thoroughly enjoyed Keeper. There’s not a single thing said about it in this contest that I wouldn’t agree with. Like you, I haven’t read The Ring of Solomon. Also like you, I’ve read the original trilogy and am looking forward to what I know is going to be a great read. Just as soon as I pry it away from the kids.

  8. Didn’t I say that a lot would depend on whether Richard Peck had read the earlier QUEEN’S THIEF books or not? It never occurred to me that he might have read the BARTIMAEUS TRILOGY, but not the QUEEN’S THIEF books. I think given that situation, I might possibly have made the same choice. Though that’s hard to admit, because I soooo love the THIEF series!

    And, really, I think it’s a crying shame for anyone to start on those wonderful books by reading the fourth book. Start at the beginning, folks! I can’t expect a judge to do that, but those of you who are convinced by the judges’ description of its good qualities, remember that these are people who haven’t read the earlier books, and even they see that it’s good! Start from the beginning to appreciate the series’ true, astonishing brilliance! :)

    Oh, I should add that in at least one of the books, MWT put a historical note at the end that explained about guns and cannons just beginning to be used. I was under the impression that she researched realistic historical details for her imaginary world. But that’s one thing that didn’t throw me off, being a long-time reader.

    Still, when all is said and done, I can’t be too sad. All three of these were great books. Go Team Fantasy! I thoroughly enjoyed all of the analyses of the judges.

    And it is a nice reminder that calling a book truly great is a subjective analysis. This whole Battle is a nice tribute to the fact that some people just like certain books — and these judges are phenomenal at explaining what they like about those books.

  9. karenann says:

    Oh no, it’s over. I want to do it again right now.

  10. How can I be sad? It’s a battle for books, with awesome authors, and teachers, librarians, booksellers and the like chiming in! Yes, it would have been jokes if CofK had won but, to lose to such an awesome book? Not a loss at all! Thanks to the battle commanders and all the authors and publishers who participated this year!

  11. YES! HURRAH! HOORAY! HUZZAH! The witty and always a hoot Bartimaeus is triumphant as always! Franny or Bartimaeus I would be fine with winning… And one of my favorite novels ever written? Now that, fellow bloggers is what I call a success. I myself am overjoyed at this turnout! To our favorite medieval aged dragon, Congratulations! (But I still believe that the Golden Compass should have been admitted in this battle… Oh well. 2012 is just around the corner!)

  12. Did I just say dragon? Please, slap me if you would. Djinni what I meant. A horrendously silly mistake, obviously.

  13. Hello! I’d just like to echo Kathi and Megan, and say what a privilege it’s been to have The Ring of Solomon involved in this fantastic tournament. Simply being included in a line-up of such wonderful and varied books was thrilling; to have Solomon ultimately emerge as the winner of the Big Kahuna was… well, that loud thudding sound drifting across the Atlantic sometime yesterday was a certain authorial jaw hitting the floor. To all the organisers, judges, adjudicators and contributors taking part in this lovely, joyful competition: a huge afrit-sized THANK YOU. This is a great honour. I’m very, very chuffed.

  14. So I just want to point out that I was right.

  15. Sam Bloom says:

    So, I was going to add my name to the list of folks talking about Richard Peck’s eloquence (which is as expected), the awesomeness of the tournament as a whole (thanks to the Battle crew), and the general swoon-worthiness of all of the authors involved, especially those involved in this final battle… but I’m too busy cracking up over Adam Rex’s comment!

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