|Daughter of Smoke and Bone
by Laini Taylor
|Dead End in Norvelt
by Jack Gantos
When I found out the titles I’d be judging for the Battle, I tried to guess which I’d wind up choosing—Laini Taylor’s highly-acclaimed Daughter of Smoke & Bone, or Newbery winner Dead End in Norvelt, from Jack Gantos. Handicapping them in the context of my biases and habits as a reader put them neck-and-neck. I’m a fan of contemporary realism for older young adults, and literary fiction for younger old adults. Rarely-to-never do I voluntarily pick up the fantastical or paranormal romancey novels that currently dominate the YA landscape, and middle-grade fiction with boy appeal is barely on my radar. So, as different as their books are from each other, Taylor and Gantos started out on a more or less level playing field.
Daughter of Smoke & Bone arrived first, and I quickly saw why it’s been so well-reviewed. It’s a book for lovers of lush language and exotic locales, a velvet sofa of a book, something you sink into. Karou is a compelling heroine and the stakes for her story are high. As briefly as possible and leaving a whole lot out: imagine you are a beautiful human orphan, and your adopted daddy is a creature with furry haunches, claw-feet, and alligator eyes. In exchange for taking you in and giving you a cozy cot in the back room of his lair, you have to commit petty and not-so-petty crimes all over the world, using portals of questionable repute and permanence.
On the up side, you get to go to art school and now live in a cute apartment in Prague–which Taylor paints gorgeously as an appealing carnival of a place where anything can happen. (Seriously, I was ready to book my trip to Prague within the first 30 pages.) When scorched handprints begin to appear on the portal doors in a kind of reverse-Passover, it really gets interesting. There are two worlds at war, and though they aren’t exactly heaven and hell, I’ll call them that to save overexplaining. In this case, heaven isn’t all good and hell isn’t all bad; both sides in this war have perpetuated it and acted wrongly. Karou has a foot in each, and has to face the possibility that there is no right side to take. Dilemmas like that always make for compelling drama.
There’s a major romantic element in the book. As the love heated up, I chilled a bit. This kind of all-consuming Romeo-and-Juliet-impossible-love romance has become what is to me a less interesting version of a greater question: Can love that is not romantic be powerful enough to triumph and change circumstances and people (or angels, or chimaera) in meaningful ways? That’s a question Gantos explores, to an extent, in his book.
Far, far from the “snow and stone and ghostlight” of Karou’s Prague in an imagined present is Norvelt, Pennsylvania. It’s the summer of 1962, and Jack Gantos (the character, not the author—they share the same name) is turning 12 and, sort of, becoming a young man. Or at least beginning that long journey from boyhood to his future self.
Norvelt is a place with a rich and unique history, a town created as a depression-era model community based on semi-Jeffersonian principles of farmsteading, as reimagined by the National Industrial Recovery Act of 1933. As Jack’s mother explains, Norvelt was “set up so people who didn’t have a lot of cash could trade each other for things they needed to make a living.” Jack and his parents are among those who don’t have a lot of cash. Though the bartering system has long-since died off for most, a few people in the community keep the tradition alive. The trades Jack’s mom makes with Jack’s time and skills as the bartering currency are the primary substance of Jack’s story, and what propels him on his journey.
The book has a lot of charm, true laugh-out-loud hilarity, and is full of enough historical detail and information to keep any teacher or librarian happy. And I’m sure that boy readers especially appreciate the thorough descriptions of Jack’s chronic nosebleeds and his dad’s cool World War II stuff, not to mention how he manages to save a deer in one of the funniest scenes in the book. (I hate to give anything away, but it involves a carefully manipulated bodily function.) What Jack gets in return for his time—especially in his relationship with the elderly Miss Volker—is a richer understanding of his own history. I especially liked the final scene and the simple way it showed Jack’s growth.
In the end, the books had a lot more in common than I expected. Both Jack and Karou need a fuller understanding of their pasts in order to know how to act, how to be, in the present. Both stories are about ideas and ideals acted on rather than merely pondered. Gantos more concretely gets into the love of community and family, and a practical, very American understanding of the relationship between self-sacrifice and individuality. Taylor goes there, too, in her way, and I’m eager to see how her trilogy will finish out. Gantos asks his questions in the context of comedy; Taylor in high emotional drama.
It came down to this: as a reader, I’m looking to get lost in a world. I like to forget I’m reading a novel. That’s tricky when the protagonist and the author share a name, as in Dead End In Norvelt. Also, the somewhat rambling narrative structure of Gantos’ story and the relentless eccentricity of some of the characters too often took me out of my imagination. Taylor isn’t innocent of occasionally making her presence as an author more known than I’d prefer, but the poetry of her prose lent a mesmerizing quality to the fictional landscape and created a more wholly immersive reading experience. Daughter of Smoke & Bone had the slight edge in this round.
– Judge Sara Zarr
And the Winner of this match is……
Daughter of Smoke and Bone
Ack! The dreaded Newbery curse strikes again! THE GRAVEYARD BOOK and WHEN YOU REACH ME didn’t make it out of the first round and now DEAD END IN NORVELT has joined their ranks. Now the relentless eccentricity of the characters didn’t take me out of the narrative, but I did complain about the rambling narrative. Nevertheless, it’s easily one of the funnier books of the year. And fans will appreciate how this book contains echoes of motifs and themes that run throughout Gantos’s entire oeuvre, marking it as something of a magnum opus. Now as for DAUGHTER OF SMOKE & BONE . . .
Squee! I couldn’t be happier. It’s probably the book I most enjoyed this past year, and with CHIME and SCORPIO RACES being the genre’s standard bearers this year and hogging all the trophy hardware, I really hoped it would make a deep run and get lots of love. And as fate would have it, it goes up against CHIME now in the second round. Interesting!
– Commentator Jonathan Hunt
I should be writing an obituary for Dead End in Norvelt. I wanted it to win this match, but it’s mostly a matter of personal preference; I am perfectly happy with Daughter of Smoke and Bone being the victor. Although there were some things I didn’t particularly like in Daughter of Smoke and Bone, none of them seriously detracted from the experience of losing yourself in a world like Ms. Zarr talked about. In such a well-written fantasy as Taylor’s, you’ll always have that experience; it’s wonderful. And what a match there is coming up now: Daughter of Smoke and Bone vs. Chime. Angels and chimerae will fight side by side against swamp spirits and the Boggy Mun. It might well come down to this: Which experience is better?
– Kid Commentator RGN