|Heart and Soul
by Kadir Nelson
Balzer & Bray
|Inside Out and Back Again
by Thanhha Lai
I like to think of myself as a nice person. True, I sometimes fantasize about throwing rotten fruit at the children from the Montessori school across the street who use my neighbor’s backyard as their playground from one o’clock to three o’clock every weekday afternoon. “I’m trying to write children’s books up here!” I want to scream at them from my window as they frolic and cavort below. “Shut up!” But with that one glaring exception, I can honestly say I am not a person who likes confrontation or conflict and I am loathe to offend or hurt anyone’s feelings. So when I was asked if I would like to participate in SLJ’s Battle of the Kids’ Books, I was both flattered and horrified. Flattered to be included in a list of people described as “some of the top authors in the kids’ book world” and horrified at the notion of having to say anything negative about a colleague’s work.
By the time the books arrived I had made peace with myself. My job would not be to decide which book was better than the other, but rather which one I liked better. Whether a person likes something or not is completely subjective. For instance, I happen to like jujubes more than chocolate. This doesn’t mean I don’t like chocolate, it just means that given a choice between the two I would prefer to eat a box of jujubes than a Kit Kat. So whether I like one book more than the other isn’t the same thing as saying that I think one is better than the other, right?
Heart and Soul and Inside Out & Back Again are both books well deserving of the attention and praise they’ve garnered. They are different from each in many ways, most notably that one is a picture book, the other a novel. Kadir Nelson’s Heart and Soul is what a lot of people would call an “important book.” I agree. It’s the kind of book that belongs in every school library. As Mr. Nelson himself predicted, there were things he shared about our country’s history that made me cringe, but there were other things, like the election of Barack Obama, that made me feel proud to call myself an American. This book is a history not only of the African-American experience in our country, but of Mr. Nelson’s family. Sort of. Pap and Aunt Sarah are relatives of the narrator, a fictional “elder African American” who calls her listeners “Honey” and “Chile.” Though these characters are not actually based on members of Mr. Nelson’s family, we are told that the book was inspired by stories the author’s relatives passed along to him. Aside from the masterful artwork, what sets this book apart from traditional history books is the voice of the narrator whose folksy tone is woven throughout the text. In his author’s note, Mr. Nelson shares with his readers that history was not his favorite subject in school. I suspect that this book will be welcomed with open arms in classrooms where there are children who feel similarly.
Inside Out & Back Again, by Thanhha Lai is a novel told in verse. Ms. Lai’s reflections on the year her family escaped Vietnam and relocated to Alabama are rich, poignant, vibrant, sometimes sweet, and often heartbreakingly sad. She says in her author’s note that much of what happened in the book happened to her—making it similar in this sense to Mr. Nelson’s book in that to some extent it is a fictionalized memoire. The choices the author makes as to which moments in this difficult journey to show, demonstrates what a truly gifted writer she is. Every word and every image is there for a reason. I particularly enjoyed the way she poked fun at the English language and how difficult it is for a non-native speaker to master it. About the troublesome and unfamiliar ssssss sound she says, “Whoever invented English must have loved snakes.” The portrait of this family in transition is vividly painted, with admirably few strokes. When I closed the book, I did so reluctantly. I felt that I had tasted ripe papaya, and glutinous rice—as well as the salty tears of the endearing main character, Ha. I loved every minute of reading this book.
It is with no disrespect to Kadir Nelson and his impressive history book that this self-professed jujube lover found the choice an easy one to make. Inside Out & Back Again is a book I will recommend to others and reread myself, and it is on that basis that I make it my personal top pick.
– Judge Sarah Weeks
And the Winner of this match is……
INSIDE OUT AND BACK AGAIN
What a coincidence! I, too, think of myself as a nice person, but often fantasize about throwing rotten fruit at children and screaming, “Shut up!” but that wouldn’t model good behavior in the school library, would it? I’ve got to be honest here and say that while I can appreciate the strengths of both of these excellent books, I’m not emotionally invested in either of them, particularly relative to other books in the field. That said, it’s refreshing to finally—finally!—discuss HEART AND SOUL as a complete work, rather than having segregated conversations about the words and the pictures. It emerges as a stronger contender because of it, but obviously not strong enough to beat out INSIDE OUT & BACK AGAIN which is, with its National Book Award and Newbery Honor, arguably the most highly decorated book of the year. Impressionistic, autobiographical, and inspirational, INSIDE OUT & BACK AGAIN faces a book in DRAWING FROM MEMORY with many of those same qualities.
– Commentator Jonathan Hunt
If this was a contest for the most emotional book (which it partly is, as a big part of writing is its power), I would choose Inside Out & Back Again to win the prize (although Between Shades of Grey is a very close second, and many other books are tied for third). Thanhha Lai’s poetry and Ha’s beautifully told story really moved me. As Ms. Weeks said, everything is there for a reason. (I particularly like how she said “image;” writing does create a picture.) I’d love this wonderful book to win the whole thing. Heart and Soul, though, was a great non-fiction book; I’m sorry it had to be up against such a winner. A note to make: With the narrator as she is, it is impossible for Kadir Nelson to tell the whole story of African-Americans; what he does say, however, is just right. So, for that matter, is all that Thanhha Lai tells us.
– Kid Commentator RGN