|Life: An Exploded Diagram
by Mal Peet
|A Monster Calls
by Patrick Ness
Oh, Lordy. When I was approached about being a judge for this year’s Battle of the Kids’ Books, I said “Sure! Sounds fun!” And the reading part—hell yeah, tons of fun. Although I cried while I read the books I was assigned, too. That’s okay. I actually love it when a book makes me cry. And for the record? Both of these babies did.
When it came to selecting a winner, however… ag. I have, of late, come to not like the word “winner” all that much, and along with many author friends, I’ve decided that awards suck (unless you’re the winner, that is). But! A woman is only as good as her word, and I did indeed say I’d pick a winner. So—in the spirit of loving critical dialogue, and with a HUGE dose of “omigosh, both of these books blew me away”—I’ll tell you which book I chose.
In a moment.
The first of the two books I read was A Monster Calls. I flipped it open eagerly, already salivating, because I’d previously had the pleasure of reading Patrick’s Chaos Walking trilogy. Holy Flaming Hot Chee*to, I adore those books, in large part due to their inventiveness, their language, their edge-of-the-seat-ness. I expected to be delighted by those same elements in Monster, and I was! Wh-hoo! Conor, who is dealing (or not) with the imminent death of his mother, faces the monster of that reality as well as a literal (or not, though I say yes) monster who comes to him in the form of the Green Man, a medieval sprung-from-nature archetype I remember from my grad school days. Conor is blocked. Conor has secrets. Conor has thoughts he doesn’t want to have… and the Monster helps him (often in gloriously brutal ways) navigate this path he involuntarily finds himself on.
Did I know what dread secret Conor was keeping from himself? Sure. This didn’t make his journey less compelling, though—and damn if Patrick Ness didn’t surprise me in the end with how he pulled everything together. Huge weepy kudos for that, as the book’s conclusion turned me inside-out, which—frankly—is exactly what I was hoping it would do.
Next, I read Life: An Exploded Diagram. Until this book landed in my mailbox, I had never heard of its author, Mal Peet. How is it possible that I’d never heard of Mal Peet? He. Is. Amazing! Shit, man, shit, as my friend Pretty Jenny would say. I did not predict that Life would suck me in as hard and fast and with such slurpy ferocity as it did, especially not on the tail of Monster. And yet, it did. It blew me away in large part because of its characters (beautiful and quirky), its scope (epic), and its humor (both broad and sophisticated), but most of all because of the novel’s tight, vibrant, crackling language. Take this, for example: “Late in the afternoon, when the teams of horses were being changed, George Ackroyd went to relieve his bladder behind the three-tonner and lingered in its shade to smoke a cigarette. He looked up into the huge and faultless sky in which crescent-winged birds circled and swooped. He blinked away memories of other birds, in another country, picking human meat from the husks of burned machines.” Want another taste? “After a minute, he drew level with her, throttling the engine back until its beat matched the chug of her heart.” Until its beat matched the chug of her heart.
How glorious is that?
When I read Monster, the troublesome voice inside my mind harped on the predictability of the novel. When I read Life, the troublesome voice whispered, “Fabulous, yes. But is it a novel for teens? Or, to put a finer point on it, is it a ‘YA novel’?”
I don’t think it is, despite the dizzying ride of Clem and Frankie’s teenage romance. Will a select group of smarty teens love it to the moon and back, as I did? Yup, of that I have no doubt. But an essay on what does or doesn’t determine the designation of the label “YA novel” is an essay for another time. (Thank goodness.)
When comparing these two absolutely marvelous books, what it came down to for me was this: I wasn’t asked to make a case for whether each or either of the books was a book for kids. I was asked to pick a winner, in the imagined scenario of these two books putting on their boxing gloves and going at it, jabbing and circling, plotting and verbing, creating worlds and characters and spitting out adjectives from the mouth-guards of their covers. And in this scenario? I pick Life: An Exploded Diagram, because of its clean and absolute ability to pierce my heart and tear my brain to pieces, in the best of all possible ways.
— Judge Lauren Myracle
And the Winner of this match is……
LIFE: AN EXPLODED DIAGRAM
Awards most definitely suck! I’m sure Patrick “Where is my Newbery Medal?” Ness and Mal “Where is my Printz Award?” Peet would agree. So we might call this the Battle of the Egregiously Overlooked. I also find this an interesting pairing because both of these authors write literary fiction. We spent a lot of time discussing whether there was a middle school audience for A MONSTER CALLS and I’m sure we could probably have a similar discussion about a high school audience for LIFE: AN EXPLODED DIAGRAM which is a crossover novel, one that could have been published for either adults or teens. But audience issues aside, there’s no denying the quality of either of these books. I like A MONSTER CALLS (and I love how it shows a different side than Chaos Walking), but I would pick LIFE: AN EXPLODED DIAGRAM just as Lauren did. Peet’s earlier work might not be as well known, but it’s excellent and definitely worth checking out.
— Commentator Jonathan Hunt
Mal Peet’s writing is truly genius – effortlessly powerful and endlessly detailed. It’s like the ocean. In this, I am in complete agreement with Ms. Myracle, who provides an excellent summary as well as great quotations. This – and the distinct characters, sweeping themes, and carefully-constructed setting – elevate Life: An Exploded Diagram over nearly all the other books in this contest, including A Monster Calls. Yes – Patrick Ness’s evocative story (with great illustrations in the background, I might add) wasn’t quite emotional enough to defeat Mal Peet’s majestic book. If Life: An Exploded Diagram wins not only this battle, but the war, I will be elated.
— Kid Commentator RGN