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Battle of the Books

Round 1, Match 2: Boxers and Saints vs A Corner of White

JUDGE – Yuyi Morales 

Boxers & Saints
by Gene Luen Yang
FirstSecond/Macmillan
A Corner of White
by Jaclyn Moriarty
Arthur Levine Books/Scholastic

A CORNER OF WHITE vs BOXERS AND SAINTS. One a 373 page fantasy novel, the other a two volume graphic novel. Where do I start? Actually, I know a good place. Let’s begin experiencing the books by their covers.

BOXERS AND SAINTS, even before I took the two volumes out of their box, the narrative had begun. On the spines, the two half faces of the protagonist (one on each book, opposite each other, yet completing one whole face) already told me of the interconnection of two stories, one male, one female, both faces stricken with fury or grief. On the front cover of each volume, an alternating figure accompanied, almost hinting at an alter ego or an avatar. I should mention that once I had read the books, I couldn’t make them fit back in the box any more. My husband, who helped me unpack the books from the box after I tried putting them back in place, offered the explanation: The books were now full of my thoughts and imagination.

But to tell you the truth the cover of A CORNER OF WHITE is really where my problems began. I confess that when looking at the windy, park-like green scene, where a smiley and also uncannily elongated girl (I smell Photoshop enhancement) on red raining boots held a glowing piece of paper —which might or might not be a note— to her lips, I could have never imagined that this book would be a rich fantasy about disappeared, injured, and even dead people, a crack that connects two worlds, and the rather regular violent attack of colors.

But it is now time to open the books and let the real battle begin. In A CORNER OF WHITE, written by Jaclyn Moriarty, teenagers Madeleine and Eliot are able to exchange correspondence through a crack that connects both of their worlds, a home schooled girl in Cambridge and a farm boy from the kingdom of Cello.

Those who speak English as their first language might have never experienced what I call character confusion (or maybe it is just my particular scattered brain), but for people like me, narratives in English filled with names, many characters’ names, with first and last names, sometimes described first by the official name and then by how they are called (“His name was Giacomo Cagnetti, but he went by Jack… (she) was Annabel Pettifields (but she went by Belle)),” will almost surely call for extra measures, such as note taking, or second and even third readings, in order to avoid getting completely confused whether it is in the land of storytelling, in Cambridge England, or in the Kingdom of Cello. It is never a good start for me when my brain struggles to keep an account of characters and their names galore.

A CORNER OF WHITE also has a slow start. Madeleine lives in the World with her mother and her sewing machine, missing a life of comfort and richness after having run away from her father. In the Kingdom of Cello, Elliot, a popular kid, looks for his father who disappeared after a Purple attack, which also left his uncle dead. I found the color’s attacks confusing too, only easier to accept as the narrative progressed and the disbelief was set aside. The story of Madeleine seemed to lack clear intention too at first. But then, something fascinating happened, and it all started for me with Newton. “You know what Isaac Newton did when he was here at Cambridge?” the computer teacher asks Madeleine and his friends, “…he chose twelve problems and made a promise to himself that he’d solve them in the next twelve months.”

As Madeleine and Elliot begin exchanging messages through a crack in parking meter/TV sculpture, and their lives start to connect, the novel takes on an emotional tone. Madeleine learns to mend her relationship with her friends, her chosen life, and her mother. While she shares her world with Elliot, the lesson suggests that deep inside she, and Elliot (and even the reader, in fact) know the answers to most of their problems. Alongside the plot thickens. Both Madeleine and Elliot discover the truth about their absent fathers. The theory of colors, and even Isaac Newton and his problem solving methods play a central role in the narrative. Reality and fantasy melt. A magical butterfly child is found. Madeleine’s mother’s health unravels. Elliot learns about love and loyalty. The mystery of the missing people begins to shed light. The ending sets up the sequel while offering a satisfying solution to the interconnection between the World and the Kingdom of Cello. Future action and adventure becomes a promise. A book that at first made me stop midpage and go back to the beginning three times in an attempt to help make sense of it, becomes the moving reading of a meaningful story.

What A CORNER OF WHITE and BOXERS AND SAINTS have in common is that they both filled me with urgent emotions. BOXERS AND SAINTS actually made me throw the book against the table twice. I was annoyed at the beginning, and enraged at the end. How is it that a book can make one feel so much? Gene Luen Yang seems to know how to use his storytelling abilities, both in writing and in images, to create such a power. BOXERS AND SAINTS is a two-point of view narrative of the Boxer Rebellion that took part at the turn of the 20th Century in China. BOXERS tells the story of Little Bao, lover of the opera, who becomes a leader in the fights to eradicate the growing Western Catholic menace that is destroying the traditional Chinese way of life. In SAINTS, Four-Girl, a Chinese young woman, struggles to find acceptance among her family who deem her bad luck at birth and later a demon. She finds in her affiliation to the Christian Missions, the acceptance, a name (Vibiana), and the purpose her family has denied her.

As in A CORNER OF WHITE, the stories of these two characters connect, although in the case of BOXERS AND SAINTS it might be more accurate to say that they collide. Both Vibiana and Bao go trough their transformation from children to warriors in their own way with the help of mystical figures. Bao learns how to conjure the power of ancient gods (the battle scenes are epic, colorful, and unforgettably violent) and he teaches his brothers and friends how to use this power to inspire a mighty rebellion against what they call the foreign devils. On her part Vibiana finds inspiration and guidance from the spirit of Joan of Arc, who visits her in the form of a golden apparition. Set on opposite sides of the conflict, Bao and Vibiana portray the humanity of a struggle and the willingness to sacrifice themselves for the beliefs that sustain them. There is no happy ending for this story. There seems to be no justice neither for Bao or for Vibiana. What BOXERS and SAINTS seem to suggest is that in a conflict of beliefs there is never a winner. It all ends with me throwing the book against the wall again. Only a master storyteller can make me do that.

And so my winner is BOXERS AND SAINTS.

— Yuyi Morales

Just because I want “the kids’ books” doesn’t mean I’m not impressed by these stories. Between brilliant Colors and vengeful gods, we have some powerful forces at work here. Ms. Morales is right: you just want to throw Boxers and Saints against the wall. It runs the gamut of emotions in a spectacularly original way; it is full of heart and brutal tragedy. A Corner of White comes together beautifully in the end, but it’s slow and somewhat incoherent: Boxers and Saints is the thriller. I’m not sure if The Animal Book stands any chance,. Either way, between these two winners, March: Book One, What the Heart Knows, and some remarkable fiction, we have some unique competitors here. (By the way, it’s interesting discussing the covers. First impressions are a big deal.)

– Kid Commentator RGN

THE WINNER OF ROUND 1 MATCH 2:

BOXERS & SAINTS

Comments

  1. Wonderful analysis by both Ms. Morales and RGN. I must say I agreed with everything they said. I struggled greatly with the beginning of A Corner of White but I ended up really liking it. I’m not sure I’ll read the sequel but that’s more of a time matter than a statement about the book itself. I loved Boxers and Saints from the beginning, and I picked this one to win.

  2. The trouble with keeping the names and characters straight at the beginning of A Corner of White is not just a problem for those whose first language wasn’t English. I know so many people who have abandoned the book a quarter of the way through. It just makes me sad, because I love it so much, but I also understand why. The type of story A Corner of White is doesn’t work for everyone, but I think what Moriarty was attempting to do, she did brilliantly. Personally I love it in all of its twisty complexity. That is one of the things I specifically look for in books. It is just so clever.

    I can see how Boxers & Saints would be more of a crowd pleaser though, and I did like it too. Just not as much. Oh well. I can take comfort in saying I knew this is how it would go down.

  3. Battle Commander Battle Commander says:

    Monica here — just to say I too found A Corner of White a bit slow at first, but fell in love with it before too long. I do urge those that ended up liking it to consider reading the next one, Cracks in the Kingdom — I thought it wonderful and arguably better than the first. It moves a lot faster for sure since the worlds and the situation are established in the first book.

  4. Battle Commander Battle Commander says:

    Mock BoB recap: 81 BoB followers predicted Boxers & Saints to triumph in this match. And 27 predicted BOTH the Animal Book and Boxers & Saints.

  5. Sam Bloom says:

    Well, crap. I was very strongly rooting for Corner of White here… but I do appreciate the way Ms. Morales explained her whole thought process behind the two books, including the things she didn’t like about either. Very satisfying post, if not a satisfying result (to me, at least).

    • Jonathan Hunt Jonathan Hunt says:

      Sam, I’m curious why you think BOXERS & SAINTS is overrated. You’ve been pretty adamant about it all through the award season . . .

      • Sam Bloom says:

        Really, it’s mostly the way the story is presented – I had issues with the way many were saying initially that this was such an inventive or ground-breaking way of making a book. I still don’t really see the need to make this two separate volumes; not trying to sound like a jerk, but it seems a bit like a cash-in to me. And I’ve got public library bias in that area, too, because with a floating collection we may have Boxers on the shelf but not Saints, or vice versa, and I really think you need both to get the full effect – these are NOT stand-alone titles, and selling them as such rubs me the wrong way. That said, though, I really like the story, the humor, I love Gene Yang’s style, so I admittedly need to stop carping on it. (Especially since most of the accolades of late have been based on the power of the overall storytelling, a position I agree with completely.) So this will officially be the last you’ll hear from me on B&S being overrated… =)

        • Jennifer Lawson says:

          I wish they had published Boxers and Saints together as well (I work in a floating library too), but I can understand why they chose to do it separately. I don’t think it was a cash-in. The story takes two pieces of the puzzle and by joining them together gives the reader the whole. Or if not the whole, then so much more than the pieces. Sure you could do that by making them sections of the same book, but as separate volumes, its sort of a physical manifestation (if that makes sense). So as a collector of books, I’d want them separate. As a librarian, together would have been nice!

        • This is responding to the two-volume issue as a school librarian – I glued the back cover of Boxers and front cover of Saints (sorry… defacing the cover) together to ensure that the tale is told in one swoop. I guess one can also use mylar covers to force the two volumes into one. I’d love to see FirstSecond to publish one single volume of the two (which will be quite difficult and pricey given the heavy glossy paper and what that does to the binding…) Perhaps they can re-issue Boxers & Saints on less glossy/heavy paper and in Hard Cover with strong binding? One can always hope.

          • Jonathan Hunt Jonathan Hunt says:

            If you leave them in the slipcase and put them on the shelf, isn’t it possible to check them out as a single entity in the same way you have to check out all the CDs in the audiobook?

          • Sam Bloom says:

            That’s not the way our system handled it, Jonathan; they have them as separate items. I should also note that my library system separates DVDs in a TV series, so you have to check out disc 1 in addition to disc 2, disc 3, etc.; they aren’t all in one item check-out. We’re big on separating like that in Cincinnati, apparently… maybe a ploy to make our circulation numbers look bigger? (Kidding.)

  6. Kelly Metzger says:

    I admire the way Ms. Morales analyzed and compared the books. I especially enjoyed the critical examination of the book covers. It’s clear that the cover for A Corner of White does not do the story justice. So far the judges’ posts have been quite thought-provoking.

  7. It’s interesting to me that the critique begins with the books’ covers (i.e., the critique is not just of the author’s or author/illustrator’s story, but also of the art director, book designer, editor, marketing team, etc.). Covers are so important, yet authors usually have little control over the final cover. I recently was in a bookstore to pick up a new release by one of my favorite MG authors. The cover, which I had not previously seen, made it look like “the type” of book I would not like. And I’ve heard authors both thrilled with and lamenting over their books’ covers.

  8. Benji Martin says:

    I think the cover is fair game, as the books are the ones battling and not the authors. The cover is part of the book, and as RGN thoughtfully pointed out, “First impressions are a big deal.”

    I agree that A Corner of White had a disappointing cover, and that maybe someone was trying to market to the book to a teenage girl looking for something like a Sarah Dessen novel.

  9. Meredith says:

    I thought Boxers and Saints would win. I thought it was a better book than A Corner of White. But I like A Corner of White more. I’m really excited to read the second book in the series. Again, a great commentary by the judge.

  10. I’m not sure what I said in the BoB poll, because I don’t think I’d read All the Truth That’s in Me yet. But from my preferences on my blog, I’m 0 for 2. However, I really loved the books that won (just not quite as much as the books that lost), so I got a lot of satisfaction out of the Judges’ discussions. It amazed me when A Corner of White totally won me over despite the world-building being so ridiculous! (I mean, how could it even work for seasons to vary from week to week? The planet doesn’t spin?) But I loved it anyway, by the end.

Trackbacks

  1. […] Leun Yang’s Boxers & Saints‘s defeat of Jaclyn Moriarty’s A Corner of White, decided by Yuyi Morales, which raised the issue of whether the books should be judged as single unit (since Boxers & […]

  2. […] besting Jaclyn Moriarty’s A Corner of White (Scholastic) in Round 1, Steve Jenkins’s The Animal Book (Houghton Harcourt) in Round 2, and Tom McNeal’s Far Far […]

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