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Battle of the Books

Round 1, Match 7: Rose Under Fire vs The Thing About Luck

JUDGE – MALINDA LO

Rose Under Fire
by Elizabeth Wein
Hyperion/Disney
The Thing About Luck
by Cynthia Kadohata
Atheneum Books for Young Readers

Since SLJ’s Battle of the Kids Books is known for its wacky pairings, I’ll skip the whole “these two books are so different!” hand-wringing. It’s true, Elizabeth Wein’s Rose Under Fire is quite different from Cynthia Kadohata’s The Thing About Luck. But that doesn’t mean they can’t be compared and, of course, judged.

(Anyone who knows me would likely agree that I’m a decisive person. And yes, I secretly — or not so secretly now that I’ve written this — enjoy judging books. I rarely do it in public due to my effort to cultivate an unruffled and diplomatic exterior, but when I was given the chance to be a BoB judge, I did not hesitate.)

The Thing About Luck might seem to have this in the bag, given that it won the 2013 National Book Award. It’s a gentle, sweet story about twelve-year-old Summer, a Japanese American girl who comes from a family of wheat harvesters in Kansas. Just before harvest season begins, her parents have to go to Japan to care for ailing relatives, leaving Summer and her younger brother, Jaz, in the care of their grandparents: prickly Obaachan, her grandmother, and hard-working Jinchan, her grandfather.

Summer, who nearly died from a freak bout of malaria earlier in the year, believes that her family is suffering through a string of bad luck. Her belief is affirmed by the difficulties they go through during harvest season, but Summer’s precise voice takes us through the ordeals calmly. Summer is an endearing character who is intensely fascinated by combine harvesters, the giant machines that Jinchan drives to harvest thousands of acres of wheat. Since Summer’s illness, she has also become obsessed with mosquitoes, and the book is accompanied by Julia Kuo’s charming illustrations of both mosquitoes and combines. (Can a combine be cute? Yes!)

Although I rarely read middle grade novels, I welcomed the chance to dip my toes into Summer’s world. Not only do I have a secret fascination with farming (again, I’m letting the cat out of the bag) which was thoroughly indulged by Summer’s detailed explanations, I appreciated the fact that The Thing About Luck is about a Japanese American girl, but is not about her being Japanese American. Summer does not suffer because of her race, and I can’t stress enough how meaningful this is. When I was Summer’s age, I don’t recall reading one single book about an Asian American girl, and I was a voracious reader. To have people like you completely erased from the books around you — even if as a twelve-year-old you’re not aware this is what’s happening — has consequences in the way you see yourself. You don’t see yourself.

How does Rose Under Fire compare? Like The Thing About Luck, it’s the story of a young woman told in her voice, but that’s about where the similarities end. Told in first-person journal entries, Rose Under Fire is a young adult novel about an American ATA pilot, Rose Justice, who is captured in Germany during World War II and imprisoned at Ravensbrück, the women’s concentration camp.

It’s a companion novel to Elizabeth Wein’s much-lauded Code Name Verity, but you don’t need to read Code Name Verity to fall under Rose Under Fire’s spell. At the beginning of the book, Rose is a naive young woman who has volunteered to ferry airplanes for the Allies. The horrors that she endures and witnesses at Ravensbrück, as well as the friendships she forges in that hellish place, change her almost completely — as they must. Rose Under Fire is a fictional account of things that really happened, particularly to a group of female Polish political prisoners who were experimented on by Nazi doctors. Rose’s struggle to help tell the story of these women, known as “rabbits,” is the purpose that she discovers during her time in the concentration camp.

I found Rose Under Fire to be a difficult read, emotionally, because it chronicles a truly awful period of history, and I think that’s as it should be. At the same time, I absolutely fell under the thrall of Wein’s storytelling. She has a clear knack for writing about airplanes and flying, which made what could have been dry mechanical exposition into something truly thrilling. (Perhaps, considering my interest in Summer’s combines, I also have a secret fascination with machinery.) I also admired the skillful way that Wein integrated her research about Ravensbrück and the rabbits into Rose’s story. She packed a lot of history in there, and it was all engrossing.

Both Rose Under Fire and The Thing About Luck are good books. But which book deserves to move forward? I’ve decided that making this judgement call requires me to think like a writer (which isn’t much of a stretch since that’s what I am). Both are first-person novels. Which does it better?

As a writer, I often think of stories as three-dimensional objects. When I consider The Thing About Luck in this light, it emerges in my mind as something like an egg. The shell is the framing device of the concept of luck. The book begins with Summer ruminating on her family’s run of bad luck; it concludes when that bad luck comes to an end. But this is only the shell of the story; when you crack it open you discover a liquid and lively yolk. The yolk is the heart of the story: a twelve-year-old girl’s dawning awareness of her courage, told in Summer’s clear first-person voice. It’s a rich and nourishing center, deceptive in its simplicity.

Rose Under Fire takes on a completely different shape. It is no smooth-shelled egg; it is jagged, like a modern sculpture made of reclaimed metal. This makes sense given the subject matter of the novel; it would be wrong for Rose Under Fire to have its edges smoothed off. But though the shape is appropriate, I felt that the means by which the shape is formed — Rose’s journal entries — did not quite work. Rather than bringing me closer to Rose’s experience, I felt distanced from it because I knew, due to the journal entry dates, that Rose survived.

Writing a novel in journal form is a complicated task for many reasons, and while I admire Elizabeth Wein for doing it, I think Rose’s story might have been better served in a more straightforward first-person narrative. For that reason, I choose Cynthia Kadohata’s The Thing About Luck, and Summer’s pitch-perfect first-person voice, to win this round.

— Malinda Lo

Interesting…first person in Rose Under Fire? I don’t necessarily think so. Code Name Verity was more of a thriller, and Rose is more psychological, it’s slower, and the journal entries allow for reflection, transformation, and some darn good poems. Remembering it, I almost wish it would win, or at least COME BACK IN THE UNDEAD POLL, but The Thing About Luck is one of those deceptively simple, wondrous kids’ books I’ve been talking about (and it won the National Book Award to prove it). I love Ms. Lo’s image of an egg, and the characterization is so full and poignant (but not like Eleanor and Park!) in remarkably subtle ways: Jazz, Obaa-chan, and Summer herself. The farming life was another world to me as a city kid, and it was such a complete book! I might well want this to win the whole thing, though Rose Under Fire and True Blue Scouts (coming up next, with another interesting match) are also fantastic.

– Kid Commentator RGN

THE WINNER OF ROUND 1 MATCH 7:

THE THING ABOUT LUCK

Comments

  1. Sara Ralph says:

    Middle grade coming back fast and fierce!

  2. Yuck. I liked The Thing About Luck and I understand that it’s well-written, but it’s the other book that I cannot imagine recommending to one of my middle school students and it didn’t touch my heart. On the other hand, I still haven’t quit raving about Rose Under Fire. I loved it just as much as Verity and it tore my heart out the same way the Verity did. I can only hope that Eleanor and Park makes it all the way (because I’m sure it won the Undead Poll) and that Rose sneaks though as the 2nd place in the Undead Poll).

  3. This decision is so interesting to me, because I’ve seen several people say that they felt distanced by knowing Rose survives, which I can see intellectually. But my own experience was that I was already so invested in the story that if I had not had some guarantee of her survival, I’m not sure I could have kept reading! They are such different ways of looking at the way that narrative works.

  4. Battle Commander Battle Commander says:

    Mock BoB Recap for this match: 3/5 of the votes went to Rose and 2/5 went to Luck. A pretty even match, according to the numbers. And our top-predictor is 7 for 7! Will the streak last to have a Perfect Score?

  5. Well, nuts. I loved Rose Under Fire, and thought The Thing About Luck was hideously boring. Nothing happens in the whole book! Almost all of my favorites have lost this round. Sigh.

  6. I totally agree with Maureen that if i didn’t know Rose had survived, I don’t know if I would have the courage to continue on.
    Also agreeing with Meredith. The Thing About Luck was sweet but a snoozefest!!!

  7. Sam Bloom says:

    Well, I guess I’ll be the first to say hooray for Summer! I haven’t read Rose Under Fire (but I loved CNV, so I’ll have to get to it some time) but I appreciate the way Lo discusses the things I loved about Thing About Luck. And I love her point that the book (to quote Lo directly) ” is about a Japanese American girl, but is not about her *being* Japanese American.” Very important, that.

    Also, not meaning to single you out (but by the nature of the question that’s exactly what I’m doing), but why wouldn’t you recommend Thing About Luck to a middle schooler if the student was looking for a good story? I’m sure we all have students at our schools/public libraries that would enjoy a book that doesn’t necessarily have a lot of action but DOES have some really superbly-drawn characters, most notably a believable, likable middle school girl (Summer). That point alone makes this a book worth recommending, in my opinion. Anyway, sorry to ruffle feathers, but honestly, I think this is a book we should recommend again and again.

    • Based on what my students ask for, I don’t think The Thing About Luck fits many of their interests. As I said, I liked the book, but I don’t think it’s a particularly good fit for my school. My students do like other books by Kadohata, especially Cracker and Kira-Kira.

  8. Margaret says:

    Another hooray for Summer!

    THE THING ABOUT LUCK was my very favorite book of the year. Such wonderfully subtle characters, who are worried and determined and funny all at the same time just like real people, and such a fascinating alien (to me) landscape in which to find these thoroughly recognizable folks. And yes, I loved all the combine harvester stuff, just as I have loved all the how-to-sail-your-Napoleonic-war-fighting-ship details in Horatio Hornblower, or the Dutch travelogues in Hans Brinker. I also love, as Her Honor Judge Lo notes, that Summer is a Japanese-American but book isn’t about the problems of being Japanese-American. We need more books like this, for all kinds of kids who want to see themselves in fiction.

    That’s not to say that I didn’t admire ROSE UNDER FIRE, and I have enormous respect for Wein’s research and how well she incorporates it, but after the twistiness of CODE NAME VERITY (my favorite book of the previous year), Rose left me just slightly disappointed.

  9. Another one where I was going to be disappointed no matter the outcome. Great write up though. I will say, the bookstore where I work got The Thing About Luck as an ARC and while several of the kids in our middle grade book club weren’t enthusiastic, there was one boy who said it was his favorite book of the year. So like many great titles, it will find its audience, I think.

  10. Battle Commander Battle Commander says:

    Monica here. Just to point out that, precocious though he is, RNG IS still a kid, one who liked THE THING ABOUT LUCK. So did other younger kids in our Book Blogger Book Club at school. I see it as one of those books that may not get a huge child audience on the level as some, but will indeed get some who will love it. So I’m glad to hear from others who have those kids among their patrons.

    And that makes me wonder — what about the kid/teen readership for ROSE UNDER FIRE?

    I happen to love both books, by the way.

    • After much thought, I decided not to put Rose Under Fire in my middle school library. I absolutely adored the book (which is why it was hard for me to see it lose ) but it’s recommended for grades 8-up by SLJ and 9-up by Booklist. I think the part that made up my mind for me was Code Name Verity (which I also adored and was so disappointed it didn’t win last year’s battle). I really think if you have one book in your library you need to have both, and all of the reviews for Verity recommend it for high school. I think many kids will relate to Rose better than Verity, but I could be wrong. I’ve given Verity to a teacher friend and to my daughter and both struggled with it, especially the first part, which I found to be brilliant.

  11. Bernie Mount says:

    Here is what I did not like about the journal format for ROSE – just before she goes missing she writes a journal entry that ends with something like, “I hope I don’t forget my journal” and lo and behold, she forgets her journal. It is key to the journal format that the journal not be captured with her because it would not have survived. But, I’m not sure why the lost journal had to be so contrived. Obviously that really bothered me. I knew as soon as I saw that statement that she was going to forget the journal. Couldn’t Wein just have used clues over the next pages to inform the reader that the journal had been left behind in Paris?

    • alas, that was an editorial issue; I was asked to include that detail for the careless reader.

      • Bernie Mount says:

        Sorry to criticize the wrong party for this minor element. I guess as the author you can only grin and bear it. Since you could, so will I. Thanks for the insight to the publishing process.

        • In my experience authors are all like, “MY ART” and editors are all like, “YOUR TARGET AUDIENCE.” Which is why we have editors! It is a fine balance. Interesting you picked up on it, though.

Trackbacks

  1. […] ➻ Today is the day I cast judgement in School Library Journal’s Battle of the Kids Books, a March Madness-style book tournament for children’s and YA books. I judged between Rose Under Fire by Elizabeth Wein and The Thing About Luck by Cynthia Kadohata. Read my judgement here. […]

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