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Battle of the Books

Round 3, Match 1: Boxers and Saints vs Far Far Away

BoB 2014 RND3 1 Round 3, Match 1: Boxers and Saints vs Far Far Away

JUDGE – PATRICK NESS

Boxers & Saints
by Gene Luen Yang
FirstSecond/Macmillan
Far Far Away
by Tom McNeal
Knopf/Random House

Gravitar judge Round 3, Match 1: Boxers and Saints vs Far Far Away

What should we demand of YA literature?  Is that even an answerable question?  YA has grown into such a gorgeous, vast country that to narrow it down seems impossible, and probably undesirable.  It has any genre you’d like, any level of seriousness, books for escape, books for confrontation; it’s a country diverse both vertically and horizontally, a country that welcomes all reader-immigrants, no matter your age, gender, race, sexuality.  I couldn’t be prouder to be a YA writer.  We’re lucky folk.

And yet I think there is something we can demand of it.  When I was a teenager – and by the way, there is no faster way on EARTH to lose a YA audience than to begin a sentence with “when I was teenager” – nevertheless, when I was a teenager, I, like so many others my age, tended to skip teenage fiction altogether and go straight to Stephen King for one simple reason:  Judy Blume aside (and God bless her forever and forever), most of the rest of it lied.

You know what I mean.  Books where the bully was really a sensitive kid who’d end up your best friend.  Where everyone was chaste and had terrific grandparents.  Where all problems, no matter how serious, could ultimately be resolved by confiding in your dad.  And heck, they weren’t really problems anyway because nothing that could happen to a teenager could be really bad, could it?  Especially in a book where people said “Heck”.

Fortunately, that world is mostly long-gone.  YA is now fearless in dealing with things that actual teenagers think about:  liberty, privacy, sex, drug use, loneliness, illness both physical and mental, injustice, poverty, suicide, death, all of the boundary-pushing thoughts that consume a boundary-pushing time. True, this does sometimes result in YA having its fair share of what I like to call CBAITs (Crappy Books About Important Things, on which more in a moment), but in terms of negotiating with the real world, YA is where the most interesting things are happening now.

What then to make of Far Far Away by Tom McNeal?  Its back cover is festooned with starred reviews; it was shortlisted for the National Book Award; and to reach the semi-finals of Battle of the Books, it beat both Kate DiCamillo’s Newbery-winning Flora & Ulysses AND Rainbow Rowell’s world-conquering Eleanor & Park.

And I didn’t believe a word of it.  This is just my opinion (and I strongly suggest you read other opinions; reading is personal, and you may react totally differently, truly) but I don’t think I’d have believed a word of it when I was fifteen, either.  I won’t rehash the plot again as it’ll have been well-covered in earlier rounds, but here are just some of the things I didn’t believe:

I didn’t believe Jacob Grimm (of the Brothers Grimm) would need to help an American teenager in order to cross over to the other side.  I didn’t believe the whimsy of Jeremy’s father trying to run a (literal) two-book bookstore meshed with Jeremy and Ginger subsequently being starved to near-death by a serial killer of children.  I didn’t believe that EVERY missing child named in the book – either abducted in the present or the past – would end up having a happy ending.  I didn’t believe Jeremy and Ginger would suffer no discernible trauma after a life-scarring experience.   Most of all, I didn’t believe Ginger would say “Zounds.”  It’s as bad as “heck.”

I found the book false in the most objectionable way:  the teenagers aren’t allowed to be real people.  They’re wishful constructs of overly nice kids.  Going by the Disney references and the answering machines instead of cellphones, I’m guessing these are meant to be fifteen-year-olds in the early 90s(?)  And their idea of rebellion is to sneak into the kind Swedish baker’s house and put Pop Rocks on his Trix?  Again, this is a book with a serial killer of children in it, and it’s so polite, I kept wanting to offer it a cigarette.

Because of the Grimm connection, a lot of energy is spent on the fairy tale aspects of the story.  But even fairy tales create a universe in which the story can logically take place.  And they can certainly be harrowing and full of real danger and truth – anyone with a passing acquaintance of the astonishing work of Margo Lanagan knows that.  But Far Far Away gives itself over to whimsy and a fake, coddling darkness (even though they’re kidnapped and tortured by a serial killer, everyone lives happily ever after), that it’s almost as if it’s a YA book written for 8-12s.  I’m more than happy to believe in fairy tales, but I didn’t believe any of Far Far Away.

Finally, one last thing I couldn’t believe:  it’s 2014, but the SINGLE foreign character in town (aside from the ghost) ends up being the deranged villain.  Really.

Far Far Away makes me think we can demand something of YA literature.  More than that, I think we MUST demand it from YA literature:  the truth. Fortunately, Gene Luen Yang’s astounding Boxers & Saints – just by being its restlessly truthful self – rebukes everything Far Far Away gets wrong.

I confess I went into Boxers & Saints a little wary.  I’ve got a real thing against CBAITs (again, Crappy Books About Important Things; you know exactly what I’m talking about: books with either important subject matter or important formats that are so terrible-but-worthy they turn reading into medicine for young people.  People tend to be far too afraid to give these books bad reviews and they often go on to win prizes.  Don’t get me started.).

Anyway.  Boxers & Saints is about the Boxer Rebellion in China, told alternately from the point of view of one of the revolutionaries (Boxers) and one of the Chinese Christians who suffered (& Saints).  I was worried about getting a dry history lesson without much narrative oomph or characters who were little more than historic ciphers.

I was utterly delighted to be wrong, wrong, wrong.  Boxers & Saints is extraordinary.  Told in graphic novel form, it seeks relentlessly for truth, never letting any of its characters completely off the hook for the mistakes they make.  And oh my, everyone here makes mistakes.  Big ones.  Both Little Bao, the revolutionary who commits atrocities in the name of what seems to be a good cause, and Four-Girl, the converted Christian who chafes against what its teachings require of her, are allowed to be complicated, realistic, flawed human beings.

They’re also funny and brave and daring and goofy and merciless and merciful and grow and change and regret and falter.  In short, they’re like the real teenagers you might know.  They don’t get fake happy endings; they get real life, in all its mess and wonder and complexity.

These are two very specific stories, told truthfully (and, interestingly, with large doses of magical realism, proof again that a story can be a fairy tale and not be false) and with open eyes.  And because they’re specific and told with utter truth, they are of course universal.  I suspect that Yuen ultimately has his sympathies most with the Christian Four-Girl, but even then, everyone is shown warts and all, with compassion that isn’t stupid or blind.

Boxers & Saints is exactly what I’d like to demand from YA literature, from ALL literature, for that matter:  the truth, breathtakingly, intelligently told, through characters who act like real human beings, and a recognition that this is a world with endless, multiple endings, happy and otherwise, all leading on to more and more amazing questions.

Boxers & Saints is YA at its best.  It’s certainly one of the very best YA novels of the past couple years, and it’s my whole-hearted choice as winner of this semi-final.  May it sweep to final victory.

– Patrick Ness


Gravitar kidCommentator Round 3, Match 1: Boxers and Saints vs Far Far Away

As always, two polar opposites go head to head in the very first nail biting, teeth clenching battle of Round 3. Despite an incredibly well written judge commentary by Mr. Ness, I feel just as conflicted with it as I do with my loyalties to the two novels. I both reluctantly agree and strongly disagree with his assessment of Far Far Away, understanding that it has failed to realistically portray life as a teenager as a coming of age, twenty first century YA novel should. However, I do not believe that it was Mr. McNeal’s intention to create an up to date, politically correct, and realistic piece of fiction. He wanted to transport his readers into a world of magic and fantasy, cross the boundary between utopia and dystopia, and mainly take us on an unforgettable adventure. I think in this way, it doesn’t necessarily have to be boxed and labeled specifically as a YA novel, and perhaps just acknowledged as a piece of fantastical, ageless fiction. I think that with his review of Far Far Away, as well as his brilliantly direct view of what YA novels should and should not be, it is no wonder that Boxers and Saints will proceed into the final round. It’s a pity, though, as there is again the Far Far Away and Eleanor and Park rivalry for the coveted win of the Undead Poll. One things for sure; this years Big Kahuna round will not be one to miss.

- Kid Commentator GI

Mr. Ness – Chaos Walking, A Monster Calls, all great books, by the way – gives some very interesting commentary on what it means to be a YA book, and how Far, Far Away is not believable. Two very big questions. There’s the idea of nostalgia we’ve been talking about, how books like Far, Far Away are not for kids, but about them (I’d question whether Far, Far Away is even YA, but it’s not really middle grade either). I can enjoy these books (I’m talking to you, Hokey Pokey), though often they’re not fully believable – really, there has to be a serial killer who suddenly appears halfway through the book? I am drawn to Far, Far Away precisely because it’s not truthful – it’s a pack of fairy-tale lies, with both the best and the worst of Grimm – that can maybe illuminate truth. Far, Far Away is an escape – a nostalgic one, sure, but still a good book – while Boxers & Saints offers the brutal truth. In their own ways – sometimes effective, sometimes not – both can be powerful. Yet Mr. Ness’s reasoning is, indeed, eloquently explained. I understand the need for truth; I’d still question what truth is, however – how variable it is, and how you get there. Still, I can find no fault in having the remarkable Boxers & Saints move on to the final round.

– Kid Commentator RGN

THE WINNER OF ROUND 3 MATCH 1:

BOXERS AND SAINTS

MatchWinner Boxers Round 3, Match 1: Boxers and Saints vs Far Far Away

Comments

  1. Sam says:

    Wow, such a great write-up. I haven’t read either book (I know, I’m so evil) but I could completely sympathise with what Mr. Ness was saying on a big-picture level, even if I couldn’t relate that to one of these specific books.

  2. I’m not even sure what to say after that spectacular decision. Although as an adult I enjoyed Far Far Away, Ness is so correct in everything he has to say about it and about Boxers and Saints. Battle Commanders, can we please have the exact same judges next year?

  3. Eric Carpenter says:

    So torn about this decision. First I disagree with the premise that FAR FAR AWAY is or is even attempting to be YA. I would love to hear what Ness would have written about FFA if he read and reviewed the book from a MG perspective.
    That said I absolutely love the CBAIT acronym and hope it catches on and becomes a thing. Or better yet publishers stop releasing CBsAIT in general. Don’t we have enough books about bullying or parents (or best friends) dying of cancer?

  4. Kate Coombs says:

    Can a serial killer book be middle grade? And hey, I love the term CBAITs, and not just because a book like that can hook you in with a fake worm. Thanks, Patrick.

  5. Brandy says:

    “I found the book false in the most objectionable way: the teenagers aren’t allowed to be real people. They’re wishful constructs of overly nice kids. ”
    THIS! I think this is due to Jacob’s stick-up-the-rear narration but it is why I couldn’t connect with this book in any kind of real way. If all the characters have me rolling my eyes, then you’ve lost me entirely.

    Well said all around. I loved reading this decision, not only because I agree with it, but because it was well written and to the point.

  6. I just feel drawn to comment on Kid Commentator’s line “I understand the need for truth; I’d still question what truth is, however – how variable it is, and how you get there.” KID Commentator?! That’s a wise and deep observation too many grownups wouldn’t even think to make. GO, Kid Commentator, you rock.

  7. Laura Ruby says:

    Loved BOXERS & SAINTS for all the reasons Patrick Ness described. I quite enjoyed FAR, FAR AWAY and bought a lot of what Patrick didn’t, but I have to disagree that this book is YA or MG no matter how it’s been marketed. I’d argue that this is an adult book that turns on adult concerns — Jacob Grimm’s grief specifically. This is not to say that kids and teens can’t enjoy it, just that it doesn’t have as much to do with teens’ view of themselves as the principals of their own stories as it does with adults’ view of teens as victims, pawns, hormone-addled but still innocent babes, etc.

  8. Meredith says:

    Patrick Ness is the business, for reals. He very eloquently stated everything that I didn’t like about Far, Far Away. Even though Boxers and Saints wasn’t my favorite read for the Battle this year (it’s so sad!), I definitely thought it was one of the best, and it’s definitely my top choice out of the four books left in this round.

  9. Karen Maurer says:

    Whoa! Patrick Ness pulls no punches here. The best thing about BoB is that other people – the judges – actually THINK about the books they read. And then they share their thoughts with us. Until I read Ness’ thoughts on Far, Far Away, I had no idea why I hoped the book would not move forward. Now I know. And CBAITs? YES!!! Thank you for saying it out loud, in print or whatever!! Yes! I am in love with this judge.

  10. Kid Commentator GI says:

    As always, two polar opposites go head to head in the very first nail biting, teeth clenching battle of Round 3. Despite an incredibly well written judge commentary by Mr. Ness, I feel just as conflicted with it as I do with my loyalties to the two novels. I both reluctantly agree and strongly disagree with his assessment of Far Far Away, understanding that it has failed to realistically portray life as a teenager as a coming of age, twenty first century YA novel should. However, I do not believe that it was Mr. McNeal’s intention to create an up to date, politically correct, and realistic piece of fiction. He wanted to transport his readers into a world of magic and fantasy, cross the boundary between utopia and dystopia, and mainly take us on an unforgettable adventure. I think in this way, it doesn’t necessarily have to be boxed and labeled specifically as a YA novel, and perhaps just acknowledged as a piece of fantastical, ageless fiction. I think that with his review of Far Far Away, as well as his brilliantly direct view of what YA novels should and should not be, it is no wonder that Boxers and Saints will proceed into the final round. It’s a pity, though, as there is again the Far Far Away and Eleanor and Park rivalry for the coveted win of the Undead Poll. One things for sure; this years Big Kahuna round will not be one to miss.

  11. Carol Owen says:

    I have to go with what my students are attracted with. Far, Far Away – a huge hit. Boxers and Saints – hasn’t been borrowed once, even though graphic novels are usually a hit. So, I guess I’ll have to do like I do with the movies – base my opinions on what I like and what I can sell to the students, and forget the reviews.

  12. Danielle says:

    So I totally the girl at the football game who spends her time hanging out by the concession stand throughout the game, only to watch when the love interest gets sent into the game. So here I am, but now I am CRUSHED. As a big Nessfarian and lover of Far Far Away I feel that I have two best friends that loathe each other when I really just want them to see each other for how awesome they are. heart-break.

    I love what Ness has to say about how we need to demand more from YA. Yes we do! I felt that Far Far Away was more a transitional book from middle grade to YA, but I found it daring, and thought that it pushed boundaries. I am so with Kid Commentator RGN, I loved it for its lies.

Trackbacks

  1. [...] Another diskarte I have to laud, is the author’s handling of the issues in this story. Think of this: Eleanor is stuck in an abusive home and Park is half-Asian, but the story largely remains a love story. Though the domestic abuse constantly pushes and bursts through the surface and Park mentions how culturally unrepresented he feels because of his race, Rowell deftly maneuvers through these plot points without turning the whole thing into a story about abuse and/or racism. [UPDATE: To understand more of what I mean by this, here is Patrick Ness talking about Crappy Books About Important Things.] [...]

  2. [...] ‘CBAIT’: crappy books about important things. On March 27, he wrote an article in the SLJ blog and defined these books as ‘books with either important subject matter or important formats [...]

  3. [...] author of The Knife of Never Letting Go, was the judge for the most recently-posted battle. The contest was between Boxers & Saints (Gene Luen Yang) and Far Far Away (Tom McNeal), a pairing of [...]

  4. [...] I think it is one to take very, very seriously. It is Patrick Ness‘s provocative point in his SLJ Battle of the Kids’ Book decision this week about what  he has termed CBAITs: Crappy Books About Important Things; you know exactly [...]

  5. [...] The Animal Book (Houghton Harcourt) in Round 2, and Tom McNeal’s Far Far Away (Knopf) in Round 3, the historical fiction title competed against YA novel Eleanor & Park and Rita [...]

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