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Battle of the Books

Round 1, Match 1: Brown Girl Dreaming vs Children of the King

JUDGE – HOLLY BLACK

Brown Girl Dreaming
by Jacqueline Woodson
Nancy Paulsen Books/Penguin
The Children of the King
by Sonya Hartnett
Candlewick

On the face of it, these books have little in common. They are set in different countries, in different historical periods, and told in very different ways. One is prose, the other poetry. One is a memoir and the other, a ghost story.

And yet, interestingly, they share children perceiving the bravery of the adults around them, while discovering their own power.

In Children of the King, two London children of an upper-class family are evacuated before the Blitz. Cecily Lockwood, younger sister, is sorry to leave her father, but happy to be going to Heron Hall, her Uncle Peregrine’s house in the country. Jeremy, older brother, is furious, feeling as though he’s old enough to stay and help the war effort. Accompanied by their mother, they take in a clever, lower-class evacuee named May. Together, the girls explore the surrounding woods and discover two odd, haughty boys, hiding in the ruins. Are they evacuees who’ve run away from their host families or something else entirely?

The Blitz is a rich setting and a great opportunity for a writer to put characters into unlikely situations. With so many children evacuating from London, so many families disrupted, parents are easily shoved out of the way, making room for adventure.

Hartnett’s characters are wonderfully compelling. Our protagonist, Cecily, is someone we don’t often see in books. She’s forgetful and not particularly clever, prone to tattling, sweets-stealing and mild selfish cruelty. She’s wealthy and takes her wealth and place in society for granted. And yet, for all that, she’s a highly appealing narrator.

There’s a bit where a shopkeeper pronounces the evacuee living with Cecily’s family as “a good little girl” and thinks to herself: “Half the time May wasn’t good at all – she was a thief of leftovers, an escapee, a hurter-of-feelings, moody and a know-it-all and a bossy-boots, just now she hadn’t even owned up to shouting in the street – but somehow these attributes made her better than good.” What a wonderful meditation on why we love characters as well as people.

May, who is clever, fearless, and coping stoically with a terrible personal tragedy is an interesting character to see from the outside. We see her through Cecily’s eyes, Cecily who adores her, but doesn’t understand her.

Claustrophobic at times, Harnett portrays the confused feeling of childhood, of not knowing enough and having no adult willing to explain, of saying things that turn out to be awful but which you didn’t mean that way, and of grappling with a big mass of feelings too raw and embarrassing to untangle. There’s also really beautiful writing, right from the first page, where Cecily’s “heart bounced like a trout” and on throughout the book.

And then we have Jacqueline Woodson’s Brown Girl Dreaming, the free-verse memoir of the author growing up in America in the sixties and seventies, first in Ohio, then in South Carolina and New York. Woodson’s memories are vividly rendered, and the precision of her imagery and language allows her spare words to sing. Reading the book, I felt like I was in those places, like I was smelling the “biscuits and burning hair” of Sundays, hearing a sister read aloud to me, watching kids across the street and wondering why we didn’t play together.

It also gives context to US history. To see the struggle for Civil Rights playing out over the course of someone’s life, to see how segregation and Jim Crow laws affect a real person is an incredible, awful thing. In a poem called “South Carolina at War,” Woodson writes: “There’s a war going on in South Carolina/ and even as we play/ and plant and preach and sleep, we are a part of it.”

It’s also fascinating to read about her coming into her own talent. Woodson’s memory of learning to make the “J” in her name for the first time as a very small child, her love of the smell of paper, her stories (which her mom is concerned are lies). And especially her struggles with reading. Remembering that the kid who had to go over something a few times to understand it, who preferred “easy books” and who thought she’d never be like her brilliant older sister or her scientifically-minded older brother grew up to be a National Book Award winner is important.

We often talk, as writers, about how the only the specific can be truly universal and Brown Girl Dreaming highlights that. Although Woodson’s memories are intensely personal, they also bring back memories of my own grandparent’s arms, of growing up and family dinners, of squabbling with my own siblings, having a best friend, and yearning to be a writer. They make me remember what it felt like to be a kid, in all its boring, anxious glory.

In the author’s note that follows the poems, Woodson describes her childhood as “ordinary and amazing.” To be able to capture both in a single work is astonishing; and yet, she has.

Although I thought Children of the King was a great book and you all know I love a ghost story, I was completely blown away by Brown Girl Dreaming. It felt like the kind of book that comes only once in a very great while and deserves every accolade that can be heaped upon it.

The winner: Brown Girl Dreaming.

— Holly Black

For me, Brown Girl Dreaming was subtle, or, as Holly Black quotes Woodson saying, “ordinary but amazing.” Through its lyrical poetry that seeps in at you, you really do see Woodson’s childhood; the segments about Daddy (her grandfather) are particularly moving. Children of the King is also a coming of age story – Cecily, May, Jem, and the children of the king. I’m not entirely sure what to think about it. Not much happens; it sort of seems boring, simplistic almost. I kind of want more with the ghosts, but they do have to leave in the end, don’t they, and see the world in all its grown-up terror and fright. Upon reflection, I’m struck by the parallels between clever, headstrong Jem and the king’s children. They both run away, they both see the danger of power and the sadness of adulthood – Daddy’s asleep – but there’s also hope. Jem, wise May, and even naive Cecily…they start to grow on me, just like the memories of childhood. We have two stories of childhood here, and I agree with Black: Brown Girl Dreaming stays with me the most. Now, a tantalizing possibility: Crossover vs Brown Girl? It would be further testament to the power of verse memoir, perhaps superfluous but well-deserved nevertheless and a matchup that would highlight the strengths of both books. Will the Newbery Curse strike again?

– Kid Commentator RGN

First, I just want to say that I am so glad that Brown Girl Dreaming is advancing to the next round! Naturally, I enjoyed both books, but I like Brown Girl Dreaming much more. Children of the King, to me, wasn’t really anything special. The children go into the story naive and innocent, knowing nothing of the real world and come out more educated. My issue with the book was that none of the characters were really relatable, and none of the characters were engaging enough to make me want to relate to them. Brown Girl Dreaming, on the other hand, felt much more intimate to me. It could be because it is a memoir, but the beautiful poetry paired with the youthful and wistful voice of a girl really grew on me. The little moments of her life that people would normally overlook gave the book a warm and cozy feel and the seemingly uneventful moments turned out to completely alter her– and my– perception of the world. While Children of the King was a fun and exciting read, Brown Girl Dreaming possessed the kind of magic that I didn’t get in Children of the King, the kind of magic that creeps up on you when you least expect it, the kind that you encounter in daily life.

– Kid Commentator NS

THE WINNER OF ROUND 1 MATCH 1:

BROWN GIRL DREAMING

 

Comments

  1. I am late to the table this year, with few books read. Life happens. But this result makes me soooo happy. Unlike NS, I found Cecily uncomfortably relatable. That said, Woodson’s writing is simple, poetic and yet conveys as much if not more than Hartnett’s more sophisticated and multi-layered prose.
    AND I don’t know why I even try to write reviews of these books when the Kid Commentators BOTH do such splendid, probing analyses. You guys are GREAT!

  2. Okay, clearly BROWN GIRL was the correct choice as Ms. Black coherently made the case. Her write up made me remember why it is such a spectacular book. She also reminded me why I loved Cecily in CHILDREN OF THE KING so much. How can one help but adore such obtuse self-centeredness when a fairly generous heart beats underneath.

    Thank you Holly Black, for writing such a lyrical description of both books. And as it can’t be said often enough, thank you also for being ballsy enough to name your want-a-be vampire MIDNIGHT. This brings me a giggle every time I think of it. *giggles*

  3. Meredith says:

    I really loved both of these books, but I’d give the edge to Brown Girl Dreaming, if for no other reason than I expected to love Children of the King, but Brown Girl Dreaming surprised me. I can’t wait for the other battles.

  4. are judges allowed to comment? 😀

    • Battle Commander Battle Commander says:

      Sure. Just as long as no beans are spilled, so to say:)

      • well, this judge wants to say that I found Children of the King felt curiously outdated in its narrative voice – it felt like a mid-twentieth century kids’ book to me, Noel Streatfeild maybe. And actually I really liked that – I loved the meandering episodic plot and the unusual beauty of the turns of phrase. I am pretty old-fashioned in my reading tastes and this was a *comfortable* read for me. But I *also* felt that this old-fashioned voice was one of the book’s major flaws. Contemporary trends have made me deeply suspicious of the Third Person Omniscient Narrator – today’s readers are used to being focused very clearly in one person’s viewpoint, even where there are mutliple narrators. And it does make a tighter narrative. I feel like we have no business or reason suddenly to be thrown into the mother’s head thirty years in the future for a paragraph or two!

        Curiously, I think I enjoyed reading this book more than I enjoyed reading Brown Girl Dreaming, but there’s no doubt in my mind that Brown Girl Dreaming is a better book. Isn’t the individual reading experience a strange thing!

  5. And we are off! I have 97 kids and teachers with predictions in this tournament so far. Of those 97, 43 correctly predicted Brown Girl Dreaming. Thanks to the magic of Google Forms, I just sent everyone an email with the news. We are out on Spring Break this week, but we can still have March Madness excitement! This year’s tournament is going to be the best ever!

  6. Jonathan Hunt Jonathan Hunt says:

    I’m with you, Elizabeth. I may have liked reading THE CHILDREN OF THE KING more, but I think BROWN GIRL DREAMING is the better book. And when we got Holly’s decision I thought to myself, “Finally! The Newbery curse is broken!” Of course, this was before the ALA awards. Little did I know . . . The curse lives on!

  7. I haven’t read The Children of the King yet. Really, I tried to get them all read, but such is life. But I loved Brown Girl Rising. I love the way it was written. I loved hearing about her difficulty learning to read and know that she would become such a great writer. My Library Club at the Thomas Downey High School also loved Brown Girl Rising. They will be thrilled to hear that it’s staying in the running.

  8. I am with NS in thinking Children of the King wasn’t anything special. I found it largely forgettable. While I was reading it, I was completely unable to believe that Jem and May at least hadn’t heard the story of the Princes in the Tower. How is that even possible??? For Jem especially. His parents should get a refund for his lacking education. (As I’m sure he went to a pricey private school.) Call me nitpick but I couldn’t let this go.

    So glad Brown Girl Dreaming is moving on!

  9. Brandy, I have a nitpick that’s closely related, which is that because none of the historical characters are ever really named, we never actually know who they’re supposed to be. I mean, I KNOW, because I am a lapsed Richard III fantatic. But if you’re a young reader who knows nothing about the Wars of the Roses, it might come across as a made-up fairy tale rather than a dip into actual English history. Also, I am so very lapsed that I couldn’t remember who any of the supporting characters were and I really NEEDED some names and titles to attach to them to jog my memory. If I didn’t know what was going on, what hope does a reader new to this story have? Or even Jem? Maybe that’s why he didn’t recognize it?

    As a lapsed Richard III fanatic I was also a bit cross at the quite traditional portrait of Richard, whether or not it may be true. Which has nothing to do with the success of the book – but it does have to do with my reaction to it as a reader.

    PS Also: the manner of Clarence’s death is like, the BEST PART OF THE WAR OF THE ROSES. And that’s the one thing that got purposefully suppressed in the telling here. Cecily and May would both have LOVED it.

    • Good points, Elizabeth.

      I think that the author had to tell it like a fairy tale without the names for the American readers who wouldn’t know the story, but it robbed the book of its authenticity for me. Because even the way it was told, Jem seemed smart enough to know.

      I was also cross at the portrait of Richard, particularly the depiction of his marriage. That made me have to put the book down and walk away for a while. And yes, this is a very personal reader reaction.

      • Isn’t Hartnett Australian? You have me thinking more about the intended audience for the book now.

        I really liked the relationship between May and Cecily but I think The War that Saved My Life by Kimberley Brubaker Bradley is my current favorite Blitz/evacuation/WWII novel.

        • Cecilia, I believe she is Australian. I think we can assume this wasn’t intended for British children. 🙂 But who knows?

          I checked The War that Saved My Life out from the library this week and am excited to read it!!

        • Barb Gogan says:

          OK–going completely off-topic now, but I just finished THE WAR THAT SAVED MY LIFE and loved it! Even though certain things that happened were predictable, the terror she was able to convey made it seem realistic (not trying to give away plot points, but if you’ve read it I think you know what I’m trying to say!)

Trackbacks

  1. […] first match of the 2015  SLJ’s Battle of the Kids’ Books. And it is a doozy — Brown Girl Dreaming versus Children of the King judged beautifully by Holly Black. We’ve also got our kid commentators — including one […]

  2. […] York Times best-selling author Holly Black had the difficult task of judging the first match of SLJ’s Battle of the Kids’ Books, and after careful deliberation, chose the National Book […]

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