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Battle of the Books

Round 1, Match 8: We Were Liars vs. West of the Moon

JUDGE – KELLY BARNHILL

We Were Liars
by E. Lockhart
Delacorte/Random House
West of the Moon
by Margi Preus
Harry Abrams

Once upon a time, there were two books, each alike in beauty and strength and faithfulness. They each had clear eyes and nimble feet and clever fingers. They each had strong backs and sturdy strides and a satchel full of useful tools. When they spoke, their voices sang.

Once upon a time, a hapless writer was given a task. “Choose,” said a voice. “You can only take one. Choose.”

“I cannot,” said the writer. “How could I possibly choose?”

How indeed?

At first glance, We Were Liars by E. Lockhart and West of the Moon by Margi Preus have little in common. One takes place among the stratospherically wealthy families who summer in Martha’s Vineyard – the sort of people who use “summer” as a verb, who have boats and multiple houses and people who look after them who are referred to as the “staff” or the “help”. The other takes place among the desperate poor of nineteenth century Norway, people eking out a meager existence on the rocky soil and the punishing winters and the stony remains of ill-fated trolls.

That’s the first glance. If there is one thing we learn from fairy tales, it is this: the first glance never tells you everything you want to know. The first glance is always a lie.

Both West of the Moon and We Were Liars are realistic stories built on the foundation of fairy tales. In both stories, fairy tales infect the structure of the story, hiding in the shadows, stalking the outside of the house, peeking in the windows, following soundlessly in the footsteps. In West of the Moon, a man arrives to claim Astri and take her away, having paid for her fair and square. Astri’s mind goes instantly to the story of the White Bear of Valemon, in which an enchanted prince asks a young girl to go with him, if she wishes. Astri is given no such choice. The man who buys her is not “a splotch of sunlight, penetrating the gloom”, but is rather just a shadow, a dark space, “and even after it passes, the darkness lingers, as if the sun has gone for good.” Astri must leave her beloved sister in the hands of a sinister aunt, and is sent to do backbreaking work for the more-sinister Goat Man.

As Astri finds ways to protect herself, she finds herself returning again and again to fairy tales – The White Bear of Valemon, specifically. The stories both illuminate her situation and clarify her plans for escape, as they simultaneously obscure the facts on the ground and confuse the reality of her situation. Stories, in this case, are both mirror and lamp, but the mirror is cloudy and the light is dim. And Astri is bound to make mistakes.

We Were Liars starts with three lies. “No one is a criminal,” Cadence tells us. “No one is an addict. No one is a failure.” Three lies, three sisters, three princesses ready to tear their family apart. Set among the über-rich and the astonishingly privileged, We Were Liars is ultimately a modern fairy tale, chronicling the disasters that invariably follow the sin of greed. An aging patrician graspingly hordes the thin proof his daughters’ love and devotion as his daughters tear one another apart, trying to secure their portions of an ever-decreasing pie. What could possibly go wrong?

Cadence returns to her family’s summer island with a broken mind and a broken heart and a debilitating case of migraines. She has no memory of the accident that left her separate and hurting. Indeed, she has very few memories of the summer when she was fifteen. All she has is questions. And lies. And stories. Once upon a time there was a king with three beautiful daughters. It is the insistence of stories and faded memories and whispering ghosts that lead her, step by step, toward a reckoning of what happened to perfect, fairy-tale life that she thought she had.

I cannot choose between these books. I must choose between these books. Both were searing, honest and brutal. Both tangled their webs of truth and lies, story and myth, understanding and obfuscation, intentionally winding the reader into a tight, clever knot. These books make you squirm. These books make you gasp. These books make you untangle your bonds all on your own – they do not offer a helping hand. This is my favorite kind of book.

In the end, I can only tip my hat to the book that I am more likely to read again (and in this case, I shall read it again, and again, and again. Indeed, I am re-reading it right now, out loud, to my son. And it is marvelous) and that is West of the Moon by Margi Preus. Despite the darkness of the tale, and crushing insurmountability of the stakes involved, at the center of Astri’s story is the splotch of sunlight, penetrating the gloom – that bright, hopeful heart. Astri is a flawed heroine, and her progress is impeded not only by dreadful antagonists, but her own foolish mistakes. Still, it is her love for her sister and her undaunted hope for something better that makes this story transcend its subject matter. It is not a happy book – no, it most certainly is not –  but it is a joyful book. And it is that joy that I offer you, dear readers – a white bear that can change your circumstances; a bright talisman, hidden from your enemies; a courageous princess who saves the day.

— Kelly Barnhill

Perhaps stories, then, and fairy tales, are at the center of this year’s BoB. Owen, Poisoned Apples, Madman, and Egg and Spoon stand out particularly. Then there are many books that discuss race and history an incredibly complex way for young readers. Memoirs, too, have their place, and so does poetry. Not to mention the wonderful graphic novels we have – the “younger” one a Newbery honor and the “older” one a Caldecott! But besides Cece, perhaps no character is as lovable as Astri herself, even over her sister(s). She’s that wonderful character for whom somehow, things end up right in the end, against all odds. It’s a fairy tale story of the American Dream of an immigrant from Norway, back when that dream seemed more viable in name. But while we know little of what happens to Astri in America, we know that Cadence’s dream is a lie. It’s moving, of course, but, for me, We Were Liars is another one of those overwrought YA books that ends up being melodramatic, worse than Eleanor and Park and The Fault in Our Stars. It tries so hard to find the truth in lies and lies in truth that it gets a bit much. Maybe I’ve just read enough of these books, maybe it’s because I am an upper middle class kid with exposure to Sinclair-like wealth, but it didn’t work for me. It’s better if you consider it as a fairy tale instead of being real, as Ms. Barnhill wisely does and can definitely be supported, because, if so, Cadence is still lying at the end of the book. Anyways, I’d argue stories are at their simplest true lies.

– Kid Commentator RGN

West of the Moon, for me at least, is an inspiring tale that chronicles the life of a poor immigrant from Norway, with a fairy tale thrown into the mix. We Were Liars feels like overprivileged rich kids complaining about their first world problems. I loved West of the Moon, and it’s definitely among my favorites of the BoB books this year. It brought something new to the table: a historical fiction novel about the peasants. We Were Liars wasn’t really executed properly. It was like most of the other YA novels of today (that aren’t dystopian, of course), rich, or at least upper middle class, white kids with problems that would only be considered because they don’t have any real problems. The plot was more complicated than it needed to be, and it felt like a poorly adapted, modern rendition of Downton Abbey. I read this a while back, so I reread it for the battle. It is, without a doubt, a “one time read” book. The first time I read it, I really liked it. After rereading it, however, it was much less enjoyable, possibly because I already knew the ending. Maybe it was just me, but We Were Liars didn’t leave me with any real morals, while West of the Moon did.

– Kid Commentator NS

THE WINNER OF ROUND 1 MATCH 8:

WEST OF THE MOON

 

Comments

  1. I am so happy! My family is very Norwegian and this book made me feel right at home, but I was afraid that the ethnic authenticity I loved was skewing my overall judgement. I’m so glad others are loving the book, too! I’m looking forward to sharing it with my granddaughter in a few years, before she inherits four generations of silver brooches.

  2. Love this decision and completely agree with Barnhill. Not that I thought the Liars books was not good, but it simply didn’t have the staying power of West of the Moon.. It’s sort of a one trick pony, even though that is a very good trick.

    I’ve now missed three of the predictions and am eager to see what happens in the next round. Maybe this is a graphic novel year. In the final round could El Deafo and This One Summer end up duking it out? Or will the next round see the written work trumping the illustrated word?

    • That would be fun! Although, I feel like it’s going to be El Deafo and Brown Girl Dreaming… We’ll have to wait and see what happens!

      You’re definitely right about We Were Liars and like NS said, it really is a “one time read” book. I’d love to see West of the Moon in the final battle, but I have a sneaking suspicion that it won’t make it. This battle seems to yield some of the most conflicted opinions, probably due to We Were Liars. I wonder why…

  3. Meredith says:

    I wasn’t invested in either of these books. West of the Moon is certainly the one I thought I would like best. But I think I enjoyed We Were Liars a little bit more. Honestly, I can’t see myself rereading either one of them.

  4. I totally disagree with this decision. I really thought We Were Liars was so well-crafted and had that fantastic surprise ending. I know that my students felt that they had to go back and read it again to see if they had missed clues to what was really going on.

    • True, but that surprise ending was part of the problem. It made it into a book that couldn’t be reread. In fact, when I reread this book for the battle, I found myself dragging through it rather than enjoying it.

      • I had the opposite reaction – I felt it *demanded* to be reread. It is full of subtlety and exquisitely crafted, and on rereding you notice all kinds of things that prefigure the end – and also, change its meaning. You *might* thing, on a single reading, that the whole of that last summer is the wild imaginings of a disturbed mind. There are little clues within the text that show there are other people experiencing the same thing the narrator is experiencing, which puts a totally different twist on the reader’s interpretation of the whole book.

        Anyway, I really loved We Were Liars, and didn’t see the ending coming from a mile away DESPITE many online reviewers trying to spoil it for me. In fact so many people had complained about it that I was pleasantly surprised when I didn’t hate it. I wonder if teens tend to be more forgiving than adults in glossing over the things that make it distasteful to a lot of us – the wealth of the family in question, their undeniable privilege, the fact that they’re spoiled and white? I mean… y’all watch Downton Abbey, right? or, um, cough, King Lear, to which this is deeply and consciously connected? I *liked* reading about the crazy people in their private, terrible kingdom. I *loved* the twist that turned it into a different genre of book altogether.

        • whoa, all teh typos. sorry!

          • so I have just gone back and reread the kid commentators’ comments and I see that they *did* feel the same way about We Were Liars as most other commentators here, so there goes that argument. But I still reckon struggling to get over the fact that you accidentally BURNED YOUR THREE BEST FRIENDS TO DEATH is not really “overprivileged rich kids complaining about their first world problems” for goodness sake!

        • That was a bit of an overstatement on that kid commentator’s part. But I think that the struggle wasn’t portrayed in a way that made me sympathetic towards Cadence at all. It made her seem more whining over something unimportant. After finding out what really happened over that summer, I did feel a little more sorry for her. But her story didn’t leave me with a heart wrenching sadness like (off topic, spoiler alert, but if you didn’t know this one, you had a while to figure it out.) Snape’s death. It just made me feel like her trying to get over it was partially justified, rather than needless.

          • She wasn’t sympathetic – that is true. Yet I find that doesn’t necessarily stop me appreciating the story. “You can always count on a murderer for a fancy prose style.” And I did find the sadness heart-wrenching – it stayed with me for a long time after (can’t compare it to how I’d have felt about Snape, though, as I didn’t make it beyond book 5!) I mean, yeah, there are other on-page deaths I’ve found much more heart-wrenching, but in this case it was really the survivors I was aching for – the Littles and the wrecked, wretched grandfather and the punished parents – all desperately trying to rebuild their lives. If you read it a second time you really see how hard they’re all working to rebuild their lives, and to be better people. You hardly notice that at all the first time through.

          • Yes, the Littles are very sympathetic, and We Were Liars is a book to reread, but I can’t do it now, both because I’ll still be somewhat sickened by Cadence and her world, and because I have enough other things to read. I won’t deny that it’s powerful, but I do think it’s too dramatic unless you really do view it as something of a fairy tale, where anything can be a lie.

          • RGN: I see it as a ghost story, which I suppose makes the lies all possible for me. When I read it the second time I realized that Cadence is not the only one who interacts with the ghosts. It’s very subtle but clear – I missed it on the first reading.

            I can also totally see why a reread would feel like hard work if you didn’t actually *enjoy* it the first time around (and TOTALLY appreciate what it’s like to have “enough other things to read”!)

    • See, that was one of my problems with WE WERE LIARS – I saw the twist ending right away, and in the end, felt that it was over-foreshadowed. My two teen readers agreed. I still really loved it, and loved the writing, but that’s one of the reasons why it has less staying power for me.

      • That’s a good point too. I was one of the lucky ones. I didn’t see the ending coming, and because I read the ARC of it, I didn’t have it spoiled for me. Yeah, it was a good book the first time around. Even so, it was just a good read, not a book that I would recommend to all my friends. But once I read it again for the battle I was disappointed and really disliked it. It was one of the few books of this year’s battle that didn’t leave me with anything profoundly moving, thought-provoking, or any new insights on the world. But to each their own, right?

  5. Glad I voted for We Were Liars to rise from the dead!

  6. I didn’t really love either book, but I’m happy with West of the Moon. The more I’ve discussed We Were Liars with people, the less I’ve liked it. I saw the twist coming from almost the beginning, but hoped against all hopes I was wrong. But then I could see every single way the text was attempting to manipulate me and so it didn’t work for me. Though I did appreciate the voice.

    (Again, RGN owns this whole place. Bravo!)

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