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Battle of the Books

Round 2, Match 2: I Crawl Through It vs Gone Crazy in Alabama

R2_GoneCrazy_Crawl

JUDGE – Meg Medina

Gone Crazy in Alabama
by Rita Williams-Garcia
Amistad
I Crawl Through It
by A. S. King
Little Brown Books for Young Readers

Here’s what I remember about high school, both as a student and, years later, as a teacher: In many ways it’s a theater of the absurd.

For all the ways we try to brand the high school experience as a piece of treasured Americana, much what goes on is pretty sinister when we pull back for a bird’s eye view. Take the safety drills in schools as politicians dissect and debate gun laws. Or the principals trying to exert empty power through late passes and detentions. How about testing becoming the curriculum, the inexplicable popularity of the meanest and most mundane of classmates, and, of course, the parents who both hover and abdicate their role.

The list is endless, and for kids with sharp eyes, it’s enraging.

Enter a wholly original novel that captures that theater of the absurd exactly.

I Crawl Through It is about four teens trying to attend (or escape) a high school where daily bomb drills are the norm – and possibly the work of one of our narrators.

Gustav, physics whiz, is building a helicopter that is invisible to most, but that somehow transports people anyway. Stanzi, in love with him, is attached to her lab coat and her scalpel, but not to the parents who have abandoned her to her isolating grief. China has turned in upon herself to become a walking anus on some days (other days a colon, an esophagus…anything that digests things) as she recovers from a Facebook-publicized rape at the hands of a classmate. And Landsdale, our pathological liar with a peculiar hair problem (it grows with each fib), hits on the truth more often than not.

This is an upside world where the creepy guy in the bushes can be a hero, where the responsible adults are AWOL, and where nothing makes sense for long. But mostly it’s a place that will be eerily familiar to every teen in America who is frantically trying to learn something meaningful as they grow up. What’s the answer? Who knows, people? In As I Crawl Through It, we’re still looking for the damn questions.

This won’t be a novel for everyone, but it was a terrific read for me. So many things worked here. From a writer’s perspective, I have to bow down to A.S. King’s finely drawn characters, her usual strong suit. I was especially fond of Stanzi and China, who emerge as amazingly strong girls despite all the ways that life tried to break them.

But what I loved most about I Crawl Through It was its refreshing originality as it used magical realism to explore the absurd world that teens are up against. The inner teacher in me kept thinking What a great book to use in a larger study of surrealism in art or to pair with Waiting for Godot and other absurdist theater. And more important, I started wondering about what kind of meaty conversations could get started in a classroom with a book like this. Here’s one conversation I’d want to hear: What is the most important thing you think we learn in high school? What is the real test question we’d ask if we could? What are the answer choices you’d provide? Thinking about that discussion makes me nervous… nervous and hopeful – the two emotions, as it happens, that filled me as I read this beautiful novel.

So how does it compare to Gone Crazy in Alabama, the last installment in the middle grade trilogy by Rita Williams Garcia?

Gone Crazy In Alabama follows the Gaither sisters of Brooklyn, New York– Delphine (13), Vonetta (11), and Fern (7) as they spend the summer of 1969 in Alabama with their notoriously persnickety grandmother, Big Ma. In early books, the sisters met the mother who left them – Cecile – and sampled life in California’s Black Panther movement. In Book Two, they tangled with a new love in their Dad’s life – and with the impact of the Viet Nam War and drug addiction on their uncle Darnell.

But in this book, Rita Williams-Garcia finally has to tie together all she has explored about the messy nature of sisters, the impact of social change on how we relate to each other, and the enduring bonds of family.

The squabbling trio is hilarious. Fern, the budding poet who refuses to eat chickens once she connects that food chain dots. Vonetta, dramatic and a little mean, stoking a story war between her elders. And finally, Delphine, stuck in the lonely place of being both an older sister and ally.

There’s so much to love in Gone Crazy in Alabama, not the least of which is its ability to toy mercilessly with a reader’s emotions. It gave me belly laughs (Lord! Throw me a mercy!) But just as often it made me teary, as when Delphine is left without an embrace from her mother. Like A.S. King, Rita Williams-Garcia is a master of creating nuanced and memorable characters. Not a single one – and the cast is large! – merged with another. Moreover, I wanted each and every one in my own family.

But the wow factor for me was the historical elements. We’ve all read novels where the history and research feels glued on. None of that happened here. Old feuds and family stories shared by Big Ma, Ma Charles (their great-grandmother) and Miss Totter (their great half-aunt) provide a natural way for readers to learn about the Trail of Tears and the intersection of the history of African Americans and First Nations. The girls came face to face with the difficult truths about the enslaved and their owners, including the children that resulted. Finally, the dynamics between the older generation of women and Pa’s new wife (known simply as Mrs.) shine a light on feminism as it emerged at different paces in Brooklyn and in the south.

What could have been a clunky history lesson became something artful and sensitive in the masterful hands of Rita Williams Garcia. The narrative was always about Delphine’s struggle to understand herself as a girl, as a sister, and as a daughter. It was about her journey to accept her family and the many ways of being loved by them. But the story was also an exploration of the history of a people that has been largely untold in schools. The difficult truths were written in a way that could be digested by young readers. Rita Williams-Garcia trusted them with the truth of what has come before.

The VERDICT: The comparison between these two titles seems unfair, given the different conventions of middle grade fiction and Young Adult. For me, I Crawl Through It had a more daring and complicated narrative style; it’s tough work to make different narrators strong enough to carry each part of their story. It was also, of the two, the more original. But Gone Crazy in Alabama was somehow more engaging. In the end, I decided to look at this through the eyes of young readers. Which of these casts could capture the hearts of the most readers? Which of these books offered readers new information about themselves and others? On a personal level, which book made me saddest when it came to an end?

For this round, I choose Gone Crazy in Alabama.

— Meg Medina

Extra points for a judge who uses the word “persnickety” in her writeup. It makes me not really care about the decision, but bravo to Medina’s choice as well, and to her great insights about Gone Crazy’s historical side. But why was Garcia-Williams’ middle-grade masterpiece more engaging than I Crawl Through It for me as well as Medina? In both books, the characters were very well drawn, but Fern, Vonetta, Delphine & Co. were more immediately lovable than the lonely teenagers of the absurd. While, as a sometimes-lonely teen, I did relate to Gustav, Stanzi, China, and Lansdale, and the surrealism worked for me, it might be too weird and emotionally raw for some people. But, by all means, pair it with Godot – that would be fascinating! You could also teach Garcia-Williams’ trilogy for middle schoolers along with a history unit about the ‘60’s, if you can get them to read that much. And the details in Gone Crazy are the bacon in the collard greens (yes, bad joke, and sorry, Fern): Butter and Sophie, the peculiarities of ironing sheets, cereal with cornflakes.

– Kid Commentator RGN

Thank god Gone Crazy won! I don’t like to say that I hate books, but there was little I liked about I Crawled Through It. As someone going through the terror of teenage years, I felt that, at most points, I could really relate to the feelings the characters have. I understand that feeling of trying to cope with whatever it is that needs coping in whatever way you can. And King really captures the angst of high school. But I honestly didn’t love it. It felt like a collection of feelings, of little snippets of a teenage experience, rather than a story with a plot. But maybe that’s just me. And besides, what was with that helicopter? On the other hand, I thoroughly enjoyed Gone Crazy in Alabama. While the plot wasn’t particularly enthralling, the bickering of the three sisters really was so realistic, so perfectly indicative of the experience of having to live with siblings, that I couldn’t help but fall in love with all of them. The one bone I have to pick with it is the fact that it’s a book in a series. And not just A book, the FINAL book. I read this book before I knew it was part of a series, and I absolutely hate reading books out of order, because this was clearly a continuation of whatever came before it. (I still haven’t read the others, but still). Otherwise, kudos to Rita Williams-Garcia! It’s definitely up at my top 3 for this battle.

– Kid Commentator NS

Battle Commander (gravatar)

GONE CRAZY IN ALABAMA WILL MOVE ON TO ROUND 3

 

Comments

  1. Whew! So happy Gone Crazy advances! And that it’s going head to head with Echo… well, that’s a nail-biting pairing. Ms. Gilbert has her work cut out for her, and I don’t envy that position at all!

  2. I’m very pleased with this decision. I have to admit I was not able to finish I Crawl Through It but I’ve been a fan of the Gaither sisters for years. I absolutely adore this series: the historical details, the complex characters, the moral nuances. I hope it goes all the way to the top!

  3. I was surprised at how much loved I Crawl Through it. I read it the same weekend I read Nest and I was shocked that I loved them both because I usually like my magic and my realism separate. those Each of these books were so beautiful to me with their perfect depictions of the complex feelings that come with this crazy life we live. I immediately told friends all about I Crawl Through It and wanted someone else to read it so we could discuss. I’m sad to see it go. BUT I LOVE the Gaither sisters and I’m happy to see them move on.

  4. Other Meredith says:

    I just started Gone Crazy yesterday, and I love it so far. Glad to see it advance.

  5. Paige Ysteboe says:

    I am so very happy with this result! I LOVED Gone Crazy and had to force myself through I Crawl Through It.
    Round 3 is shaping up to be a good one!

  6. Bird Cramer says:

    While I adore the Gaither sisters, and hand them out to students every year, re-reading their stories are like visiting old friends: they are comfortable and I know what to expect with each novel. Meanwhile, because of the surrealist element behind I Crawl Through It, the book changes and morphs into something new every time I read it. When I talk with others who read the book, we compare our thoughts and opinions. We ask questions, wonder why particular elements are included in the book and what they could mean. We interpret the journey of the four characters through our personal lens and through the eyes of the characters. I read all 16 books and I Crawl Through It still has me thinking. It was the first book I read back in February and, after the third time through, I am still discovering what the book is about (at least for me). It is not an easy read, both in the literal and figurative sense, but I feel that is A.S. King’s gift to the reader. She encourages us to read, reflect, learn, feel, love, hope, heal, and most importantly- ask questions. What better words of advice can we receive than to ask questions? In a time where we are forced to fill in bubbles for a variety of life tasks, A.S. King encourages us to break free. Look to each other for help, ask the right questions.

    Many of the 16 books gave examples of characters going against the grain, breaking out of the mold society created for them. We can reflect on those experiences, be amazed by the bravery, and empathize, feel the heartache of the characters. Only King’s novel takes this theme a step further and encourages the reader to do the same. While Mozart, Dali, and Gustav’s brilliance was recognized, I would like to recognize Ms. King’s and thank her for such an incredible book. I promise to try as much as possible to ask the right questions.

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