JUDGE – JAMES DASHNER
by Jason Reynolds
Simon & Schuster
|The Girl Who Drank the Moon
by Kelly Barnhill
I want you to know that I say the following with all the love I can muster in my heart: School Library Journal is an evil, devious, monstrous entity. When they asked me to participate in Battle of the Books, I was incredibly honored and excited to be a part of it. But then they sent me two books and said, “Here ya go, James ole boy! Tell us who wins!”
So not fair.
For I’m here to tell you that both of the books given to me are absolutely, positively fantastic and only people who are evil, devious, and monstrous would actually ask me to pick one as a winner. I thought of rebelling and declaring it a tie, but then these people might come after me, so I decided against it.
Here’s a little bit about each book before I do what must be done. You have to be at least 153 years old to understand this reference, but as they say in the movie Highlander, “There can be only one.”
Ghost by Jason Reynolds
If you liked the movie MacFarland USA (which I did) you’ll love this book. It’s an uplifting story about a boy from a bad neighborhood whose life improves as a track coach gives him a chance on his team. It’s realistic, feels fresh, and is one of those books that you pretty much read in one sitting then wish it were longer.
Castle (or Ghost as he likes to call himself) is good at running because he’s literally had to run from things all his life. He and his mom ran from his dad as he tried to shoot them with a gun. Ghost meets a track coach who notices his talent and accepts him on the team with one condition: if Castle messes up even one time at school, he’s off the team. Despite the coach’s threat, Castle is slow to improve, and this is so heartbreaking because you’re rooting for him with all your heart. I hate spoilers, so I’ll stop there.
Reynolds does a fantastic job of making Castle’s emotions come to life. And the coach. Oh man, the coach. You’re going to love Otis more than you love your own grandmother. He’s one of my favorite people, now, and I really do feel bad about putting him ahead of Grandma. But there it is. All the characters in this book are just so well done, and I’m glad to hear that sequels are in the works.
Such a real, gritty, emotional, uplifting book. I loved it.
The Girl Who Drank the Moon by Kelly Barnhill
Wow, what a story. So well thought-out it makes me ragingly jealous. It’s such a great fairy tale and fantasy that it seems as if it’s been around for a thousand years and that there should’ve already been a Disney cartoon, a Broadway musical, and the inevitable live-action movie version. Seriously great stuff.
Part of the wonder of it is the slow reveal of the story itself. And, like I said, I hate spoilers. Let’s just say that the book starts out with a village having to sacrifice a baby to the evil witch of the forest. Yeah, I know, I had you at baby sacrifice and evil witch. But all is not as it seems and things just go up from there.
What to say about this book? The writing is elegant, the descriptions beautiful. The story is complex and layered, and the characters so well crafted they become real (and some of them—such as Luna and Fyrian the dragon—may even compete with Coach Otis for your affection over grandma’s). You feel like you’re actually in this magical place, swept away and constantly moved and surprised. I loved it.
So, who wins? SLJ has told me I must pick a winner, and thus I must do as commanded. Remember the whole evil, devious, monstrous thing I said earlier? I’d like to take that back, because this has been an amazing opportunity to read two wonderful books. But it’s so difficult to choose a winner—it doesn’t help that one was a National Book Award finalist and the other just won the Newbery Medal. Sheesh. I feel like I’m in a reality TV show and the whole world is watching me, laughing while I try to make a decision.
I’m going to go with…
Ghost by Jason Reynolds.
It just really struck something inside of me. This boy, Ghost, and his coach, Otis. The boy’s mom. The kids on the track team. It left a lot of lingering emotion inside of me, and that’s determined my decision. Maybe it’s because I have a son who ran track. Maybe I’m fighting my natural bias toward fantasy. I don’t know. But I had to choose, and I have chosen.
But my final word: I LOVED both of these books, and I may never forgive SLJ for making me choose between them. Okay, I do forgive, because I’m incredibly honored and lucky to have experienced these two stories. Jason and Kelly, thank you for sharing your incredible talent with the world. And with me.
— James Dashner
Yes, we’re laughing at you, Mr. Dashner. Because your decision is insightful and hilarious – and unknowingly, you aided and abetted the dreaded Newbery Curse, wherein the Newbery winner has never gotten past the first round. *gasp* History time: 2009, The Graveyard Book, nada; 2010, When You Reach Me, nope; in ‘11, Moon Over Manifest was outta the battle entirely. 2012 brought a sad dead end for Jack Gantos’ Dead End in Norvelt, and The One and Only Ivan was a sad and lonely first-round loser in 2013. The next year even Ulysses couldn’t use his squirrel powers to make Round 2. In 2015 (this is getting tedious), the basketball-wielding Bell brothers couldn’t convert, while last year Last Stop on Market Street ended its journey before the first round of BoB.
I want to break the Newbery Curse (duh), and I’m liking fantasy more and more as I get older (ha, NS!), so I would have picked The Girl Who Drank the Moon. Perhaps I want to escape the troubles of getting older in this crazy era, but even in fantasy one can’t escape authoritarian governments and oppression, it seems. So maybe I better face reality with Reynolds’ brilliant and fast-paced coming-of-age story. Speaking of this tumultuous year, if the Newbery Curse can survive the year of Trump, then it can survive anything.
– Kid Commentator RGN
The Newbery Curse lives on! (I would expect nothing less––it’s almost a tradition at this point.) I need not repeat the unabridged historical account of said curse that RGN provided, but I think it’s suffice to say that it’s not ending any time soon. As much as I loved The Girl Who Drank the Moon, however, I have to agree with Mr. Dashner on this one; Ghost was my favorite of the two. But, I am eternally grateful that I am a commentator and not a judge, because then I would have to bite the bullet and pick The Girl Who Drank the Moon as the better book. This was one of the rarer rounds where the book I thought was better and the book I liked more were not, in fact, one and the same. I’m a sucker for inspirational stories like Ghost, and I’m starting to like fantasy less and less as I get older. Maybe I’m just humanocentric (and realworldcentric, because that’s a thing), but I want to hear stories about people I can picture as being real, gosh darn it! I’ve said it in previous years and I’ll say it again, I end up getting way too attached to characters. Mr. Dashner is spot on: watch out, Bubbe, you’ve been replaced with Otis! Personal preference aside, however,
– Kid Commentator NS
GHOST WILL MOVE ON TO ROUND TWO