Subscribe to SLJ
Follow This Blog: RSS feed
Battle of the Books

Round 1, Match 5: Samurai Rising vs Some Writer!

Match5_Samurai_Writer

JUDGE – TANYA LEE STONE

Samurai Rising
by Pamela S. Turner
illustrated by Gareth Hinds
Charlesbridge
Some Writer!
by Melissa Sweet
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt

 

When I was 8, my Dad built me an L-shaped reading nook, which hung about three feet below a corner of our family-room ceiling. It was accessible only by ladder rungs narrow enough for small shoes. Up I would climb, disappearing into The Kingdom of Wisdom, Whangdoodleland, or Camazotz. Real-life dramas sucked me in, too, especially those that featured can-do, resilient survivors of the worst fires, earthquakes, and floods in history. As I gobbled up more and more true stories, I found nirvana—an entire series of books all about famous Americans and what they were like as kids. I was a convert. A nonfiction fanatic…until I uncovered the horrible truth.

The authors of that series had staged a coup in my brain. They had peppered their plots with a bunch of details designed to impress, and had achieved this goal in dastardly fashion by…are you ready for it?…

…MAKING STUFF UP. Whaaaaaa???

Hell hath no fury like a young girl scorned. I dealt my own drastic measure and turned my back on any more “nonfiction” unless I was sure it was “the truth.” I hadn’t yet realized we were all doomed to deal with the insidious infiltration of “alternative facts.” So I took up with the likes of the straight-up factual—your basic encyclopedia entries, newspaper articles, history textbooks. We’re just not even going to get into how factual the latter were. You can guess what happened next. Boredom set in. History went from my best to worst subject.

Swearing off nonfiction forever, I sought solace back in my nook with Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret, The Other Side of the Mountain, Bridge to Terabithia, and—as I grew—Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. The same year I fell for Hunter, my English teacher handed me Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States. Riveting, detailed true stories with nothing fabricated? Sound the trumpets; can I get a Hallelujah! My reading world grew wide again.

Both Pamela Turner’s Samurai Rising and Melissa Sweet’s Some Writer! would make Zinn proud. They have each crafted narratives that allow us to fully step into real worlds while remaining true to their subjects. One gave me an intimate sense of an artist whose books are a bedrock of our field, but whose daily life, and the depths to which that life informed his approach to creativity, I knew little about. The other put me right on the battlefield with teenage samurai Minamoto Yoshitsune in the late 1100s. I felt the fierce and mysterious culture of the samurai, and was somehow able to look at the world through the eyes of a fifteen-year-old force of nature. I will forever be in awe of a writer who can shake off thick layers of dust from the past and have me fearing, and cheering for, a boy who lived eight centuries ago—even more so when the subject matter happens to stray far from my personal penchants.

Samurai Rising is not for the faint of heart. Full disclosure, I am the faint of heart. So while others may indeed revel in tales like Tametomo cutting out his own belly, a boy warrior’s head being sliced off, and other gruesome realities of samurai life, I am not that reader. But Turner paints these images with bold strokes and I have no doubt that such scenes will enthrall countless readers.

The overall world building of this story also has the added punch of power that Gareth Hinds and his illustrative prowess brings to the page. Hinds bowled me over with his stark brush and ink images exuding a life force worthy of the Japanese samurai. And the horses! From Turner we learn that there may be nothing quite as important to a samurai warrior as his horse. This book is flush with them. Magnificent beasts in all their glory—seen both through Turner’s descriptions and Hinds’ depictions. Drinking in the horses kept me going when the going got rough. As for maps in works of nonfiction, I am a sucker for how they ground me in place, and Hinds delivers on that front as well.

Where Samurai Rising is terrifying, Some Writer! is tender. Sweet has carefully curated a loving tribute of E. B. White. She presents a story that is delightful to read while simultaneously stepping out of the way to give the reader ample opportunities to enjoy En’s own clippings and comments. The way she weaves the artifacts into the narrative let me fall head first into the past, as if I was flipping through my very own beautifully presented archive complete with En’s poem in New York World, his hand-drawn map of the White farm in Maine, personal pages from an early draft of Stuart Little, a handwritten letter to Ursula Nordstrom, and oh my oh my, the Garth Williams sketches of Charlotte and the editorial evolution of what became that famous first line: “Where’s Papa going with that axe?”

White was the beneficiary of some excellent advice as a young reporter. His boss at the Seattle Times told him: “Just say the words.” Sweet has taken that advice one step farther while retaining the simplicity of its truth. While she has indeed just said the words, it is also our great fortune that as an illustrator she has also just sketched and drawn and painted and designed this gift of a book.

One of my pet peeves in nonfiction is a writer tempted to fill in gaps where the research is missing. We find neither Turner nor Sweet taking this liberty. My ear is tuned to appreciate the brevity with which Turner lets us know her knowledge of something is limited without distracting us from her story. When we travel with Yoshitsune and his “raging fleet,” she informs us “we don’t know his exact route,” and is transparent about the fact that what follows is a well-informed hypothesis.

And about the research that makes an author an authority; well, both Turner and Sweet have clearly done their homework. From Author’s Note to Afterword, a writer of true stories couldn’t wish for a better endorsement than the one Sweet received from White’s granddaughter. And while both Sweet and Turner include back matter that inspires trust, Turner earns a slight edge over Sweet by sheer volume. More than seventy pages of back matter? Be still my geeky heart!

A close call between these terrific true tales, but overall, the win has to go to Some Writer!, if only for the unsettling dreams Samurai Rising has inflicted on this writer.

— Tanya Lee Stone

Ms. Stone raises a fascinating question in her decision: what’s the value of truth in a kids’ non-fiction book? How much do kids care? Fifth-grade me, for one, loved researching the Vikings in exhaustive detail, so I’m all for the factual tidbits, and both books are chock-full of them. Through such specifics as Yoshitsune’s elaborate battle plans – charge down the vertical cliff! – and E.B. White’s winning line in the Minneapolis Journal Limerick Contest (“A bubble the spot now denotes”), both Sweet and Turner expertly draw the reader into engrossing worlds. I, for one, loved the terrifying exploits of the samurai just a little less than En’s guidebook to the Belgrade Lakes, and I’m happy with the outcome. Just as noteworthy, though, is Ms. Stone’s wonderful account of her love-hate relationship with nonfiction as a kid. In closing, here’s a limerick celebrating this battle:

When a spider can trap a samurai sword
I remember the power of words.
With their brilliant art
These two books fought hard,
But En, well he won my heart.

P.S. Pamela S. Turner wrote The Frog Scientist, which shockingly won the Undead Poll back in 2009. Can she do it again with samurai at her side?

– Kid Commentator RGN

Though I did enjoy Some Writer! and in fact preferred it over many of the books this year, Samurai Rising would have been my choice undoubtedly. Ms. Stone is correct: it is definitely not for the faint of heart. I’ve always been like this, but I relish tales that seem too crazy, too horrible, too anything to be true. But aside from the somewhat satisfyingly horrifying mental images, Turner’s vivid description makes the story is extremely engrossing. Unlike Some Writer!, which took me about three days of lazy reading in 10 minute intervals, I finished Samurai in one three hour sitting. That’s not to say I didn’t like Some Writer! (because I truly did). I only wish there was more of an explanation for Ms. Stone’s decision––was her real qualm the gruesome details of Samurai? On the bright side, I’m not upset that Some Writer! is advancing. I’m just disappointed that Samurai won’t be.

(And with that, I copied RGN’s limerick idea. I’m liking this trend of poetic responses, even if I can’t execute it as well!)

Yoshitsune Versus En: A Limerick

Neither character’s feats should be ignored
But this match could be only one’s reward
So Some Writer!’s En
Proved––this time––the pen
Is mightier than a samurai’s sword

 

– Kid Commentator NS

Battle Commander (gravatar)

SOME WRITER!
WILL MOVE ON TO ROUND 2

 

Comments

  1. Kid Judge Kid Judge says:

    While both books were enjoyable and interesting, my winner is Samurai Rising by Pamela S. Turner with illustrations by Gareth Hinds. Samurai Rising gives the reader a fascinating and sometimes gruesome window into the epic life of Minamoto Yoshitsune, a legendary samurai in 12th century Japan. While the story is all non-fiction, it feels like a novel. Also, the black and white illustrations by Gareth Hinds add a beautifully simple balance to the writing. Some Writer, illustrated and written by Melissa Sweet is a fun and easy biography of E.B. White. The book contains pages of photos, letters, collages, and drawings that make the title feel like a family scrapbook. However, it didn’t include the pure intrigue of Samurai Rising which is why it fell short in this round.
    (Fantasy BoB Kid Judge George P.)

  2. Thank you for this pull-no-punches comparison, Ms. Stone! I happen to be using both these books in a How to Write Compelling Nonfiction workshop I’ve been presenting this spring! Amazing reads!

  3. Other Meredith says:

    Hey, at least my undead vote was not wasted. Rise again, Samurai Rising! Truthfully, I did not like Some Writer very much. I kind of got into it after a while, but those first couple of chapters about En’s childhood were all over the place.

  4. Since Some Writer is my favorite book in this whole lineup, I am sooooo happy with this outcome. Thanks, Tanya! I appreciate Samurai a lot but Melissa Sweet’s manipulation of artwork, realia and words… wow!

  5. Lucia Dirrig says:

    Great battle , happy with the decision. I am also not fond of too much gore in my reading. It doesn’t look like GHOST has been pulled forward to round 2 m2, although MARCH3 is already listed. Is It GHOST vs MARCH 3 or is the order changing?

  6. I completely agree with this decision. Some Writer! is so beautifully crafted. The images work so well with the words, and the story of E. B. White’s life is told in so many ways — I was very sorry this book didn’t win *some* kind of recognition at the YMA awards. In a way it was hard, because you wouldn’t want to look at *just* words or *just* images, but the whole package.

Leave a Reply to Mary Cancel reply

*