JUDGE – SABAA TAHIR
by Melissa Sweet
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
|The Sun Is Also a Star
by Nicola Yoon
Generally I’m one of those people who snorts at the idea of giving trophies to everyone. Losing builds character, I always say. (Ok, I don’t always say that, but it sounds like something I might say when I’m older and wiser and giving lectures to my teenage children.)
But the Battle of the Kids’ Books is one case in which I wish I could give ALL the trophies because both of the books I read heartily deserved them.
I’ll start with Some Writer! by Melissa Sweet, about the life of E. B. White. As a child, I read Charlotte’s Web, Stuart Little and Trumpet of the Swan, of course. But I didn’t much think about the author at that time. The stories were so immersive that the author didn’t really seem to matter.
Nowadays, of course, reading as a kid is much different. I know this both as an author who interacts with young readers daily, and as a parent with a child who is totally obsessed with Jeff Kinney’s books. Authors are no longer shadowy figures sitting in desks far away, tip-tapping away in solitude. We’re on Instagram and Snapchat and Twitter, our biographical trails loud and colorful and occasionally, a little (or a lot) silly.
Which is part of the reason I adored Sweet’s tribute to E.B. White (known as Andy to his friends and family.) It’s a vibrant take on the traditional biography, perfect for kids and adults who are more visual learners. Sweet’s book is beautiful, heartfelt and the rarest of things when dealing with someone long-dead: both humorous and insightful. The book intersperses the written story of White’s life with letters, clippings and pictures that illustrate the vibrancy of that life. The “found footage” feel of the book takes it from a plain old biography to an almost tactile experience—mirroring social media in an unexpected way. The text is secondary, which is as it should be: it tells White’s story without interfering with the reader’s enjoyment of the imagery.
As a journalism nerd, I especially enjoyed reading about Andy’s interactions with William Strunk, Jr. (Author of the classic Elements of Style which is my top recommended book for writers). “From Professor Strunk,” Sweet writes, White learned “to ‘omit needless words’ in his writing.” Couldn’t we all do with a bit more of that?
Throughout the book, from the descriptions of White’s childhood antics to his years as a journalist to the publication of his most famous tales, Sweet maintains a sense of wonder and joy in White’s life that mirrors the wonder and joy found in his work. This was an absolute pleasure to read, and a BIG part of me is hoping that Sweet will create a series of found footage biographies just like this one.
Next up: The Sun is Also a Star by Nicola Yoon, author of Everything, Everything. With Sun, Yoon tells the story of Natasha and Daniel, a science-loving girl and a poetry-loving boy who meet on the streets of New York City, and who are forever changed as a result. Their story is moving and riveting, a courtship dance rendered in ink over 350 glorious pages. Its unsentimental look at the wrenching effects immigration laws have on kids is unsettlingly accurate. As an immigrant myself, I got chills reading about Natasha’s emotions as she faces what might be her last day in America before being deported to Jamaica.
But what struck me most about Yoon’s writing is how quickly she hooks you into Natasha and Daniel’s story. After only a few pages, I found myself rooting for them, and internally agonizing and preparing for the possibility that they wouldn’t end up together. (I might have thrown the book across the room at one point. I only do that when I’m really REALLY invested, people.) Yoon intersperses the characters’ story with thoughtful musings about physics, history, the universe, family and betrayal. In doing so, she gave me one of my favorite book excerpts in life, let alone just this book:
“And what about the lovers who spend hours staring into each other’s eyes? Is it a display of trust? ‘I will let you in close and trust you not to hurt me while I’m in this vulnerable position.’ And if trust is one of the foundations of love, perhaps the staring is a way to build or reinforce it. Or maybe it’s simpler than that.
A simple search for connection
To be seen. ”
And now, friends, the time has come to choose. But how? See, this is why everyone needs a trophy! Ultimately,The Sun is Also a Star edged out Some Writer! for me, due to the sheer brilliance of Yoon’s prose. But both books will have a cherished place in my library!
Ms. Tahir, I think you’ve crafted an insightful decision without “unnecessary words”; Strunk and White would be proud, except for the fact that you picked The Sun Is Also a Star. Personally, I wouldn’t pick The Sun Is Also a Star, because, although Yoon writes brilliantly, I’m sick of teen romance novels getting all the attention – even ones that offer political commentary AND have likeable characters. Personal taste, to be sure, but I found Some Writer! much more inventive in its multimedia form. Ms. Tahir made an excellent analogy when she compared it to social media; Some Writer! is, in some ways, a beautiful Facebook profile of a beloved writer. But it’s more than that, for Sweet explores childhood wonder, nature, and our own nostalgia for physical mementos: the letters, the drafts, the drawings. In the Internet era, I think it’s important not to lose the tactile experience of art and memory, something Sweet’s book captures perfectly.
BoB wouldn’t exist without physical books, but it also needs the Internet. Without both, we’d miss out on the thrill of reading 16 wonderful books, not to mention the Undead Poll! Already in the finals, we have a stunning graphic novel that was in the MG section of the battle but might be better suited for older readers, and we have a YA romance that explores cultural identity and true love. I want a true middle grade or picture book in the finals, so I’m rooting for When the Sea Turned to Silver, Makoons, or any of the picture books, although none of those are likely to win. I’m guessing it’ll actually be Ghost or The Girl Who Drank the Moon, both of which I also loved.
– Kid Commentator RGN
This was a fairly unimportant round for me (sorry), mostly because neither book was one I wanted to make past Round 1. And as I touched on last round, I was expecting (or hoping) this to be When the Sea Turned to Silver vs. The Lie Tree. But here we are, reminding me yet again of the subjectivity of books. I agree with Ms. Tahir’s decision, if only because I managed to enjoy The Sun Is Also a Star. As she so eloquently points out, what makes the book good is the romance. As such, the book is dependent on the reader getting hooked on the couple’s story, something that just didn’t happen for me. I could appreciate the harsh examination of immigration laws, which gave me an interesting perspective to think about outside the context of the book. But unlike Ms. Tahir, I didn’t get truly invested in Natasha and Daniel’s relationship. Some Writer! on the other hand didn’t really get me to think about anything and felt a little all-over-the-place, especially the chapters about his childhood. I’m not thrilled Sun is advancing to the final battle––I can only hope the Undead will revive one that I enjoyed more. (My fingers are crossed for Congo Square or Ghost!)
– Kid Commentator NS
THE SUN IS ALSO A STAR
WILL MOVE ON TO
THE CLOSING ROUND