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Battle of the Books

2009 Matches

The 2009 Battle has been archived for the moment and is not accessible, but for those interested here are all the judges’ statements and Jonathan Hunt’s commentary for all the matches. The brackets can be downloaded here.

Round 1 Match 1

Ways to Live Forever (Sally Nicholls, Arthur A. Levine Books) vs The Astonishing Life of Octavian Nothing, Traitor to the Nation, Vol. II The Kingdom on the Waves (M.T. Anderson, Candlewick)

Judge Roger Sutton’s Statement

Much as we might wish it, books ain’t basketball. The thing about March Madness, which I only dimly comprehend after watching the last ten minutes of Michigan State over Connecticut, is that everybody is playing the same game. So not so with books, but given that proviso, let’s begin.

Ways to Live Forever has the advantage of opening with one of those “startling statements” beloved by composition teachers, one that gives the book its trajectory: we know our boy Sam is going to die, a conclusion magnetic enough to easily obviate the need for suspense. And Sam’s narration is so unselfconscious, and his situation so firmly sketched, that our empathy for the hero is immediately won and firmly held.

The rewards of Kingdom on the Waves are more hard won. Anderson brilliantly sums up Octavian Nothing: The Pox Party in a short prologue that fills in or reminds us of what came heretofore. Linguistically, it’s a sort of Here There Be Dragons warning for just how difficult the language and style are going to get, but because the events being recounted are mysterious and dramatic, it’s something of a siren’s call, too.

The flaws of each book are at one with their virtues. There’s nothing wrong with a book that wants to make you cry, which Ways to Live Forever definitely wants to do. The kind of book where He (or, more often, She) Dies in the End has an enduring appeal. The larger aesthetic problem with Ways to Live Forever is that it gives us what we already want. It’s a little cozy that way, comforting, safe, and circumscribed. Just the way we wish we could think about death.

The treatment of the many deaths in Kingdom on the Waves is scarier, unsettling in the way the death of others actually is. The formal and antiquated language does give readers some distance from Octavian’s grief and trials; and it keeps the story at a distance and slows it down, too. It does for me, anyway—the language stopped me (frequently with its brilliance, sometimes because it was showing off, sometimes because I simply could not figure out what was being said) often enough that I never felt completely pulled into the story. This sense of alienation could be completely calculated, though, much like a Brecht play that reaches across the footlights to slap us in the face. Kingdom of the Waves wants adamantly to be more than just a story.

And that’s why I give it the palm. Great books shake up our expectations. They resist us as much as we resist them. There’s no question that Ways to Live Forever is the more widely appealing (and certainly easier to read and more tidily constructed) of the books in this bracket. It will have a lot of young fans, I think. And if someone asked me to recommend another book “just like it,” I could—a “boy book” that has humor and drama and Big Questions and conveys the emotional life of a boy in a boy-respectful way. If, however, someone asked me for another Kingdom on the Waves, I’d be stuck. It’s a book we didn’t have before and thus offers new possibilities for the books that will come after. I don’t think it will have a wide readership among kids, but it will be read by teachers, librarians, and perhaps most influentially, other writers. What will it allow them to write?

Jonathan Hunt’s Commentary

Oh, what a depressing pair of books! On the one hand, we have He Dies in the End (as Roger described it); on the other hand, we have He Probably Wishes He Had, Too. What fun! Death, death, and more death: my favorite theme in kid’s books. Of course, The Kingdom on the Waves had more death; it was an obvious winner. It didn’t matter that none of us could understand it; we all dutifully slogged through it so that we could proclaim it a Good and Important Book. All kidding aside, this was arguably the biggest mismatch in the first round, and it almost seemed like a bye week for the victor. Maybe The Kingdom on the Waves will get a stiffer test in the second round where it should face The Graveyard Book.

Round 1 Match 2

The Graveyard Book (Neil Gaiman, HarperCollins) vs The Trouble Begins at 8 (Sid Fleischman, Greenwillow HarperCollins)

Judge Jon Scieszka’s Statement

What book could possibly beat a story that starts, “There was a hand in the darkness, and it held a knife”?

What book could best a story that only gets better from there?

The Graveyard Book is a story beautifully told by the prolific Neil Gaiman, and fantastically illustrated by Dave McKean. It is a story that plays on Kipling’s Jungle Book theme of a child being raised by others, and a story whose protagonist grows into his own in a very smart and emotionally satisfying conclusion to a genre-busting tale that rockets beyond its spooky graveyard supporting characters and setting.

Oh, and did I mention that this story also won the Newbery Medal for the “most distinguished contribution to American literature for children” this year?

Well what if the reader was not really such a big fan of fantasy and gothic stories in general? What if the reader had read more than enough of wizards and ghosts and demon ghosts and vampires in recent kids’ lit? What if the rush that the reader was really craving was some real history, some real facts, and some real pictures?

Then Sid Fleischman’s kid-friendly bio of Mark Twain, The Trouble Begins at 8 would be just the ticket . . . and just the book to knock out the Graveyard champ.

Fleischman had me in the introduction — where he explains that when Twain began speaking in public, his first poster said that the doors would open at seven, “The Trouble to begin at 8 o’clock.”

And then the first sentence? “Mark Twain was born fully grown, with a cheap cigar clamped between his teeth.”


Even better, to me, than a hand in the darkness, with a knife, because it is so true and so perfectly a Twainian description of the young newspaperman Samuel Clemens deciding which pseudonym to use for his story about a certain jumping frog of Calaveras County that would soon make him famous.

Did you know that when Samuel Clemens was born in 1835, Halley’s comet was streaking across the sky? And that when he died 75 years later in 1910, Halley’s comet was back?

Did you know that when Twain published the jumping frog story in book form, he dedicated it to John Smith? He didn’t know any John Smith. But he figured sales would be better if the book was bought by all of the John Smiths out there.

The Trouble Begins at 8 is stuffed with these facts and a hundred more. It features historical photos, period drawings, a Mark twain cigar label, a handwriting sample, and the entire text of the “The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County.”

And the writing is not too shabby either. Fleischman knows his audience. He carefully weighs what to include, sets telling action in historical context, and lets the reader discover Mark Twain – the living, wise-cracking, steamboat-piloting, story-scribbling man.

Did I mention Fleishman won a Newbery Medal for his book, The Whipping Boy?

The Trouble Begins at 8 is also a fantastic teaching tool as a model biography. It includes a biographer’s note on telling truth from fiction, a time line, references, illustration and photograph sources, a bibliography, a list of novels and other works, and an index.

The outcome of this match-up might seem like an upset. But The Trouble Begins at 8 is a clear winner. It is a thoughtful, funny, scholarly piece of writing. And it just might be the book to rescue one of the funniest American writers ever from the grave of required school reading.

Congratulations, Mr. Fleischman.

Let the Trouble Begin Now.

Jonathan Hunt’s Commentary

As I was saying, The Kingdom on the Waves should get a much stiffer test from The Graveyard . . . What? What! Oh, Jon! You troublemaker, you! And what’s with all these what ifs? What if aliens came down and stole all the copies of The Graveyard Book? What if somebody went back in time and kidnapped Neil Gaiman before he wrote the book? What if, indeed! But now that the initial shock of this decision is wearing off, I’m actually very pleased to see a nonfiction book pull the upset. I was hoping that a couple of nonfiction books would punch through to the second round; I just didn’t figure The Trouble Begins at 8 would be one of them. Can Washington at Valley Forge make it two victories in a row for Team Nonfiction? Stay tuned.

Round 1 Match 3

Chains (Laurie Halse Anderson, Simon & Schuster Publisher) vs Washington at Valley Forge (Russell Freeman, Holiday House)

Judge Elizabeth Partridge’s Statement

Anything named the Battle of the Books is bound to start with a bang. Rick Margolis at SLJ tossed two books at me – Washington at Valley Forge by Russell Freedman and Chains by Laurie Halse Anderson. That’s when the bang hit. Right between my ears.

My first response was, “No way. I can’t do this. I’m bowing out right now.”

The problem? Not the books, but the authors. Laurie Halse Anderson is a friend of mine. I adore and admire her, her writing, even her beloved often-blogged-about dog. Russell Freedman is my self-chosen mentor. Most of what I know about writing non-fiction I learned by reading and rereading his books. For years, whenever I got stuck, I’d go to the library and check out a couple of his books, reading until a solution to my problem suddenly struck me as I navigated thorugh his elegant craftsmanship.

After a melt-down no-way hissy-fit, (private, in my writing room) I decided to suck it up and do my best. Judge the books, not the authors. This is all in good fun, right??

The books: Of course, both are fantastic, absorbing reads. Chains covers May 1776 through January 1777, as a fictional slave girl, Isabel, struggles for her own freedom against the backdrop of the Revolutionary War playing out on New York Island (now Manhattan). Washington at Valley Forge picks up the Revolutionary War story in December, 1776 as Washington limps away from his defeats by the British in New York and holes up with his troops in nearby Valley Forge, Pennsylvania.

Reading the two books together was fascinating. Same story terrain, two radically different viewpoints: powerless slave girl vs. white slave-holding general of the army. Both books are excruciating as they detail the suffering of the troops and civilians from starvation, illness and abuse in prisons, camps and households. The picture they paint of the times is vivid. While Anderson could make up really cool details to enhance her story, Freedman had reproductions of paintings and illustrations, a timeline and beautiful maps. The book design is so gorgeous I just keep stroking the smooth paper and admiring the color scheme right down to the end papers.

Both authors sneak into each other’s toolbox and help themselves. Freedman is brilliant at narrative non-fiction, using the tools of fiction (voice, pacing, scene-setting) while sticking careful to the documented truth. Anderson’s research is meticulous and she uses real-life quotations to start each chapter. Her afterword — full of information a reader might question (“Are you sure there were slaves in New York back them?”) – blew me away. In and of itself, it’s a fantastic example of voice in narrative non-fiction.

Smack in the middle between these books is some really interesting territory. As Freedman explains, nearly 10% of the troops at Valley Forge were African Americans, both free and enslaved. This sent me to check on Washington’s own slaveholding practices. Turns out he had more than one hundred slaves working his plantation, Mount Vernon. When he became president, he thwarted the rules limiting slavery in Philadelphia (temporary seat of the new government) by rotating his slaves back to the plantation every six months and having a new group come to serve him. Interesting discussion material here for a classroom, especially paired with Isabel’s story in Chains.

So read ‘em both. You’ll be glad you did, and your mind will zigzag back and forth across the big gap between the general and the slave girl.

But since, in a painful moment of triage, I have to chose one, I pick Chains. Why? Because I’m more interested in a scrappy underdog heroine than a war hero.

Jonathan Hunt’s Commentary:

Ack, Betsy! Did you not get the memo from Battle Commander about the Team Nonfiction conspiracy? Did you not take the hint from my last post? Your membership in said team is hereby revoked! Actually, if you held a gun to my head, I’d probably have to go with Chains, too. Divided loyalties are such a hard thing. I want the nonfiction book to win, but have to give props to Laurie for the better book. (And let’s not beat Washington up too badly; after all, he was the only Founding Father to actually liberate any of his slaves.) Despite the different genres—historical fiction vs. nonfiction—this is the first match that almost feels like we’re comparing apples to apples. Is it too soon to start anticipating the possibility of an intriguing showdown between Chains and The Kingdom on the Waves?

Round 1 Match 4

Here Lies Arthur (Philip Reeve, Scholastic) vs Tender Morsels (Margo Lanagan, Knopf Random House)

Judge Meg Rosoff’s Statement

OK. I was a little worried that this one was going to be a walkover.

After all, Here Lies Arthur won the Carnegie medal in England, and it is fresh and original with a fantastic concept. Forget the good kind wise King Arthur you know from The Once and Future King and a thousand other pseudo-histories. Philip Reeve’s Arthur is a Dark Ages thug who travels the land looting and burning villages for his own gain, and thus a far more likely version of the shadowy historical figure, about whom very little is actually known. What makes Reeve’s Arthur so interesting is that he just happens to have the world’s finest spin doctor — a bard by the name of Myrddin (Merlin), hired to disseminate big positive mythic PR about Arthur and make sure he’s still talked about a thousand years later. The story is told by a gender-shifting girl/boy who becomes Myrddin’s acolyte, and really does require the reader to re-evaluate the way myths are made and history is told. Which is no mean feat. There’s no doubt that Philip Reeve is a very interesting writer.

I’d already read Here Lies Arthur, but was pleased to have a chance to reacquaint myself with its strengths (see above) and weaknesses (there’s a slightly bloodless quality about the storytelling which to my mind lessens the emotional impact).

In any case, I turned to Margo Lanagan’s Tender Morsels with some trepidation. The (very beautiful) cover suggested that it might be some kind of retelling of a classic fairy tale, which would make the match with Here Lies Arthur appropriate, but could it compete with Reeve’s revisionist approach to myth?

By chapter two I was reeling with shock. A literary teen book (published in America) that begins with father-daughter incest? And moves quickly on to a horrifying gang rape?? Surely not.

And yet I knew almost immediately that I was reading something utterly astonishing – beautifully written, brave, uncompromising, highly uncomfortable – but astonishing. As I continued reading, I felt the hairs on the back of my neck rise. This was a book unlike anything else I’d ever read in the genre. Lanagan has created something as dark as a “children’s” book can get – and we’re not talking about the trendy faux-dark of dying teenager books or ‘gosh, look at us push the sexual boundaries’ books. Tender Morsels takes on unexplored, almost unexplorable territory, its fairy tale format allows access to the deepest darkness that inhabits the human soul.

And yet. And yet….it works as a YA book. Not that I’d thrust it on the average twelve-year-old Twilight aficionado. Tender Morsels needs a sophisticated reader, one who really wants to know what the world is about, capable of facing the truly awful, the strange and the good in human nature. If that reader is a jaded middle-aged reader (like me) all the better. But my enthusiastic fifteen year old self would have killed for a book like this.

I was shocked, transfixed, amazed by Tender Morsels. In my opinion, it has blown the lid off the genre. When was the last time you could say that about any book?

Jonathan Hunt’s Commentary

Oh, come on, Meg! Surely father-daughter incest and gang rape aren’t that far removed from marriage between cousins! Eew! Sick twisted authors, the pair of you! This is as close as we’re going to come to comparing apples to apples: an exploration of the King Arthur myth and a reimagining of the fairy tale, Snow White and Rose Red. Tender Morsels rightly wins on its own merits, but for me great expectations also played a part. I really wanted Here Lies Arthur to be just like the Hungry City Chronicles, but it was a very different sort of book; whereas I’ve always admired Margo’s short stories, but this is her first book that has completely unhinged me. What are the chances that it faces The Kingdom on the Waves, that other blowing-the-lid-off-the-genre book, in the third round?

Round 1 Match 5

The Disreputable History of Frankie Landau-Banks (E. Lockhart, Hyperion) vs We Are The Ship (Kadir Nelson, Hyperion)

Judge Rachel Cohn’s Statement

Let me state from the start that I am not a fan of the cult of book awards. The whole process makes me cringe, and grieve for worthy books (and their authors) that get passed over because they didn’t happen to meet the sensibilities of that year’s particular set of committee members. The system, from my outsider’s perspective, often appears mired in elitism and political correctness, with little bearing on what young readers actually enjoy reading. Wait, did I say “enjoy?” I did. And that’s the simple merit upon which I decided to make my choice. Because truthfully, if award selections are indeed the beauty contests they’re often accused of being, well then, I’ve met Ms. E. Lockhart on several occasions, and she’s ridiculously smart and attractive, and I’ve Google’d Mr. Kadir Nelson, who apparently has a movie star’s good looks to go along with his prodigious talent, which leaves them at an even draw in the beauty contest category. So I have been forced to go with my gut instinct.

We Are the Ship.

I choose this book knowing that perhaps I was set up to choose The Disreputable History of Frankie Landau-Banks. A cool teenage girl tale, steeped in feminism and humor? That’s so my kind of book. And while I certainly admired and enjoyed it very much, I chose We Are the Ship simply because it was a book that spoke more to my personal sensibilities. When judging my own writing or that of other authors for young people, I often rely on one overriding criterion: I ask my younger self if I would have liked this particular work? And in this battle of books, young Rachel, a tomboy jock as a kid who loved baseball and softball and never ascended to a haute hot teen girl persona, responded definitively with We Are the Ship.

Interestingly, while both books seem to be wildly different and unevenly paired, they do share the common trait of having adult narrators. Frankie herself might recognize best what she shares with the players of Negro League baseball. “Frankie wanted to explain about the door being closed, about wanting to push through the door, about wanting not to feel small and second-best at the table.”

Both books are tales of outsiders who long to be insiders, but therein is a crucial difference – the outsiders of We Are the Ship are not outsiders by choice but by circumstance, whereas Frankie, who perceives herself as an outsider, is in fact inside an enclave of privilege that certainly does not diminish her story, but does narrow her tableau of feelings and experiences considerably in comparison to the stories of the players of Negro League baseball.

“So I was a monster, she thought. At least I wasn’t someone’s little sister, someone’s girlfriend, some sophomore, some girl – someone whose opinions don’t matter.” I loved Frankie’s intelligence, humor, and gumption. But as a character, I liked but not love her; this could have something to do with the distance of the adult narrator. This is a personal preference, but I think I would have “gotten” Frankie better if I could have been more directly inside her head, without the narrator’s filter. I appreciated her most when she sounded like a teenager instead of an adult narrator: “Frankie thought: Poor Senior. He has no life. Just a memory of a life. It’s pitiful.”

What most disconcerted me about Frankie was that her criminal antics to “push through the door” of the all-boys network were inspired by the big man on campus love interest, Matthew, whom she didn’t seem to like all that much. I mean, she liked being his girlfriend and the status that afforded her (what teenage girl wouldn’t relate?), and she didn’t mind making out with a hot guy (go, Frankie!), but in the end, to me, Matthew and Alpha and their crew didn’t strike me as worthy of this formidable girl’s efforts. They disappointed me as Frankie delighted me, which I’m guessing was part of the point, but proved challenging for my sympathy points as a reader, at least in comparison to We Are the Ship.

While I would generally be biased toward a young main character over an adult one no matter the age of the narrator, the adult narrator of We Are the Ship has a folksy and kind tone I connected with instantly. (Admittedly, I was a geek sucker as a teen for the personal, historical narratives in Studs Terkel books, and so was probably prejudiced to respond more directly to this type of narrator.) “Players today just don’t know how bad it could be. We look back and wonder, “How did we do all of that?” It’s simple. We loved the game so much, we just looked past everything else. We were ballplayers. There was nothing we would have rather spent our time doing.”

Truthfully, the two books could have been a dead heat to me except for the pictures. Like Frankie, We Are the Ship is an elegant book about empowerment, but it broadens the tableau by confronting bigger issues of discrimination, prejudice, and economic poverty, while never losing its conviction and beauty. Nelson’s paintings – so gorgeous, dignified, and impassioned – express such a profound love and joy for the players and for the game that a reader finishes this book humbled, and awed. More importantly, the economy of the storytelling, coupled with the lush paintings, could inspire great launching points for readers of all ages to independently discover more about players like Satchel Paige, Josh Gibson, Jackie Robinson and so many others, while also integrating so many facets of (primarily) twentieth century American history into their research. (With all apologies to E. Lockhart, Frankie inspired the anti-intellectual in both adult and teenage Rachel to roll her eyes at the Wodehouse and Focault references.)

Simply put, We Are the Ship is an exquisite marriage of art to words (terrific story, well told), but also down-home enjoyable, visually stunning but accessible, and never succumbing to coffee table book pretentiousness.

People ask all the time if we’re bitter because we weren’t given the chance to play baseball in the major leagues all of those years… If there had been no such thing as a Negro League, there would have been no Jackie Robinson or Willie Mays or Hank Aaron. These guys stand on our shoulders. We cleared the way for them and changed the course of history. And knowing that satisfies the soul. How can you be bitter about something like that?

I leave this selection not so much bitter, but a bit embarrassed. Any awards process is inherently unfair simply because it can’t help but be subjective rather than objective (despite any official mandate otherwise), and I am loathe to choose one excellent book over another and declare it “better.” That distinction, obviously, is a matter of personal opinion. But if the peanut gallery in the Battle of the Books is the ship, then I was the captain for this particular match-up, and We Are the Ship is my choice. But I admit now to cringing at myself, for having any ego to pass judgment at all. On the positive side, I feel brighter and better (and slightly smarter) for having read these two excellent books, and I will delight in recommending both these books to young readers – you know, the ones who truly count.

Jonathan Hunt’s Commentary

We may have ousted Betsy from Team Nonfiction, but we’ve recruited a new teammate. Welcome aboard, Rachel! This decision may seem like a big upset to some people, but these two books are actually pretty evenly matched. It was a coin flip for me, really. The Disreputable History of Frankie Landau-Banks is the kind of award book that makes everybody happy: good with critics, even better with teens. I never had a problem with the narrative voice that has bothered many people (including Rachel), but I do agree that the voice in We Are the Ship, not to mention those fabulous illustrations, sets the bar very high, indeed. And enough already with the hand-wringing, Rachel. You come across as a seasoned judge, especially your trenchant observation that both books are really about outsiders.

Round 1 Match 6

The Hunger Games (Suzanne Collins, Scholastic) vs The Porcupine Year (Louise Erdrich, HarperCollins)

Judge Ellen Wittlinger’s Statement

Although The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins is set in a dystopian future and The Porcupine Year by Louise Erdrich takes place in a realistic past, the two novels have more in common than I expected. The protagonists in both cases are brave, knowledgeable young women who can take care of themselves in the wild. Both young women have learned about the healing power of medicinal herbs from older women; from boys they’ve learned how to set a snare to catch a rabbit. Both stories are about survival against great odds.

Erdrich’s book is the third in a series about Omakayas, twelve years old in 1852, and her Ojibwe family. In this new tale, the family has been forced by white settlers to leave the land where they’ve always lived to find a new home in northern Minnesota. The writing is lyrical and the story is filled with wonderful Ojibwe lore. (For example, Ojibwe people only tell stories in the winter when the snow muffles the sound and the spirits can’t hear them.) Erdrich also infuses the story with Ojibwe words which would be unpronounceable without the glossary at the back, but which add realism and sometimes even humor to a story which is often painful and sad.

But it’s the characterization that lifts the book out of its historical niche and into the realm of literary classic. Omakayas has complex and competing emotions towards most of the members of her family as she grows to womanhood. She bumps heads with her no-nonsense mother, Yellow Kettle, but when the family is in crisis, Yellow Kettle surprises Omakayas with her tenderness. The girl finds her younger brother, Quill, foolhardy and annoying, but when circumstances turn him into a more thoughtful, serious young man, she misses his lighthearted teasing and the rapport they had as children. Old Tallow, the ancient but still strong hunter who lives with the family, screams in horror when she believes Omakayas has died, but is without sentiment about giving her own lifeto save the rest of her clan. There’s not a one-dimensional character in the book.

While Louise Erdrich masterfully describes the daily existence of hunter-gatherers in the forests and lakes of Minnesota, Suzanne Collins’s job is to make her readers believe in a ruined North America in which the remaining “districts” are governed by cruel, ruthless leaders who live in a city called the Capitol. The world Collins creates is made believable not because of the way it looks or functions, but because of the way the protagonist, Katniss Everdeen, has integrated its horrors into her daily life.

For the people fortunate enough to live in the Capitol, the government provides a yearly reality show called the Hunger Games which everyone watches on television. One boy and one girl from each of the twelve districts is chosen at random to compete to the death in a wilderness arena while the world watches and sponsors bet on who will win. District 12, where Katniss lives, is a desperately poor coal-mining region which has had only one Hunger Games winner in living memory. When Katniss’s twelve-year-old sister is chosen to be a tribute in the Games, Katniss—older and stronger—volunteers to go in her place.

The Hunger Games starts with a bang and never lets up. Before the tributes even reach the arena in which they’ll compete, they are prepared for the Games by developing their beauty, their talent, their intelligence and their spirit. It is ingeniously horrible that they become their best selves before being pitted against each other in deadly battle. Peeta, the boy who goes with Katniss from District 12, is a great foil for her. While Katniss focuses on survival at any cost, what matters to Peeta is that he maintains his humanity. Is it possible to win and remain human?

Even though there are brutal scenes here, stomach-turning to read, Collins is also dryly funny. The secondary characters Effie Trinket and Haymitch, mentors for the District 12 teens, introduce just enough humor into the story to keep the horror bearable. And, of course, the notion that reality TV has sunk to this level is black humor as well.

The suspense never lets up for a second, and I found myself constantly surprised by the twists and turns here. Even though the ending does not tie things up neatly—a sequel appears this year—it was completely satisfying and brought a tear to my crusty old eye. In fact, I haven’t fallen in love with a book like this in a long time.

I was pleased to have been given two such wonderful books to read. It was a difficult choice to make, but in the end I had to go with my heart, and my heart was torn apart by The Hunger Games.

Jonathan Hunt’s Commentary

Yes! High five to Ellen! My 16-year-old self thinks The Hunger Games should easily wipe out the rest of the competition. It remains to be seen whether or not that will happen, but he is loving it now. Despite some occasionally sloppy writing and some glitches in the world-building, this novel features good thematic depth for this genre, not to mention the most suspenseful plot-driven story of the year, and a superb character in Katniss—oh, and it’s easily the most popular new book at my school. As plucky and resourceful as Omakayas is, she wouldn’t stand a chance against Katniss. Come to think of it, neither would Octavian Nothing, Frankie Landau-Banks, Nobody Owens, or most of the characters from this past year. Maybe Katsa from Graceling? Now there’s a cage match I’d pay to see! Grrrl Power!

Round 1 Match 7

Graceling (Kristin Cashore, Harcourt) vs The Underneath (Kathi Appelt, Atheneum Simon & Schuster)

Judge Tamora Pierce’s Statement

Before I begin, I should issue a general caveat: I read Graceling last year, when it was in manuscript form, and liked it so much that I recommended it to fans on my live journal, as well as to librarians and other writers at conferences. I did inform School Library Journal of this, but I was positive I could read The Underneath with an open mind. I never have just one favorite at a time, or ever, as people who have asked me for my favorite book quickly learn! I was certain that I could be fair. I even re-read Graceling to have the book fresh in my mind.

The Underneath is the story of a bad man, ordinary animals, a swamp, and animals who are gods, in a way—the Alligator King and Old Mother, a goddess among snakes. The writing is lyrical and literary, linking several stories, changing point of view with each chapter. The ordinary animals are pitted against the abusive man, a drunkard whose greatest wish is to kill the Alligator King by using one of them as bait. Linked with this story is the tale of Old Mother, her family, and her capture. Her soon-to-come escape from her prison hovers over the book, leading the reader to think she is even a great peril than the man.

Graceling is a more direct fantasy story, also with its roots in abuse. Katsa is Graced; that is, she possesses magic, revealed by her odd-colored eyes. All such children are raised by their kings until they show whether their skills are useful. All her life Katsa has been told she is a savage killer, no better than a dog. The king, who is her uncle, sends her out to kill for him. The story is wrapped around the idea of a girl, trained only to cruelty and abuse, discovering her own humanity and ability to care for those who have befriended her and those for whom she comes to feel pity. She is active in her redemption; it is her choices which dictate the story, and her growing humanity that helps her to face threats to everything she comes to value.

The Underneath is a beautiful book in terms of description—I could see and hear and smell the bayous, their creatures, and their flowers—but it went on too long, meandering too much and losing a great deal of the dramatic tension in the main and secondary stories. Also, the violence and alcoholism are more suited to a YA than a middle grade book, while the characters are definitely middle grade.

Graceling is pared-to-the-bone. With very little there that is not essential to the plot. Katsa is active throughout, and she grows and changes. The other characters are three-dimensional, and the power of idealism is strong in the book without being hokey. The descriptions vie with Appelt’s for their ability to evoke exactly what the author describes in my mind. Like The Underneath this is a book about abuse, but this is a film, rather than a snapshot, with the characters fighting it rather than enduring.

I choose Graceling to move on.

Jonathan Hunt’s Commentary

Hey! This is not fair! Tammy shouldn’t be allowed to judge her own book! Oh, wait. She didn’t write Graceling? Sure fooled me. My 16-year-old self was cheering for the high fantasy again—surprise, surprise—so you’ll get no complaints here. I’m convinced this is one of the more competitive matches in the first round. I loved the mesmerizing repetitive cadence of The Underneath, and while the prose in Graceling is not at the same level, I found it the more captivating story nevertheless. I can’t fault those who lean the other way, however. It probably comes down to whether you value plot or language more. But are you sure that Kristin Cashore is not a pseudonym for Tamora Pierce? Has anyone seen these authors in the same room? The birth of a conspiracy theory, eh? Hmmm.

Round 1 Match 8

The Lincolns (Candace Fleming, Schwartz and Wade Random House) vs Nation (Terry Pratchett, HarperCollins)

Judge Ann Brashares’ Statement

Well, it was hard to coax these two books into the ring. Not just because books in general don’t make natural pugilists, (nor most of their writers, I guess), but because they are so completely different. One is fiction, the other nonfiction. One speeds along in a rollicking narrative line and the other accumulates in pieces to be enjoyed in order or out of it. They are easy to contrast, difficult to compare.

Nation is a dry title for a wonderfully humid book. Terry Pratchett’s novel takes place on a jungle island in the alternate-universe Southern Pelagic Ocean where Mau, a boy returning alone in his canoe from a manhood-ritual, discovers the Nation, his home, has been wiped out by a tsunami. Meanwhile a ship carrying a sheltered British girl of royal blood, Ermintrude (yes, she hates that name too, and becomes Daphne at her first opportunity), is a also destroyed by the great wave, tossed right into the middle of Mau’s island. The two of them are the only survivors, but soon they are joined by shaken refugees from other devastated islands nearby.

Nation has got natural disaster, swashbuckling adventure, romance (well, some), humor, and a great deal of wisdom (“Even our fears make us feel important,” he writes). Mr. Pratchett knows all the elements of good storytelling; you can be sure the weapon introduced in the first act will reappear by the end. It’s also got a tree-climbing octopus, a foul-mouthed bird, and a lot of sharks. The story feels mostly serious until somewhere past the mid-point after which it becomes mostly not-serious. It remains entertaining throughout.

The Lincolns, by Candace Fleming is a scrapbook about Abraham and Mary. In her introduction, she writes that her book is more about people than battles, and that is certainly true. The book is packed with bits and pieces of their lives–photographs, news clippings, drawings, a recipe for white cake, the contents of Abraham’s pockets the night of his assassination. Ms. Fleming’s writing is simple and clear, but also intimate. I felt more of a connection to Abraham Lincoln than I’ve felt before, and I think this owes to the details, where sweetness tends to lurk. The small things (as when Abraham tried to cheer up his sister Sarah after their mother’s death by catching her a raccoon and a turtle, but could not catch her a fawn), make it vivid and truly poignant. Mary Lincoln I found harder to love, but it is impossible not to feel sympathy for her.

These are two immensely satisfying books and I recommend them both. I would have liked to flip a coin to get us to the next round, to tell you the truth, but that would have been an abrogation of my judgely duties. My instinct was to base my choice on apparent effort, I guess, and The Lincolns represents a remarkable amount of it. The volume of research both in the text and pictures is admirable. And this is where one of Mr. Pratchett’s great gifts caused the loss. His book feels effervescent, ebullient, exciting and . . . almost effortless.

Jonathan Hunt’s Commentary

Yes! Ann is amazing! But, wait! Oh, no! Argh! I am so conflicted here! These are two of my favorite books of the year. I would have been happy to see this match-up in the finals. How did they end up drawing each other in the first round? It’s ridiculous! I love Nation for its mixture of humor and poignancy and perhaps most of all for its brilliant treatment of faith, culture, and politics. I love The Lincolns for its wonderfully human portraits of Abraham and Mary, for the panoramic canvas of the nineteenth century, and for the detailed brushstrokes of the numerous primary sources. I will mourn the premature loss of Nation, while I rejoice in the fact that Team Nonfiction has now taken three of four matches in the first round. Go, Team Nonfiction, Go!

Round 2 Match 1

The Trouble Begins at 8: A Life of Mark Twain in the Wild, Wild West (Sid Fleischman, Greenwillow HarperCollins) vs The Astonishing Life of Octavian Nothing, Traitor to the Nation, Vol. II The Kingdom on the Waves (M. T. Anderson, Candlewick)

Judge Tim Wynne-Jones’ Statement

“Comparisons are odious,” my mother used to say. I think Shakespeare said it first, but my mother drove the message home. And yet here I am comparing not apples and oranges, so much, as pecans and kumquats. Never mind. Any of the four titles read by Roger Sutton and Jon Scieszka in round one of our branch of this Battle of the Books is worth extolling through whatever whacky means present themselves.

Like Scieszka, I loved The Trouble Begins at 8 and for all the same reasons he gives in his decision. I like Sid Fleischman’s writing pretty well anytime but this is Fleischman channeling Mark Twain, the great raconteur himself. Specifically, he chronicles the early years that transmogrified wiseacre Clemens into wry and whimsically wise Twain. This is a biographical introduction to both the writer and his legend, and Fleischman is wise to the fact that the truth is a “more or less” kind of option when contemplating a storyteller who “confessed that he remembered things whether they happened or not.”

The book is bound to win young readers as much by its style and verve as by its content. The words zing and buzz and pop right off the page into your ear. It’s life writ large – a life thoroughly adventurfied! I gobbled it up like pecan pie with a double scoop of ice cream in one pleasant, sunny afternoon.

I cannot say that I gobbled up Octavian Nothing, The Kingdom on the Waves. I read the first half intermittently over a three-month period. I could put it down. But the important thing is that I couldn’t leave it down. It demanded to be read (albeit in a respectful tone, without raising its voice). Partly, I think the book itself – its tome-like physical entity – cast a spell over me. It looks portentous, right down to the well-cut version of Caslon, which, the colophon explains, was the very typeface used to set the Declaration of Independence. A book this thoughtfully designed exerts a lot of gravity upon a reader.

And when I was drawn back into its orbit, I found that, as with the first volume, the second half of it – well, the last third, anyway – proved to be a real page-turner, a belated thriller. This is the prize awaiting the steadfast reader. Hang in there; there’s action aplenty up ahead!

The thing is there is so much more than action. I’ve read most everything M. T. Anderson has written and the man knows all about holding an audience. Clearly, there was more at stake in writing this compendious account than mere diversion. Anyway, for those of you with more pressing concerns, let’s cut to the chase. I’m voting The Trouble Begins at 8 off the island, through no fault of its own. It’s a peach of a book. Meanwhile, I’m handing Octavian Nothing into the capable hands of Linda Sue Park for the next round of this improbable contest.

The Kingdom on the Waves is dense, grand, epic in terms of its scope and virtue. And yes, it’s a marathon to read, by today’s standards, but that’s why it’s a book, rather than, let’s say a video game or a tweet. Books are what we turn to for the heavy lifting!

Much of what we read nowadays is written, however unconsciously, in the grammar of film. We have come to expect jump cuts and cross cuts, reaction shots, montages and fade-outs. We have incorporated so much of this storytelling technique into contemporary fiction writing that we’re not used to the density of a book like The Kingdom on the Waves.

As Sutton says, great books “resist us as much as we resist them.” I think that when you finally let go of your expectations that the book should read like a movie, you get a truly vivid sense of the huge antagonist of the piece, which is War, itself. You see beyond the savagery, treachery and sorrow — “this tireless inferno, this monstrous riot” — to the sheer tedium of it; the endless waiting, broken by occasional skirmishes, which often seem not to move the war along one bit (let alone the narrative arc of the story). As I mentioned earlier, Octavian does eventually see real action and it is very exciting. But unlike most fictional teen heroes, the boy experiences a fair chunk of the war below deck in “umbrageous darkness” in the sailing ship called the Crepuscule, which itself means Twilight.

What we get to witness in this book is a prolonged autopsy of war, ill lit and conducted in less than sterile conditions. Layer of skin by layer of skin, the corpse is exposed – laid bare — the organs dissected and weighed and the wounds and poisons laboriously descried.

This is not Johnny Tremain. It may be the War of Independence, but it’s a different one that will bring no freedom or equality to the likes of Octavian, regardless of who wins. It is an existential war. As such, it might have proved dreary in the extreme, were it not that we experience it through the eyes of a most extraordinary and unique protagonist. Prince O., as his friend Pro Bono calls him, the “solemn poppet.” Octavian is the prince of anxious awkwardness. Intelligent, fastidious, prim, frustrating, softhearted and dispossessed, he is a boy on a journey, fleeing from deception to deception, from lucidity to chaos and through its annealing fire to manhood.

“…this ain’t one of your romances,” says Pro Bono. (He gets all the best lines.) There is an implication in the subtitle about the improbability of any kind of permanent realm built on a shifting sea – a world in flux, tides that change. This is the extended metaphor of the book – the mind of the narrative. At times it feels like a lamentation.

In the author’s note, Anderson says, “History is not a pageant arrayed for our delectation…We are always gathered there.” He seems to say that in this great genesis of a war, the clash of which still echoes down the centuries and the momentum of which still fuels the American psyche, let alone the American Dream as it plays itself out around the globe, there is more to find, more to unpack, and ever more to learn. That’s a bracing and profound idea. Difficult to imagine how it could be discovered in anything less that one great big honking read of a book.

Jonathan Hunt’s Commentary

Gosh, I don’t know which was longer: the winning book or the judge’s decision. They both went on forever! And Tim has coined a priceless new euphemism for slogging: I could put it down, but I couldn’t leave it down. Alas, the first Cinderella has fallen! The possibility of an upset was intriguing, but deep in my heart I knew it was not meant to be. The Kingdom on the Waves is just too good. Both Roger and Tim have done a great job of articulating that this is not business as usual for historical fiction. This is not let-me-wrap-up-a-history-lesson-in-a-novel historical fiction. It’s something more challenging and more profound. Immerse yourself in the archaic prose style, in the tension and tedium of the war, in the unfolding horrors of the tale, and let the story revolutionize your paradigm.

Round 2 Match 2

Chains (Laurie Halse Anderson, Simon & Schuster) vs Tender Morsels (Margo Lanagan, Knopf Random House)

Judge Coe Booth’s Statement:

Well, I must say, I had a fierce battle on my hands. No knockout here. This was truly a fight to the finish. And I loved every minute of it!

I hadn’t read either of these books before, but I’d heard great things about both of them. I mean, c’mon, a finalist for the National Book Award and a Printz Honor book. Talk about an even matchup.

At first, I didn’t think these two books would have a lot in common — a slave girl in New York City during the Revolutionary War, and a teenager living in a forest with her two daughters — but there were similarities. Both books are about young girls in just the worst situations imaginable, captive girls who bravely endure their plights for a time before finding their own quiet strength. These are books about survivors.

Both books earned big points for captivating beginnings. I immediately sympathized with the injustice Isabel suffered in Chains being cheated out of her freedom and sold to such horrible people. And in the opening chapters of Tender Morsels my heart broke for poor Liga and the ongoing abuse she was suffering at the hands of her disgusting father. Oh, my goodness!

Chains was masterfully written, gripping from the beginning to the end. I knew about slavery in New York City, but I loved having it come to life this way with real characters I could relate to. Even the minor characters popped off the page. I didn’t know there would be a Book Two until I got to the end, so I was hoping for a slightly more satisfying conclusion, but I still found the ending exciting and hopeful. All in all, it was an extremely impressive reading experience.

Tender Morsels was one of the most imaginative books I’ve ever read. Multiple characters and points of view. Witches, sorceresses, bears-for-a-day. Wow! The story was disturbing, especially with the juxtaposition between the beautiful fairy tale style of writing and the horrifying events depicted in the book — sexual abuse of a child and resulting pregnancies, forced abortions, and even gang rape — all told in the manner of the books we read as children. The ending was bittersweet and very, very satisfying. However, as transfixed as I was by the story and the multitude of characters, both human and animal, there was simply no way to emotionally connect to them all.

As a reader. I want to go on a journey with a character. I want to care about him or her. While Tender Morsels is bold and original and thoroughly memorable, I cared about Isabel. And for that reason, my vote has to go to Chains.

Jonathan Hunt’s Commentary

Oh, Coe! Really! Really? Okay, but just don’t let Meg and me catch you in a dark alley sometime. And bears. Stay away from bears, too. Both of these books would have presented very interesting match-ups for The Kingdom on the Waves. To my mind, Tender Morsels shares many of the same strengths and it would have been fascinating to see how Linda Sue would have awarded the advantage to one book over the other. But because Chains shares a similar treatment of a similar subject, it poses its own unique set of questions: Are sophisticated books for older readers inherently better than those written for younger readers? How much should accessibility factor into any of these decisions? Coe and Elizabeth both emphasized how much they identified with Isabel. What role will character play Linda Sue’s decision? We’ll see!

Round 2 Match 3

The Hunger Games (Suzanne Collins, Scholastic) vs We Are the Ship (Kadir Nelson, Hyperion)

Judge John Green’s Statement

Dear reader, it was miserable.

I still feel, as I type these words, as if perhaps I am making the wrong decision. Of course, I know it’s all for fun. But still, I hated choosing. I finally settled it last night in discussion with my wife, who just kept saying, “You recognize this isn’t a REAL AWARD, right?” And I do recognize that, which only makes me more anxious never to decide a REAL AWARD, because I suspect that I would find the whole process paralyzing.

The problem here, and the problem with all book awards, is that one is not only asked to compare apples to oranges. One is asked to compare apples to elephants. And how can you choose between the best elephant ever and the best apple ever? Before I try, let me respond to something that keeps cropping up in comments, and indeed is always in the air when we discuss awards for YA literature. Should we, or should we not, consider “teen appeal”?

By the way, I hate that phrase. It sounds to me like the name of the worst magazine ever.

I may be alone in thinking this, but I believe that teenagers are far better readers than we often assume. (For example: I have received hundreds–not an exaggeration–of emails from teenagers telling me how much they love Octavian Nothing. You will recall, as I do with considerable consternation, that I did not write Octavian Nothing.) So, I’m not going to stand here as an adult and pretend that I have some special insight into “teen appeal” just because I talk to a lot of teenagers about books. I’m just going to assume that teenagers are smart, that they are curious, and that they can read great books well.

So, then, I assume that they will marvel at the brilliance–as I have been for the past several weeks–of Kadir Nelson’s We Are The Ship. Here we have a book that uses first person plural narration so seamlessly that several reviewers thought it first person singular. We Are The Ship beautifully integrates the history of the Negro Leagues with the history of baseball and America. The writing in the book is so good (of Satchel Paige, Nelson writes, “Even his slow stuff was fast”) that it seems wrong to say that the paintings are even better, but they are. The fields-eye perspective of many of the paintings makes imposing heroes out of not only the players but the organizers of the Negro Leagues. The paintings are to me the best work Nelson has done in his hugely accomplished career: They do not merely give the Negro Leagues and its players their rightful due; they also remind us that within the African American community, these men once WERE given their due, that there was a time when someone who said, “Josh Gibson is the black Babe Ruth,” could expect to be reminded, “More like Babe Ruth is the white Josh Gibson.” It is a wonderful–and to my imperfect eye, flawless–book.

And it loses.

I choose The Hunger Games, the most fun I’ve had reading in years. Part of crediting young readers with intelligence, I think, is knowing that they can enjoy a roaring ride and still read thoughtfully. The Hunger Games features the best world-building I’ve seen since Scott Westerfeld’s Uglies series, and the plotting is just magnificent. And I don’t mean its purportedly unoriginal premise. Premises aren’t in the business of being original; they’re in the business of intriguing Hollywood executives. I mean the plot: the things that happen and the order in which they happen. The murders Katniss must commit and those she is spared. Her affection for the baker’s son, and the tension between its existence and its fictionality–which is, of course, precisely the same tension we all feel when we read speculative fiction.

Much has been made of the “issues” raised by the novel–questions about the wealthy exploiting the poor, and about the sick schadenfreude of reality television. Those questions are interesting and important, but not as interesting or as important as Katniss herself. Here is a young woman, who seems as real to me as anyone I’ve known in my life, who must decide to what extent she will betray her values in a bid to survive. We all make such calculations in less dramatic fashion day after day after day, and in that sense, her quest is ours as well. If you don’t think teens can recognize and be transformed by the complex relationship that Katniss (who lives in District 12) has with us (who enjoy cable and high speed internet), I believe you’re underestimating teens and Katniss alike.

Jonathan Hunt’s Commentary

Yes! Yes! Yes! Katniss lives to fight another day! Right on, John. Video Girls are loving it! I’m loving it! We’re all loving it! Well, all the millions of us that voted in the poll, anyway. I’m not sure that this is the best written novel of the year, but it was certainly the most enjoyable read of the year—and that has to count for something, right? And any nagging doubt I might have that We Are the Ship might actually be the better book is quickly assuaged by the fact that it has won so many awards already that had it continued on to win this contest the only place we could have put that spiffy Big Kahuna sticker is on the back cover. But this means that Team Nonfiction must now place all its hopes on The Lincolns . . .

Round 2 Match 4

Graceling (Kristin Cashore, Harcourt) vs The Lincolns (Candace Fleming, Schwartz & Wade Random House)

Judge Nancy Werlin’ Statement

What you’re really getting here in BOB (and this must by now be eminently clear) is a close-up look at the prejudices of the individual judges. Today it’s my turn to be exposed.

In preparation for my match-up, I also read The Underneath by Kathi Appelt and Nation by Terry Pratchett, as I didn’t know which would go forward from brackets seven and eight. In my opinion, all four books were fantastic, but the round two match-up that I most feared to judge was The Underneath versus The Lincolns.

The Underneath has for me the perfect craftsmanship of a Shaker cabinet, and it held me firmly in its enchantment and terror. I feel, flat out, that it’s a masterpiece. As for Nation (which would in my court have lost by a hair and with a sob to The Underneath): sometimes, in reading, you realize that a writer has achieved that pure creation: a story that is deeply personal on the emotional level without being at all so factually, and all you can do is bow your head in honor.

Those match-ups would have been tough. This one isn’t, even though I must say it’s shamefully unfair to have to compare these two very different books. But it’s like Sherman marching to the sea; it’s like Katsa against Po. There’s no question of the outcome. The Lincolns wins over Graceling.

My initial prejudices gave The Lincolns the short straw over Graceling; I tend to prefer fiction to nonfiction; more, I love fantasy and romance. But once I open a book, it’s simple. Am I immersed in the narrative? Or is the carping voice in my head pointing out flaws as I read?

For me, in the first third of Graceling, that wretched internal voice was relentless. It had problems with the geography of the castle; it had logic problems with how Katsa’s grace manifested in the physical world (and indeed, it turned out that Katsa is mistaken about her grace, but that didn’t resolve my logic problem); it wondered why Katsa’s uncle would be anything but thrilled with her desire not to marry; and on and on. None of these were big problems. Small writer’s brushstrokes – the right sentence here and there – would have resolved most of them. But these nuances were not present, and thus Graceling was for me the work of a promising first novelist whose hand was still shaking a bit on the tiller of her craft.

Until page 135. That’s where Katsa declares her independence: “This is my rebellion, and mine alone, and if you don’t agree, I swear to you on my Grace I will murder the king.” The emotional force of that knocked the wind out of my internal carping voice. Suddenly, I believed in Katsa. From here on out, I was moved by her growing relationship with Po, breathless at the trek through the mountains, and gasping with surprise at that last fiendish plot twist at Po’s castle (which I should’ve spotted, but didn’t because I was so masterfully distracted by what was happening in the story emotionally). In short, I loved it. I look forward with pleasure to what Kristin Cashore will do next.

But, boys and girls, The Lincolns. Oh, my lord, The Lincolns.

Reading The Lincolns once or twice isn’t enough. I want to study it. I want to flip through it randomly. I need to buy extra copies for friends. I read choice bits aloud to my husband, and soon enough he was reading over my shoulder, and then with awe we were poring over Lincoln’s handwriting (his very handwriting!) on the Gettsyburg Address – and then, in the next breath, considering exactly why it was that you couldn’t consider this brilliant, but very pragmatic and ambitious man to be a saint. The material was presented clearly, beautifully, fully, and with respect for the reader’s intelligence and understanding. Reading the book was utterly absorbing, cover to cover.

I had thought I had a pretty good handle on Abraham Lincoln, and the Civil War, and the complexities of the issues, and of the complexities of the man and of the times. (I don’t mean to brag, but I got a 5 on the AP American History test back in the day.) More fool me, huh?

It also turns out I knew nothing about the real Mary Todd Lincoln, who I did vaguely think had been insane. (I am ashamed. Also, if I could get hold of Robert Lincoln right now, I’d slap him silly for his behavior to his mother.)

The Lincolns takes you close to Mary and Abraham (don’t you dare call him Abe, he hated that name). Their childhoods; their minds; their times; their marriage; their love. And more: their commitment to their country; their sacrifices for it and for us. This is the story of the right people at the right place at the right time – and of how horrible it was, for them, in so many ways, that this was so. Their suffering, and the suffering of the entire country, north and south, was laid bare before me.

Candace Fleming has selected, arranged, and written the many pieces of the story flawlessly and seamlessly, matching them with pictures and the just-right snippets and illustrations from magazines and letters and speeches. Yet it doesn’t read like a patchwork; you are led through the story in chronological order with a sure and deft hand. The design of this book is also a wonder; plaudits must go to its editor and art director.

The experience of reading The Lincolns changed my understanding not only of the events of the Lincolns’ lives and times, but of the world I live in now. It’s not just a good book. It’s a great one.

The Lincolns progresses to round three. I hope it wins it all.

Jonathan Hunt’s Commentary

Yes! Another great decision! Boy, are these judges fabulous or what! Couldn’t agree with Nancy more. I loved Graceling and I look forward to its sequel. I’ll have no problems shoving all the hordes of teen girls out of the way as I lunge for the last remaining copy in the bookstore. But no book got screwed by award committees this past year as much as The Lincolns did. I know the blogosphere is still seething over the losses of The Graveyard Book and The Disreputable History of Frankie Landau-Banks, but I’m very pleased to see The Lincolns advance to meet The Hunger Games in this bracket, while The Kingdom on the Waves and Chains lock horns in the other one. Linda Sue and Chris have very different challenges in front of them. Place your bets!

Round 3 Match 1

The Astonishing Life of Octavian Nothing, Traitor to the Nation, Vol. II
The Kingdom on the Waves
(M. T. Anderson, Candlewick) vs Chains (Laurie Halse Anderson, Knopf Random House)

Judge Linda Sue Park’s Statement

Historical fiction: Check.
U.S. Revolutionary War setting: Check.
U.S. Revolutionary War from a perspective not usually seen: Check.
Black protagonist: Check.
First-person narrative: Check.
Primary-source quotations as prologue to chapters or sections: Check.
Said quotations and the text itself providing staggering evidence of research: Check.
Terrific writing by award-winning author: Check.

In comparison challenges such as this one, the analogy “apples to oranges” is often used. (Used less often is “apples to elephants.”) I didn’t get apples to oranges. I got apples to apples, Rhode Island Greening versus Northern Spy: Difficult as it may be to credit, the entire list above applies to both of the books I read for the challenge.

Now for the fine print. The first volume of The Astonishing Life of Octavian Nothing (The Pox Party) was chosen as the National Book Award winner in 2006. I, dear readers, was on the panel that so chose. The possibility for bias on my part cannot be denied. But for good or ill? While my fondness for Volume I could be seen as an advantage toward a positive response to Volume II, I must also state that it is rare for me to find a sequel to a beloved book as satisfying as its predecessor. So I honestly believe that it’s a wash.

As a reader, I look for two things in a story. First, I want compelling-ness. I want to become so engaged in the narrative that I stay up too late reading; abandon my to-do list; take the book into the bathroom with me. Second, I want sticky. I want the story to stick in my mind the next day and the next week, and still be there when I check back the next month and the next year and even years hence. I want to be thinking about it long after it goes back to the library.* In other words, a book has to be both entertaining and thought-provoking.

*In this case, I was provided with copies of both books, thank you publishers. But hopefully you get the point.

Although it has not yet been years since I read these books, I think I can safely wager that they will both stand up to the sticky test, in large part because they take a slice of history I thought I knew well and turn it on its side, making me view it from a new angle. This is in itself memorable. Of the two main characters, Isabel in Chains took longer to win me over. In the first few pages, her voice kept eluding me. There was a disconcerting amount of distance produced by wordiness of the diction and especially, overdescription of the particulars (a dreaded pitfall of the first-person POV), which kept her at arm’s length. Early on, the book was not passing my compelling-ness test. As the plot picked up, Isabel’s sentence structure got snappier, her observations tauter and more immediate, and by the end of the book, she had me in her pocket.

Octavian, too, uses a formal diction, but with remarkable control and consistency. From the very beginning, the reader is immersed in 18th-century English vernacular to the point where the language is not only a discrete element that illuminates character and setting, as it is in the hands of most (competent) writers, but also becomes inseparable from the texture of the story itself. This is technique so ambitious and accomplished that it leaves me in awe. It’s akin to the vigorous rigor with which words are used in great poetry—except that Octavian has to sustain it for 561 pages. (That the reader needs to be equally rigorous is both risk and reward.) Just as summarizing a poem sucks the guts out of it, a summary of Octavian fails utterly to convey its essence.

Well-written and well-researched historical fiction is among my favorite genres, and readers of all ages are fortunate that it is not the first time the author of Chains has turned her hand to exploring the past. Chains, like Fever 1793, should be on the shelves of every school and public library in the land.

Octavian, however, is much more than solid historical fiction, as has already been pointed out by Messrs. Sutton and Wynne-Jones. It stretches boundaries, raises the bar, explodes expectations, and causes some reader-critics to frantically mix metaphors in an effort to do the book justice. (The only other book on the Battle list to achieve something similar is Tender Morsels. In my opinion of course, Coe.)

It may well be that among young readers, Chains will prove the more popular of the two titles; certainly it is the more accessible. When I write, I spare a thought for that audience now and then. But not when I read: I am the most selfish of readers. The implicit question behind all of my reading is, What’s in it for me?

It is usually on finishing a book that I morph from reader back to writer. When I close a good book, I often sigh and think, Wow, that was great. I want to write something like that. When I closed Octavian, I gaped instead, and thought, Wow, that was great. I could never write something like that—but I’m gonna die trying. Astonishing books like Octavian help keep me from the danger of complacency in my writing, which can creep up on me unawares. That is among the greatest of gifts a book can give a reader who is also a writer.

Which means that I now have to type the full title. The winner: The Astonishing Life of Octavian Nothing, Traitor to the Nation, Vol. II: The Kingdom on the Waves.

Jonathan Hunt’s Commentary

What’s in it for me? Me, me, me! What kind of attitude is that, Linda Sue? Isn’t this all about the kids? Didn’t you go to your local shopping mall and poll Real Live Kids? Isn’t that why we got all you high profile authors, anyway? So you could parrot our circulation stats back to us? I mean, really! I’m one match away from writing an expose about the whole thing: Has the Battle of the (Kids’) Books Lost Its Way? Scandalous! Don’t feel too bad for Chains, though. A National Book Award nomination and the Scott O’Dell Award are pretty nifty consolation prizes, and given all the awards the first book received, The Kingdom on the Waves is one of the most underappreciated books of the year; it advances to meet a similarly undervalued book in the championship round. Will it be The Hunger Games or The Lincolns?

Round 3 Match 2

The Hunger Games (Suzanne Collins, Scholastic) vs The Lincolns (Candace Fleming, Schwartz and Wade Random House)

Judge Chris Crutcher’s Statement

They say you can’t compare apples and oranges, which is really dumb. Apples are usually red or green. Oranges are, well, orange. They’re both fruit. Apples are usually hard and oranges are usually soft. Most people take the skin off an orange before they eat it, but leave the skin on an apple. See? I can compare them and I’m not an apple- or orange-ologist, or even a general fruit practitioner.

Apples and oranges are far easier to compare than are The Hunger Games and The Lincolns. To the extent that this Battle of the Books has to have a winner, I almost wish I’d opted out as a “judge,” but then I wouldn’t have the opportunity to talk about both books.

The Lincolns is a book that every U.S. History teacher should have in his or her classroom. Not in the back of the classroom, either; right there on every kid’s desk. Many polls tell us that social studies is the least favorite academic discipline of middle and high schoolers. Being at the bottom of a totem pole that includes math, science, any number of foreign languages, is flat ugly; at least from my perspective. I’m guessing one reason social studies ends up down in snake’s belly/whale dung territory in those polls is because of relevance. Candace Fleming brings Abraham and Mary Lincoln alive. They were humans. They had personalities, reasons why they behaved the way they behaved. They lived in a specific time; lived simultaneously through national tragedies and personal tragedies. Read The Lincolns and you feel like you know them.

There is a scene in the movie “Thirteen Days” (about the Cuban missile crisis) where Ken O’Donnell and John and Bobby Kennedy stop in the middle of the chaos to realize that the only thing stopping Russia and the United States from entering nuclear war is them. You get the sense that, for a moment, their humanness – their smallness – is overwhelming. Then they go on and do what they need to do. That’s the sense I got reading The Lincolns. Real people thrown into astonishing events.

There is brilliance to the layout of the book. The sub-title is: “A Scrapbook Look at Abraham and Mary.” It is exactly that. You follow their lives as if you were living at the same time, reading snippets, newspaper articles, looking at pictures and drawings. I was, for a mercifully short time (mercifully for the students) a U.S. History teacher. I wish I’d had this book, as much to inform myself as to inform my students. I’d have appeared much smarter and my poll would have moved social studies out of the cellar.

But I have to go with The Hunger Games. I read the first Harry Potter book just as the last one was coming out, just so I could be conversant in who the guy is. I don’t read fantasy. With the exception of Cormac McCarty’s The Road, I don’t read “After the fall” literature either. So I opened The Hunger Games cursing School Library Journal for asking me to participate in the Battle of the Books and cursing my editor for telling me I should do it.

I pulled it out of my backpack as my plane took off from Denver, and by the time we were descending into LaGuardia I was praying to God to send many planes our way so we’d have to go into a circle pattern. Katniss’ voice was perfect… the story was perfectly balanced with characterization and action. Relationships were complex and compelling and always moved the story forward. It was just a hell of a yarn.

Our main job as writers of fiction is getting kids to read. Simple as that. The Hunger Games is going to get a lot of kids reading.

Jonathan Hunt’s Commentary

Finally! It’s about time somebody played the Kids-Won’t-Read-This card! Chris seems to be the only person who got one. Where were our other authors when they were being passed out? I adore The Lincolns, but it has not been a good week. First, it lost its rematch with Nation at the L.A. Times Book Prizes. And now, The Hunger Games unceremoniously bumps it from the tournament to advance to the championship round. If the main job of a writer, as Chris asserts, is to getting kids to read then The Hunger Games should win it all, but if writers of fiction can get kids to think as their main job then The Kingdom of the Waves can pull out the victory. My favorite book has already been dismissed, but I’m in negotiations with Lois the Omnipotent One to resurrect it as the winner, and since my bribe is currently the biggest . . .

Big Kahuna Round

The Astonishing Life of Octavian Nothing, Traitor to the Nation, Vol. II
The Kingdom on the Waves
(M.T. Anderson, Candlewick) vs The Hunger Games
(Suzanne Collins, Scholastic)

Judge Lois Lowry’s Statement


I have given my final decision essay a title. Its title is COP-OUT. That is not a bad title, although not as great a title as, say, TENDER MORSELS….

….which I have read, because even though I was not required to read any of the contenders except the two finalists, I was sent all the contenders (Thank you, publishers. Now will you come to my house and build me some more bookcases, please?) and found that I couldn’t resist. It was a little like shooting a few hoops with Villanova and going one-on-one with Georgetown before finally picking up my whistle and heading out onto the court with North Carolina and Michigan State.

And so I read them all. They were all winners. Please, could we just agree on that at the outset? Well-written, brilliantly researched, handsomely designed. I wish I’d written each one of them, and I’m pissed that I didn’t have a book in the running, and am desperately envious of every author involved, even the ones with whom I had a glass of wine last week.

So it is clear that the judging of this tournament is completely subjective. Criteria don’t exist when you weigh gold against gold.

How, then, to choose? Maturely, I am basing my decision solely on petulance, vengeance, reverse nepotism, and payola.

I’ll say right up front that my favorite didn’t advance to the final round, so I’ve been sulking for the last two weeks.

And why was it my favorite?

Brilliant writing, handsome design, masterful wordplay? No! You’re not listening! I said already: they all have that.

It came down to total nostalgia evoked by the gorgeous jacket. It took me back in time to my much-loved, here pictured, Volume III of the 1937 My Bookhouse series:

And okay, I confess, I went to Brown University and dated the guy who wore a bear suit and cavorted on the sidelines at football games.

But let us get over it and move on.

Reverse Nepotism:
Full disclosure: I know M.T. Anderson. We live in the same town. I know him so well that I call him by his name, and not those initials which could, actually, be pronounced “empty” if one were not aware of what a ridiculous epithet that would be in this case. I was recently chairman of a committee that awarded him yet one more medal to add to his very full array.

M.T. Anderson is tall, thin, smart, and nice. If he were short, squat, stupid, and irritating, I would give him this award as an act of mercy.

Or possibly if he had offered me something of value. But I once ran into him in front of the Chinese restaurant near his house and he did not hand me as much as a fortune cookie.

But bribery and mercy: those are shallow methodologies. Instead, I plan to utilize the “thoughtful, sensitive, intelligent, and respectful ways” described by Monica Edinger, who dreamed up this whole circus. I am moving right along, next, to:

I have axes to grind against some of the earlier-round judges in this tournament. Roger Sutton, for one. Roger skewered me in one of his blog posts once, and though I called him “Vlad the Impaler” in a retaliatory nose-thumbing comment, I feel that this particular vendetta is not completely over. You want Octavian, Roger? Eat your heart out, baby. It’s my call in the end.

As for Linda Sue Park, who has publicly blamed me for her loss on “Jeopardy” (the final answer was Lhasa Aapso, and she stupidly said “Tibetan Terrier” and then whined on her blog that the only reason she said that was because Lois Lowry has a Tibetan Terrier. Excuse me?). And not only that, LSP does not believe in the Designated Hitter rule, which makes her every decision and opinion suspect in my view. You want Octavian, Linda Sue? Hah. And Big Papi is not going to play center field in my lifetime, either.

And so we come to Payola:
Chris Crutcher has come to my rescue and bailed me out many more times than once. Most notably was the time that I emailed seven well-known kids’ authors to ask their opinion on how to deal with a particular 6th grade teacher who was giving me a huge amount of grief. Six of those authors emailed advice that was conciliatory, tasteful, and sage. Chris Crutcher, on the other hand, recommended that I find out the teacher’s home address and then hire thugs to go there and first scare her, then kill her. I liked that advice and have sometimes wished I had followed it.

So I’m with Chris on this one. I like the way he thinks. I choose The Hunger Games. Any book that starts out with 24 children and ends up with 22 of them dead—-(one of them eaten alive by canines. I bet he was a very, ah, Tender Morsel)—that’s tough to beat.

You don’t like my decision? Find out my home address. Send thugs.

Jonathan Hunt’s Commentary

Oh, Lois! You put out the call for bribes in your bio, and then you end up dissing them as “shallow methodologies” in your decision? Is there no honor among thieves? I want the cases of fortune cookies returned immediately! But, yes, any book that starts out with 24 children and ends up with 22 of them dead is tough to beat. It seems like just yesterday that we were whining about death, death, and more death in Ways to Live Forever and The Kingdom on the Waves. Did we really think the winning book wouldn’t have any? The Kingdom on the Waves had an excellent shot of making it to the finals, of course, if only it could just get past that knife-wielding Man Jack in The Graveyard Book and those dwarf-mauling bears in Tender Morsels. As it turned out, Octavian needn’t have worried about those foes. No, it was Katniss he should have been paying attention to—sneaky, unassuming Katniss, the plucky young girl from District 12 that won our hearts. Huzzah!

Roxanne Feldman About Roxanne Feldman

Roxanne Hsu Feldman is the Middle School (4th to 8th grade) Librarian at the Dalton School in New York City. She served on the 2002 and 2013 Newbery Committees. Roxanne was also a member of 2008-2009 Notable Books for Children, 2015 Best Fiction for Young Adults, and the 2017 Odyssey Award Committees. In 2016 Roxanne was one of the three judges for the Boston Globe-Horn Book Awards. You can reach her at at

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