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Battle of the Books

Round 1 Match 5: Marcelo in the Real World vs Marching for Freedom

Marcelo in the Real World
by Francisco X. Stork
Arthur Levine Books
Marching for Freedom
by Elizabeth Partridge

Judged by Gary Schmidt

Many, many thanks for having me be a part of this wonderful contest. But I think that sometime in the past, I must have done something awful to you, to have you send me two magnificent books, one a novel for young adults, one a non-fiction work aimed at a middle school audience, and then have you ask me to choose between them. Dang. This is nearly impossible, you rats.

Well, first to Marching for Freedom.

Partridge’s is an astonishing achievement. Powerful, insightful, moving, inspiring—a perfect example of what a work of non-fiction for young readers (for any readers) should do: not merely present information, but capture the reader intellectually and imaginatively, and ask the reader to respond to what she has just learned. Partridge does this is so many ways. Her choosing to tell the story through the eyes and experiences of the children and young adults who experienced it immediately communicates to her audience, and makes even old folks like me see the whole event in new ways. Her format—the interspersing of the Freedom songs with the text, for example—is stunning. Her honesty about fear and failure and doubt evokes “characters” who are real and compelling. Her choice of illustrations makes the book visually stunning, but informs in extraordinary ways. (The cover!) And her own authorial voice calmly, yet earnestly, creates the tonality that makes the read so compelling.

And I haven’t even mentioned the depth and understanding of her research that informs the book!

All of those elements are huge achievements, but another critical one is how Partridge handles the complexity of the events, which span eight tumultuous months. It is easy for a writer of non-fiction to be overwhelmed by the hugeness of detail that she faces; it’s not hard to come up with a list of books that disappoint because the writer is so taken up by the details that he fails to see the larger movement and pattern and meaning. It’s also easy for a writer to handle that complexity by simplifying and “cleaning up” the complexity, so that clear and simple narrative threads are presented—so clear and simple that they actually belie the complexity of the events.

Partridge brilliantly avoids both of these. Her short chapters help enormously here, as she organizes bursts of events into a pattern that makes clear sense, a pattern that enables her young readers to follow the narrative well, and to realize how one set of events impacts and leads to—even inspires—the next set of events. This is no small achievement. Everything in this book has the feel of accumulation: the movement grows, and grows, and grows, and Partridge is able to give the reader the sense of growth and growth and growth, so that when she finally comes to the actual march, there is a kind of exhilaration that she inspires. And this, then, leads to the incredibly powerful final line—the shortest sentence in the book: “And they did.” Dang, that’s good.

Even as this book informs (I learned a lot from this reading), it calls us to our best selves. She regularly returns to the idea that children, too, can inspire, can lead, can fight for large cultural achievement and change—and that all of us, all citizens, can take hope and courage from that example. I guess what I’m trying, perhaps poorly, to articulate, is how well the author has moved from mere fact to powerful narrative that gives us all more to be human beings with. Certainly that is what non-fiction does at its very best.

But so, too, can fiction—as so to Marcelo in the Real World—which, by the way (and I know this isn’t supposed to count) has one of the best covers for a novel I have ever seen.

Every so often—not often—I come across a novel that makes me want to meet the author, because I think I would chime with his or her ideas on what writing for a young audience ought to be doing. This is one of those novels.

The book is unusual in its achievement in so many different ways. Marcelo is on the autism spectrum—already unusual in a protagonist for young adult literature—and is being forced by his father to enter into the real world—though “real” soon comes to be complicated for the reader. His entrance into that world is fraught with danger for him, not least because of the expectations of everyone who knows about him. And Stork, in portraying these dangers, is unrelenting; he is willing to show how difficult it is for Marcelo in the “real” world, where cruelty and disdain is, well, the norm. It’s a pretty broken world he portrays, and part of the poignancy of this novel is that Marcelo, who has been protected from it, is forced to learn that the real world can be pretty awful.

And yet, he grows—and the growth is subtle and deep and real, and portrayed in such a way by this writer that it is altogether convincing.

It is, of course, the voice that makes this novel so convincing. A first-person narrative, the novel is dominated by Marcelo’s voice as he interprets the world around him and the deep meanings that inform that world. To listen to him desire the safe world of Paterson and his IM, to listen to him struggle to decipher the codes of personal relationships, to listen to him struggle through the deceit of a co-worker, to hear him wrestle with religious truths with the rabbi, and to listen to him emerge into his own self, assured, confident, aware that his actions will have consequences yet knowing that this is “the right note”—this is absolutely magnificent stuff.

I am awed, too, but Stork’s willingness, in an age where everything in a plot seems to have to travel at Avatar-like speed and jerkiness, to write a narrative that is paced, not leisurely, but thoughtfully. What I mean to say is that the pace of the novel itself replicates the pace of Marcelo’s thought processes, which is slow and considered—and yet, Stork is able to keep his narrative so dang compelling—I think because his characters are so dang compelling. And there are so many quick turns for us, though handled in this paced way. So, for example, the amazing and ironic business that Arturo, Marcelo’s father, speaks so forcefully, and confidently, and powerfully, while Marcelo is so inward and unassertive—yet in the end, it is Arturo who is reduced to silence (he has to write a letter) while Marcelo is the one who plans out and articulates so well his own future. Or the brilliance of Jasmine, who slowly moves from someone who disdains Marcelo to someone who loves him, yet there is the sudden complexity of the relationship with Arturo which could have been handled at some sort of high-octane level, but which is slowly and purposefully developed. In other words, Stork creates the perfect pace for a novel told by this narrator, at the same time compelling us to read on to figure out what’s going on in these remarkable twists. And the reader isn’t frustrated by the pace, because of the fascinating power of Marcelo himself.

I am also moved deeply by a novel that, in today’s market, is willing to speak thoughtfully and directly, with no hedging, about spiritual issues. Bravo bravo! There is deep wisdom here, and this is woven brilliantly into the novel. The notion of prayer as “remembering” is terrific. And that Marcelo can finally come to the belief that he must send the incriminating latter to his father’s rival because Marcelo is called to kindness, and justice, and humility before God is top-notch stuff. And that all of this leads to one of the most satisfying conclusions I have read in a very long time is utterly amazing. What a terrific novel.

OK, so, I have to decide which goes on, right?

Dang, dang, dang.

I think I simply have to base this on overall achievement in the field of children’s and young adult literature. If I could only pick one of these to put into the hands of kids everywhere in North America, which one?

I’ll go with Marching for Freedom.

And now, I think I’ll go cry for a while.

Gary Schmidt

The Winner of Round 1 Match 5 is:

We’re all crying . . . or gnashing our teeth and rending our garments.  I guess Gary didn’t get the memo from Battle Commander that the book that gets totally ignored by the ALA Youth Media Awards (e.g. THE HUNGER GAMES) is supposed to win it all.  I mean, MARCELO IN THE REAL WORLD was supposed to win the Printz Award, for crying out loud.  Chalk this match up as the Battle of the Underappreciated Books because most people figured that MARCHING FOR FREEDOM would appear on the Sibert list, and some (myself included) hoped that it might be destined for even greater things (i.e. a Newbery Honor), but . . . nothing, nada, zip!  We’ve had some very good, very popular books dumped in the first round so far (CLAUDETTE COLVIN, FIRE, THE FROG SCIENTIST, and LIPS TOUCH), but I have to think that this one probably has a better chance of winning the Undead Poll and being resurrected for the final round.

Commentator Jonathan Hunt


  1. Gary,

    I totally understand your agony. I loved them both, too. But, Marcelo in the Read World is such a special book, and I was hoping it would advance to the final round. Hopefully it will come back from the Dead!

  2. Aw, darnit. There go my bracket predictions again. But I don’t envy you, Gary, it WAS a very difficult choice, and the books are so different!

  3. Wow! That was a brilliantly written review. I loved almost everything about it. I was in suspense over which Mr. Schmidt would pick. And then I was disappointed, much like Marcelo is in his dad. Another bracket lost.

    But, this has made me go and check out Mr. Schmidt’s books! I was so immersed in the reading I forgot that he was going to have to kick a book out! So heartfelt, I could feel his agony. That was some amazing writing. I’m not as angry because of the joy I received…

  4. I can see how this was a hard choice but have you noticed that the middle reader selection is beating out the teen selection in most cases, and sometimes, that the teen selection is inappropriate for 6th graders is one of the reasons for the decision. While Marching to Freedom is visually stunning I think the text is not very lively. Marcelo is so unique and moving it should have won this one. I wish I could have picked 2 undead selections. I still have my fingers crossed for Fire.

  5. Bleh. 1 out of 5. Now I must place all my hopes on the Undead round…and that’s not looking so good. Still, this review has me entirely convinced I should read Marching for Freedom, just like the other reviews with ones I haven’t read. On an unrelated note, anyone notice how last year all 4 Printz Honor books were here last year and then only one this year? Just curious.

  6. Those close to me know that I would willingly lick the dust from Gary Schmidt’s shoes if he were worried about getting his carpet dirty, but this decision hurt. I recently finished Marching for Freedom and am pleased to have it on my elementary shelves. Marcelo, however, has been tucked into a protective pocket of my heart since we met last summer. I’ve taken him out frequently to share with those whom I deem most deserving among my reading friends.

    I will console myself with the article that appears in his title. (Which does not appear in the redhead’s)

    In an aside, what does the verbally eloquent Gary Schmidt have in the wings waiting for us, his fans of Wednesday Wars and Trouble?

  7. Nooooooooooooo!

    If you want to know who will win the last three matches of Round One, I’m beginning to be convinced that all you need to do is go with the titles I did NOT predict to win. Let’s see — that would be A SEASON OF GIFTS, SWEETHEARTS OF RHYTHM, and TALES FROM OUTER SUBURBIA. Perhaps I can thwart fate by now predicting that those WILL win! (Bwa-ha-ha!)

    I wonder if I will be the only one who entered Eric’s poll and got ZERO points? Special prize if so? 🙂

    Still, I can’t get mad at Gary Schmidt. I love the way he points out the strengths of both books. He definitely made me want to read MARCHING FOR FREEDOM and even made me wish I had voted for MARCELO in the Undead Poll instead of FIRE.

    He also reminded me how much I loved, loved, loved MARCELO IN THE REAL WORLD. So his choice made me sad.

  8. Jonathan, no fair, you’ve seen the Undead results and we haven’t! You enjoy torturing us, don’t you?

    Anyway, great review/explanation/battle/thing by Gary.

  9. Wow, you made Gary Schmidt cry!

    I thought Kirkus was the only magazine that did that.

    Passes the tissues.

  10. Actually Sondy, you’re one of 6 people with zero point….After this round no one is still perfect. Ten people picked Marcelo it win the entire competition. So far no judge has sided with the majority of voters. Every morning has been a shock.. Hopefully Judge Lester will not follow this trend.

  11. I read Marching for Freedom today, and at the age of 39, learned the real meaning of Selma.

  12. Add me to the list of those who, on the strength of this analysis, went and read Marching for Freedom today. Thank you – my life is better for it.

  13. Genevieve says:

    Marcelo was one of the best books I read last year – but so was Marching For Freedom, so I completely empathize with Gary Schmidt’s hard time making a choice. These are two of my three favorites in the whole competition (the other being When You Reach Me). I very much hope Marcelo rises from the dead, but I am glad to see Marching For Freedom get more recognition and readers. It’s such a powerful book. I’m so glad both books got a deep, searching analysis here (though I’d expect no less from the author of The Wednesday Wars – if y’all haven’t read that, run to the bookstore/library and get it!).

  14. i loved both these books…but i really, really, really loved this review. gary, your pain is everyone’s gain. you did a spectacular job and played fair by both books.

  15. I haven’t read either of these books, but I will now. Your review is brilliant. Thank you for taking the time and being thoughtful and witty.

  16. I’m catching up with the BoB, and I have to say that this round’s review/decision is outstanding! Thoughtful, respectful, honest, impassioned, and heartfelt. And I love that Gary Schmidt used “dang” six times 🙂

  17. Arrrggh! I have six thousand things on my TBR pile ahead of Marcelo and Marching for Freedom! I must now kick them back and read these. You are evil, Gary Schmidt.

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