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Battle of the Books

Round 1 Match 8: Tales from Outer Suburbia vs When You Reach Me

Tales from Outer Suburbia
by Shaun Tan
Arthur A. Levine Books
When You Reach Me
by Rebecca Stead
Wendy Lamb Books

Judged by Julius Lester

Reading is subjective. What one experiences in a book, how much of a book one understands depends on what one brings to the act of reading. This is often illustrated in book reviews. One reviewer of a recent novel of mine wrote that the characters were stereotypes. Another reviewer of the same book wrote that the characters were brilliantly drawn. Book reviews often say much more about the reviewer than the book being reviewed.

This prelude is my way of saying that I am not the ideal reader of the 2010 Newbery winner, When You Reach Me by Rebecca Stead. For me, reading is relational, an act in which I spend time with the characters in a novel and its author. Essential in creating this relationship is the voice(s) in which the story is told. The first person narrator of When You Reach Me, is Miranda, a sixth grader growing up in New York City. For whatever reasons Miranda’s voice did not engage me, and thus, neither did the story Miranda is telling. I did enjoy the descriptions of growing up on the upper West Side of Manhattan in 1979, and what it’s like to be a child growing up in such a milieu. I enjoyed that there was a black character whose race is mentioned in passing. I suspect that my inability to enter Miranda’s life has to do with two facts.

There is an element of time travel in the novel, and I don’t like books or movies in which time travel is an important element. My other limitation is that When You Reach Me has an underlying urtext, Madeleine L’Engle’s A Wrinkle in Time. Obviously I’ve never read it since time travel is an important element. Perhaps if I was familiar with L’Engle’s novel, When You Reach Me would have reached me and I it.

Tales from Outer Suburbia had me from the very first sentence: “when I was a kid, there was a big water buffalo living in the vacant lot at the end of our street, the one with the grass no one ever mowed.” The total absurdity of that sentence immediately put me into that imaginative realm where anything can happen, and especially those things that have no obvious relation to what we know as reality. This is a realm in which I am very comfortable.

The book consists of 15 stories, except that is not wholly true. Throughout the book are illustrations, some depict an aspect of one of the stories. However, others are stories in themselves. There are pages and pages of drawings, paintings and collages in which a reader can happily meander. The narrator of the stories remains unnamed, but it is a tender voice suffused with caring and wonder.

The difference between my reading experience of When You Reach Me and Tales from Outer Suburbia is that the former mixes an element of fantasy with everyday reality, while the latter is set entirely in a world that is real only in the imagination. The former left me confused. The latter left me exhilarated and eager to read anything and everything written by Shaun Tan.

Julius Lester

The Winner of Round 1 Match 8 Is…

Lightning strikes twice!  It’s the curse of the Newbery Medal!  Well, that’s a bit of an oxymoron, isn’t it?  There’s no downside to winning the Newbery (or if there is—it’s not being prematurely knocked out of the BOB), but—gee whiz!—what does a Medal book have to do to advance to the second round?  If there’s one thing we’ve learned from the first round matches, it’s that when books are so wildly different (e.g. THE LAST OLYMPIAN vs. THE FROG SCIENTIST or THE STORM IN THE BARN vs. SWEETHEARTS OF RHYTHM), it can really go either way.  And I certainly can’t fault Julius’s logic in defense of TALES FROM OUTER SUBURBIA.  It’s a flawlessly executed book, a wonderfully absurd marriage of words and picture, and who knows but that WHEN YOU REACH ME won’t return from the grave for vengeance.   Another thing we’ve learned: One zombie book is not enough!

— Commentator Jonathan Hunt


  1. lisslalissar says:

    Oh no!! As much as I enjoyed Tales from Outer Suburbia, it just didn’t affect me like When You Reach Me. Unlike Julius, Tales from Outer Suburbia left me confused (although not necessarily in a bad way) while When You Reach me kept me turning the pages and thinking long after I finished reading it. And I, to my shame, have never read A Wrinkle in Time either. When You Reach Me, come back in the finals!

  2. I’m disappointed.
    Not because When You Reach Me lost. I love them both and I’m happy that Tales from Outer Suburbia advances to the next round.

    I’m disappointed because Mr. Lester’s obvious dislike of ‘time travel’ Influenced the result. So many kids love books about time travel, and I hope Mr. Lester will one day expand his horizons.

  3. Not sure which is more of a disappointment Lightning Thief some how making the top 25 on fuse#8’s top 100, or Judge Lester’s decision this morning. Inconsolable I am.

  4. First decision I disagree with. Julius Lester’s rationale is the main part I take issue with. Time travel was not the most important element in When You Reach Me or even A Wrinkle in Time.

  5. I wonder whether WYRM will return from the grave; when I considered my undead pick, I look for books that I was a little “worried” about. Since WYRM is a Newbery Medalist, it doesn’t garner much worry. That Newbery Medal is decent consolation for losing Match 7.

    I look forward to reading Tales from Outer Suburbia and hope I like it as much as Mr. Lester did. I cannot disagree with the decision, not having read it, much as I love WYRM. I am tremendously grateful to Mr. Lester for writing, “I enjoyed that there was a black character whose race is mentioned in passing.” I feel a little vindicated after all that discussion (some of it ridiculous) on Heavy Medal.

    ‘Tis true that having read A Wrinkle in Time is helpful to reading When You Reach Me–and it’s also true that time travel, as most people think about it, is NOT an important element of A Wrinkle in Time. Travel through space, more. The time travel comes up in A Swiftly Tilting Planet and Many Waters.

  6. Genevieve says:

    I’m extremely disappointed – I thought When You Reach Me would deservedly win the whole thing. I didn’t even vote for it for the zombie book because I couldn’t imagine it losing this matchup. And I agree with Downey that time travel was not the most important element in When You Reach Me (and especially not in Wrinkle in Time – it only mattered there in terms of people not realizing that they were gone). It feels as though Judge Lester didn’t try to put aside his bias and give When You Reach Me a fair shake.

    Perhaps the judges could be given questionnaires before being assigned, asking if they are biased against or have a dislike for any particular genre? That might be the only way to ensure fair and unbiased judging.

  7. Marie1163 says:

    This is the most crazy decision yet on Battle of the Books. Lester is certainly correct in saying that he is not the “ideal reader” for When You Reach Me. Stead’s book at the very least deserves to go onto the next round, if not win the entire battle. However, most probably believed When You Reach Me would be a shoo-in for Round 2, so didn’t vote for it in the “Undead” portion. I’m afraid that it may be the end of the line for this magnificant novel.

  8. Jonathan Hunt says:

    Lester actually cited three reasons for his decision. Yes, he mentioned a distate for time travel and not having read A WRINKLE IN TIME, but he also said first and foremost that Miranda’s voice did not engage him. Of course, you may also quibble with that assertion, but I have found that this criticism is particularly apt for books written in first person, and it is always somewhat subjective. If the voice wins us over then the time travel, the literary allusions, and whatever else hardly matter. Note, too, that it is the voice that Lester cites as the reason for advancing TALES FROM OUTER SUBURBIA. So I think that those people who are fixated on time travel and A WRINKLE IN TIME are missing the the deciding factor in Lester’s decision between these two books.

  9. Betty Tisel says:

    Oh come on people, Julius says at the get go that reading is subjective, and he is giving us his take on the two books he was assigned. He wants to read more Shaun Tan. Great! Miranda’s voice did not engage him. Fine.
    I think this contest is not about unbiased judging – I think it’s about having the chance to see what the amazing judges think about a wild variety of books. I think the judges’ responses are as interesting as the books themselves. Avatar didn’t need a Best Picture Oscar, and When You Reach Me does not need to win the Battle of the Books.

  10. This is right up there with Farmer’s decision in terms of what the?. While it tells me what Lester likes or dislikes — and I think that with SLJsBob there are no rules other than reading the book so any reason goes — add me to those who are disappointed that it came down to personal bias rather than the book being read.

  11. … but, but, but, When You Reach Me!

    ::sigh:: you know how sometimes, a book can smack its readers around one too many times and you just stop caring (“You’ve killed one too many characters I love, I don’t have any more emotion to invest in the remaining ones”)? I think the BOB just hit that point for me.

  12. (er… perhaps I should specify that I’m not blaming Julius Lester (or Nancy Farmer). I disagree with them, but they were asked to make a subjective decision and they did. My reaction to the contest is as subjective as their reactions to the books.)

  13. pdavislibrarian says:

    To use a football analogy any team can win on any given Sunday…I can’t wait to see how this ends up!

  14. So, I got seven out of eight wrong. Though, from what Eric says, I picked the same as the majority on every contest.

    However, I can’t fault Julius for picking TALES FROM OUTER SUBURBIA. It’s a truly brilliant book. I gave it to my 22-year-old son for his birthday and my 15-year-old son for Christmas. I wasn’t even tempted to give either one WHEN YOU REACH ME. Though of course that’s because TALES FROM OUTER SUBURBIA is much more appropriate for their age level and the sort of thing I know they like, which is to say completely bizarre.

    Personally, I like WYRM better, but they’re really close in my mind, so I sympathize with Julius’ decision.

    And it’s funny how now the next round will be a battle between two graphic novels. I wonder which will win? I’d have a really hard time picking between those two — both are completely brilliant and use the graphic novel form wonderfully.

  15. This was a(nother) terribly difficult choice, and while I haven’t been doing well at all at predicting the outcomes, I have no problem at all with the verdict here. I also can’t wait to see what happens in the next round — with Shannon Hale judging between two graphic novels! I do wish the undead poll could be open a little later next year.

  16. THE ARRIVAL made me take notice of Tan, but TALES FROM OUTER SUBURBIA made me a devoted fan.

    I liked WYRM well enough, but it didn’t get me thinking, wondering, and questioning the way TFOS did. And besides, my brackets have already been shot to h*ll, so I’m pleased with this interesting turn of events.

  17. It looked to me like Judge Lester had a mission, and accomplished it . . . Ruffle some feathers.

    Kind of disappointing.

  18. I love both these books (though I’m an even bigger fan of Shaun Tan’s The Arrival than of this one)! What I found interesting was that Julius Lester seems to imply that race is mentioned “in passing” in When You Reach Me. As I recall, the kids are upset when they realize the deli owner is racist, and Julia is a fairly important character. In any case, the books on this list are so uniformly good that it would be hard for anyone to choose.

  19. I wonder if Lester is being a bit humble in attributing so much of his choice to subject preferences. Because while WHEN YOU REACH ME does have a time-travel element, TALES FROM OUTER SUBURBIA brims with otherworldly elements that a non-fan of time travel might not enjoy, either. Lester seems to be saying not that time-travel ruled out his enjoyment of WYRM, but that Tan’s book did a better job of luring him in. To me, that’s a judgment between two books, not a dismissal due to a deal-breaker.

    To speak to my own preference, while I adored WYRM, will recommend it to young readers and probably reread it for years to come, I think TALES is perhaps more accomplished for drawing us into its totally fabricated world.

  20. Just happy, happy, happy about this decision. I love both books but maybe WYRM seems too obvious, too patterned, too organized. I like the wonder and sense of worldmaking the reader has to do in Tales from O.S. and I relish how it can be valued by readers of many, many ages–not sure that WYRM can be…

    I also think that Tales is a book that can be read again & again. Maybe not WYRM so much. Seems to me that Tan’s book is the only one that could have pulled off this defeat of When You Reach Me.

  21. Yea! I really sweated this one. I read WYRM because there was such a huge “of course this is the Newbery book” factor. I didn’t get it. It was just OK, I wasn’t rushing back to it or mesmerized by it. The plot in a review was more interesting than the actual book. I wouldn’t recommend that someone buy it. It just didn’t have that spark. But, Tales from Outer Suburbia is such a wonder. The tales are wild, bizarre and engaging while the images amplify and create a strange mystery. It works as a picture book, graphic novel, artists book and collection of stories for a young reader and adult audience. Well done.

  22. Yay! Now, I’ve mentioned before that I’m a huge when you reach me fan. Loved it from the moment I saw the cover. I pretty much devoured it and pegged it for the Newbery right away. But, upon reading TFOS, my bracket went to Shaun. There’s just something about the book: the table of contents, the illustrations, the short story format, so many things. I immediately brought it to the language arts teachers. Begging that they at least read Distant Rains if nothing else.

    I’m so excited about Round 2!

  23. Woo Hoo, I’m 3 for 4 in the second half (Marcelo you will make a lovely Zombie, and give me a clean sweep). I truly loved and adored every bit of WYRM and in almost any other bracket it would have had my support. I will admit to being a bit tipsy with Tan’s masterpiece when I voted in Eric’s poll. I had just received it in the mail and was several stories in when I voted. It may have taken advantage of my intoxicated state, but I will gladly stay under the influence of those Quirky Tales from Suburbia as long as they will allow me to loiter on their street corner.

  24. I’m so glad that Tales won over WYRM. Like Lester, I felt that Miranda’s voice wasn’t as strong as it might have been and I was never emotionally involved in her story. I have read L’Engle’s works (as a child and adult) and love them. Some books touch you and some don’t. I’m glad to see TFOS move on to the next round.

  25. NOOO

    I knew I should have voted for WYRM in the poll.

    Now I really need to read TALES FROM OUTER SUBURBIA.

  26. Another thought provoking response! Viva BoB! While I dearly love both books, I am reminded by Mr. Lester’s response that Tales from Outer Suburbia has the best first lines for stories ever.

  27. Genevieve says:

    I shouldn’t have suggested a questionnaire, really. I’m just so very sad to see WYRM go – it’s one of the best children’s books I’ve read in years. It’s one of those books that works so beautifully on rereading and rereading (I want to read it again right now, but my son lent his around to those of his friends who he didn’t get to buy it at the bookfair . . . and many of them now say it’s the best book they’ve ever read). It’s so marvelously and ingeniously plotted, has such good portrayals of the secondary characters, and such a great exploration of a kid figuring out how to build relationships when the one she’s counted on has dropped her. And the chapter titles derived from the game show, and the way the game show is then woven into the plot. And the sadness and complexity of the end.

    For me, Tales of Outer Suburbia didn’t come close to what When You Reach Me did — it didn’t draw me in, the ‘stories’ didn’t hang together, and it didn’t provide much more than an afternoon’s mild amusement. And I am a big fan of graphic novels.

  28. Bracket Contest 1eader board after round 1. Also some thoughts/predictions on round 2.

    And no I still have not recovered from this morning’s shock.

  29. NOOOOO!! I was wrong! I definitely agree, though, about knowing at least a little about A Wrinkle in Time. I also HIGHLY agree that a review reflects more about the reviewer than it does about the book.

    I was so torn when trying to decide who would win this one, though, I loved both, but I thought that, as a whole, WYRM had a much better sense of unity than TFOS did for me.

    Either way, I think I would have been disappointed.

  30. I am just laughing. I can’t even remember which one I voted for, but I’m tickled by Lester’s choice. What a great upset. I loved both books for completely different reasons, but the bottom line is that Tan is an unspeakable genius and he deserves more attention than he’s gotten for his works thus far. I’m very glad to see Tales win here and have a chance in the finals.


  1. […] 24, 2010 Spoiler alert!  If you haven’t read Judge Julius Lester’s decision at the SLJ BoB website, you might not want to read on, because I read it and I know the winner…it’s Tales from […]

  2. […] 24, 2010 “Reading is subjective” is how Julius Lester begins his SLJ’s Battle of the Kids’ Books decision. It is, it is.  And this is why we have different books receiving different awards the same year.  […]

  3. […] March 29, 2010 | Posted by “Reading is subjective” is how Julius Lester begins his SLJ’s Battle of the Kids’ Books decision. It is, it is.  And this is why we have different books receiving different awards the same year.  […]

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