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Battle of the Books

Round 1, Match 3: The Dreamer vs. The Good, The Bad, and the Barbie

The Dreamer
by Pam Munoz Ryan, illus. by Peter Sis
Scholastic Press
The Good, The Bad, and the Barbie
by Tanya Stone

Judged by
Barry Lyga

a review in One Act

[We open at Barry Lyga’s home. There is a knock at the door. Barry rises from a comfortable sofa to open the door. A package is waiting there.]

BARRY: Oh! Of course. These are the books for SLJ’s Battle of the Kids’ Books. These seem perfect for me — one book is about a pop culture icon, while the other is about a world-renowned literary figure. Two of my favorite reading subjects! Fortunately, these books are so different that it should be easy to pick a winner. (checks his watch) Hmm. This would go faster if there were two of me.

[Barry splits into two.]

BARRY-A: This will be easy. We’ll each read a book and the best one wins.

BARRY-B: Piece of cake. And then we can get back to playing Xbox. Er, I mean, writing books.

BARRY-A: I’ll read The Good, the Bad, and the Barbie by Tanya Lee Stone.

BARRY-B: And I’ll read The Dreamer by Pam Muñoz Ryan and Peter Sís.

[They sit on opposite ends of the sofa and read. After many hours, they look up.]

BOTH TOGETHER: That was easy! We have a winner!

[They each do a double-take, shocked.]

BARRY-A: Your book can’t be the winner. My book is the winner.

BARRY-B: I beg to differ. The Dreamer is a powerful combination of prose and poetry, fictionalizing the childhood and crucial developmental stages of Pablo Neruda, one of the twentieth century’s most important and well-regarded literary figures. It’s by turns heartbreaking and illuminating, with a deft magical realistic touch that is appropriate to the subject matter without being overly precious. Clearly, it wins.

BARRY-A: I can’t argue with what you’ve said, but you need to take a look at Stone’s book. I don’t have any experience with Barbie dolls (other than buying one for my mother as a gift once), but you can’t grow up in America (or most other parts of the world) without being somewhat familiar with that famous toy. Stone’s book takes an impressively unbiased look at Barbie’s history as well as the controversy surrounding the doll’s impact on young girls, a battle in which both sides claim the mantle of feminism…and both have every right to.

BARRY-B: That’s all well and good, but you’re missing something — Muñoz’s book is sumptuously illustrated by Peter Sís, whose use of pointillism and negative space dovetails perfectly with the text, adding meaning without distracting from the narrative.

BARRY-A: Stone’s book is illustrated, too, with historical photos of the creators of Barbie as well as stunning examples of the doll’s evolution from the 1950s to the present. I never knew, for example, that Barbie’s facial expression and measurements had changed over the decades. And hey, let’s not forget something important: Stone’s book is about something real.

BARRY-B: So is Muñoz’s! Pablo Neruda was a real person.

BARRY-A: Ah, but Stone’s book is non-fiction. It’s not made up.

BARRY-B: So what? Muñoz’s is based on facts, but — as befits the subject matter — takes on a lyrical quality that only serves to enhance its core truths.

[They stare at each other across the sofa, arms crossed over their chests.]

BARRY-A: This isn’t going very well, is it?

BARRY-B: Look, you need to let go and admit that the Muñoz book wins. Does your book have beautiful descriptions such as referring to rain on a roof as a “piano of wet notes?” Or a quiet, devastating moment as when young Neruda is listing the people he loves and, of his demanding father, thinks, “He knew he should love Father, so he did?”

BARRY-A: Well, no. Of course not. But so what? That sort of language and emotional resonance isn’t appropriate to Stone’s subject. What’s impressive is the way she’s able to navigate the minefields of modern feminist criticism of Barbie and allow each side to have its own say without coming down on one or the other. She truly pulls of the journalistic trick of being objective. The book acknowledges the faults and missteps of the toy and its makers, but also gives equal time to those who have found Barbie empowering. And you can’t compete with the sad irony of Barbie’s creator developing breast cancer and going on to design improved prosthetic breasts for mastectomy patients.

BARRY-B: No fair playing the cancer card!

BARRY-A: Hey, you played the abusive father card!

[They glare at each other. Time passes.]

BARRY-A: I think I have a solution. They’re both good books, right?

BARRY-B: Oh, I see where you’re headed. Let’s just call it a tie!

BARRY-A: Exactly! It’s a tie! That was easy.[They grin and shake on it. The phone rings. Barry-A answers.]

BARRY-A: Hello? What’s that? Oh, really? Really? Are you sure? OK, well, thank you.

[He hangs up.]

BARRY-A: That was SLJ. Apparently there are no ties allowed.

BARRY-B (shaking fist): Curse you, school librarians!!!

[They think.]

BARRY-B: You know… These books have more in common than we originally thought.

BARRY-A: How so?

BARRY-B: Well, The Dreamer is fictionalized, but it’s still a history of a real person, an iconic figure. And The Good, the Bad, and the Barbie is non-fiction…but it’s the history of a not-real “person.” They’re almost inverted versions of each other.

BARRY-A: Maybe the solution is to let Barbie and Pablo figure this out.

BARRY-B: I like the way you think.

BARRY-A: I know.

BARRY-B: So, what would Barbie think of The Dreamer?

BARRY-A: I gotta be honest with you: If you look at Barbie’s history, she’s a doll with a mission. She’s all about the career, whether it’s those early days as a candy striper or her recent tenure as an astronaut-slash-presidential candidate. She’s a material girl: The three-story townhouse, the hot car. I don’t see room for a lot of poetry in her life.

BARRY-B: That’s probably true. But Pablo would… Hmm. You know, now that I think of it… Neruda was a man of incredible curiosity. And Muñoz really draws attention to his passion for collecting — it was almost a mania with him. I could see him being fascinated by Barbie’s place in history, by the way she fired up girls’ imaginations. And the collectibility aspects of the toy… That would push it over the edge.

BARRY-A: Sounds like we agree, then.

[They merge.]

BARRY: And so, the winner — by a synthetic blonde hair — is The Good, the Bad, and the Barbie!

[The curtain falls.]

— Barry Lyga

And the Winner of this match is…


Yeah, but if Pablo’s dad ever would have caught him playing with Barbie dolls . . . Well, I shudder to think of it.   In The Dreamer, Ryan (and Sis) have created something that’s a little bit of everything—part fiction, part nonfiction; part prose, part poetry; part words, part pictures.  The fact that it stretches across so many forms bothers some people, but I found it totally amazing.  Stone made some people uncomfortable with the tone of Almost Astronauts last year, but in The Good, the Bad, and the Barbie, she maintains all of the passion of her previous book with a more moderate tone that hasn’t alienated people as much.  Personally, I appreciate both approaches and look forward to many more wonderful works of nonfiction.  There are only three members of Team Nonfiction this year, and Barbie notches the first victory.  Can Sugar and KKK follow suit?

— Commentator Jonathan Hunt

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


  1. What fun it was to read the argument between the two Barrys! Good choice, too!

  2. Yay! O-3! My cracked cystal ball is still intact (err, um, not intact).

  3. This is an outrage! The Dreamer’s emotional intensity conquers a platinum blonde barbie book anytime! Absurd! (But I did enjoy the argument between the two Barry’s. Very entertaining.)

  4. 0-3 as well. It appears Ed and I are beginning a hotly contested race to the bottom.

  5. Hmmm – interesting to read about Barbie’s history as a candy “stripper” – is that a Freudian slip (slipe?)

  6. @aclasper: It was “striper” in my original text. Must have been spell-checked into an error on SLJ’s end. But what an error! 🙂

  7. I truly thought that Barbie and Pablo were going to arm wrestle for it there at the finish… Nice A/B dialogue! I’m a Dreamer fan, but now I’m going to go read Barbie.

  8. I’m also 0-3. The race for the bottom is becoming hotly contested.

  9. Was it a copout or pure genius to let the contestants crown the victor? In that respect Mr. Lyga called it right. The upwardly mobile Barbie would never have conceded to the glass ceiling by letting a poet get the upper hand. And Neftali, who found beauty in the minute, would certainly appreciate the doll’s qualities, even if they were a far cry from the nature he adored.

    I on the other hand have a difficult time conceding Ryan’s dizzying prose to Stone’s rigidly molded facts.

    But thank you Barry A and Barry B for such high early morning entertainment.

  10. Great read, but not happy about this one. Not one bit. Barry A had WAY better arguments. A and B should have duked it out. Not Barbie and Neftali. I knew who was going to win when it got to them. Barbie the strong confident hottie and Neftali the weak, timid, reserved little boy.

    Not happy Mr. Lyga, but props on the creative explanation.

  11. Well, I enjoyed the “conversation,” but I’m surprised by the result. I thought DREAMER was a sure thing for this one.

    Perhaps these people simply pick whichever one I didn’t predict…

    Though the first match went my way. I guess it goes to show there’s no telling what these judges will pick — but their process is sure to be entertaining!

  12. Grumpy says: The Good, the Bad, and the Barbie is one of the few books I read from last year that I thought was actually not-good. I get that not everyone feels quite that way and there’s been a lot of praise for it, but surely anyone can find things to criticize in it, too? Are any of these authors ever going to say anything genuinely critical about any of the books, or should I accept that that’s just not what we’re doing here? My mind is busy boggling over the idea that the Barbie book was “objective”. “a moderate tone that hasn’t alienated people as much” is faint praise that tickles me.

    The Dreamer didn’t make my list of favorites for last year, but it’s actually… well-written. Seriously, is that not what we’re doing here? I’ve decided I’d much rather hear arguments with passion, even if I totally disagree with them, than this “they’re both good books” stuff. I would love it if more authors used decisions like Lois Lowry’s in the first year as a model.

  13. I am saying nothing because I can NOT remember which I picked but I think it was Barbie…

    Which would make me 2-1. This is a lot tougher than last year’s contest!

  14. Sam Bloom says

    Well, as of right now Barry is in the lead in terms of awesome judgment/explanation. What a great read!

  15. Corrected Stripper/Striper. Apologies from behind the curtain…


  1. […] including chapter books, picture books, nonfiction, and graphic novels. I particularly enjoyed match 3, with judge Barry Lyga. My Two Barrys (Barries?)–I’d watch that sitcom. A replacement […]

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