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Battle of the Books

Round 2, Match 2: The Good, The Bad, and the Barbie vs. Keeper

The Good, The Bad, and the Barbie
by Tanya Stone
by Kathi Appelt
Atheneum/Simon & Schuster

Judged by
Naomi Shihab Nye

Forgive the personal note, but if one is going to read something for a contest, being thunderstruck by illness right beforehand may not be the worst occurrence. It’s reminiscent of some beloved Robert Louis Stevenson poem about lying abed for blurred hours with mounds of rumpled sheets and one’s toys and books piled everywhere. Languid, overheated/chilled lostness enables focused horizontal absorption into material…also one is able to read straight through, pondering and napping between chapters…

So, I got sick, but I went to bed with Barbie dolls and mermaids. As a child of the 50’s & 60’s who never had a Barbie, and even developed some phobia about touching them at other people’s houses (the danger of those particular, uh, mounds)… this felt exotic. Who would know how fascinating her history really is, without reading THE GOOD, THE BAD, AND THE BARBIE – A DOLL’S HISTORY AND HER IMPACT ON US by the intrepid Tanya Lee Stone (Viking) – a lavishly illustrated, carefully constructed exploration of the half-century-plus history of an icon, both adored and loathed, by more people than many of us could have dreamed.

I feel as if I have somehow caught up with my childhood friends.

And who could not admire Ruth Mosko Handler, “inventor” of Barbie? Although I still have more questions about Barbie’s extremely derivative nature since the 1959 original, see. (pic. p. 29) is SHOCKINGLY (Stone says “strikingly” but I’d venture beyond that) similar-looking to the German doll Bild-Lilli, p. 27, which inspired Handler, and, uh, was carried along by her first designer to Japan… apparently, though, Ruth had already been dreaming of such a doll for years. (There were many lawsuits along the way, but was there ever a lawsuit about THIS?) Barbie’s own features and variations, as well as those of her ever-expanding entourage, would evolve throughout the years. The details about Ruth’s own life, her Jewish family & upbringing, her own kids including doll-hating Barbara for whom Barbie was named, and her co-founding with husband Elliot of Mattel Toys, are full of bravado-spirit (“I was gutsy. I made it work,” said Ruth) and presented with compact clarity.

This is a classic, jazzy book of Americana historiana, surely attractive to many generations of Barbie-players as well as Barbie-shunners, and the weirdest segments of all have to be the wildly strange abuse-of-Barbie narratives.

The endearing 10 year old namesake star of KEEPER by Kathi Appelt (Atheneum, with lovely haunting illustrations by August Hall) plays, not with Barbie dolls but with small handcarved lucky charms in the shapes of famous sea sirens. (Minor disclosure: As resident of same state, I know Kathi a bit from years back.)

Keeper is resident of a motley, miniature community down on the Texas Gulf coast. She loves her dog BD and her pet seagull Captain who adores watermelon. Her alleged “mermaid mother” Meggie Marie abandoned her 7 years prior to a mid-western escapee called Signe who is only 25 herself. I kept doing the math…Their neighbors, the stuttering Dogie who rents surfboards and the elderly Mr. Beauchamp, still longing for his young love Jack from France, as he waits for his night-blooming cyrus flowers to pop open, create a sleepy, somewhat surreal swoon of neighborhood texture for a little girl to wander dreamily through. Keeper waxes surfboards for Dogie, saves her money, watches the waves and tides closely, lives in a rich drift of fantastic thinking. She wants to see her mother again. And she’s ready to make it happen on the rare night of the “blue moon.” This is a gumbo-rich brew of magical farfetched wishing – spells – plans and lists – melodrama launched in a small rowboat…chapter 55, about all the oceans of the world being connected, is a gem-like poem shining at the heart.

Appelt’s essential way with narrative is so muscular and forward-moving, the lavish hum of place, waves, longing, wrap around a reader with hypnotic transporting power. You would look very long to find an extra word or syllable. This is a gift. By page 348, even Barbie was voting with me – KEEPER was my winner.

— Naomi Shihab Nye

And the Winner of this match is…


Wait! First, Pablo Neruda picks Barbie and now Barbie is voting for Keeper?!?!?! It’s metafiction run amok! With Sugar Changed the World and They Called Themselves the KKK bowing out in the first round, all of our nonfiction hopes were pinned on The Good, The Bad, and the Barbie, and as much as I liked the book, I didn’t feel very confident about its chances going up against Keeper, a book that many of us thought had Newbery written all over it. For those of us who fell under its spell, we would indeed have to look long and hard for an extra word or syllable, but the Heavy Medal discussion of this title focused on whether the book was actually too wordy or not. I’m definitely a Cardturner fan, but I’m rooting for Keeper to sail through to the final round, very much hoping that she bucks this trend of favoring her opponent to advance.

— 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. Was there ever any other choice?

  2. Wow Jonathan! We agree again!

    I have to say that when I saw that Naomi was judging this contest, I did not see how Barbie could win. Keeper has such poetic language (and NO! it is NOT too wordy! NOT too wordy! NOT too wordy!–its structure matches the ebb and flow of the tides and the language is supposed to lure you in–works exceptionally well and it deserved its Newbery consideration, if not an actual sticker). This is a book that has Naomi’s name all over it. This is the first pick that I picked BECAUSE of who is judging more than any other consideration. Love both books, however, and since I have taken perverse pleasure in getting things wrong in this contest, I had a part of my brain hoping that the doll would be a keeper.

  3. Ahh… Yes. The Keeper will prevail. Congratulations! Now I must go sob for Countdown… What exactly happened???? I must go blog about this…

  4. The Brain Lair says

    Yes, again!! Round two is shaping up nicely! Though I will cry when Keeper faces The Cardturner!!

  5. Go, Keeper, go! To me, Keeper (the character, anyway) is the VCU of this tournament — the hardscrabble underdog that you just can’t help but root for. Barbie’s like Duke: who ever wanted them to win?

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