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Battle of the Books

Round 1, Match 4: Daughter of Smoke and Bone vs Dead End in Norvelt


Daughter of Smoke and Bone
by Laini Taylor
Little, Brown
Dead End in Norvelt
by Jack Gantos

Judged by
Sara Zarr


When I found out the titles I’d be judging for the Battle, I tried to guess which I’d wind up choosing—Laini Taylor’s highly-acclaimed Daughter of Smoke & Bone, or Newbery winner Dead End in Norvelt, from Jack Gantos. Handicapping them in the context of my biases and habits as a reader put them neck-and-neck. I’m a fan of contemporary realism for older young adults, and literary fiction for younger old adults. Rarely-to-never do I voluntarily pick up the fantastical or paranormal romancey novels that currently dominate the YA landscape, and middle-grade fiction with boy appeal is barely on my radar. So, as different as their books are from each other, Taylor and Gantos started out on a more or less level playing field.

Daughter of Smoke & Bone arrived first, and I quickly saw why it’s been so well-reviewed. It’s a book for lovers of lush language and exotic locales, a velvet sofa of a book, something you sink into. Karou is a compelling heroine and the stakes for her story are high. As briefly as possible and leaving a whole lot out: imagine you are a beautiful human orphan, and your adopted daddy is a creature with furry haunches, claw-feet, and alligator eyes. In exchange for taking you in and giving you a cozy cot in the back room of his lair, you have to commit petty and not-so-petty crimes all over the world, using portals of questionable repute and permanence.

On the up side, you get to go to art school and now live in a cute apartment in Prague–which Taylor paints gorgeously as an appealing carnival of a place where anything can happen. (Seriously, I was ready to book my trip to Prague within the first 30 pages.) When scorched handprints begin to appear on the portal doors in a kind of reverse-Passover, it really gets interesting. There are two worlds at war, and though they aren’t exactly heaven and hell, I’ll call them that to save overexplaining. In this case, heaven isn’t all good and hell isn’t all bad; both sides in this war have perpetuated it and acted wrongly. Karou has a foot in each, and has to face the possibility that there is no right side to take. Dilemmas like that always make for compelling drama.

There’s a major romantic element in the book. As the love heated up, I chilled a bit. This kind of all-consuming Romeo-and-Juliet-impossible-love romance has become what is to me a less interesting version of a greater question: Can love that is not romantic be powerful enough to triumph and change circumstances and people (or angels, or chimaera) in meaningful ways? That’s a question Gantos explores, to an extent, in his book.

Far, far from the “snow and stone and ghostlight” of Karou’s Prague in an imagined present is Norvelt, Pennsylvania. It’s the summer of 1962, and Jack Gantos (the character, not the author—they share the same name) is turning 12 and, sort of, becoming a young man. Or at least beginning that long journey from boyhood to his future self.

Norvelt is a place with a rich and unique history, a town created as a depression-era model community based on semi-Jeffersonian principles of farmsteading, as reimagined by the National Industrial Recovery Act of 1933. As Jack’s mother explains, Norvelt was “set up so people who didn’t have a lot of cash could trade each other for things they needed to make a living.” Jack and his parents are among those who don’t have a lot of cash. Though the bartering system has long-since died off for most, a few people in the community keep the tradition alive. The trades Jack’s mom makes with Jack’s time and skills as the bartering currency are the primary substance of Jack’s story, and what propels him on his journey.

The book has a lot of charm, true laugh-out-loud hilarity, and is full of enough historical detail and information to keep any teacher or librarian happy. And I’m sure that boy readers especially appreciate the thorough descriptions of Jack’s chronic nosebleeds and his dad’s cool World War II stuff, not to mention how he manages to save a deer in one of the funniest scenes in the book. (I hate to give anything away, but it involves a carefully manipulated bodily function.) What Jack gets in return for his time—especially in his relationship with the elderly Miss Volker—is a richer understanding of his own history. I especially liked the final scene and the simple way it showed Jack’s growth.

In the end, the books had a lot more in common than I expected. Both Jack and Karou need a fuller understanding of their pasts in order to know how to act, how to be, in the present. Both stories are about ideas and ideals acted on rather than merely pondered. Gantos more concretely gets into the love of community and family, and a practical, very American understanding of the relationship between self-sacrifice and individuality. Taylor goes there, too, in her way, and I’m eager to see how her trilogy will finish out. Gantos asks his questions in the context of comedy; Taylor in high emotional drama.

It came down to this: as a reader, I’m looking to get lost in a world. I like to forget I’m reading a novel. That’s tricky when the protagonist and the author share a name, as in Dead End In Norvelt. Also, the somewhat rambling narrative structure of Gantos’ story and the relentless eccentricity of some of the characters too often took me out of my imagination. Taylor isn’t innocent of occasionally making her presence as an author more known than I’d prefer, but the poetry of her prose lent a mesmerizing quality to the fictional landscape and created a more wholly immersive reading experience. Daughter of Smoke & Bone had the slight edge in this round.

— Judge Sara Zarr


And the Winner of this match is……
Daughter of Smoke and Bone

Ack! The dreaded Newbery curse strikes again! THE GRAVEYARD BOOK and WHEN YOU REACH ME didn’t make it out of the first round and now DEAD END IN NORVELT has joined their ranks. Now the relentless eccentricity of the characters didn’t take me out of the narrative, but I did complain about the rambling narrative. Nevertheless, it’s easily one of the funnier books of the year. And fans will appreciate how this book contains echoes of motifs and themes that run throughout Gantos’s entire oeuvre, marking it as something of a magnum opus. Now as for DAUGHTER OF SMOKE & BONE . . .

Squee! I couldn’t be happier. It’s probably the book I most enjoyed this past year, and with CHIME and SCORPIO RACES being the genre’s standard bearers this year and hogging all the trophy hardware, I really hoped it would make a deep run and get lots of love. And as fate would have it, it goes up against CHIME now in the second round. Interesting!

— Commentator Jonathan Hunt


I should be writing an obituary for Dead End in Norvelt. I wanted it to win this match, but it’s mostly a matter of personal preference; I am perfectly happy with Daughter of Smoke and Bone being the victor. Although there were some things I didn’t particularly like in Daughter of Smoke and Bone, none of them seriously detracted from the experience of losing yourself in a world like Ms. Zarr talked about. In such a well-written fantasy as Taylor’s, you’ll always have that experience; it’s wonderful. And what a match there is coming up now: Daughter of Smoke and Bone vs. Chime. Angels and chimerae will fight side by side against swamp spirits and the Boggy Mun. It might well come down to this: Which experience is better?

— Kid Commentator RGN


  1. Finally, I called one correctly — and since Daughter of Smoke and Bone is my favorite book on the list, I’m so glad it went on to the next round. It is so beautifully written, and I agree with Zarr — I’m ready to book my flight to Prague today. it will be an interesting match against Chime, but I have every hope that Taylor’s book will prevail. I liked Dead End in Norvelt but I didn’t love it and am not surprised it find’ take it to the next round.

  2. Sam Bloom says

    Man, Ms. Zarr had me worried there for a bit… as much as I enjoyed Dead End, this was one time where I was rooting against the Newbery winner. Of course, we had that one year where a certain Newbery winner – the best of them all – didn’t even get invited to the BoB table! Old wounds die hard you know… 😉 But I digress. As a die-hard member of Team Karou, I’m hopeful that Ms. Lockhart will see fit to push it through to the Final Four.

  3. Hooray for Laini Taylor! Gosh, Sara Zarr’s review had me certain that Dead End was going to win the round, but the chimerae pulled it out in the end. I am a huge Smoke and Bone fan, although I did enjoy Jack Gantos’ novel much more than I had expected to.

  4. Jennifer H says

    I find it amazing that no matter how different from each other books initially appear when matched together in the brackets, I almost always find something they have in common. For these two, it’s definitely death, though the characters of Smoke and Bone get to be reborn, a definite advantage in the common subject.

    I enjoyed Dead End, but the end left me disappointed, I felt the impact of death was never really there in the books, though I realize we’re reading through the eyes of a 12 year old. However, I still remember my horrified gasp as I finally realized where Laini Taylor had been leading us in her book. It twisted and turned in ways I didn’t quite expect (the teeth!!). That solidified it as my pick. 4 for 4! Tomorrow I’m worried though; I picked my bracket, but I might be changing my mind! I need to decide fast!

  5. I, too, was reading Sara Zarr’s analysis and reminding myself that Dead End in Norvelt is indeed a great book and deserving and all that. Then she picked Daughter of Smoke and Bone! Hooray!

    I don’t envy E. Lockhart having to judge between Chime and Daughter of Smoke and Bone! Of course, when I chose my Sonderbooks Stand-outs, I gave the edge to Daughter, and ranked it just above Chime. So I’m rooting for Daughter. But I certainly will be happy if Chime moves on, too. This is where I really wish they were in separate halves of the tournament! Or at least that I had voted for Daughter in the Undead Poll! Or Chime! (Okay, whichever one loses the next round, that’s the one I wish I’d voted for.)

    And I’m 4 for 4 in my picks this year! Woo-hoo! All my favorites are winning so far!

  6. I’m 4 for 4 now too and don’t know quite what to do with myself having nothing to complain about.

  7. I really did like Dead End in Norvelt, but I should have known that it wouldn’t survive because of the Newbery curse. I really do agree with Sara Zarr, and am looking forward to the next match.

  8. The Newbery curse indeed! YA books are doing really well so far. Which book will be the first MG fiction to survive round one? I’m guessing Inside Out and Back Again–if it doesn’t fall under the Newbery curse as well…

  9. Three cheers for Judge Zarr and Daughter of Smoke and Bone! Loved that book and so wanted it to make it to the next round (and beyond).

    Tomorrow’s bracket has a book that I adored and that didn’t get any love at awards time, so I’m rooting it on to be the first MG fiction to move on. Go go Grand Plan!

  10. I couldn’t agree more with Sara Zarr’s assessment of this round. I attempted to read Dead End in Norvelt, but it’s not really the type of book that I go for (though I can see its merits for the intended age group), and I had issues with Daughter for the exact reasons Zarr did, Romeo and Juliet-type romances being one of my pet-peeves in books. Overall, though, I loved Laini Taylor’s lush prose and intriguing plotline and I’m happy Daughter got the nod.

    I’m not sure how it’s happened, but I am also four for four. This must be some kind of record for me. I haven’t read either of the books in the next round and have no clue which one to pick, so we’ll see how my luck hold out.

  11. This was a tough match. Norvelt was interesting because I know the area and the time period but I am not a hyperactive guy so… Smoke and Bone had a lovely, lovely beginning, and a true cliff hanger of an ending, but I skimmed the middle tough-girl-with-a-blade and romance-with-obligatory-paranormal-hunk part myself. I guessed how this match would go but it could easily gone to Norvelt.

  12. Battle Commander says

    Just a schedule reminder – the Matches happen during weekdays — so the next Match will be on Monday. Tomorrow’s post will be the Peanut Gallery, a collection of blog posts and tweets about the Battle so far. But also, over the weekend, we can all speculate which four titles will be moved on to Round 2. Winners of the guessing game will receive the satisfaction of being the wise ones on the block!

  13. Crushed! I am crushed. I enjoyed Daughter of Smoke and Bone very much – I read it while waiting to get a mammogram, if that’s not TMI, and it managed to distract me even from the drafty gown and uncomfortable waiting room chairs (thanks Laini I owe you one!). But I find Dead End in Norvelt a near-perfect book. It is going through our entire K-8 school like wildfire and I haven’t met anyone yet who isn’t startled by how much they love it. Discussing it with a kid is such a rewarding experience – they’re like, “Hells Angels!” and the teacher goes, “I know!”

  14. Sara Ralph says

    It is hard to feel too sorry for these Newbery winners; I’m mean they’ve already won the most prestigious award in children’s literature. I would have had a hard time choosing between these two so bravo Sara Zarr!

  15. I’m casting my vote for whoever designs the BoB book icons–look at those svelte little legs on DoSaB, and the blood spurting out of DEiN. What perfect attention to detail!

  16. Having only read Dead End in Norvelt, I don’t have an opinion about which book is better. I do like how just my this review of sorts, I want to read the book I haven’t read. Dead End in Norvelt all ready has won two rewards, so the critics all ready have agreed Dead End in Norvelt is worth reading.

  17. Battle Commander says

    Rebecca, thank you for drawing our attention to the graphic designs! Our battle arena would not have looked this spiffy and full of zest without the amazing graphic designer behind the scene. We need to make some t-shirts using these images! Look at this image from last year’s battle: Wouldn’t you want to have it printed as a poster for your library?

  18. I actually read both of these and didn’t really get Dead End in Norvelt, but assumed since other people clearly did (since it won the Newbery and all) that it just wasn’t my kind of humor. I was betting Ms. Zarr would get the humor – in fact I had Dead End going all the way to the finals on the basis that the judges would all get what I didn’t! Therefore the upper half of my bracket is basically kaput. I have to admit, I’m delighted Daughter of Smoke and Bone advances though since I greatly enjoyed it. C’est la vie!

    Perhaps the bottom half will fair better.
    In a total guess (since I haven’t read either), I have Drawing from Memory advancing. Then in what’s basically a coin flip since I thought both were excellent, I have Inside Out and Back Again going through. I haven’t read Life, but I thought A Monster Calls was one of the best books I read last year so I’m backing it. And while I greatly prefer Okay for Now, I’m going with Jeff Kinney picking Wonderstruck because the graphic sections were amazing (I just didn’t think the text sections carried their half of the weight).

    What’s amazing to me (although I think I’ve heard others say this as well) is that the more I read, the worse I do at picking my bracket. The first year I played along, I had read barely anything and that’s the best I’ve done!

  19. Suzanne C says

    I LOVE March Madness! Book style of course. I have my picks and have been agreeing with the judges quite a bit, however what I find entirely intriguing is our kid commentator’s opinions. So far it seems he tends to prefer each and every book that has not gone on to the next round. Didn’t anyone else notice? I find this so very interesting! Just throwing this out there. He is a wonderful commentator by the way! What a wonderful addition to the battle!
    Could this difference have to do with our “grown up” (if we have grown up?) viewpoint with some 10 – 60 plus years more of life behind us?

  20. David Hillman says

    Dead end in Norvelt was an… Interesting book about a boy who was robbed of his summer and caught in the middle of a full out war between his mom and dad. he had to then work as an… Accountant for a crazy old woman who in the end ( helps his bloody nose) and goes completely… Read and find out. In my mind, a plant could wright a better book then this Dead end in Norvelt. The major dissapointment was how many jokes they could have made and… didn’t. They had a kid impurcinating the grim reaper in a still living old woman’s house and missed every single joke they could have made.

  21. Noooo! How could the sappy paranormal romance beat out the hilarious historical yard in a battle of the KIDS’ books? I didn’t dislike Daughter of Smoke and Bone, but, in my opinion, the elegant writting couldn’t save the ACHINGLY cliched doomed lovers plot.

  22. Just a quick comment, not on today’s books: The link for Match 5 goes to Match 4. Could this be corrected since I couldn’t read the battle yesterday and am feeling horribly out of the loop?! Thanks!

  23. Daughter of Smoke and Bone has long been gathering enthusiastic reviews by the bushel, and until about half way through the novel I was in a position to join the chorus. The writing is actually impressive, not just because it’s heightened and beautiful but because Taylor is able to mix her stunning prose with a bit of of the most extremely natural, alluring teen dialogue that I’ve read in a very long time. Karou’s banter with her good friend Zuzana is surely an absolute joy to read, witty and care free, clever and silly.

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