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Battle of the Books

Round 1, Match 6: Heart and Soul vs Inside Out and Back Again


Heart and Soul
by Kadir Nelson
Balzer & Bray
Inside Out and Back Again
by Thanhha Lai

Judged by
Sarah Weeks


I like to think of myself as a nice person. True, I sometimes fantasize about throwing rotten fruit at the children from the Montessori school across the street who use my neighbor’s backyard as their playground from one o’clock to three o’clock every weekday afternoon. “I’m trying to write children’s books up here!” I want to scream at them from my window as they frolic and cavort below. “Shut up!” But with that one glaring exception, I can honestly say I am not a person who likes confrontation or conflict and I am loathe to offend or hurt anyone’s feelings. So when I was asked if I would like to participate in SLJ’s Battle of the Kids’ Books, I was both flattered and horrified. Flattered to be included in a list of people described as “some of the top authors in the kids’ book world” and horrified at the notion of having to say anything negative about a colleague’s work.

By the time the books arrived I had made peace with myself. My job would not be to decide which book was better than the other, but rather which one I liked better. Whether a person likes something or not is completely subjective. For instance, I happen to like jujubes more than chocolate. This doesn’t mean I don’t like chocolate, it just means that given a choice between the two I would prefer to eat a box of jujubes than a Kit Kat. So whether I like one book more than the other isn’t the same thing as saying that I think one is better than the other, right?

Heart and Soul and Inside Out & Back Again are both books well deserving of the attention and praise they’ve garnered. They are different from each in many ways, most notably that one is a picture book, the other a novel. Kadir Nelson’s Heart and Soul is what a lot of people would call an “important book.” I agree. It’s the kind of book that belongs in every school library. As Mr. Nelson himself predicted, there were things he shared about our country’s history that made me cringe, but there were other things, like the election of Barack Obama, that made me feel proud to call myself an American. This book is a history not only of the African-American experience in our country, but of Mr. Nelson’s family. Sort of. Pap and Aunt Sarah are relatives of the narrator, a fictional “elder African American” who calls her listeners “Honey” and “Chile.” Though these characters are not actually based on members of Mr. Nelson’s family, we are told that the book was inspired by stories the author’s relatives passed along to him. Aside from the masterful artwork, what sets this book apart from traditional history books is the voice of the narrator whose folksy tone is woven throughout the text. In his author’s note, Mr. Nelson shares with his readers that history was not his favorite subject in school. I suspect that this book will be welcomed with open arms in classrooms where there are children who feel similarly.

Inside Out & Back Again, by Thanhha Lai is a novel told in verse. Ms. Lai’s reflections on the year her family escaped Vietnam and relocated to Alabama are rich, poignant, vibrant, sometimes sweet, and often heartbreakingly sad. She says in her author’s note that much of what happened in the book happened to her—making it similar in this sense to Mr. Nelson’s book in that to some extent it is a fictionalized memoire. The choices the author makes as to which moments in this difficult journey to show, demonstrates what a truly gifted writer she is. Every word and every image is there for a reason. I particularly enjoyed the way she poked fun at the English language and how difficult it is for a non-native speaker to master it. About the troublesome and unfamiliar ssssss sound she says, “Whoever invented English must have loved snakes.” The portrait of this family in transition is vividly painted, with admirably few strokes. When I closed the book, I did so reluctantly. I felt that I had tasted ripe papaya, and glutinous rice—as well as the salty tears of the endearing main character, Ha. I loved every minute of reading this book.

It is with no disrespect to Kadir Nelson and his impressive history book that this self-professed jujube lover found the choice an easy one to make. Inside Out & Back Again is a book I will recommend to others and reread myself, and it is on that basis that I make it my personal top pick.

— Judge Sarah Weeks

And the Winner of this match is……

What a coincidence! I, too, think of myself as a nice person, but often fantasize about throwing rotten fruit at children and screaming, “Shut up!” but that wouldn’t model good behavior in the school library, would it? I’ve got to be honest here and say that while I can appreciate the strengths of both of these excellent books, I’m not emotionally invested in either of them, particularly relative to other books in the field. That said, it’s refreshing to finally—finally!—discuss HEART AND SOUL as a complete work, rather than having segregated conversations about the words and the pictures. It emerges as a stronger contender because of it, but obviously not strong enough to beat out INSIDE OUT & BACK AGAIN which is, with its National Book Award and Newbery Honor, arguably the most highly decorated book of the year. Impressionistic, autobiographical, and inspirational, INSIDE OUT & BACK AGAIN faces a book in DRAWING FROM MEMORY with many of those same qualities.

— Commentator Jonathan Hunt

If this was a contest for the most emotional book (which it partly is, as a big part of writing is its power), I would choose Inside Out & Back Again to win the prize (although Between Shades of Grey is a very close second, and many other books are tied for third). Thanhha Lai’s poetry and Ha’s beautifully told story really moved me. As Ms. Weeks said, everything is there for a reason. (I particularly like how she said “image;” writing does create a picture.) I’d love this wonderful book to win the whole thing.  Heart and Soul, though, was a great non-fiction book; I’m sorry it had to be up against such a winner. A note to make: With the narrator as she is, it is impossible for Kadir Nelson to tell the whole story of African-Americans; what he does say, however, is just right. So, for that matter, is all that Thanhha Lai tells us.

— Kid Commentator RGN


  1. Shooooot. I’m now 5 for 6. I had a feeling that Inside Out would triumph, but I just loved Heart and Soul so darn much. Heart and Soul, you are my jujube.

  2. Sam Bloom says

    I agree, Katie… but I would never pick against Kadir Nelson in a million years. This is the first decision I’ve really been bummed about. Oh well, Inside Out is pretty great, too. And knowing Ms. Weeks penchant for lyrical writing, it isn’t a surprise she picked Lai as the winner.

  3. Steffaney Smith says

    Another knockout! This second week is even better than the first. Enjoying this so much more than trying to guess the Newbery committee verdicts. Battle of the Books is MY MARCH MADNESS.

  4. This is one I wasn’t too emotionally invested in either. I really enjoyed both books. In the end Inside Out and Back Again had a slight edge with me but I would have been happy either way. (Tomorrow on the other hand…)

  5. To me, Inside Out and Back Again was clearly the better book. I liked Heart and Soul (and the illustrations are to die for) but I felt that its brevity led to some generalizations that diminished the book. After reading Inside Out and Back Again, it was obvious why it won the National Book Award. Frankly, I thought it was a better book than Dead End in Norvelt and perhaps should have gotten the Newbery too (although there were several other books I felt were also Newbery contenders that didn’t get recognized.).

  6. This was my pick, too, (though I prefer Kit Kats) especially after Drawing from Memory advanced yesterday. Both Heart and Soul and Inside Out are wonderfully told stories I look forward to sharing with my students for years.

  7. Suzanne C says

    This is one exciting week. Now why would anyone follow a basketball poll when they can be following the BoBs? OK so perhaps they are slightly permitted to do both.
    Several months ago I had Inside Out & Back Again in my hand and only had time for a slight dip into it before having to return it to the library …. along with the other pile of books I regularly take back and forth for exercise. However when it came for me to read all of the books in contention this year (my own requirement!) it was on hold – a lot – and I had to wait. It turned out to be the very last book I read, and so very simple and powerful. I loved it, and all the reasons have been so elegantly said above! I shall be hard pressed to decide if it comes up against Between Shades of Gray however. All that said what about next week when it’s up against Drawing from Memory. Glad I don’t have to decide. I had definite opinions on this first round… but round 2 WOW

  8. Katie, alas, you were right! (We had all the same first round picks and are both now 5 for 6. She said yesterday she had a feeling Heart and Soul wouldn’t make it.)

    I guess I’m the only one who wasn’t very moved by Inside Out and Back Again? Maybe I read it too fast? Mostly, it strongly reminded me of Katherine Applegate’s Home of the Brave — and that one affected me much more deeply. But I do have a prejudice against prose poems. (Though Home of the Brave was one, and I loved it. Go figure.)

    Like Jonathan, I was happy to be able to consider Heart and Soul as a whole. One very nice thing about this contest. (I still wish somehow the Newbery and Caldecott could be switched to age level awards and consider the books as a whole.)

  9. Jennifer H says

    Back on track today! Inside Out was my definite favorite of the two and I’m happy to see it move on. I’m so happy with all the love this book has received.

  10. Not only was I too, not entirely invested in this particular battle of books, I personally didn’t like either of these books. I did however, look forward to this round because Sarah Weeks is my favorite author of the selected judges this season and . . . I thank her for picking the book I chose in my bracket!

  11. Battle Commander says

    Care to elaborate on why you dislike these two titles, Mr. H? Curious minds wish to find out more!

  12. As far as HEART AND SOUL, I just really don’t read a lot of nonfiction. I know that’s not a good excuse at all, but nonfiction just isn’t my thing. Now . . . I really enjoyed AMELIA LOST this year though!

    I didn’t really like the narrator of HEART AND SOUL for some reason. I remember feeling as if I was being “talked down to”, but having read it a few months ago and not having it near, I can’t point to any specifics.

    I also thought HEART AND SOUL was guilty of being epic in width, but not depth, if that makes any sense.

    As for INSIDE OUT AND BACK AGAIN, in short, I thought it was boring. And the verse style, didn’t really ring true to the narrative for some reason to me. I felt like the exact same story could have actually been told in a more compelling manner with simple prose. Really, I saw no reason for the book to be written in verse.

    Unlike Helen Frost’s awesome HIDDEN. Now there’s an example of “verse” for a “purpose”.

  13. Most painful pairing ever – I don’t envy SW having to make that choice. But I would’ve made the same one; Inside Out is my overall pick.

  14. I’m also 5 for 6 (I was rooting for Dead End in Norvelt). Inside Out and Back Again was so descriptive and emotionally really added to my understanding of my many South East Asian neighbors. It’s a book I want to share and read again. While Heart and Soul is beautiful, I was disappointed by the text. So yea for Inside Out.

  15. Battle Commander says

    This is not about today’s match, but a news break: “Seventy-five years after Amelia Earhart disappeared while attempting to circumnavigate the world, the search for the wreckage of her twin-engine Lockheed Electra will resume this summer.” You can read the whole news story at the LA Times site.

  16. Battle Commander says

    Hidden is definitely worthy of the Battle, too! Can you imagine? If Hidden actually entered the fray – it would have been pitched against Inside Out and Back Again. (And — as Roxanne again, I think, anything can be told in verse form, depending on the authorial voice and choice, not on the subject matter… )

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