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Battle of the Books

Round 1, Match 7: Life: An Exploded Diagram vs A Monster Calls

Life: An Exploded Diagram
by Mal Peet
A Monster Calls
by Patrick Ness

Judged by
Lauren Myracle

Oh, Lordy. When I was approached about being a judge for this year’s Battle of the Kids’ Books, I said “Sure! Sounds fun!” And the reading part—hell yeah, tons of fun. Although I cried while I read the books I was assigned, too. That’s okay. I actually love it when a book makes me cry. And for the record? Both of these babies did.

When it came to selecting a winner, however… ag. I have, of late, come to not like the word “winner” all that much, and along with many author friends, I’ve decided that awards suck (unless you’re the winner, that is). But! A woman is only as good as her word, and I did indeed say I’d pick a winner. So—in the spirit of loving critical dialogue, and with a HUGE dose of “omigosh, both of these books blew me away”—I’ll tell you which book I chose.

In a moment.

The first of the two books I read was A Monster Calls. I flipped it open eagerly, already salivating, because I’d previously had the pleasure of reading Patrick’s Chaos Walking trilogy. Holy Flaming Hot Chee*to, I adore those books, in large part due to their inventiveness, their language, their edge-of-the-seat-ness. I expected to be delighted by those same elements in Monster, and I was! Wh-hoo! Conor, who is dealing (or not) with the imminent death of his mother, faces the monster of that reality as well as a literal (or not, though I say yes) monster who comes to him in the form of the Green Man, a medieval sprung-from-nature archetype I remember from my grad school days. Conor is blocked. Conor has secrets. Conor has thoughts he doesn’t want to have… and the Monster helps him (often in gloriously brutal ways) navigate this path he involuntarily finds himself on.

Did I know what dread secret Conor was keeping from himself? Sure. This didn’t make his journey less compelling, though—and damn if Patrick Ness didn’t surprise me in the end with how he pulled everything together. Huge weepy kudos for that, as the book’s conclusion turned me inside-out, which—frankly—is exactly what I was hoping it would do.

Next, I read Life: An Exploded Diagram. Until this book landed in my mailbox, I had never heard of its author, Mal Peet. How is it possible that I’d never heard of Mal Peet? He. Is. Amazing! Shit, man, shit, as my friend Pretty Jenny would say. I did not predict that Life would suck me in as hard and fast and with such slurpy ferocity as it did, especially not on the tail of Monster. And yet, it did. It blew me away in large part because of its characters (beautiful and quirky), its scope (epic), and its humor (both broad and sophisticated), but most of all because of the novel’s tight, vibrant, crackling language. Take this, for example: “Late in the afternoon, when the teams of horses were being changed, George Ackroyd went to relieve his bladder behind the three-tonner and lingered in its shade to smoke a cigarette. He looked up into the huge and faultless sky in which crescent-winged birds circled and swooped. He blinked away memories of other birds, in another country, picking human meat from the husks of burned machines.” Want another taste? “After a minute, he drew level with her, throttling the engine back until its beat matched the chug of her heart.” Until its beat matched the chug of her heart.

How glorious is that?

When I read Monster, the troublesome voice inside my mind harped on the predictability of the novel. When I read Life, the troublesome voice whispered, “Fabulous, yes. But is it a novel for teens? Or, to put a finer point on it, is it a ‘YA novel’?”

I don’t think it is, despite the dizzying ride of Clem and Frankie’s teenage romance. Will a select group of smarty teens love it to the moon and back, as I did? Yup, of that I have no doubt. But an essay on what does or doesn’t determine the designation of the label “YA novel” is an essay for another time. (Thank goodness.)

When comparing these two absolutely marvelous books, what it came down to for me was this: I wasn’t asked to make a case for whether each or either of the books was a book for kids. I was asked to pick a winner, in the imagined scenario of these two books putting on their boxing gloves and going at it, jabbing and circling, plotting and verbing, creating worlds and characters and spitting out adjectives from the mouth-guards of their covers. And in this scenario? I pick Life: An Exploded Diagram, because of its clean and absolute ability to pierce my heart and tear my brain to pieces, in the best of all possible ways.

— Judge Lauren Myracle

And the Winner of this match is……

Awards most definitely suck! I’m sure Patrick “Where is my Newbery Medal?” Ness and Mal “Where is my Printz Award?” Peet would agree. So we might call this the Battle of the Egregiously Overlooked. I also find this an interesting pairing because both of these authors write literary fiction. We spent a lot of time discussing whether there was a middle school audience for A MONSTER CALLS and I’m sure we could probably have a similar discussion about a high school audience for LIFE: AN EXPLODED DIAGRAM which is a crossover novel, one that could have been published for either adults or teens. But audience issues aside, there’s no denying the quality of either of these books. I like A MONSTER CALLS (and I love how it shows a different side than Chaos Walking), but I would pick LIFE: AN EXPLODED DIAGRAM just as Lauren did. Peet’s earlier work might not be as well known, but it’s excellent and definitely worth checking out.

— Commentator Jonathan Hunt

Mal Peet’s writing is truly genius – effortlessly powerful and endlessly detailed. It’s like the ocean. In this, I am in complete agreement with Ms. Myracle, who provides an excellent summary as well as great quotations. This – and the distinct characters, sweeping themes, and carefully-constructed setting – elevate Life: An Exploded Diagram over nearly all the other books in this contest, including A Monster Calls. Yes – Patrick Ness’s evocative story (with great illustrations in the background, I might add) wasn’t quite emotional enough to defeat Mal Peet’s majestic book. If Life: An Exploded Diagram wins not only this battle, but the war, I will be elated.

— Kid Commentator RGN


  1. Holy cow! This round was a shocker for me. I’m still only about halfway through Life (I know!), but I’ve never for a minute thought that it would beat A Monster Calls. Arghhhhhh! Patrick Ness is a genius. Even the Author’s Note of A Monster Calls was outstanding! On a somewhat different note, I think Mal Peet and Patrick Ness might be good friends in real life? So I kind of like that this battle was between them – It’s like a game of one-on-one, but with books 🙂

  2. I loved and adored both of these books. — they are perhaps the two best-written books in the battle. I picked A Monster Calls to win the entire Battle, but I’m not disappointed that Life: An Exploded Diagram went on to the next round. I do agree with Lauren — I think Peet’s book is more of an adult book.

  3. Jennifer H says

    Of all the brackets I thought I would lose, this was not one of them. But I did. And now my brackets are completely blown apart because I had chosen Monster Calls to make it to the finals. I’m in total shock. And I suppose now is when I have to admit that I didn’t finish Life. It’s not that it wasn’t beautifully written, but every time I put the book down, I had no compulsion to pick it up again and find out what happened. None. After a week of that, I gave up and moved on to another book because, honestly, I wasn’t going to choose a book I didn’t have the urge to keep reading. Maybe the rest of it was better, more compelling, but it didn’t cut it for me.

  4. A Monster Calls for the Undead Round!

  5. Sara Ralph says

    I knew a perfect prediction streak wouldn’t last forever. But I wish any other book had fallen other than A Monster Calls. Like Katie, I’ve not finished with Life – I have about 140 pp. to go. Unless something amazing happens in those pages to change my mind, I am saddened by this decision. I used my undead vote for Wonderstruck. 🙁

  6. Like Jennifer H, I did not think this would be the round that I would pick incorrectly. I was captivated by A Monster Calls and moved by it to the point of snot and tears (in public, no less), but I just didn’t feel the same way about Life. That’s not to say that the latter isn’t a great book and worthy of the win, but it wasn’t the book for me. Is it too much to hope that A Monster Calls is the winner of the Undead poll and I’ll see it go up against Chime in the final?

  7. I would have chosen The Monster Calls for the Undead round but I found it inconceivable that it wouldn’t best whatever book it went up against. I haven’t been able to finish Life. Fine writing, excellent description – I need more than that in a book. I left the book as Clem is meeting Frankie, thinking that it was “just another” rich/poor romance. So, now, I will pick it up again. Hope I agree with Lauren Myracle when I finally reach the end.

  8. Whelp, apparently I didn’t waste my Undead vote by going for A MONSTER CALLS.

    A ZOMBIE CALLS to win it all! (A MONSTER AWAKES? UNDEAD MONSTER CALLS? Something like that.)

  9. Suzanne C says

    All of the above – so true. The books – so great, but as I started to read I wanted the story to get on with it in Life. (Maybe that’s just the way it is in real life also?) I cried reading A Monster Calls and my heart felt heavy and saddened. That was right.
    I think Life is for a very specific set of adults. And now I think that I am one of those. I finally came to understand a lot of things that went on during that time period that, as a young teen then, I just ignored because I was centered in my own little life. So a very big Thank You for giving me that time period back in such an amazing way. Once I really got into it – probably about half way through, I became thoroughly engaged in Life this time around.
    Thank goodness I’m not a judge. I’ll still hold out for Between Shades of Gray for a final contender… perfect for the Battle of the Kids Books in all ways.

  10. Sam Bloom says

    YYYYYYYEEEEEEEEEEEEESSSSSSSSSSSSS!!! I’m so excited by this decision – nice work, Lauren!

  11. Hmm . . . hmm . . . hmm . . . I too missed this one. That’s 2 now that I’ve missed. I’m not happy about missing this one. Here’s why:

    I want to think Ms. Myracle chose her winner when she admitted that LIFE was not a book for “teens”. When she says that she was not “asked to make a case for whether each or either of the books was a book for kids” but instead she was asked to “pick a winner” . . . I disagree. I personally have not read LIFE, but if Ms. Myracle herself decided that it was not even a book for teens, then I’m a little befuddled as to why it was chosen in a competition titled BATTLE OF THE KIDS BOOKS . . . I think the fact that this is supposed to be a battle of kids books, goes without saying. So yes, Ms. Myracle, you were in a way asked to make a case for whether each or either of these books was a book for kids, especially when you admitted yourself that the book you chose was NOT a book for kids.

    I would totally be okay with the choice, even though it’s not the one I would have made, if it wasn’t for that last little bit of her critique. The longer A MONSTER CALLS sat with me, the more I liked it. This one does hurt. BUT . . . but . . .but, I haven’t read LIFE, so there’s hope. Of all the books in the battle I haven’t read, I have to say that this one does immediately jump to the top of my must-read list now. I guess the fact that the “kid” commentator agrees with the choice, should simmer my anger.

    I forgive you Ms. Myracle for busting my bracket. You have got my attention this morning. I forgot my coffee at home and now, I may not even need it.

  12. NO!!! I too didn’t vote for A Monster Calls in the Undead poll because I didn’t think it could lose this round. To a book I skipped large chunks of despite it’s beautiful prose, because I need more than pretty words to make me like a book and I didn’t get anything else from it but an urge to give my copy away. A Monster Calls is beautiful and heartbreaking but it it puts your heart back together and ends with a sense of hope. Life on the other hand ended with the hopeless cynicism all adult lit fic thrives on which is why I don’t read it in the first place. I’m so sad this morning.

  13. Yayy!!!!!!! Well argued and well chosen, Ms .Myracle. LIFE is SUCH a good book and I was so sorry it was overlooked by the Printz committee (though thrilled for The Scorpio Races). BoKB is entirely unpredictable, but it’s safe to say that a close reading of LIFE’s themes, prose, and characterization, its melding of the specific with the universal, and its sheer sweep of history will be hard to beat.


  15. Sorry, needed to get the obligatory caps and exclamation marks out of my system.

    Yes, LaED is a work of art, which can take its place next to Picasso and Hemingway. I listened to the audio, and as I went about my everyday life with it plugged in my ears, I would be knocked off my feet by similes Peet embedded like mines buried on a protected beach (I know ,I will never win a prize for my similes.) AS I already told Monica, I felt like I needed a literature teacher to give me an assignment on deconstructing metaphors when I finished, Which would mean I’d need to reread the book. And that would be torture. I suppose I’m past the days when I can love literature for literature’s sake. I find I need to care about the people I’m reading about and feel some sort of catharsis at the end. Peet’s sad little people, with their sad little lives, just left me – sad.

    On the other hand the brutality of Ness’s A MONSTER CALLS left me with all kinds of catharsis. I believe it is a book about catharsis. This book turned me inside out and rung every emotion I had to the straining point. As tragic as Conor’s story was, it left me with hope. (In a bitter moment I might see the outcome of this round as my own catharsis for Manchee, which I will hold as a bitter grudge against Mr. Patrick Ness to my dying day.)

    I may have voted for the wrong book to rise from the dead. We shall see how Doug does, next.


  17. YES!!!! I also though that A Monster Calls had this one locked up, and while I loved it, I was sad because Life: An Exploded Diagram was my pick for the Printz and I was seriously disappointed that it got NO recognition whatsoever. I do think that it is a book for teens (especially those who obsessively read history books) and going back to a point made on Heavy Medal, I wonder if we sometimes categorize books based on what MOST kids of that age range enjoy or can handle. Just because a book may not appeal to most of an age range, doesn’t mean it won’t appeal to some. Huzzah for Lauren Myracle! Now I REALLY need to read Shine…

  18. Never been happier to be wrong! And I’ll leave it at that.

  19. Noooooooooooo! I completely agree with Lauren Myracle that LIFE is fundamentally a book for adults. Some teens will like it. But if I had been EXPECTING lit fic for adults, I would have liked it a lot more than I did. As it was, I just wasn’t crazy about it. I admit it’s good, but not like A MONSTER CALLS, which blew me away and doesn’t have any slow spots.

    Sigh. Well, I hope this gives OKAY FOR NOW a better chance of winning the Second Round! Even WONDERSTRUCK would be better! I also hope my losing streak of 2 does not continue!

    At least the judges are still giving brilliant analysis! (Even when they’re completely WRONG!) 🙂

  20. Sam Bloom says

    Mr. H, I can’t believe you’re still pulling the same old stuff here at BoB that you do with Heavy Medal! You HAVEN’T EVEN READ Life, you admit that, and yet in the next breath you say Lauren is wrong to choose it over Monster Calls?! No, no, no, no, NO. Read Life and THEN come back to complain, if you so choose. But at least make sure your opinions are informed!

  21. I didn’t read Life, but it must be one heck of a book to “beat” A Monster Calls… But, Lauren Myracle has totally convinced me to read it now… even though I’m not Mal Peet’s biggest fan. I could see the attraction of a book like Tamar, and I can see why people like it so much, I just didn’t *feel* it.

  22. Steffaney Smith says

    Lauren scores and shakes up an awards battle, for the second time in 5 months! The point seems to be, no book is safe….so if you love a book, you’d better pick it for the “undead” or it will stay buried! Looking forward to tomorrow’s battle!

  23. Sigh. I couldn’t get through life. The ONLY book I didn’t finish. Now I will. Saddened.

  24. Sam –

    I obviously didn’t make myself clear enough . . . (and for the record, I refrained from voicing my opinion frequently on Heavy Medal this season on books I had not read – if I didn’t, please let me know which book I spoke out against that I hadn’t read, that offended you) . . .

    My complaint was not about the book LIFE itself. My complaint was in the way Myracle narrowed down her conclusion. She admitted that LIFE was NOT a book for kids. She made the executive decision that that did not matter, even though this competition is titled, Battle of the KIDS Books. That’s what bothered me about this choice.

    I don’t have to have read the book LIFE, to have that opinion. In fact, I made sure in my post NOT to mention anything negative about the book itself, because I haven’t read it. Do you have a particular impression of me as a person, that impacted (or clouded) your comprehension of my post?

  25. I had a similar emotional reaction to MONSTER, but my reader self does not always like to be made to cry over mothers dying–it is not an unusual or unexpected thing to cry over. I loved LIFE because it was in many ways unexpected, because its writing made me feel as if I had discovered something amazing, and because I really liked all that weird stuff about Kennedy. Thank you, Ms. Myracle!

  26. Yeah, where is Mal Peet’s Printz Award?

  27. Battle Commander says

    It is indeed titled Battle of the Kids Books and all our contenders were published as children’s or YA titles. But our judges are absolutely able to set their own criteria and, yes, can indeed decide that what may have been labeled a book for young adults is perhaps, in their eyes, for adults. As Jonathan pointed out in his commentary, the borders are fuzzy be they between children and YA (an issue he reminded us arose on Heavy Medal) or YA and adult as is the case here.

  28. You know, one of the things I love about BoB is the complete lack of criteria. The judges have to make up their own criteria and then explain what it is. Now, mind you, I was really hoping Lauren Myracle would decide the criterion for this match was that it should really be a kids’ book. (And she had me going there for a moment.) But I appreciate that she decided that for her that didn’t matter, and defended her choice well.

  29. NNNNNOOOOOOOOOO!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!
    This has been one of my few DNFs. It just did not work for me.

  30. Sorry Mr. H, I reacted more strongly than needed… and the 3rd paragraph of your initial comment escaped me. It was the excitement of my book winning coupled with seeing you using that phrase, “I personally have not read (book X).” You must admit this exact phrase has raised the ire of many a Heavy Medaler over the years! But I do apologize for biting your head off. Oh, and no offense… but go Wonderstruck! If Okay For Now wins, I’ll be the one demanding a recount! =)

  31. Among of all the books, I love A Monster Calls the best. Life is a great book, but it didn’t move me like A Monster Calls. I hope A Monster Calls will come back from the dead and win in the end.

  32. Sam,

    No worries. Cooler heads should have prevailed and I shouldn’t have snapped back at you! My wife and I now have a two and a half week old at home, along with our two year old, and sleep is a rarity. My students have definitely taken notice. They keep tallies of how many yawns I make while reading The Brixton Brothers aloud!

    You are correct, that phrase has been used plenty at Heavy Medal and even by myself more than it should have. I learned this past season though, to try and keep my mouth shut when I didn’t know what I was talking about. Didn’t always happen, but I tried.

    And as for WONDERSTRUCK, ugh. But congratulations on a successful first round. I was 5 for 8 and not very happy about the three I missed. Especially the one decided by a stupid coin toss! 🙂

  33. Cindy Dobrez says

    I can’t believe these two books were pitted against each other in the first round to begin with. Evil. Both are brilliant. And, both are finalists in the Los Angeles Times Book Prize category for YA Literature. So they have gotten *some* award love. Just sayin’.


  1. […] own A Monster Calls lost to Peet’s Life: An Exploded Diagram in the first round of this year’s Battle of the Books. Myracle was right in calling that both are just astonishing books, but in the cat’s own personal […]

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