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Battle of the Books

Round 2, Match 4: Life: An Exploded Diagram vs Wonderstruck

Life: An Exploded Diagram
by Mal Peet
by Brian Selznick

Judged by
Chris Lynch

School Library Journal, being the efficient operation that it is, had all four of the books from the previous round in this bracket sent to me before I got started. All four were still in play, and they want the judges to be able to get right out of the blocks when the time comes. My first reaction when all four had arrived was:

My goodness, there’s a lot of talent in the room.

Shortly thereafter, though, I got the word that two of the titles had been eliminated and I didn’t need to feel quite as intimidated and overwhelmed. My new feeling was:

My goodness, there’s a lot of talent in the room.

The two titles I had to judge were Brian Selznick’s WONDERSTRUCK and Mal Peet’s LIFE: AN EXPLODED DIAGRAM.

WONDERSTRUCK was the first one to emerge from the first round, and so we’ll start there. My lovely missus, who is an artist, checked out what I was up to, examining Selznick’s work in particular. We have a running gag in my house about being jealous of creative artists who are gifted with both lavish and varied talents. She spent a bit of time with both the text and the artwork of WONDERSTRUCK.

“So, you gonna hate him?” she says.
“Well, I’m gonna try,” I says.

Happy to report that I failed miserably in this attempt. Combining two narratives in two formats (prose and pictures), beginning in two eras (1970s and 1920s) in two very different locales (Gunflint Lake, Minnesota, and Hoboken, New Jersey), Mr. Selznick manages to blend these elements into something that manages to be both charming and compelling. Ben’s story in prose leads the way in the early going as we try to pick up the thread of Rose’s story in 1927. Reasonably enough, the pictures take more time to accumulate as narrative, but they steadily gain in power and wind up having at least as much impact as the words. The drawings are black-and-white, and at the same time, luminous.

The book shares with LIFE: AN EXPLODED DIAGRAM an almost effortless feel for the flow of family history, and a gift for making it matter to the reader. Without wanting to give away too much here, Rose sets out on a quest 50 years ahead of Ben, but ultimately they are on a path to meet each other over the barriers of time and geography and emotional upheavals. There are decisions that have been made by characters seeking to protect themselves or their loved ones which reverberate down the years and invite the reader to jump in and debate the whys of it all—just like we were part of the family. We can get mad at them sometimes (I did), but it would take a hardened heart not to care about them. The pages practically turned themselves as the questions accumulated about Ben’s roots and the identities of the cast of characters who pass through both his and Rose’s lives.

By the time we got to the Queens Museum of Art, this reader was utterly and equally entranced by both the pictures and the words. When the lad, both orphaned and deafened, finally connects with Rose (deaf, as well), and with all his lineage of people, it’s a deeply satisfying result.

There is, I understand, a certain randomness to the assembly of the brackets in this competition. And these two books certainly look wildly different at first glance (OK, later they do, too), but one definitely segues nicely into the other in terms of their attention to the family tree. At least, the family tree reaching back to the early 20th century.

The view from here says it is impossible to discuss LIFE: AN EXPLODED DIAGRAM without addressing the question of whether it is a YA book.

So there. We’ve discussed it.

OK, let’s say this: If you wanted to be picky about it, you might say that the story really hits YA stride when our boy, Clem Ackroyd, moves to the council estate and then onto the secondary school. Before that he’s not really the center, and it amounts to a sort of 75 page preamble.

But what a bleddy brilliant preamble. (It could take a while to get Norfolk out of my head.)

The manner in which Peet delivers the basics of the family history plays with the rules of narration in a way that should be more troubling than it is. Third person omniscient, first person, back and forth in time starting with the moment of the labor that produced Clem himself and then going back to tell us about his grandmother’s childhood, could all disorient a person. And yet, there it was, mocking narrative convention, calling attention to itself…

And pulling it off.

If I may echo the Clinton war room motto: It’s the writing, stupid.

There is just so much excellent writing in this book, that it not only makes one inclined to forgive transgressions, it makes one inclined to enjoy them.

The history of modern Britain, as it pertained to the regular Joe and Joan of rural Norfolk, is delivered with precision, exquisitely judged detail, and above all sly, delicious humor. “Also in the year 1956, a rockabilly American singer called Carl Perkins released a song called `Blue Suede Shoes.’ Being about fashionable footwear, it left the people of Norfolk largely unmoved.”

It is a very quotable book.

On the disappointing Britain that Clem’s father found on returning from WWII: “They’d fought—he’d fought—for sex. To capture the brothels of Benghazi and Tripoli from the Italians, the Germans. Then take the tricks learned there home to the wives and girlfriends who were starving for it. Unless the ruddy Yanks had been there first.”

And Peet is just as sharp in turning these observations to characterization. Clem’s father, George again, sizing up a man critically: “Even from across the desk, his breath was rank. He had thin colorless hair greased over the top of his head, and he did not convincingly occupy his clothes.”

By the time we get to the central cross-classes relationship between Clem and the landowner’s daughter, Frankie, we are in familiar YA territory in the best possible sense. The sexual charge, the fear and frustration and tenderness between them is palpable. Alternating between the very real details of this fraught relationship (discovery will mean chaos for both families in a very class-conscious time and place), and the bigger global mayhem of the Cold War, the author unfurls one sure and convincing scene after another.

I was uncertain, for a while, how I felt about the straightforward and very insider-ish narration employed in the chapters on the Cuban Missile Crisis. As someone who is fairly familiar with the information the book provides on this subject, I kept wondering, can I skip ahead a bit here? How ’bout here?

It is to the book’s credit that, time and again, I couldn’t bring myself to do it. It was, regardless of what I thought I already knew, compelling stuff, winningly rendered. And then I thought about the adolescents who are most likely new to much of that material, and I realized this book is really firing on a lot of different levels.

So, the outcome. It was a privilege to be asked to weigh in on both of these fine books. But despite the wonder undeniably struck by Brian Selznick, I have to go with Mal Peet on the strength of yer bleddy brilliant writing.

It really is going to take some time to get Norfolk out of the system.

— Judge Chris Lynch

And the Winner of this match is……

Yes! I’m quite pleased with this decision. I love WONDERSTRUCK, but I think LIFE is one of the more underrated books of the year. My only disappointment with WONDERSTRUCK bowing out here is that its loss robs DRAWING FROM MEMORY of yet another chance to go head-to-head with a words-and-pictures kind of book. I mean, first HEART AND SOUL narrowly misses its path, and now WONDERSTRUCK. On the other hand, LIFE: AN EXPLODED DIAGRAM has racked up back-to-back raves, first from Lauren Myracle and now from Chris Lynch, despite the questionable teen appeal of the book. It’s starting to remind me of THE RING OF SOLOMON last year, when many of the judges were surprised by how much they loved the book, despite the fact that they didn’t normally read in the fantasy genre.

A harbinger of things to come, perhaps?

— Commentator Jonathan Hunt


With many of the previous matches, the two books competing against each other were quite similar in their genres and writing styles. This made for very interesting battles, but I was quite pleased when I learned that Wonderstruck would face Life: An Exploded Diagram in the final match of Round 2. Comparing prose and pictures is often a difficult feat, and I found it quite hard to do. With Wonderstruck’s  undeniable charm and phenomenal illustrations, I am in denial that the novel did not leave the match victorious. Then I realized what Selznick’s fantastical work of art was going up against, and the odds were not in its favor. Life: An Exploded Diagram is an incredibly brilliant historical piece, and I enjoyed it immensely. Last year, I was a devoted supporter to Countdown, a novel that touched upon the Cuban Missile Crisis, and I was instantly fascinated by the subject. I was very content when I learned that there would be another book in this year’s BoB that would discuss the subject in detail. After reading the novel, I was instantaneously transfixed by the author’s witty, brilliant writing style. As much as I enjoyed Wonderstruck, Life: An Exploded Diagram deserves to continue on to Round 3.

— Kid Commentator GI


  1. Yeah! I loved Life: An Exploded Diagram, and am thrilled it’s going on in the battle. I thought Wonderstruck was brilliant, but the writing didn’t hold a candle to Life. The next round will be fascinating — Life: An Exploded Diagram against Drawing From Memory.

  2. Maisie Mac says

    All my friends say Wonderstruck should have won. I have only read the first book but I have heard really high reviews of Wonderstruck. I will probably read it this summer but I wanted to know your opinions. So what do you think? Also, has anyone read Life: An Exploded Diagram? Based on the review it sounds really good, but none of my friends I have asked have read it. So what do you think?

  3. Sara Ralph says

    Aaaaahhhh!!!! Still don’t get what’s so wonderful about Life (I did finish reading it) and it has now taken out two of my favorite books. I thought the story dragged, the history parts read like a textbook and the ending was contrived. Hope Drawing From Memory knocks it out.

  4. I finally finished Life a few days ago and I am boggled as to how its moved this far along (and how it was ever placed in this Battle of the KIDS Books in the first place). Mal Peet is unquestionably a brilliant writer, but I would choose Life as a selection for my adult book club, not my school library. Curious to see how it will fair against Drawing from Memory…

  5. I find it pretty interesting – and impressive – that the BoB Final Four are books distinguished by their craft. Whether or not you liked Chime (I didn’t) or Life (lots of other people didn’t), you can’t argue that both books are really WRITTEN. Both have been praised for their imagery and use of language.

    Drawing From Memory is likewise a tour de force artistically, and I would argue that Between Shades of Gray (which lately I keep wanting to call 50 Shades of Gray, making for a few truly YIKES moments at the library!) is also full of resonant images and sparse, meaty little descriptions.

  6. Life is one of the books I didn’t manage to find and read, and I didn’t actually try very hard on this one. Partly because it sounded too adult to appeal to my students, but mostly because I was so sure Round 2 would be between Okay and Monster. Oh, well.

  7. Steffaney Smith says

    Well said, Chris Lynch. Another vote for the written word and unforgettable characterization. What must be must be.

  8. Steffaney Smith says

    Dare we venture a guess for the identity of the undead? Will be a very unpredictable triple play for Stroud!

  9. I am disappointed, but not surprised. Wonderstruck is not a favorite of mine (though my daughter LOVES it), but I wanted it to win this one. I must be missing something here. I agree Life has brilliant construction and plays with the narrative voice in interesting ways. However, I did not have Chris Lynch’s problems with skipping sections of the novel. I was bored yes, but mostly because Peet never made me care about the characters enough. Overall I found it to be such a cynical book and the antithesis of everything I love about children’s literature that I am just sad.

  10. Oh. That book again. I have to find out what everyone is raving about because the first 150 pages of Life did nothing for me. That said, I do think it is the more literary of these two books. The Battle is no less fascinating when baffling books move on.

  11. Trying to quell the bitterness. My life might have been better If I’d just amputated my heart and asked a nice trucker to drag it behind him on the highway. (No shortage of hyperbole in these parts.)

    There is so much to admire about LIFE. In fact, it is just the kind of book I would have loved at seventeen. (Well, except for the sex parts. My virginal sensibilities would have been highly embarrassed). But alas these days I swoon for more than heady writing. I really want, and need to care about the people I read about. Today’s two books each took out the two books from last year, which made me weak at the knees. Not only with their breathtaking syntax but with flesh and blood people whom I worried about, agonized over, and rejoiced with. That may make me the kind of reader my seventeen-year-old self would look on with disdain, but it long past time she crawled down off her high horse.

    WONDERSTRUCK was most likely my number three pick. It kind of lost my fickle devotion with it came up against Doug. (Note to Battle Commanders: You really couldn’t find another book to fit between O and W in the alphabet? Something to consider next time.)

    Still holding strong here at Occupy BoB. Haven’t showered for shaved my legs in a goodly while, but the smell of the Zombie Frogs and the Undead Sophos overshadow my stench.


  12. Battle Commander says

    Steffaney and all: Guess Away — what do you think the final two will be? (Matches coming up tomorrow and Friday) And which book will come back from the dead? (Announcing on Saturday!)

  13. AWESOME! This takes away some of the sting of DoS&B getting knocked out. I’m officially betting all my chips on Life… unless DoS&B somehow emerges as the Undead winner. But, most likely, we’ll be watching Life kick Doug Swieteck’s whiny butt all the way from here to kingdom come on April 2. Yeah, I said it! *ducks to avoid marshmallows pelted at him from members of Occupy BoB

  14. Those would be flaming marshmallows, Sam?

  15. DaNae-I think flames sound appropriate. Hand me some and I’ll help you launch. BTW loved the 2nd paragraph of your original comment up there.

  16. The issue of caring about characters is a deep one–I don’t know that’s necessary for me to care about the characters in order to love a book, but I have to care about something. I didn’t root for Clem in the way that I rooted for Doug, but I rooted for the book because loved the setting, the sharpness of the narration, the sly and intelligent observations. Don’t they say that we all read in order to find something of ourselves in a book? Well, in this case, I found that part of me that loves language, the sweep of history brought down to the level of a few single characters, and the perfectly executed narrative devices–beginning and ending with explosions, for example–that in lesser hands would have been cloddish. I can deal with being a loser in almost every one of my brackets if LIFE goes on.

  17. Sam Bloom says

    YES. What Rebecca just said. Spot on! And I’m usually more inclined to like character-driven books than others…

    By the way, with all the flaming marshmallows headed my way, I think I’m going to have to enlist Akiva and his angel brethren to help me! =)

  18. Pha! Pretty Angles don’t scare us! Even exquisitely pretty ones.

    And Rebecca, that was beautiful. I will admit to succumbing to bouts of of giddiness over Peet’s language. If I’d read LIFE outside of this contest I think I might be a stronger advocate, but a girl’s got to stick with her man.

    My man is Doug,

    or in a pinch Connor.

  19. Wow, this is impressive! Not a single one of the books I originally predicted to make it to Round 3 ended up there. And my predictions following the completion of Round 1 were only 50% accurate. Definitely not very good at this guessing game!

    I still haven’t read Life and I’m giving up on the guessing game, so now I’ll just say I’m pulling for Chime to win tomorrow and Drawing from Memory to win Friday with Okay for Now (or maybe a Monster Calls – or Chime if it loses after all) to come back from the dead Saturday.

  20. Jennifer H says

    I’m really looking forward to getting back to the top of the bracket with tomorrow’s decision. I’m much more excited about that than the Drawing/Life one. I just didn’t like Life. I suppose this is what the people who didn’t like Chime feel like. There’s a part of me that would love to see those two in the final round just to get them compared. Well, I want Chime anyway…

    So, if the top Undead pick is already in the finals and the undead goes to the 2nd (or third!) choice, do we get to find out who garnered the most votes anyway? I’m very curious! 🙂

  21. I’m joining Rebecca and Sam!! It’s good that my students have to wait in the hall before school when I check SLJ, otherwise they would be scared by my squeals of delight for the past two days.

  22. DaNae, never to fear! I’ve brought my marshmallow gun with me. I’ll take the night shift and fire away at Sam all night! You rest up for tomorrow.

  23. This comments are amazing! I don’t think the results of Round 3, Match 1 are up yet, but that is ok because I’m thoroughly entertained reading about Occupy BOB, marshmallow guns, and why caring about characters might not matter so much. I love it here.

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