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Battle of the Books

Round 3, Match 2: Drawing from Memory vs Life: An Exploded Diagram

Drawing from Memory
by Allen Say
Life: An Exploded Diagram
by Mal Peet

Judged by
Ron Koertge

Pen vs. Brush

I drop two books on the table in the Turf Club. No big surprise. Bobby and I are always bringing things to read. We’re at the races four days a week, but we’re not degenerate gamblers. Sometimes an hour goes by before there’s something worth betting.

 Sammy, another regular, picks the books up. Weighs them. The cover of Mal Peet’s Life: An Exploded Diagram features a lethal-looking rocket. On Allen’s Say’s Drawing from Memory, a dreamy boy in a blue sweater and blue socks appears to be flying.

“What’s the deal?” Sam asks.

“I have to decide between them,” I tell him. “It’s like a match race.”

“Doesn’t seem fair. One of them is thin like a pizza; the other’s fat like a sandwich.”

“Mal Peet’s book starts during WWII and goes to 2001. That’s more like a five-course meal.”

“And the other one?”

“Allen Say’s life in 62 pages.”

Sam flips through Drawing from Memory. “It’s got pictures,” he says. “Has the other one got pictures?”

I shake my head.

Sam says, “Doesn’t sound fair to me.”

“They’re both really good.”

Sammy grunts. “So, do you like anybody in the first race?”

Just then Bob shows up. He drops his copy of Daily Racing Form, picks up Life: An Exploded Diagram and flips through it. “Bold historical sweep, epic in scale with keen insight into the human condition?”

“Very funny, but, actually, yes. You can say that about a lot of books, though. I like this one because I’m crazy about Clem and Frankie.”

“And they are?”

So I quickly tell my friends about Clem, a working class boy from Norfolk, and Frankie, a rich girl. Clem’s father works for Frankie’s father, so when the two kids fall in love and meet secretly they’re playing with fire. If they’re discovered, Clem’s father is out of a job and Clem will never see Frankie again.

I finish with this, “And that’s all set against the Cuban Missile Crisis. So Clem’s and Frankie’s world is liable to explode and so is the real world.”

Sam stands to watch the post parade. “And this is for kids? It sounds pretty grown-up. And God knows, it’s long!”

I tell him, “Don’t underestimate kids these days, but anybody could read Mal Peet’s novel.”

“What about the other one?” asks Bob.

“I’ll tell you later. That grey filly looks live to me.”

Somewhere in the middle of the afternoon I come back to the table with some drinks and Bob is flipping through Drawing from Memory.

He says, “This is very nice.”

“Isn’t it? Memoir, graphic novel, watercolors, cartoons, photos: you name it, it’s in there.”

“This guy can really draw.”

“And the book is flat-out inspirational. Say’s father pretty much gave up on his son when Allen only wanted to be an artist.”

“Wanted only to be an artist.”

“Spoken like a former English teacher. OK, so all he wanted to do was draw. He’s shunted off on his cranky grandmother who says if he can pass an exam to get into a middle school, she’ll let him live in an apartment by himself.”

“How old is this kid?”


Bob puts the book down. “Thanks a lot, Dad.”

“And the only time the father is in the book….” I stop for a minute and flip to page nine, “… is right here and he’s got his back to everything. His son, his wife and the reader. I, love that! So, anyway, Allen studies, passes the exam, and gets this cool place to live.” I tap the cover. “That’s how he felt when he moved in. Like he was floating on air.”

“But he’s 12.”

“Right. And all alone. Here’s the good news. He finds a mentor, this famous cartoonist named Noro Shinpei who takes Allen on as a student.”

“So a happy ending, right?”

I hold up Life: An Exploded Diagram. “This one is like a wave that washes over you and threatens to carry you away.” Then I hold up Drawing from Memory. “This one is like a deep well. Not much shows on the surface but it’s cold down there. Allen Say has a pretty light touch, but I thought the book was melancholy as hell.”

Sam returns, thanks me for the drink, then asks, “Can I take these books of yours home?”

“Sure, if you want to.”

He stacks them by his coffee. “Whatever it takes to get you guys to remember what we’re here for. Gambling, OK?”

Sam wanders off to bet. Bob says, “No offense, Ronnie. I like Sam and he knows a good horse when he sees one, but he’s no literary critic.”

“But I’m not a critic this time, either, not if critic means don’t-read-this-book. I’m a reviewer. I want everybody to read both of them.”

“But you have to pick one.”

The next day, Bob and I are working our way through the opening races.

“Have you decided yet?” he asks.

“The first is 30 minutes away.”

“You know what I mean.”

I shake my head. “Allen Say’s book is what ‘s called a real visual experience. But , man, as far as the story goes he is really reined in. How did he eat? Did he go shopping and cook for himself? Was the only friend he had another cartoonist who worked for Noro Shinpei? In Mal Peet’s novel I know a lot about everybody. But it’s also got rich girl/poor boy and sadists in the boarding school.”

“That again.”


“What does Sam say?”

I point toward the saddling paddock. ‘Here he comes. Let’s ask him.”

Sam drops the books in front of me. “No way,” he says, “are kids going to trudge through the first part of Life. What do they care about Clem’s parents and how they met and all that stuff.” He waves Drawing from Memory at me. “This one really got to me. With my old man it was his way or the highway. Forget what I wanted or was good at. OK, the Peet novel is a page-turner. I’ll give it that. But Say’s book is like a GPS for your soul: just pay attention to the little voice inside.”

Bob puts arm around Sam’s shoulder. “You’ve risen to new heights of eloquence, my friend.”

Sam shrugs the arm away. “Well, that’s my two cents, for what it’s worth.”

Off and on all day, I think about what Sam said. I know exactly what he means and even agree with him, but Drawing from Memory doesn’t stay with me like the funny and touching Life: An Exploded Diagram. So I just don’t know yet. I’m glad to have horses to distract me.

About 4:30 I head for the parking lot. My friends always stay for the last race, but I don’t like to fight traffic. As I walk, I think how much I admire Allen Say’s talent and how glad I am that his life turned out so well. But I don’t feel close to him. I like to really know the characters in books. I like to ride around in cars with them, eat dinner with them, sleep in their spare rooms and poke around in their medicine cabinets.

That’s how it was with Clem and Frankie , Clem’s baffled, unhappy father and his frustrated mom. I ate dinner with them and listened to them talk. I went to the beach with Clem and Frankie and got sand in my shoes. I was with Clem on that terrible day in November.

I lean on my car and listen. The announcer’s voice drifts out over the grandstand and the roofs of 2,000 cars, then quickens as the horses turn for home and two of them draw away from the field to run neck-and-neck toward the wire.

It’s a close call But the winner is Life: An Exploded Diagram.

— Judge Ron Koertge

And the Winner of this match is……

Oh, well done, Ron! In terms of creativity, this decision ranks up there with Adam Rex and Barry Lyga from last season. If any match represents the complete absurdity of judging apples and oranges, perhaps it is this one which features both the “youngest” book in our field and the “oldest” one. Unlike the previous match, I had always hoped to see DRAWING FROM MEMORY and LIFE: AN EXPLODED DIAGRAM square off in this round (with apologies to Gary Schmidt). But be careful what you wish for, eh? Now that it’s here I am loathe to pick a winner, but I would ultimately pick LIFE: AN EXPLODED DIAGRAM, too. And I’m picking LIFE: AN EXPLODED DIAGRAM to beat BETWEEN SHADES OF GRAY. But then there’s the matter of the Undead Poll winner. Any guesses? I wouldn’t mind seeing a juvenile book to counterbalance this pair of YA titles. I also think at some point our Undead Poll winner will actually win. Could this be the year?

— Commentator Jonathan Hunt


With both books very close to my heart, I knew that I would have difficulty coming up with a conclusion to this match. With the competitors so different in general, pictures vs. prose, there would be a lot of discussion and arguments about this battle. Drawing From Memory is a fantastic picture book, graphic novel, and autobiography all in one, while Life: An Exploded Diagram is the exact opposite, a historical fiction novel that stands at 416 pages. While Drawing From Memory stays consistant in its fast paced charm, Life often drags on in its plot, especially in the beginning. Although its characters are lovable and a perfect fit for the book, overall I must say that it was more historical than fiction. Despite Mr. Koertge’s fabulously witty and respectable commentary, I believe that the better book in this match is Drawing From Memory. As much as I loved learning about the Cuban Missile Crisis in Life: An Exploded Diagram, it did not compare to Allen Say’s illustrious masterpiece.

— Kid Commentator GI


  1. Although I had a lot of disappointments in the first round, I’m thrilled with the way the final match is shaping up. I obviously want Okay for Now to be the undead pick, but I wouldn’t be too upset if A Monster Calls or Daughter of Smoke and Bone are chosen.

    I thought Ron Koertge’s analysis was brilliant. My favorite part: “I like to really know the characters in books. I like to ride around in cars with them, eat dinner with them, sleep in their spare rooms and poke around in their medicine cabinets.” I agree 100% — it’s one of the reasons I loved Life:An Exploded Diagram so much and I think the same quote could also apply to Okay for Now.

  2. Maisie Mac says

    Judge Ron Koertge makes a good point- characters are important. So the fact Life: An Exploded Diagram won definitely made since they had better character description and better characters. We just finished a six paragraph essay in our English class about the Five Facts of Fiction and characters and their description is one of them. So I completely understand the decision and agree with it.

  3. Sam Bloom says

    This post is amazing. To LIFE, to LIFE, l’chaim!

  4. Sara Ralph says

    I agree with the Kid Commentator. I found Life to be in need of some serious editing, as is this post since Allen Say’s name is spelled three different ways. Interested to seeing who wins the Undead Poll; right now I’m betting on Between Shades of Gray.

  5. Battle Commander says

    Sorry about the different versions of Mr. Say’s first name. It is hopefully all fixed! Let us know if not or if you see any other errors.

  6. Steffaney Smith says

    Drawing from Memory, 62 pages of understatement…maybe that was on purpose; but the choice has been made. This could be the year of crowning the undead! The big reveal tomorrow!

  7. You give Jonathan Stroud — a writer of epic fantasy — two books that are epic, but not fantasy. Going to be a tough one to call. As for the Undead? I’m dying to know…

  8. Still a typo in the “About 4:30” paragraph.

    I’ll admit to wanting to throw LIFE across the room when I finished it, but it’s grow on me & I’ll root for it against SHADES.

  9. Go, Zombie, Go!

    My response to this decision? A sad shaking of the head. The first part of LIFE was downright boring, and the “romance” was only about sex. These people didn’t really know each other. They weren’t people I wanted to live with or get to know very well. Yeah, I was forced to eat and sleep with them, but that was pretty boring, don’t you think?

    But it doesn’t matter. I want the Zombie book to win anyway! ANY Zombie book!

    However, I’m guessing that the Undead winner will be one of my three favorites: Okay for Now, Daughter of Smoke & Bone, or Chime. At least now they won’t have to compete against each other! (Of course, if Daughter or Chime wins, my rule of thumb that the judge never picks the book most like his own would say they won’t win. All the more reason to hope for Doug to be the Zombie.)

    Side note: Can you imagine how full of self-loathing Zombie Briony would be? “I’m a zombie. Stay away from me. I ate my sister’s brains. Burn me now.” Zombie Karou would take it in stride. She’s already back from the dead! Zombie Doug? Well, he’d say, Terrific. At least at the library, people have good brains. (Hmm. That’s not what he’d say. Anyone?)

  10. Battle Commander says

    Jess, did we fix all the typos you spotted? Thanks for bringing it to our attention.

  11. I enjoyed Drawing From Memory immensely and I am so sad that it did not make it to the finals… I know better then to hope it will come back from the dead, because I am almost positive Okay For Now will fill that spot.

  12. Nice use of horse racing as metaphor–but if it were really a race, would DRAWING FROM MEMORY have won because it’s lighter and you can throw it a lot farther? This was a more suspenseful analysis, too–I scrolled down line by line so I didn’t miss anything, and it did seem like it could have gone both ways. But hooray! I will always be one of those people who insists, no, LIFE is not boring, it’s something else entirely. It defies expectations, and in this case it works beautifully.

  13. I didn’t want to drive around with the characters in Life. I wanted to jump out of the car they were driving to get away from them, despite the pretty scenery they were driving me through. I have yet to be convinced that book is anything more than empty pretty words. The judges of Drawing From Memory prior to this made me see it in new and interesting ways. It went from being a book I was meh about at first to one I really wanted to see in the final round. Oh well.

    I’m with Sondy on this: Go Undead! Whatever you may be-I don’t even care at this point.

  14. It had been a good day at the track. Ronnie squinted into the setting sun as he exited the gates. His wallet carried a smug bulge, which promised coming delights for the evening. Somewhere his shoes had picked up a significant amount of sand, irritating the sensitive skin between his toes. He paused to pull off his left shoe. He leaned against the low brick wall that at one time had lent dignity to the sporting complex. It now served as a mere holding place for misplaced hopes, in the form of sorry patrons, hawking their iPods, Timexes, and bags of Skittles in an attempt to cover the fare for the train home.

    As he shook out the offending sand he noticed a ruckus across the street. Some sort of pathetic attempt at a demonstration seemed to be taking place; if you can call a few squalid tents surrounded by empty coke bottles, and a ragged passel of marchers, a demonstration. They appeared to be led by a rotund woman with what seemed to be a paper bag on her head.

    After replacing his shoe, his eyes still riveted across the street, that selfsame shoe caught on the leg of a boy sprawled on the path. Ronnie wondered if the youth were sleeping off the sorrows of losing cash to a sure thing, as so many before him had. The kid would soon learn there was no thing in this world that was sure. Every horse had its bad days, even those that were adored and championed by millions.

    The boy’s head rolled toward Ronnie. Ronnie found it disturbing that the head seemed to move independent of his neck. Sunken eyes looked out from a pasty grey face.

    “Hey mister, could you help a guy out?”

    “I don’t know, kid. You look pretty bad. I’m not sure I have anything that will help you.”

    “Yeah, I don’t feel quite like myself.”

    “I could give you a couple of bucks, but I’m not sure it will help.”

    “Nah, I don’t want money. My old man would just take it anyway. I need to be someplace tomorrow and do you know what I think would get me up and going?”

    “What’s that?”

    “A really cold coke.”

    “No problem, kid. I think I see some people across the street that can help. Hold tight, and I’ll be right back.”


  15. Can we have Sammy as a guest commentator next year?

  16. Three judge comments now about the age appropriateness of LIFE . . . yet three victories.

    I too, am pulling for the Zombie, just out of spite. Even if that zombie is Briony.

  17. DaNae, that was incredible. Better than any judge comment I’ve read this year. Bravo!

  18. This is one of the most entertaining decisions I’ve ever enjoyed.

  19. HAHAHA!
    DaNae, you are now officially the most awesome person around here.

    I second Jean’s suggestion. Let’s bring Sammy around for more insights.

  20. Sam Bloom says

    Well played, DaNae!

  21. Ah, yes, DaNae! That is EXACTLY what Doug would say! 🙂

  22. Genevieve says

    DaNae, I salute you! And look forward to Zombie Doug arising tomorrow.

  23. Ah Shucks, guys. Thanks!

    But Mr. H. (uggles?), let’s keep the crazy talk at a minimum.

  24. I was just being bitter DaNae. While I haven’t liked everything these judges have had to say, they sure are engaging and thoughtful authors.


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