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Battle of the Books

Round 2, Match 3: Starry River of the Sky vs Splendors and Glooms

Starry River of the Sky
by Grace Lin
Little, Brown
Splendors and Glooms
by Laura Amy Schlitz

Judged by
Thanhha Lai

I usually have no problem sitting in judgment.  Years ago I zapped the writer’s guilt of finishing every novel because someone had bled to write it.  Now I give the first 50 pages my absolute attention.  If not enthralled, I advance to the art of flipping.

Still, my quick fingers proved useless while reading Starry River of the Sky and Splendors and Glooms.  I read every page, felt every dramatic pulse and closed the novels with Rendi and Madame Chang, Lizzie Rose and Parsefall embedded into the crevices of my mind.

Starry River drops readers into ancient China, yet its timeless theme of finding one’s self by returning to one’s roots will be understood by any video-game junkie living in, let’s say, Dallas.  This junkie will be introduced to a world where people make lanterns from fireflies and linger at the dinner table to hear stories—for entertainment.

Splendors and Glooms drops readers into 1860 London, where the details of rich lives and poor lives so infused the narrative that buttered toast and strawberry jam enter the nostrils as surely as the sour stiffness of one’s only dress.  Readers then step into the enchanting horror of icy Strachan’s Ghyll, where a puppet, a witch, two kids and a villain come together for a good vs. evil battle that rivals any video game.  In this verbal version, the sentences alone will remind a certain junkie of what words can do—as entertainment.

I thank Grace Lin and Laura Amy Schlitz for crafting such concrete, entertaining worlds.  But I’m told I must choose one, so I shall choose Splendors and Glooms.  Now I will quickly send off this review before I flip flop, again.

— Thanhha Lai


And the Winner of this match is……

It’s a quirk of fate that most of the middle grade novels have been assigned to the second half of the bracket, and it means that after beating LIAR & SPY and STARRY RIVER OF THE SKY, SPLENDORS AND GLOOMS might have faced THE ONE AND ONLY IVAN in the next round, but for the Newbery Curse.  I admire both SPLENDORS and STARRY, and in spite of the fact that this more apples vs. apples than most matches, I still find these books widely disparate in terms of style, one an homage to the Victorian novel, the other an ode to fairy tales.  I could have been happy with either book moving forward, but I think SPLENDORS is better suited to go up against either NO CRYSTAL STAIR or SERAPHINA.  Is there a subtle bias at work that favors young adult novels over middle grade novels?

— Commentator Jonathan Hunt

For the first time in this round, the books pitted against each other are incredibly different. I wasn’t particularly eager to read Starry River of the Sky, worried that it would not excite me like the other books in this competition had, but I was pleasantly surprised by the quality of Lin’s writing. She crafts and manipulates the literary elements like a sculptor with a piece of clay, masterfully and beautifully. As a lover of dark fantasy, I was quite excited to sink my teeth into Splendors and Glooms, and it did not disappoint me. I found the story enchanting, marvelous, and above all creepy. It did have some dull and confusing points, but I did manage to enjoy the wittiness of the characters although I did not completely fall in love with them. Overall, I think that it was a fair pairing, and I respect Judge Lai’s decision, and would probably have gone the same way.
— Kid Commentator GI



  1. Well I must say I’m disappointed (and my bracket is officially a disaster). I cannot deny that Splendors and Glooms is well-written, but I think Starry River of the Sky is spectacular — to repeat myself from round one, I don’t understand why it didn’t win a Newbery Honor.

  2. ‘ In this verbal version, the sentences alone will remind a certain junkie of what words can do—as entertainment.”

    This line explains the unbalanced effect that lovely language, such as Schlitz employ in SPLENDORS, has on my dopamine receptors. I’m not sure if the author should be applauded for exquisite use of her craft or jailed for distributing addictive substances.

    I’m thrilled with Lai’s choice. If zombie VERITY does not return this is my second choice.

  3. I loved Splendors and Glooms and had totally predicted it moving on! So I’m pretty happy. Everything else in my bracket may have gone wrong, but I’m still right about this one thing.

  4. Ok, what gives? I did not like Splendors and Glooms! Am I crazy? I feel like I must have missed something. Perhaps I should re-read….

    About the middle grade book/YA bias… it just seems that the YA material has more (I don’t want to say substance, but I’m going to say) substance because it’s written for a older audience and can delve further into deeper issues. Or maybe, as adults, we are closer to the YA age group and we relate better. I don’t know. I’d love to see a battle of just middle grade fare – I think when you compare gala apples to fuji apples or even granny smith, at least you’re still comparing apples. It’s not the oranges’ fault they’re juicier and a lot of people like juice. 🙂

  5. I think there is a bias toward YA this year which probably has something to do with there being more YA judges. These judges are probably more attracted to the themes and situations dealt with in YA as those are what they choose to write about.

  6. Battle Commander Battle Commander says

    I honestly can’t always determine which book belongs to which category. I pegged Seraphina as solid YA Fantasy but from our experiences at school, it’s a fantasy that has very far “downward” reach to much younger fantasy readers; and Splendors and Glooms, although was awarded a Newbery Honor, might appeal to older readers and so is Liar and Spy, with its very intellectual approach to storytelling. (Roxanne) And all the nonfiction titles included here are thoroughly appropriate for MG readers — actually, I think none of them could be categorized as YA at all.

  7. Steffaney Smith says

    I think besides “downward reach” and “older readers” we have to recognize reading levels and lexiles when classifying books as a J or Y.
    It’s not so much the 8th grade reader, but at what level the eighth grader is reading. If you are reading at a fifth grade level, you may not enjoy a book like “Splendors and Glooms,” even if you are an eighth grader. There can only be one bracketing for BoB, and I don’t think I’d enjoy separate battles for fiction…it’s all up to the judges and how they determine their pick. As close as these battles have been, I could see any of the loser books winning with a different judge! I don’t want to be over-scientific. Let the contenders fall as they may on the battlefield and let the victor enjoy his spoils — there is a lot to overcome to get through the ranks!

  8. TeenReader says

    I don’t think that the battle necessarily has a “YA Bias”: I think that the world of children’s literature in general does. YA and upper MG titles consistently get more unanimous praise from trade journals (5-6 stars) then lower grade titles. YA are also much more likely to recieve praise from adult book critics (like The Fault in Our Stars) or become cultural phenomena (like Twilight). I think Danielle is right: it’s hard to compare, say, the Elephant and Piggie (or even The One and Only Ivan) to Code Name Verity: though both are great books that achieve different goals for different readers, Code Name Verity is obviously a much more deep, complex, and literary novel. So while I do think that books for all ages need to be recognized, I also think that a “YA Bias” is a natural side effect of judging literary quality.

  9. Εliana K. says

    As much as I loved the thrill and writing of Splendors and Glooms, I loved the uniqueness of Starry River more. I am so disappointed— not only is my favorite book out of the battle, but my bracket’s only hope is The Fault in Our Stars!!!

  10. Oh darn! (I’m with you, Danielle. Okay, I liked Splendors & Glooms some, but not as much as those it’s been up against. Not at all as much.)

    So, if you bear in mind my flip-flop after I read Endangered, I’m doing abysmally this round, getting everything wrong. So let’s ignore my flip-flop! If you look at my original predictions, I’m staying right on track at 50%. Or, well, I will be after Seraphina beats No Crystal Stair.

    I hope.

  11. Emily Aronson says

    Yay for splendors! I loved Lins writing style though, poetic and beautiful. Brava to the kid commentator, hit the nail on its head for this match!!

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