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Battle of the Books

The Big Kahuna Match: Between The Fault in Our Stars, No Crystal Stair, and Code Name Verity

Code Name Verity
by Elizabeth Wein
The Fault in Our Stars
by John Green
No Crystal Stair
by Vaunda Micheaux Nelson
Carolrhoda Books/Lerner

Judged by
Frank Cottrell Boyce

I agreed to be the Big Kahuna because I believe in saying yes to any invitation that doesn’t involve crime, betrayal or heights. I thought it would be good to be forced to read books I wouldn’t normally read. I completely forgot – as I worked my way through the entire list – that it would involve me JUDGING one of those books.  My children could have told you that when it comes to judgement I don’t have any.  Or mine is wired up differently from everyone else’s. You can guarantee that if I think a book or film is the worst thing ever,  history will reveal that it to be s a timeless classic. If I love something to distraction,  you will shortly find it in the remaindered section.  I hope this fact is of some comfort to the losers here today and to the winner, all I can say is,  I love you – which is probably not a good thing.

G K Chesteron said of St. Francis “his life was a riot of rash promises which somehow turned out alright.”  Here’s hoping that my rash promise to judge this competition turns out alright.

Other Big Kahunas have complained that it’s near impossible to judge between finalists because they’re so diverse it’s “like judging between apples and whipped cream”.  Well not this year. All three finalists have so much in common that they’re almost different versions of the same book.  They’re all about very serious subjects (cancer, torture, civil rights) but the authors have played games with the form and shape of the book.

All three books are all brilliant.

They’ve won their heats.

They’re on the blocks.

The stadium is full and hushed.

The gun is raised.

The only way one of them is going to win is if the other two put a foot wrong.

It’s going to be a photo finish.

And they’re off ….

Code Name Verity, I’m predisposed to love you.  I have a thing about early aviators.  After all two of them – Roald Dahl and Antoine de St. Exupery – became great children’s writers .  One of the great things that fiction can do is show you something new.  The story of the Air Transport Auxiliary – the women pilots of World War Two – is relatively unknown,  so it’s a tale worth telling.  There is some absolutely wonderful writing in this book.  For instance there’s a passage where one of the heroines – Maddie – flies a lap of the North of England, from Manchester out to Holy Island and back across the Lake District, from sea to shining sea. It’s one of the best couple of pages I’ve read in years. It gives you a strangely emotional sense of your country as a physical object on the surface of a planet.  There’s a section where Maddie has to talk an inexperienced pilot through his landing which was both thrilling and convincing (you normally have to chose between those two qualities).   The book bulges with charming, convincing details.  I’ll remember for ever the Resistance using a pair of oxen to try to shift a plane.

Does this book put a foot wrong?  It’s hard to go into detail here without spoiling the plot but I had trouble with the narrators. The first half of the book has an unreliable narrator whose unreliability pays off beautifully in the second half.  But an important part of the book is that she has been tortured by the Gestapo. Because she is playing a game with the reader, we never feel that power of that.  For me this gave me the feeling that while the book took aviation and friendship seriously, it was muted and a bit flip about the damage that torture does.  I’ve interviewed some men who were tortured in World War Two.  That’s a long time ago but they still find it difficult to talk about.

Although all the aviation material feels authentic,  there are a lot of anachronisms. At one point Maddie says she had a surreal evening.  She’s using surreal in the modern sense of “slightly unexpected”. I feel that at this point – just a few years after the first surrealist exhibition in Britain,  the clocks on the wall would have to melt and the phone mutate into a lobster before an evening could be considered surreal.  More importantly, there’s something anachronistic about the way the narrators write.  It struck me as just too chatty.  Take this for instance … “If I’m caught writing this I will be in trouble whoever catches me – German, French, British, even American.”  Too right.  By keeping a diary she’d be putting not just herself but everyone associated with her at risk of the concentration camp.  Why does she do it?  Because “I have absolutely nothing else to do and I have the most marvellous pen in the world – an Eterpen, it has a tiny ball bearing in the nib and is full of quick-drying printer’s ink.”  A marvellous pen seems a very small reason to risk the lives of others.   And to whom is that description of the pen addressed?  The speaker is already holding the pen. Why describe it?  It feels a bit like reading a blog. It doesn’t feel like the sentence of someone for whom paper and time are precious.

Am I nitpicking here? Yes  indeed. This race is so tight that the nits are going to have the deciding vote (by the way there’s a very good passage about nits).

One reason I said yes to the Big Kahuna hat was that it would make me read books I would never otherwise read.  Believe me only moral and legal obligations would ever have got me to read The Fault in Our Stars.  I have no patience with the Kids with Cancer genre.  It’s cheating.

Part of the inspiration for my own first book was that a friend of mine was dying of cancer. She made ruthless and hilarious use of what John Green calls “the cancer perk”  –  letting people know she had the Emperor of All Maladies in order to gain preferential treatment. I took her to some film awards just a few weeks before she died and she used the cancer perk to get herself introduced to George Clooney.  Writing about Kids with Cancer is using the Cancer Perk without having the inconvenience of suffering.

On top of that my Mother has cancer and I happen to be typing this report sitting on a chair next to her bed in the intensive recovery ward.

I was as predisposed to despise this book as I was to love Code Name Verity.

One of the great functions of art is to challenge and overturn our expectations.  John Green overturned my expectations. I loved this book.

The things I hate most about kid-with-cancer books is that the characters are so prepared for Death.  Death grooms them.  They can plan for his approach,  get themselves ready for it.  The truth about death is that – even when we are old – it’s always a bast surprise. No one really believes in their own mortality.

Thanks to some brilliant plotting, the death in this book is a nasty surprise.

The characters are so bewitching and convincing that they far outshine the headlight glare of their oncoming doom.  This is partly because Green has his characters talk about the cancer kid cliché self-consciously in their support group at the Literal Heart of Jesus. But it’s mostly because they’re just so charming and attractive.  There’s a face-off between Hazel and her mother about the semiotics of scrambled eggs that would be worthy of Chekov.  When Hazel says “a scrambled egg-inclusive meal is breakfast even if it occurs at dinner time”,  you can feel the teenager trying to define her World.  When her mother replies, “You need to pick your battles,  Hazel” – well, that’s the teenager I can remember being,  and that’s the parent I’d like to be.

When Hazel overhears her Mother saying, “I won’t be a mom anymore”, it went right through me.

Green writes about cancer and the culture of cancer brilliantly.  But what I really loved about the book was its presentation of teenagers as thoughtful, literate, emotionally serious, swaggering but also uncertain and vulnerable.  It’s tender and true and it’s very very rare.

Is anything wrong with this book? I can only think of stupid illegitimate observations – such as it’s already been a Number One bestseller, it’s won loads of prizes, what’s the point in giving it another prize.  That’s a bit like telling Usain Bolt that he’s already won enough medals and that he should give the Olympic gold to someone else.

There’s a line in The Fault in Our Stars –  “Writing does not resurrect, it buries”.   No Crystal Stair proves that it’s not actually true. No Crystal Stair brings Lewis Michaux – the stubborn, contradictory spirit who ran the African National Memorial Bookstore in Harlem in the face of all kinds of economic and political problems – vividly back to life.  I feel like I’ve met him.  Michaux is my new hero.  History ran like a river down the main aisle of his shop.  Giant figures – Marcus Garvey, Malcolm X, Franklin Roosevelt, Martin Luther King – stroll through the pages of this book but Lewis is the character that stays with you.  He was a great phrase maker – calling the shop The House of Common Sense.  There’s a terrific story here where his friend Snooze walks in and greets him with the Black Power clenched fist.  Lewis tells him to open his hand,  then puts a book in it saying “That is power. Knowledge is power, you need it every hour.”

Like all real heroes, he’s complicated and sometimes exasperating.  The book captures all of his contradictions because instead of a narrative, it’s a series of anecdotes, news clippings and sketches all from different points of view.  This is how we get to know the real people in our lives – from the opinions and memories of others.  Somehow Vaunda Michaux Nelson manages to keep all those plates spinning while keeping the human stories – his love story, his relationship with his brothers – moving.

All three books do have clever, fresh storytelling but the daring of No Crystal Stair seems to  come not from a brilliant brain but from a loving heart.  Nelson is Lewis Michaux’s great niece and the book has all the restless curiosity of a child trying to conjure up the ghost of a lost family member.

So here’s that moment when I fulfil my rash promise and pronounce judgement.

Because it’s so fresh and so bold and because those qualities were prompted by such tenderness … I’m giving it to No Crystal Stair.

— Frank Cottrell Boyce

Surprisingly, we have an all YA finale—How much did it suck that LIAR & SPY and SPLENDORS AND GLOOMS faced off in the first round?—but then CODE NAME VERITY and THE FAULT IN OUR STARS got six starred reviews for a reason: not only are they manifestly excellent, but it’s fairly easy to agree that they are among the very best books of the year. NO CRYSTAL STAIR is less conventional, and didn’t have the large fan base that either of those books, but is worthy of winning this whole thing. And so it has!

It’s the book that I would have chosen myself, followed closely by CODE NAME VERITY. Congratulations to Vaunda Micheaux Nelson for her wonderful book. Congratulations to all of our contenders, actually.

And a big thanks to our celebrity judges—and to you, our readers, for following along.

— Commentator Jonathan Hunt

To judge this, I will do something like what Jonathan Stroud did in his excellent decision last year, and what some judges have done this year: find bases of comparison.

The Fault in Our Stars says that the love is all that counts, even in the face of death. Even after the grief, Hazel and Augustus’s story can only be called magical. And that’s all that matters, right? Perhaps – remember Van Houten. Very thought-provoking, indeed. But you don’t think about that while you’re reading it; Green crafts a book that’s almost surreal.

No Crystal Stair gives us an extremely complex idea: that knowledge leads to love and acceptance. Micheaux Nelson beautifully tells a story of African-American achievement through literature, from the truthful voices of Lewis Michaux and Lightfoot. And that quest for a better place in society is, indeed, no crystal stair.

Code Name Verity demonstrates the necessity of love. Maddie and Julie (Verity), two wonderful English (excuse me, Julie is Scottish) characters, are caught in war…The reader finds out in lyrical prose with grim humor that Julie, the Nazi prisoner, was herself the interrogator in England; how she relies on the memory of her friend Maddie to survive her imprisonment; how Maddie feverishly searches for Julie. Is the book saying, like The Fault in Our Stars, that love is all that matters? Maybe, but it says more. Love is some sort of eternal truth and goal, needed even by Nazi interrogators. And, similar No Crystal Stair, love is the end of Verity’s hidden schemes and plans – and the motive.

From these three wonderful books, we find very important, complex, and similar themes. They just convey them differently. In The Fault in Our Stars, although the emotional impact one gets from it is still huge, and the writing is gorgeous, the themes are a little too transparent, manipulative, and obvious. No Crystal Stair, while greatly important, is not quite as passionate and relatable as the other two books. So, for me, Code Name Verity it is! The story, the writing, and the message were all superb and well-integrated. The emotional impact was tremendous. The book deserves to win the Battle of the Kids’ Books on all counts.

— Kid Commentator RGN


Please join us in congratulating
No Crystal Stair by Vaunda Micheaux Nelson
for WINNING the 2013 Battle of the Kids’ Books.



  1. Εliana K. says

    I’m one of the few I know who thought that No Crystal Stair would make it to the second round over The One and Only Ivan because I loved it, but I never thought that it would beat out The Fault in Our Stars or Code Name Verity. I am surprised, but in a way, happy that No Crystal Stair got its chance to shine.


  3. Meredith says

    Hmmm…I liked but didn’t love No Crystal Stair. I may have to read it again. I’m definitely petty enough to be glad that The Fault in Our Stars didn’t win. I think it’s crazy that our illustrious judge found nits to pick with Code Name Verity and none for The Fault in Our Stars. Call me, Frank Cottrell Boyce! I have some!

  4. Meredith says

    What I mean to say is, I agree with Kid Commenter. For me, it’s Code Name Verity.

  5. Sam Bloom says

    Hooray! So happy this fantastic book came out on top – especially with this ridiculously strong group of 16 contenders. The excellent write-up by Mr. Boyce is the cherry on top!

  6. What!!!???? It’s OVER??? what do I read NOW!! I wanted CNV to win. Oh well, this contest is always a surprise and always a revelation. Can’t wait for next year.

  7. Code Name Verity will always be the winner in my heart (corny, I know — but I’ve been trying to come up with something to say for the past 3 hours and it’s the best I can do). That said, this competition always introduces me to great books. Because I’m a middle school librarian, I probably would have never read Verity, and I’m do glad that I did. What a wonderful competition this is — can’t wait until next year!

  8. RGN – Kid Commentator says

    While I wanted Code Name Verity, of course, No Crystal Stair is a pleasant surprise. I didn’t want it to win (any of the matches, in fact), but it is definitely worthy of it. And it’s an underdog: much like Starry River of the Sky and Moonbird, two books I wanted to go far – even to the finals, perhaps, definitely Starry River.
    Now I want to thank everyone involved in this battle who made it so great: the Battle Commander, the Commentator, my fellow Kid Commentator, the judges, the blog readers. It was a wonderful experience.

  9. RGN, you and kid commentator GI made this whole thing worth it. Your articulate commentary, commitment and all-round enthusiastic totally blow me away. Congratulations on a fantastic battle!

  10. Congratulations, Vaunda Micheaux Nelson. Clearly you’ve written a book that not only a personal history and story for yourself but also for the reader. A very hard feat to accomplish.

    Thank you, once again, to everyone who helped make this year’s BoB possible. I’m sad it’s over but, like hot cross buns, the fact that it’s only once a year for a short period of time makes it special.

  11. RGN – Kid Commentator says

    And, of course, thanks to the authors!

  12. Oh, shucks! And No Crystal Stair was also the book that beat Code Name Verity for the Boston Globe-Horn Book Award.

    I was going to take Frank Cottrell-Boyce to task if he made this decision, but I find I can’t fault him. If it had been vague notions about “heart,” I would have been up at arms. But he had some specific nits to pick, and I had to admit they were legitimate. The first time I read Code Name Verity, I didn’t quite grasp that she’d been tortured till much further in. And, yeah, why would Maddie write all that? (Oh, but I loved it so, I would have picked it anyway.)

    Well, here’s hoping CNV wins the LA Times Book Prize! (I want it to WIN first place at something besides Sonderbooks Stand-outs!)

  13. Oh, by the way, I LOVE the nod to commenters that the artist made with CNV’s “book” — “Sheet Music with no bass clefs”! Also loved the notice that all three books had books of some kind in the story.

    You put on a good Battle this year, SLJ! Thanks to all!

  14. FrankcottrellBoyce says

    It may be unethical of me to take space in the comments as well as in the judging but I wanted to say that it really really was difficult to chose. The fact that I nitpicked Code Name Verity and not The Fault Is In Our Stars doesn’t mean there were no nits in the latter. I think I just felt more of a need to explain myself about Verity.

  15. FrankcottrellBoyce says

    Whoops … posted that before it was finished.
    I also wanted to thank everyone who took part for forcing me to read stuff I would never normally read. I did the final judging under extremely difficult circumstances and really felt the power of the solace and refreshment that books – especially unexpected books – can give.
    Thank you.

  16. That totally makes sense. Thanks for the explanation, even though you didn’t need to give it. Also, love your books!

    Now that I’ve read the raves from all the judges about No Crystal Stair, I’m going to have to reread it. I liked it, but I obviously didn’t appreciate it as much as many other people. Maybe I missed something?

  17. Frank Cotrell’s Boyce’s comments were wonderful. No Crystal Stair was one of my favorite books of last year and I found myself wishing there wasn’t a Coretta Scott King award because I wanted it to win something more mainstream.

    I loved each of the books in this final round and am happy they are getting some recognition here.

    I am now off to find and read Framed as I’ve already read and loved Mr. Boyce’s Cosmic!

    Many of the judges this year are unsung heros. We need to read more Oppel, Boyce, Appelt, Perkins, and Engle. Thanks for bringing those authors into the spotlight!

  18. GI- Kid Commentator says

    This year’s battle has been my personal favorite out of all of the years. It was so much fun to be a part of, and thanks to the Battle Commanders, Jonathan Hunt, the authors, all of the judges, my fellow Kid Commentator, and of course the bloggers for making this year happen. Although I did not get to commentate on the final round due to personal technical difficulties, I was rooting for both CNV and TFIOS, both ones that did not win. Although I enjoyed No Crystal Stair immensely, as I stated in previous matches, I was quite surprised that it came out on top. Congratulations to No Crystal Stair, and to all of the books who came out to compete, as it is the highest honor even to be selected for the bracket. Thank you all again, and I can’t wait for next year.

  19. Steffaney Smith says

    Congratulations to No Crystal Stair. Also to Frank Cottrell Boyce for doing his reading and commentary under very trying circumstances. Wishing for a return to better health for your mother. I bet she enjoyed the little bits you must have read out loud to her….Maybe Cottrell Boyce will be the one to write the middle fiction destructor for next year’s battle. Each year is different, but what doesn’t change are the wonderfull comments of the authors and bloggers and the significant comments of the Kid Commentators. Another year of great artwork, too. I’ll be reading and hoping to pre-read a lot of the books in next year’s battle, but, oh, what a proliferation of books being published. Will have to really follow some blogs to help weed through the selections. Read on!

  20. Couldn’t comment yesterday because I was traveling all day.

    I just want to say thanks to everyone for another great year! Especially you Kid Commentators. You made this year’s Battle. (For me anyway.)

    I’m disappointed CNV had to lose but happy if it did it was to No Crystal Stair.

  21. Brandy, I confess I feel that way too. I love No Crystal Stair and am happy to bow to its lyrical message of truth-in-fiction yet again! Congratulations Vaunda Micheaux Nelson – you already know how I feel about this book.

    I think it’s kind of cool, if a little weird, that CNV has been pitted against non-fiction in all three of its battles here, losing two of them – and quite frankly I wouldn’t have been surprised (or ashamed) if it had lost to Titanic, either. OH WAIT whoops. NCS is technically “fiction.” Well… obviously in my brain it isn’t. In any case I think that along with Titanic and Bomb it has a different agenda from more traditional fiction, which gives all these titles a certain weight and worth that my own books lack – there is more going on here than mere storytelling. (I know, there is more than “mere” storytelling going on in CNV, too, but it doesn’t have that added layer of “go find out what really happened.”) The ability to merge that weight and worth with the effortless form and feel of storytelling is what makes Nelson’s NCS so wonderful, and I think it is what is so good about Bomb as well.

    I am also a huge fan of TFiOS, but let’s face it, in this context Green vs Wein *is* “apples and oranges”. Deciding between CNV and TFiOS is *always* going to be no more than a matter of subjective reader taste. I am glad to see something more than that going on here.

    Apologies if I shouldn’t be commenting here… it feels like the author should Play Dead and mind her own beeswax in the comments, but clearly I was NEVER REALLY DEAD throughout this entire battle, and I so enjoy the commentary! I am so grateful to have been included in the BoB, grateful for the very fierce and vocal support from the Peanut Gallery, and for the judges’ keen and evenhanded assessments. THANK YOU!

    *crawls back into lair*

  22. As always, the Big Kahuna’s writing knocks me over. I’m happy with the outcome, but especially with the thoughtfulness of the judgement. Thanks to the Battle committee for yet again encouraging me to read books I might not otherwise look at.

  23. Thanks to SLJ for a great cultural event, and for selecting books I hadn’t yet found my way to. Thanks to the judges for bravely sharing their opinions in the face of so many energetic commentators, and, of course, thanks to the authors, for giving us stories worth writing about.

    I’m already looking forward to next year!

  24. Battle Commander Battle Commander says

    (Roxanne here.) Actually, E. Wein, we LOVE your comments and also your online following of the Battle throughout. There is definitely precedence of the Authors coming from behind the scene and letting the public know what they thought — about the matches and about the books. Over at Read Roger, DavidB commented on one of my comments and asked what we wish to achieve with Battle of the Kids’ Books here. And I think one of the main goals is to highlight books from the past year that are highly regarded in each of their own corner of the pocket and to encourage BoB followers to read beyond their regular, subjective inclinations or professional demands. As book lovers, we just want to cheer on and give these titles a longer exposure time under the spotlight while the new publishing season/year starts piling new titles on our desks 🙂

  25. Nina Lindsay says

    Nice! We spent a whole season at Heavy Medal trying to figure out what genre to call “No Crystal Stair.” Should have figured it’d be a “Big Kahuna.” This is the only book that I can genuinely whoop for beating out Code Name Verity. Thanks you guys!…this was great.

  26. Now we go into the dark season with neither BoB nor Heavy Medal. Sigh.

  27. Frank, your description of these make me want to read (and re-read) these books! Wonderful review/wrap-up.

  28. You put on an amazing battle, SLJ! Loved Kid Commentators GI and RGN- they truly made the battle for me as well! And more than overjoyed about No Crystal Stair’s victory!! TEAM RUTLAND FOR THE WIN!


  1. […] to do it.)  And then this spring we were in contact as he was our Big Kahuna for this year’s 2013 SLJ’s Battle of the Kids Books.  So it was very exciting for me to finally see him in the flesh and, it turned out, for Frank to […]

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