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Round 1, Match 3: Doll Bones vs Eleanor and Park
by Hollly Black
Margaret K. McElderry Books
|Eleanor & Park
by Rainbow Rowell
Saint Martin’s Press
Somehow, despite the buzz, the plethora of positive reviews, the online chatter and endorsements from authors as venerated as John Green, Eleanor & Park had slipped beneath my radar until very recently. It’s not that I didn’t know of it–it would have been impossible to ignore all of the accolades–but I’d somehow avoided knowing very much about it. What I’d gleaned was, essentially, the following: Eleanor & Park is the story of a misfit girl and a misfit guy who fall in love in a rundown town somewhere in the middle of the country.
As far as plot summaries go, that one achieves the broad strokes–Eleanor & Park does tell the story of two misfits falling in love in a rundown town (in an impoverished portion of Omaha, it turns out). But you might similarly describe, I don’t know, Romeo and Juliet as a play about a rebound relationship, or Harry Potter as a series about a rigorous boarding school. What’s missing is all the nuance, texture, and richness that makes the book extraordinary.
Eleanor and Park do more than fall in love. They find themselves in each other. They find safe harbor in the middle of a world that seems determined to pulverize them against twin rocks of shame and loss. This is particularly true in the case of Eleanor, whose home life over the course of the novel spirals from bleak to depressing to outright dangerous; she clings to Park and to his stable family the way a kitten might when it is afraid of getting bucked off, even as she simultaneously pushes him away, desperate not to need him as much as she does, certain that he will inevitably be lost (as, she has reason to believe, are all good things in life).
And the writing! Real, revelatory, authentic, and somehow restrained, like a person turning over rocks on the beach, exposing the undersides, searching for a shell.
Oh. And it’s funny.
I started this book at about 8 pm on a Tuesday. By page 66, when Eleanor and Park have moved past their initial distrust and mutual loathing to something that feels like friendship but isn’t quite to something that is even more, I had already cried. There’s something about seeing so much vulnerability on the page that reminds us why we’re vulnerable, why we love, how we get damaged, and why it’s so, so worth it.
If reading Eleanor & Park was like discovering a new flavor of ice cream (really sad, really poignant ice cream), The Doll Bones was like digging into a tried and true favorite. I actually reviewed The Doll Bones for the New York Times just before its release.
I love middle grade books—I was a middle grade reader when I first fell in love with books like The Wonderful Wizard of Oz and The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, and The Doll Bones has much in common with some of the classic works of children’s literature I loved back then: it is both a friendship and a quest story, with very real elements of danger and some frightening supernatural elements. And a haunted doll. (Okay, so that’s not really a classic element, per se, but it bears mentioning!).
The aforementioned haunted doll, nicknamed The Queen by best friends Zach, Poppy, and Alice, has always presided over an ever-evolving game of their own creation. But when The Queen visits Poppy in a dream and reveals a terrible truth—the spirit of a murdered girl is actually trapped inside of her—the three friends decide (at Poppy’s insistence) to go on one last mission to put her to rest. An epic quest ensues, replete with meddling strangers, commandeered boats, and evidence of the mysterious paranormal at work. But the undercurrents of strain, and the increasing tension between the three former best friends, are almost more haunting. Alice has a secret. Zach no longer wants to play. And Poppy will do anything—anything—to keep her friends by her side.
Did I mention a haunted doll?
At the risk of plagiarizing myself, what I really loved about The Doll Bones was the diversity and richness of its themes and the expansiveness of its ambition. This is a book that looks at the nature of friendship; the difficulty of growing up; the nature of belief; the importance of storytelling; the possibility of happy endings.
It’s really hard to compare middle grade fiction to YA fiction, especially two books as diverse in genre and theme as The Doll Bones and Eleanor & Park, and so the fact that I had to do just that was unenviable. Ultimately, I picked Eleanor & Park simply because it moved me more. The Doll Bones is smart, complex, and full of depth and adventure. It transports. But Eleanor & Park reveals—truths about love, truths about pain and loss, truths about what it is to be human–and to maybe, once, if we’re lucky, find someone who makes us feel just a little bit more.
— Lauren Oliver
Eleanor and Park might draw comparisons to last year’s fan favorite The Fault in Our Stars (just see the comments – Undead Poll, anyone?), and with good reason: it’s “really sad, really poignant ice cream.” Now, to be critical, it might be a bit too much at times, don’t you think? But it sure was powerful, and it’ll be a solid contender, though it’ll have a tough matchup next round with Sten Blix and Jacob Grimm or flying squirrels and Ms. Meescham (two of my favorites). How about we let the kids’ books win? Yet Doll Bones, in my humble opinion, wasn’t really an inspiring middle-grade book. (A bit boring, perhaps?) Anyways, we have some wonderful matches to look forward to: not only vacuum cleaners and ghosts, but deeper questions of fate: poetry, luck, love, childhood, and Sugar Man-DeSoto-raccoon scouts, to say the least.
– Kid Commentator RGN
THE WINNER OF ROUND 1 MATCH 3:
ELEANOR & PARK
About Battle Commander
The Battle Commander is the nom de guerre for children’s literature enthusiasts Monica Edinger and Roxanne Hsu Feldman, fourth grade teacher and middle school librarian at the Dalton School in New York City and Jonathan Hunt, the County Schools Librarian at the San Diego County Office of Education. All three have served on the Newbery Committee as well as other book selection and award committees. They are also published authors of books, articles, and reviews in publications such as the New York Times, School Library Journal, and the Horn Book Magazine. You can find Monica at educating alice and on twitter as @medinger. Roxanne is at Fairrosa Cyber Library and on twitter as @fairrosa. Jonathan can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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