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Battle of the Books

Round 1, Match 5: Hokey Pokey vs March, Book One

Hokey Pokey
by Jerry Spinelli
Knopf Books for Young Readers
March, Book One
by John Robert Lewis and Andrew Aydin
Top Shelf Productions

Look, I don’t know what the other judges in this Battle are up against, but I think I’ve got the most outrageously unfair bracket since the invention of brackets in 1257 AD.

Look on the one hand you’ve got the REALEST book ever: March is a first-hand account of the nitty-gritty details of the Civil Rights Movement, miraculously transformed into a beautiful, brutal graphic novel.

On the other hand, you’ve got the UNREALEST book ever: Hokey Pokey is sort of Peter Pan times Pilgrim’s Progress times the Teletubbies.

How do you compare two books like this?

While, March is hitting you in the head with a police baton in the all-too-real, segregated South, Hokey Pokey is going la la la through Never Never land.

It would be an easy decision if only Hokey Pokey hadn’t completely transfixed me. I was ready to roll my eyes at the silly business and sound effects, but I was stopped in mid-eyeroll.

See, even though Hokey Pokey is total loop-de-loop fiction, it caught me with something real. Something I don’t think I’ve ever seen captured in any book before: the relationship between a kid and a bicycle.

I had various bikes when I was a kid. But one of them was THE bike. An ungainly, yellow Yamaha bicycle with huge, heavy shock absorbers that kept it safely anchored to the ground despite all attempts to make it go airborne.

It was more than a bike, somehow. Much much more. I can’t explain it…. but Jerry Spinelli can. And he can explain a lot of other very real things, too, even though he seems to be tripping on giggle juice. Man, he just nailed it.

But March unexpectedly nails a bit of kid-life, too. You expect this book to be about valiant heroes and instead it opens with a weird kid preaching to his chickens, even though he knows they’re going to end up on the supper table.

It would seem impossible for most of us to relate to someone like John Lewis, who showed so much courage – and not just while standing next to Martin Luther King, but even after King had gone on to the next town and Lewis and his friends were left to face down everybody from the racist establishment to their own, more cautious, families.

Here are those valiant heroes we expected, but because we’ve heard those chicken stories, it’s too late: we’ve already related to Lewis as a real person. He’s not immortal. He’s not a plaque or a statue. In fact, he seems so fragile…. and there he goes marching towards the hate and the violence, with no weapons, with no cops to call, with no judge to look to for justice. And the fantastic artwork carries us along with him.

So, you can see why I’m complaining about my bracket. How can I choose?

Must I look for a weakness in these books? Okay, perhaps Hokey Pokey is more about kids than for kids. Sort of like Puff the Magic Dragon, maybe it tells a kid about the harsh truth of growing up before they really needed to face it. And, March – because John Lewis is so careful to share the credit with his fellow marchers – sometimes loses track of its protagonist. But, come on, these are both excellent books and I’m not going to be able to declare a winner on quibbles.

But maybe on a technicality…

See, March, Book 1, should really be titled, March, Volume 1. It’s the beginning of what will surely be a great book. But right now it builds and builds and then just ends. As the husband of a graphic novelist, I know it takes a long time to make these things, but as a reader … I want it all now!

Meanwhile, Hokey Pokey is a complete and self-contained story. In fact, Spinelli put in so much resolution that he risked spoiling the whole thing. But he pulls it off.

So, for my bracket, Hokey Pokey wins. But March is no loser. When it is complete, it may very well return to this Battle and be unstoppable.

— Tom Angleberger

For all my talk about kids’ books, at first I couldn’t get through Hokey Pokey – way too slow. It only got me on the second try, when its “kid-life” finally came alive. But, I still have doubts, as Mr. Angleberger says, like many of these kids’ books that I’m trumpeting, it’s a book about kids, not necessarily for them. (When I first started following the battle – in sixth grade – I was a kid, but now I’m a teenager presuming to judge kids’ books, and so are we all.) It does, however, have the gravitas to go far, and so does March: Book One, echoing last year’s winner No Crystal Stair. Somehow, John Lewis’s story also captures childhood – I love the eggs and chickens – before it gets harsh, to its brutal reality, while all the while retaining a sense of wonder. Still, Mr. Angleberger is right, it ends too soon, you should really live in it. So I don’t know what I’d pick: these two books display some of the more serious storytelling in the Battle, and it’s a shame that they’re paired up against each other. Down the bracket, there’s more bad luck: the bottom four books – Rose, Luck, Scouts, and Heart – should all be in the finals.

– Kid Commentator RGN




  1. Great commentary — great explanation of the WHY of the vote. (And whoa, Kid Commenter is wickit smaht, as we used to say in my own RI childhood.)

  2. Well, the kids in the PFTSTA Library followed Angelberger’s lead and selected Hokey Pokey in this battle. You can read all about our Mock BOB battle here: Non-fiction is just not my students’ choice when they have to select books for free reading.

  3. I agree completely with pretty much everything Tom Angelberger says. I don’t know if that’s ever happened before! If March had been a complete book, I probably would have thought it should win, but it really does just stop, which I didn’t like.

  4. Eric Carpenter says

    Hokey Pokey is so brilliant. So glad Tom made this decision. I like to think that ten or twenty years from now Hokey Pokey will be the remembered as the best book of 2013 and we will look back and wonder how the newbery committee missed it. This decade’s Tuck perhaps?

  5. I enjoyed Hokey Pokey and appreciated it as a novel, but I do not know a single student that I would give it to (I do recognize that’s not one of the criteria for Battle). I did love March and the fact that it wasn’t the entire story didn’t bother me (Fellowship of the Ring isn’t the entire story either). I would have chosen March, but I can’t argue with Angleberger’s reasons for choosing Hokey Pokey.

    • I’m with you… I can’t think of a student who would enjoy Hokey Pokey.
      I’m waiting for one of my girls who are constantly asking for book recommendations to come in so I can pounce this on them. It’ll be an experiment… and they will be my unwitting subjects. (Muahahaha!)
      I did like the book, though. I think I just need a kid’s perspective to understand the potential audience.

  6. Battle Commander Battle Commander says

    Recap of Mock BoB for this match, from Roxanne, from Taipei:

    Only 29 people predicted that Hokey Pokey would win this round. By this point, only ONE person predicted all five matches correctly. How will this prophetic BoB follower fare for the remaining of the matches? All 8, only 7 or 6, or just 5? Stay tuned and find out.

    Recap for Match 4:

    39 votes for Far Far Away and 65 for Flora! 11 BoB followers got all four matches right.

  7. Nicely done analysis by both Tom Angleberger and RGN. This is what I would have chosen to happen as well even though I really did not like Hokey Pokey. Loved Angleberger’s description of it.

  8. I had no more chance of choosing between these two books than I have of flying. Hokey Pokey made my breath catch in my throat. But, I wasn’t sure its audience would “get” it. March is so sad, so awful and unfortunately true. But the story is still triumphant. This is a story still being lived – a story that, sadly, will not be done in our lifetimes.

    So, Tom Angleberger’s choice is super fine with me. Put your right foot in. Put your right foot out.

  9. Eric Carpenter says

    Mark me down as firmly in the Hokey Pokey camp, but when this video made the rounds today I actually wished March had prevailed here only to claim this amazing dance from my congressman as BoB related.

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