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Battle of the Books

Round 2, Match 3: Hokey Pokey vs P.S. Be Eleven


Hokey Pokey
by Jerry Spinelli
Knopf Books for Young Readers
P.S. Be Eleven
by Rita Williams-Garcia

One of the joys of reading a well-written book is that you can be transported by it to a reality that is other than your own. You find yourself totally immersed in another place, another time. And yet, different as that time and place may be, you also find yourself drawn into it, identifying with its main characters. . .at home. And that is what happened to me while reading Hokey Pokey and P.S. Be Eleven.

It would be hard to find two books that are more different in their language, their setting, and the motivations of their main characters than Jerry Spinelli’s brilliantly imagined Hokey Pokey and Rita Willaims-Garcia’s dead-on, realistic portrayal of the lives of three young African-American sisters in P.S. Be Eleven, the sequel to her award-winning novel One Crazy Summer.

However, in some ways they are similar. Both authors are poetic and assured in their use of language and their self-assured storytelling. Both books are about growing up. Both stories are rooted in dreams.

But in very different ways. Spinelli’s story spins out within a dizzying dreamscape as removed from adult reality as the Victorian writer J.M. Barrie’s Never-Never Land in his famous play Peter Pan, or the Boy Who Wouldn’t Grow Up. The dreams that touch the hearts of Delphine, Vonetta, and Fern are as real as the radical decade of the sixties in which their stories are played out. Spinelli’s Jack wanders through a surreal landscape where bicycles run in herds like wild horses and the Hippodrome has hippos to ride on. His dream is one of totally immersed escape. Delphine has to deal with her father’s remarriage, holding her family together, and trying to understand her distant mother through letters. Plus a drug-addicted Uncle back from Vietnam. Her dream is to make it all come back together.

Black Panthers, the Jackson Five, Shirley Chisholm, a teacher named Mr. Mwila from Zambia, a recommendation to read Things Fall Apart by Chinua Achebe. (It is amazing just how literary a book P.S. Be Eleven is at heart.) Versus a Hokey Pokey Man dispensing colored ices, an mean-spirited kid named Destroyer with a steam shovel, places called Tantrums and Cartoons, and Great Plains and Thousand Puddles (all to be found in the map in the front of the book).

Like I said, two very different books. Way Different.

If I were to imagine a musical background for each of these, then P.S. Be Eleven would be the Temptations and the Jackson Five. For Hokey Pokey it would be the soundtrack from one of the Warner Brothers Roadrunner and Wile E. Coyote films that Spinelli has playing in the background of the place called Cartoons in his tale.

My choice?

Much as I admire the creativity of Spinelli’s near-Joycean descent into Jack’s dreamscape subconscious, there were times when I felt that the land of Hokey Pokey became a little. . .you know. And I wonder just how many kids will stick it out to read the entire book, as well-written and ambitious as it is.

P.S. Be Eleven is no less ambitious in its loving, incredibly detailed recreation of that now long-ago decade. Williams-Garcia’s intelligent, precocious narrator, who grows in empathy and understanding, is so accessible, despite the complexities in her life and times. P.S. Be Eleven is a book I can imagine both teachers and kids loving.

So, P.S. Be Eleven is my choice.

— Joseph Bruchac

The first opinion that I ever heard of Hokey Pokey was a warning; it’s a little bit strange. I thought to myself, okay, I’ve handled strange books before, I’m sure that I can handle this one just as easily. Yeah… I was wrong. I opened the book, read the first five pages, closed the book, and walked off dazed and confused, completely unsure of what I had just read. I did the same the next day, and the day after that, until I had finally reached an even stranger last five pages than the first. It wasn’t until the day after that that I realized the true unmatchable beauty of the book. It had transported me into a whole different world, a world so incredibly simplistic, so extremely “childlike”, that I cannot explain it in words. And that is why Jerry Spinelli is so remarkable, because he puts the unexplainable and the unfathomable into words, beautiful, simple, and pure words. To be honest, I probably still cannot tell you the plot of Hokey Pokey. In fact, I’m not sure there was one. But I do know that I experienced the true joy of reading; being transported into a completely different world.

On the other hand, as Mr. Bruchac pointed out, the same thing can easily be said about P.S Be Eleven. I thoroughly enjoyed the companion novel to One Crazy Summer, feeling as though I really learned from the book about the culture of African-American sisters trying to get by in 1960 Brooklyn. But I thought that the real hook for me was that although much of the book incorporates the African-American race and culture, I felt as though the story could be about anybody, be it Chinese, White, or Hispanic. The novel really hit home for anybody and everybody who was ever a child trying to find their place in the world, and it was brilliantly written. Sadly, as much as I enjoyed the novel, I must again disagree with Mr. Bruchac, and side with Jack and his bike on this one.

– Kid Commentator GI

Mr. Bruchac is right that Hokey Pokey might get a little, “you know,” and I think that’s how many readers felt. It lost the first round of the Mock BoB to March: Book One, and I’ve seen a couple comments that aren’t too complimentary. And P.S. Be Eleven is definitely a “literary” book. It’s lived up to its expectations from the Mock BoB, and worthily, at that. Now, it wasn’t my favorite middle grade book in the competition (that would be the similar, and more elegant, in my opinion, The Thing About Luck, which may be up against P.S. Be Eleven next round), but it was pretty good. Looking ahead, soon we’ll be down to four books. Boxers & Saints, Far, Far Away, P.S. Be Eleven, and the winner of tomorrow’s battle (if only both could win). I’ll take a moment to point out that, as of today, all the 4 National Book Award finalists/winners present in the Battle are in it. In fact, I feel like all the books remaining are quite literary indeed, though of course all 16 books are.

– Kid Commentator RGN




  1. I find myself in complete agreement with Joseph Bruchac about these two books. And happy about his decision.

    Though I still hope the winner loses to *whichever* book wins the next match. (Though I might be persuaded to change my mind if True Blue Scouts wins.)

    There have been good decisions and rationales given in this year’s battle. Even though I haven’t agreed with *most* of the decisions, I’ve appreciated the reasons given.

  2. I love the kid commentators!! GI brought into the second round is a really good contrast to RGN — they rock! As far as the decision goes, I was rooting for PS Be Eleven all along!

    Battle Commanders: are you aware that the first match of this round is not working? I missed it and it is a pity I couldn’t read all of the great insights!!

  3. I didn’t have a horse in this race, so I would have been perfectly happy with either outcome. That being said, I thought this was a great commentary on why P.S. Be Eleven should move on, and even though I didn’t care going in, I find myself agreeing with Bruchac on this one.

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