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Round 3, Match 1: Boxers and Saints vs Far Far Away
JUDGE – PATRICK NESS
|Boxers & Saints
by Gene Luen Yang
|Far Far Away
by Tom McNeal
What should we demand of YA literature? Is that even an answerable question? YA has grown into such a gorgeous, vast country that to narrow it down seems impossible, and probably undesirable. It has any genre you’d like, any level of seriousness, books for escape, books for confrontation; it’s a country diverse both vertically and horizontally, a country that welcomes all reader-immigrants, no matter your age, gender, race, sexuality. I couldn’t be prouder to be a YA writer. We’re lucky folk.
And yet I think there is something we can demand of it. When I was a teenager – and by the way, there is no faster way on EARTH to lose a YA audience than to begin a sentence with “when I was teenager” – nevertheless, when I was a teenager, I, like so many others my age, tended to skip teenage fiction altogether and go straight to Stephen King for one simple reason: Judy Blume aside (and God bless her forever and forever), most of the rest of it lied.
You know what I mean. Books where the bully was really a sensitive kid who’d end up your best friend. Where everyone was chaste and had terrific grandparents. Where all problems, no matter how serious, could ultimately be resolved by confiding in your dad. And heck, they weren’t really problems anyway because nothing that could happen to a teenager could be really bad, could it? Especially in a book where people said “Heck”.
Fortunately, that world is mostly long-gone. YA is now fearless in dealing with things that actual teenagers think about: liberty, privacy, sex, drug use, loneliness, illness both physical and mental, injustice, poverty, suicide, death, all of the boundary-pushing thoughts that consume a boundary-pushing time. True, this does sometimes result in YA having its fair share of what I like to call CBAITs (Crappy Books About Important Things, on which more in a moment), but in terms of negotiating with the real world, YA is where the most interesting things are happening now.
What then to make of Far Far Away by Tom McNeal? Its back cover is festooned with starred reviews; it was shortlisted for the National Book Award; and to reach the semi-finals of Battle of the Books, it beat both Kate DiCamillo’s Newbery-winning Flora & Ulysses AND Rainbow Rowell’s world-conquering Eleanor & Park.
And I didn’t believe a word of it. This is just my opinion (and I strongly suggest you read other opinions; reading is personal, and you may react totally differently, truly) but I don’t think I’d have believed a word of it when I was fifteen, either. I won’t rehash the plot again as it’ll have been well-covered in earlier rounds, but here are just some of the things I didn’t believe:
I didn’t believe Jacob Grimm (of the Brothers Grimm) would need to help an American teenager in order to cross over to the other side. I didn’t believe the whimsy of Jeremy’s father trying to run a (literal) two-book bookstore meshed with Jeremy and Ginger subsequently being starved to near-death by a serial killer of children. I didn’t believe that EVERY missing child named in the book – either abducted in the present or the past – would end up having a happy ending. I didn’t believe Jeremy and Ginger would suffer no discernible trauma after a life-scarring experience. Most of all, I didn’t believe Ginger would say “Zounds.” It’s as bad as “heck.”
I found the book false in the most objectionable way: the teenagers aren’t allowed to be real people. They’re wishful constructs of overly nice kids. Going by the Disney references and the answering machines instead of cellphones, I’m guessing these are meant to be fifteen-year-olds in the early 90s(?) And their idea of rebellion is to sneak into the kind Swedish baker’s house and put Pop Rocks on his Trix? Again, this is a book with a serial killer of children in it, and it’s so polite, I kept wanting to offer it a cigarette.
Because of the Grimm connection, a lot of energy is spent on the fairy tale aspects of the story. But even fairy tales create a universe in which the story can logically take place. And they can certainly be harrowing and full of real danger and truth – anyone with a passing acquaintance of the astonishing work of Margo Lanagan knows that. But Far Far Away gives itself over to whimsy and a fake, coddling darkness (even though they’re kidnapped and tortured by a serial killer, everyone lives happily ever after), that it’s almost as if it’s a YA book written for 8-12s. I’m more than happy to believe in fairy tales, but I didn’t believe any of Far Far Away.
Finally, one last thing I couldn’t believe: it’s 2014, but the SINGLE foreign character in town (aside from the ghost) ends up being the deranged villain. Really.
Far Far Away makes me think we can demand something of YA literature. More than that, I think we MUST demand it from YA literature: the truth. Fortunately, Gene Luen Yang’s astounding Boxers & Saints – just by being its restlessly truthful self – rebukes everything Far Far Away gets wrong.
I confess I went into Boxers & Saints a little wary. I’ve got a real thing against CBAITs (again, Crappy Books About Important Things; you know exactly what I’m talking about: books with either important subject matter or important formats that are so terrible-but-worthy they turn reading into medicine for young people. People tend to be far too afraid to give these books bad reviews and they often go on to win prizes. Don’t get me started.).
Anyway. Boxers & Saints is about the Boxer Rebellion in China, told alternately from the point of view of one of the revolutionaries (Boxers) and one of the Chinese Christians who suffered (& Saints). I was worried about getting a dry history lesson without much narrative oomph or characters who were little more than historic ciphers.
I was utterly delighted to be wrong, wrong, wrong. Boxers & Saints is extraordinary. Told in graphic novel form, it seeks relentlessly for truth, never letting any of its characters completely off the hook for the mistakes they make. And oh my, everyone here makes mistakes. Big ones. Both Little Bao, the revolutionary who commits atrocities in the name of what seems to be a good cause, and Four-Girl, the converted Christian who chafes against what its teachings require of her, are allowed to be complicated, realistic, flawed human beings.
They’re also funny and brave and daring and goofy and merciless and merciful and grow and change and regret and falter. In short, they’re like the real teenagers you might know. They don’t get fake happy endings; they get real life, in all its mess and wonder and complexity.
These are two very specific stories, told truthfully (and, interestingly, with large doses of magical realism, proof again that a story can be a fairy tale and not be false) and with open eyes. And because they’re specific and told with utter truth, they are of course universal. I suspect that Yuen ultimately has his sympathies most with the Christian Four-Girl, but even then, everyone is shown warts and all, with compassion that isn’t stupid or blind.
Boxers & Saints is exactly what I’d like to demand from YA literature, from ALL literature, for that matter: the truth, breathtakingly, intelligently told, through characters who act like real human beings, and a recognition that this is a world with endless, multiple endings, happy and otherwise, all leading on to more and more amazing questions.
Boxers & Saints is YA at its best. It’s certainly one of the very best YA novels of the past couple years, and it’s my whole-hearted choice as winner of this semi-final. May it sweep to final victory.
— Patrick Ness
As always, two polar opposites go head to head in the very first nail biting, teeth clenching battle of Round 3. Despite an incredibly well written judge commentary by Mr. Ness, I feel just as conflicted with it as I do with my loyalties to the two novels. I both reluctantly agree and strongly disagree with his assessment of Far Far Away, understanding that it has failed to realistically portray life as a teenager as a coming of age, twenty first century YA novel should. However, I do not believe that it was Mr. McNeal’s intention to create an up to date, politically correct, and realistic piece of fiction. He wanted to transport his readers into a world of magic and fantasy, cross the boundary between utopia and dystopia, and mainly take us on an unforgettable adventure. I think in this way, it doesn’t necessarily have to be boxed and labeled specifically as a YA novel, and perhaps just acknowledged as a piece of fantastical, ageless fiction. I think that with his review of Far Far Away, as well as his brilliantly direct view of what YA novels should and should not be, it is no wonder that Boxers and Saints will proceed into the final round. It’s a pity, though, as there is again the Far Far Away and Eleanor and Park rivalry for the coveted win of the Undead Poll. One things for sure; this years Big Kahuna round will not be one to miss.
– Kid Commentator GI
Mr. Ness – Chaos Walking, A Monster Calls, all great books, by the way – gives some very interesting commentary on what it means to be a YA book, and how Far, Far Away is not believable. Two very big questions. There’s the idea of nostalgia we’ve been talking about, how books like Far, Far Away are not for kids, but about them (I’d question whether Far, Far Away is even YA, but it’s not really middle grade either). I can enjoy these books (I’m talking to you, Hokey Pokey), though often they’re not fully believable – really, there has to be a serial killer who suddenly appears halfway through the book? I am drawn to Far, Far Away precisely because it’s not truthful – it’s a pack of fairy-tale lies, with both the best and the worst of Grimm – that can maybe illuminate truth. Far, Far Away is an escape – a nostalgic one, sure, but still a good book – while Boxers & Saints offers the brutal truth. In their own ways – sometimes effective, sometimes not – both can be powerful. Yet Mr. Ness’s reasoning is, indeed, eloquently explained. I understand the need for truth; I’d still question what truth is, however – how variable it is, and how you get there. Still, I can find no fault in having the remarkable Boxers & Saints move on to the final round.
– Kid Commentator RGN
THE WINNER OF ROUND 3 MATCH 1:
BOXERS AND SAINTS
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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