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Battle of the Books

Round 3, Match 2: P.S. Be Eleven vs The Thing About Luck



P.S. Be Eleven
by Rita Williams-Garcia
The Thing About Luck
by Cynthia Kadohata
Atheneum Books for Young Readers

I was so excited to be invited to be a judge in School Library Journal’s Battle of the Books! If there is one thing I know how to do, it is champion a book I love. I had visions of rolling up my sleeves and getting real with whoever my assigned book was up against. It would be a smackdown of epic proportions.

And then, right about the time I emerged from my deadline fugue state, I got the email telling me which two books I would be reading. I did a double take. Two books? With a sinking feeling, I remembered that in the Battle of the Books, one judge weighs two different books and pronounces a winner, rather than battling an opposing book. Which meant I HAD TO CHOOSE ONE. You have to understand, if I ruled the world, no one would ever have to lose—everyone would be winners all the time. I am more than a little embarrassed to admit that I was one of those mothers who preferred that all the little soccer players got a trophy, rather than simply the obvious winner. The mere idea of having to choose between books that had made it through the first two rounds created an escalating sense of panic.

My next hope was that they would be radically different books and one would simply be a better reading fit for me, thus making itself the clear and obvious winner.

Do you hear that sound? That is the sound of Fate laughing her fool head off at me. Dear Readers, the books I was given told stunningly parallel stories and are two of the most charming, rich, sparkling gems I have had the good fortune to read. Making the process even more difficult is that both of these books are literary heavyweights and outstanding examples of compelling, beautifully written stories that embrace the diversity of what it means to grow up in America. The Thing About Luck was a National Book Award winner and P.S. Be Eleven won the Coretta Scott King Award. My choice was going to end up being one of Solomonic proportions, and I had no alternative but to brace myself for the ensuing anguish such a choice would bring.

P.S. Be Eleven by Rita Williams Garcia and The Thing About Luck by Cynthia Kadohata both chronicle the lives of two nearly-twelve year old girls trying to navigate the tricky waters between childhood and adulthood, that moment when so much of the messy grown up world starts penetrating childhood consciousness. Each girl must deal with shifting family dynamics as well as the confusing, annoying, and often trying antics of their younger siblings. Life is further complicated by grandmothers whose love comes wrapped up in a fierce and prickly package. Both must shoulder responsibilities far beyond their years.

But there are striking differences, as well. In P.S. Be Eleven, Delphine is growing up in 1968 New York. She has just returned from a life changing trip to visit her mother, who is both a poet and an activist in the emerging Black Panther movement. She is juggling the shock of her father’s new girlfriend, the return of her uncle from Vietnam, the strict demands placed upon her by Big Ma, and the new ideas growing inside her that rebel against that strictness.

In The Thing About Luck, Summer grows up in the contemporary midwest and belongs to a family of harvesters who do the hard, grueling labor of bringing in the nation’s harvest. I felt for Summer as she tried to untangle her grandmother’s complex relationship with her and struggled to cherish her intense brother even as he drove her crazy. I fretted beside her as she tried to puzzle out her awkward, surprisingly unromantic first kiss and began to assume adult worries about making the mortgage, even as she wondered what a mortgage was. Having narrowly escaped her own near brush with death through a freak case of malaria, Summer is far more intimately acquainted with the idea of mortality than most twelve year olds, and this knowledge and awareness gently pervade the narrative.

Both of these books thrust me completely back into my twelve year old self and the dichotomy of that age—the constant teetering between the safe and familiar role of being a child and the lure of the adult world, complete with its seductive promises and harsh realities.

Another thing both of these books do brilliantly is portraying individual characters with universal, relatable issues against the larger backdrop of the characters’ racial and cultural experiences. In addition to illuminating the peculiar human truths of being nearly twelve, The Thing About Luck and P.S. Be Eleven show that even as we all face similar hopes and heartaches, the nature of our journeys through those things will be colored by our own cultural experiences as well. These books gently lay open some of the issues of race and cultural identity for their readers to experience with their own hearts, but do so with tenderness, both for their characters and their readers.

Both of these stories resonated with me long after I had turned the final page. But in the end, I ultimately came to realize that it was Delphine’s journey that reached the farthest into my heart, perhaps because my own childhood was peppered with such similar disruptions to the ones she experienced. Additionally, there was an almost painful complexity to some of the relationships, such as the moment when Delphine is forced by her father’s new girlfriend to confront her own complicity in keeping her sisters from reaching their potential. The recognition of this was a quiet shock of revelation to Delphine, one that the author had me feeling in my own gut.

This theme and complexity was further mirrored in the character of Big Ma. When Delphine talks about her grandmother’s shame that she and her sisters were making a Negro spectacle of themselves, it hurt my soul and illustrated in a visceral way how Delphine stood poised between her mother’s more radical, empowering views and her grandmother’s attempt to keep her in her place, a place that the grandmother believed to be safer. It was the dramatic punch of these complexities and the skillful shading of issues of power that ultimately had me choosing P.S. Be Eleven as the winning book of this match.

However, the more important truth is this: While I was forced to pick just one of these books, you don’t have to. Anyone who reads both of them will be the true winner.

-- Robin LaFevers

After reading Ms. Lefever’s judiciary statement on this match, I finally am able to appreciate the low-pressure job description that is being a Kid Commentator for the Battle of the Books. We don’t have to live with the blood of the defeated books on our hands, the everlasting pain of having to choose between two flawless pieces of literature, and most importantly, the intolerable guilt when you have chosen incorrectly. And I believe that Ms. Lefever will experience the latter very shortly. I was almost positive that A Thing About Luck would blow P.S Be Eleven out of the water without any discussion, hesitation, or question. I thought that this would be by far the easiest match to weigh, seeing how the books are so perfectly similar. But then I thought about it some more after reading Ms. Lefever’s statement once more. And I realized that comparing Summer and Delphine is like comparing oranges and grapefruits. Sure, on the outside they might look the same, but on the inside they taste completely different. So kudos to her, I suppose, for making a decision at all (even if in my respectful opinion, it was the wrong one), because it’s a lot more than I could have done. So far my Big Three prediction for the final, jaw dropping round has been completely off, but my fingers are still crossed for Eleanor and Park’s resurrection. One out of three isn’t that bad these days, right?

– Kid Commentator GI

For me, The Thing About Luck resonated more, and I wanted it to win the whole thing. But I really can’t complain. Two great books are in the finals, and however much blood is shed, the best thing about BoB is the energy and the goodwill that Ms. LaFevers so perfectly displayed. Mock BoB, comments, the Peanut Gallery…and now we go into the Undead Poll, the most dramatic part yet! Will the overwhelming favorite, Eleanor & Park, crush the weaklings (!), or will some surprise winner – Rose Under Fire? – find its way to victory? Enough fake optimism. I’ll get back to pouting for The Thing About Luck and all the other poor “losers,” yet, as Ms. LaFevers said, every book is a winner. Except for the ones you hated.

– Kid Commentator RGN




  1. One of these books is quiet and one is loud. That’s the way I classify them. In this case, the louder book won. I felt that PS reflected the time period in which it took place – my coming of age, actually. But Luck told me a new story, a story about people now and a culture – harvesters – that I know nothing about. And it told that story with quiet strength. I would have chosen Luck. But that’s just me. I thought both books were well-written and worth reading.

  2. Both of these books are marvelous, and Judge LeFevers did a beautiful job of championing both of them and explaining her decision. I was unsure which I wanted to win (my four favorites in the competition are these two, Boxers and Saints, and Eleanor and Park, so if that is the Zombie I will be very happy with any final result). Judge LeFevers convinced me.

    • No, I forgot Flora which is also one of my favorites this year, but since it won the Newbery, I have no complaints there.


  1. […] books remaining are not ones I even wanted to win the first round! However, I loved what judge Robin LaFevers had to say today: The more important truth is this: While I was forced to pick just one of these books, you don’t […]

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