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Round 1, Match 1: Brown Girl Dreaming vs Children of the King
JUDGE – HOLLY BLACK
|Brown Girl Dreaming
by Jacqueline Woodson
Nancy Paulsen Books/Penguin
|The Children of the King
by Sonya Hartnett
On the face of it, these books have little in common. They are set in different countries, in different historical periods, and told in very different ways. One is prose, the other poetry. One is a memoir and the other, a ghost story.
And yet, interestingly, they share children perceiving the bravery of the adults around them, while discovering their own power.
In Children of the King, two London children of an upper-class family are evacuated before the Blitz. Cecily Lockwood, younger sister, is sorry to leave her father, but happy to be going to Heron Hall, her Uncle Peregrine’s house in the country. Jeremy, older brother, is furious, feeling as though he’s old enough to stay and help the war effort. Accompanied by their mother, they take in a clever, lower-class evacuee named May. Together, the girls explore the surrounding woods and discover two odd, haughty boys, hiding in the ruins. Are they evacuees who’ve run away from their host families or something else entirely?
The Blitz is a rich setting and a great opportunity for a writer to put characters into unlikely situations. With so many children evacuating from London, so many families disrupted, parents are easily shoved out of the way, making room for adventure.
Hartnett’s characters are wonderfully compelling. Our protagonist, Cecily, is someone we don’t often see in books. She’s forgetful and not particularly clever, prone to tattling, sweets-stealing and mild selfish cruelty. She’s wealthy and takes her wealth and place in society for granted. And yet, for all that, she’s a highly appealing narrator.
There’s a bit where a shopkeeper pronounces the evacuee living with Cecily’s family as “a good little girl” and thinks to herself: “Half the time May wasn’t good at all – she was a thief of leftovers, an escapee, a hurter-of-feelings, moody and a know-it-all and a bossy-boots, just now she hadn’t even owned up to shouting in the street – but somehow these attributes made her better than good.” What a wonderful meditation on why we love characters as well as people.
May, who is clever, fearless, and coping stoically with a terrible personal tragedy is an interesting character to see from the outside. We see her through Cecily’s eyes, Cecily who adores her, but doesn’t understand her.
Claustrophobic at times, Harnett portrays the confused feeling of childhood, of not knowing enough and having no adult willing to explain, of saying things that turn out to be awful but which you didn’t mean that way, and of grappling with a big mass of feelings too raw and embarrassing to untangle. There’s also really beautiful writing, right from the first page, where Cecily’s “heart bounced like a trout” and on throughout the book.
And then we have Jacqueline Woodson’s Brown Girl Dreaming, the free-verse memoir of the author growing up in America in the sixties and seventies, first in Ohio, then in South Carolina and New York. Woodson’s memories are vividly rendered, and the precision of her imagery and language allows her spare words to sing. Reading the book, I felt like I was in those places, like I was smelling the “biscuits and burning hair” of Sundays, hearing a sister read aloud to me, watching kids across the street and wondering why we didn’t play together.
It also gives context to US history. To see the struggle for Civil Rights playing out over the course of someone’s life, to see how segregation and Jim Crow laws affect a real person is an incredible, awful thing. In a poem called “South Carolina at War,” Woodson writes: “There’s a war going on in South Carolina/ and even as we play/ and plant and preach and sleep, we are a part of it.”
It’s also fascinating to read about her coming into her own talent. Woodson’s memory of learning to make the “J” in her name for the first time as a very small child, her love of the smell of paper, her stories (which her mom is concerned are lies). And especially her struggles with reading. Remembering that the kid who had to go over something a few times to understand it, who preferred “easy books” and who thought she’d never be like her brilliant older sister or her scientifically-minded older brother grew up to be a National Book Award winner is important.
We often talk, as writers, about how the only the specific can be truly universal and Brown Girl Dreaming highlights that. Although Woodson’s memories are intensely personal, they also bring back memories of my own grandparent’s arms, of growing up and family dinners, of squabbling with my own siblings, having a best friend, and yearning to be a writer. They make me remember what it felt like to be a kid, in all its boring, anxious glory.
In the author’s note that follows the poems, Woodson describes her childhood as “ordinary and amazing.” To be able to capture both in a single work is astonishing; and yet, she has.
Although I thought Children of the King was a great book and you all know I love a ghost story, I was completely blown away by Brown Girl Dreaming. It felt like the kind of book that comes only once in a very great while and deserves every accolade that can be heaped upon it.
The winner: Brown Girl Dreaming.
— Holly Black
For me, Brown Girl Dreaming was subtle, or, as Holly Black quotes Woodson saying, “ordinary but amazing.” Through its lyrical poetry that seeps in at you, you really do see Woodson’s childhood; the segments about Daddy (her grandfather) are particularly moving. Children of the King is also a coming of age story – Cecily, May, Jem, and the children of the king. I’m not entirely sure what to think about it. Not much happens; it sort of seems boring, simplistic almost. I kind of want more with the ghosts, but they do have to leave in the end, don’t they, and see the world in all its grown-up terror and fright. Upon reflection, I’m struck by the parallels between clever, headstrong Jem and the king’s children. They both run away, they both see the danger of power and the sadness of adulthood – Daddy’s asleep – but there’s also hope. Jem, wise May, and even naive Cecily…they start to grow on me, just like the memories of childhood. We have two stories of childhood here, and I agree with Black: Brown Girl Dreaming stays with me the most. Now, a tantalizing possibility: Crossover vs Brown Girl? It would be further testament to the power of verse memoir, perhaps superfluous but well-deserved nevertheless and a matchup that would highlight the strengths of both books. Will the Newbery Curse strike again?
– Kid Commentator RGN
First, I just want to say that I am so glad that Brown Girl Dreaming is advancing to the next round! Naturally, I enjoyed both books, but I like Brown Girl Dreaming much more. Children of the King, to me, wasn’t really anything special. The children go into the story naive and innocent, knowing nothing of the real world and come out more educated. My issue with the book was that none of the characters were really relatable, and none of the characters were engaging enough to make me want to relate to them. Brown Girl Dreaming, on the other hand, felt much more intimate to me. It could be because it is a memoir, but the beautiful poetry paired with the youthful and wistful voice of a girl really grew on me. The little moments of her life that people would normally overlook gave the book a warm and cozy feel and the seemingly uneventful moments turned out to completely alter her– and my– perception of the world. While Children of the King was a fun and exciting read, Brown Girl Dreaming possessed the kind of magic that I didn’t get in Children of the King, the kind of magic that creeps up on you when you least expect it, the kind that you encounter in daily life.
– Kid Commentator NS
THE WINNER OF ROUND 1 MATCH 1:
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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