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Battle of the Books

Round 1, Match 2: The Crossover vs Egg & Spoon


JUDGE –  ISABEL QUINTERO

The Crossover
by Kwame Alexander
Harcourt Brace and Company
Egg & Spoon
by Gregory Maguire
Candlewick Press

It wasn’t easy picking a winner for this round of Battle of the Books. Here’s the thing: I had to choose between poetry (good poetry-and yes, I believe there is bad poetry) and fairytales. Two of my favorite genres.

Let’s talk about the John Newbery Medal winner, The Crossover, by Kwame Alexander, first.

Josh and Jordan Bell are twin brothers, who take after their father’s love and dedication to basketball. Josh, the narrator, becomes jealous when Jordan begins to date and ultimately feels as though their brotherly bond will be broken. And in some ways it is. As both boys are struggling to find their footing in this new stage of adolescence, their father becomes ill and (spoiler alert) dies.

Most of Alexander’s poetry is free verse, though form (rhyme) does appear but only as a direct reflection of Josh’s personality, and only to push the narrative, which I appreciated, because the shift in form served an actual purpose. For example, early on in the novel, Josh mentions that he has dreadlocks (which come to a tragic end due to a bet he makes with his brother) because, “Some of my favorite rappers have them:/Lil Wayne, 2 Chainz, and Wale.” As the book progresses, the verse seems to mimic the lyrical style of these rappers. One section that really stood out was, “Ode to My Hair,” where he writes, “If my hair were a tree/I’d climb it./ I’d kneel down beneath/ and enshrine it.” As I read this chapter, I really couldn’t help but think, Hey, the short lines and harsh end rhymes are really reminiscent of Lil Wayne’s style. I doubt that was an accident and therefore was totally smitten. Alexander’s use of the page, and of font, also mimicked the action that was happening or punctuated the narrator’s feelings.

In a sense, there was a de-exotification of being black, which is much needed because so many times when protagonists of color are presented, they are stereotypes, or tired tropes that exist in the minds of many readers, reinforcing the idea that there is usually only one way to be (insert any community of color here). Such was not the case with The Crossover.  As for the actual story, it was enjoyable, and I really felt for the characters and became truly invested in their lives. I shed a tear when dad died, even though I knew it was coming from the moment mom started worrying about him. The use of rappers and rap, thrown in as part of Josh’s life and as part of his voice–Josh the son of an assistant principal and a former pro-basketball player–was something I appreciated, given the way that rap is often vilified in popular media, and presented as a base and vulgar poetic, usually discrediting its lyricism and the potential for giving voice to communities of color. And what is power without voice?

While Alexander’s book kept me grounded in reality, Gregory Maguire’s Egg and Spoon was sheer magic. This book had me from the beginning. As soon as I started reading I sent a text of the first sentence to a friend of mine, simply because it was so beautiful: “The heels of the military boots, striking marble floors, made a sound like thrown stones.” Wow. That one sentence carries so much weight and sets the mood so well for this story of switched identities in the Russian countryside, in a time not so long ago, but once upon a time.

Ekaterina (Cat for short), a wealthy girl, who is traveling on a train to St. Petersburg to meet the Tsar with her great-aunt, in hopes of marrying the prince, end up stranded in Miersk, an impoverished town. She meets Elena, “a peasant,” who is taking care of her mother, and whose brothers have been taken away by Tsar; one to work as a servant and one to fight in his army. Of course Elena will not stand for this, and leaves her sick mother behind to rescue her brothers, as she (by a very lucky accident) is thrust into Cat’s shoes, and Cat is left behind in Miersk. This marks the beginning of both Elena and Cat’s adventures with Russian royalty and Baba Yaga. Oh, yeah, did I mention that Elena gets a hold of the Firebird’s egg and that both girls now need the help of Baba Yaga to restore balance in their world? How could I not love this book!

The main issue I had with Egg and Spoon was how lengthy and wordy it got towards the end. There were places where I wish the narrative would have moved much quicker, and really the action warranted a faster pace. The narrator, a monk who had been an advisor to the Tsar, does a great job of ensuring the reader immerses him or herself in the story by inviting them to get closer to the action; to be there alongside Baba Yaga, and her chicken house, Dumb Doma, arguing with the shape shifting cat, Mewster, and wondering whether or not those skulls really belonged to the children she had claimed she’d eaten. I think in a sense it reminded me of Kate DiCamillo’s A Tale of Despereaux, at least the cadence in the narrator’s voice did.

What brought the magic (and my deciding factor, in all honesty) to life in this book was the imagery. Everything Maguire brought to life had beauty and color and invoked all the senses. From the petals Elena is spreading over the graveyard when we first meet her, to the firebird, to the Faberge egg, to the petals her mother is spreading at the end–no detail was overlooked on this quest. Flora, fauna, folklore and environment were all accounted for and had life breathed into them.

While, The Crossover was beautiful and the poetry kicked ass, and I loved Josh’s voice, ultimately, Egg and Spoon is the winner. Yes, the story did drag on near the end, but it transported me to a magical place and boy, do I love magic.

—  Isabel Quintero

Two sorts of magic: Gregory Maguire’s Russian fairy-tale and also the magic of poetry, rap, and basketball. Egg and Spoon is the type of book I can live in, and I think that’s why it won. Because of this complete immersion, I wasn’t too bothered by the dragging pace of the book. It could have been quicker, yes, and it took a long time, but I was transported to a breaking Russia where magical Baba Yaga, the wickedly eccentric and gripping spirit of the country, was failing. And that’s where Cat and Elena come in, with a cast of so many others, in a witty epic that somehow manages to convey a whole lot, fantastically. Heavy-handed? Yes. The best book in this competition? No. But definitely powerful, and Quintero’s insightful decision captures that magic. Still, for me, The Crossover’s magic is more lasting than Maguire’s. Like Brown Girl Dreaming, it’s a book I wish I could read more of, just sit down with and digest, which is what you really should do with poetry, but what I haven’t done yet with any of the poetry books in this competition, which all have very good poetry indeed. Standing out for me was the sequence of definitions, a very simple yet effective way to convey a writer, rapper, and kid growing up. I’m not a basketball guy, but, in its moving story and deceptively simple poetry, The Crossover becomes universal and does all it has to – except defy the Newbery Curse.

– Kid Commentator RGN

And the Newbery Curse strikes again! It must be real… The Crossover is one of those books, for me at least, that almost entrances, but never quite gets there.  Personally, I like magical and fanciful plots. Egg and Spoon takes the best parts of fantasy and (somewhat) historical fiction and combines them into one unforgettable book. Everything about it was captivating and delightful, every twist and turn was exciting.

– Kid Commentator NS

THE WINNER OF ROUND 1 MATCH 2:

EGG & SPOON

 

Comments

  1. rats and mice, I totally agree with Kid Commentator RGN, AS ALWAYS. (We clearly have the same reading tastes.)

    Can I just point out to the non-obsessed that these are both FISHER KING/WASTELAND ALLEGORIES! How did they end up in competition with each other? Did the authors do it on purpose? I’m pretty sure Maguire did, ‘cos he’s pretty heavy-handed in his “the land is dying and the queen of the land is dying with it.” (And her name is Elena.) But it totally works in The Crossover, too, with its crippled and dying king. Except that the heirs never do get to go fishing with their Fisher King dad.

    I will stop now before you all start throwing things at me.

    • I was just saying on Twitter that Kid Commentator RGN is amazing and needs to be a commentator well into adulthood. 😀

      As far as actual comments on the battle go, noooo, the Newbery Curse! Even though I did like Egg & Spoon a lot, The Crossover was one of my absolute favorite books last year.

  2. noooooooooooo! And there goes my bracket! The undead choice was so hard for me because I absolutely could not chose between three of my favorites. I didn’t even consider that Crossover would be knocked out, I don’t believe in curses after all! But now, maybe I do! I LOVED the first half of Egg & Spoon but I didn’t even finish it because I was so tired of their journey.

  3. I’m two for two. I know it won’t last, but it’s sure fun for the moment.

  4. Meredith says:

    I loved both of these books, which on the one hand makes the battle harder, and on the other hand, way easier. I would have been happy either way. I really loved the commentary on The Crossover. My somewhat different perspective on it-this book has got twin dynamics down. As an actual twin, I was amazed by Josh and Jordan’s relationship mirrored my relationship with my twin sister, even though we were very different kids than they were.

    As for Egg and Spoon, I didn’t think I would like it, because I hate Maguire’s adult books, but it surprised me in the best possible way.

  5. 95 kids and teachers are all in for this tournament. With this second match, I have 13 ( my Lucky 13) who have gotten the first TWO predictions correct. 18 have taken their first win. Me personally–I am 0 for 2. ;(

  6. Jonathan Hunt Jonathan Hunt says:

    Isn’t it an odd twist of fate that the wordiest book in the field of 16 is paired with the most spare text of the bunch? I’m not sure which I would have chosen, to be honest, but in hindsight this is a nice little consolation prize for EGG & SPOON.

  7. Ugh. I don’t understand any of this except that RGN is awesome and needs to be made a judge.

    I hope The Crossover is the Undead winner, because, if not, I have no more cares to give this year.
    Wait. No. I do. Tomorrow

    (If Family Romanov beats El Deafo tomorrow I my not be able to comment due to my computer being broken.) 🙂

  8. I am so very disappointed. I adored The Crossover and I made it through Egg and Spoon only because it was a battle book.

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