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Battle of the Books

Round 1, Match 5: The Madman of Piney Woods vs Poisoned Apples


The Madman of Piney Woods
by Christopher Paul Curtis
Poisoned Apples
by Christine Heppermann

I was once asked to compare some homemade jams cooked up by twin sisters I knew. One had made an apple butter jam, the other, an orange marmalade. When asked which was better, I declined to say, stating that they were both good.

“You’d better pick one,” said their mother, “or we’ll never hear the end of it.” Apparently, the twins were competitive when it came to jam.

“But they’re literally apples and oranges!” I said to myself. No dice. I chose one (not saying which) and I never heard the end of it. I’ve stayed away from jams ever since.

So I do have some experience when it comes to comparing apples to oranges. It doesn’t make my job here any easier.

For this competition, the apple is literally called Poisoned Apples. It’s a high concept take on girl’s body issues using feminist prose in a modern day fairy tale context. It’s YA, and created by a debut poet, Christine Heppermann.

The orange in this case is book called The Madman of Piney Woods, a mostly humorous middle grade historical novel for boys, written by a Newbery-winning author, Christopher Paul Curtis.

So how to compare? Well…they are both books. Both use imagery of the woods in them. They are both well-executed, imaginative looks at dark secrets (one over a mysterious boogeyman, the other over self-worth). They are both funny, deep and rich in sensory texture. And (stretching), the root of the author’s first names both share Christ in them. Hmm, that must mean something, but don’t ask me what.

So given this Sophie’s Choice of books, all I can do is talk to the merits of both and choose the one that has stayed with me longer.

First, the Madman. Truth be, I have not read Curtis’ companion book, Elijah of Buxton. I look forward to reading it now, as a prequel of sorts, the kind of thing Hollywood likes to do. As Madman takes place a good 40 years later, it seems to stand alone in all but one aspect, which I’ll get to in a bit.

Reading this book was like sitting on a wraparound porch at dusk on an Indian Summer’s day.  I grew fond of the characters and the place, much as I have of ol’ Huck Finn, Tom Sawyer and Jim. The Madman of Piney Woods is an adventure story at heart, with an unlikely friendship joined together by the secrets of a hidden past. It’s a story rich in detail and character– one feels like they have lived in this world after the final page has been turned.

The story concerns two boys, one black (Benji) and one white (nicknamed Red), who have big dreams for their future (journalist, scientist), and are from neighboring rival towns (Buxton and Chatham in the Canadian part of Lake Erie). They are separated by a haunted forest of sorts. It’s in this forest where the Madman of the title lives in secret, unseen, but felt by young Benji, who has been around the woods his whole life. The madman is the stuff of legend, a boogeyman capable of whatever your darkest fears can conjure. And with an imagination like Benji’s, he can conjure a lot!

For the most part, this is a good old fashioned Twain-like buddy-adventure romp with all the deep dark tones a Huck Finn fan could ask for. The two boys are yin and yang: Benji, the fabulist, Red, the scientist. Separately get into all kinds of scrapes and use their individual talents to get out of them. The towns they come from are also yin and yang: both villages come from different perspectives of their dark pasts. One is haunted by slavery, as represented by the madman (a former civil war soldier, gone into hiding from the horrors he experienced), the other haunted by the tragedies that befell the Irish when they came to America, as represented by Red’s racist grandmother and her experiences with the coffin ships where hundreds died waiting to enter the country. For most of the story, Benji and Red have fun with or at the expense of their wacky assortment of friends and siblings. But in the final section, author Curtis turns the story into an eloquent look at the effects fear can play on us, fears that lead to false judgments and incrimination, fears that keep us from growing and loving our fellow humans, fears that keep us from reaching our highest potential.

I love these kinds of stories, which seemed to have disappeared from the literary landscape. It is both humorous and deeply felt but far from perfect. To be honest, I had some trouble adjusting to the complete lack of racism in these towns, which should have been fairly commonplace, given that it’s 1901. Now, I’m no Canadian and I understand the first book deals with the uniqueness of Benji’s town, a former slave settlement. Still, aside from Red’s racist grandmother, it’s a Mayberry haven of small town colorblind love. Race just doesn’t seem to matter. Aside from that though, I had fond memories of my visit there and this story deserves praise.

Jumping to the other side of the spectrum, Poisoned Apples uses poetry to examine all the body and image issues the teenage girls have to deal with in these troubling times. Cleverly, Heppermann also uses fairy tales as a counterpoint to explore these dark subjects. As she herself has said about the book, “These poems are about the mental and physical fatigue of trying to be beautiful and perfect and loved.” Some of the fairy story characters respond in surprising ways: Snow White cuts, the rejected ugly stepsister falls into depression, Goldilocks runs away. The girls in today’s world aren’t so different. The pressures any young woman faces in our image conscious society is enough to make one want to live in a fairy tale world where everything ends happily ever after. Or at least, it used to. In Heppermann’s world, even that is laced with trouble.

I love post-modern looks at fairy tales that have not yet been Disney-fied. There have been numerous media artists who have explored beauty and body image via fairy tales in a modern day context. Heppermann may be the first to do so directly to the intended audience of young women who need to know that they matter, that their problems are not just a phase or to be taken lightly.  The writing jumps straight into the heart of the matter, sometimes cleverly and bitingly, other times, more subtle and knowing. Still, if I had one issue with the first read, it was that the fairy tale/body image motif sometimes wears thin.  It’s brilliant as high concepts go, but after a while, we get it, and then we get it again, and then again. Luckily, the volume is short enough that it doesn’t overstay its welcome. After going through it once, later I was able to appreciate it more in smaller bites: a few poems at a time. Perhaps this would be a great bathroom book, one that you can read during your most private times of the day. What better place to read this than the scene where most of our mirror gazing self-judgments take place.

But alas, now comes the moment of regret. There cannot be two winners, even though both are winners in my eyes. No, I must pick only one of these books. Since I have written in both poetry and prose, and have great appreciation for high concept biting satire and old fashioned home-style storytelling, I feel I can make that call.

My winner is: The Madman of Piney Woods, with a close second for Poisoned Apples.

— G. Neri

For me, the message of Poisoned Apples both overstays and manifests in the images Hepperman uses throughout her work. I want the poems to stand by themselves, and I think they do, even if the trope gets a little boring–I get it already–by the end. But that’s the whole point. The images press the point, how we look at them with desire and disgust. Poisoned Apples is meant to be empowering to the very girls and boys (genderqueer kids too) who may be uncomfortable about their beauty, sexuality, and gender roles. Yes, it’s for boys, too. Boys who see their girlfriends (or boyfriends) acting like this, boys who themselves are sensitive about masculinity. (“If Tampons Were For Boys,” it would be a sin to put Gandalf on a tampon!) In that sense, Hepperman’s insightful collection is vitally necessary. So is Madman. I haven’t read Elijah, so I can’t know how Curtis deals with slavery, but he envisions almost a utopia of race (indeed, G. Neri) post-Civil War, Canada, 1901, similar to The Story of Owen’s speculative fiction about the industrial world. And the characters, the kids, are lovable and growing. I was particularly moved by Grandmother O’Toole’s suffering, and I almost wanted more forgiveness, but, even in such an idealistic place as Chatham, you can’t go quite that far. As Benji and Red learn, there’s always work to be done. Poisoned Apples showed us some of that work in today’s world, and, with G. Neri’s love of a very deserving tall tale, the third member of Team Poetry exits from contention.

– Kid Commentator RGN

To be honest, neither book really enraptured me. I feel lukewarm about both of them. I guess I could say I liked Madman more, but both were lacking something that I can’t pinpoint. If Poisoned Apples had been executed better, I think I might have appreciated it more. I’m all for telling the other side of the story, but I’m getting tired of the ‘traditional’ Disney fairy tales getting turned on their heads. No, humans are not purely good or evil like portrayed in fairy tales, but that’s why they’re fantasy! They’re not supposed to be realistic. Poisoned Apples tries to use princesses to get its point across, but in the end it just echoes statements that have already been said. However, Poisoned Apples did make me put the media under the microscope. Of course I’ve heard about the detriments of Photoshop to young girls’ body images, but the poetry was so beautifully written that it made me question it once again. If you’ve read it, my favorite was “Photoshopped Poem”. While the book itself had many flaws, the charming poetry compensates for it, more or less. Madman left me feeling almost nothing, just a sense of dissatisfaction, while Poisoned Apples, at least, had the right idea. I actually disagree with Neri on this one, as Madman faded away days after reading the book, while Poisoned Apples, at least, gave me some food for thought.

– Kid Commentator NS




  1. I am happy with this decision. There were a few things I didn’t love about The Madman of Piney Woods, but there were lots of things I didn’t love about Poisoned Apples. To be fair, I am not the audience for poetry (I almost always think it is really lame), and I totally am the audience for middle grade adventures. They’re the best. Plus, Madman made me really want to read Elijah of Buxton, which is always a pretty good sign.

  2. With Spring Break finally ending, 108 students and teachers are in the tournament now with 201 correct predictions through The Madman today. Of those 108 in the tournament, 50 have read at least one of the books which qualifies those 50 to enter Round Two of the tournament predictions. We have ONE student who has gotten all five predictions right. Way to go, Valeria!

  3. I am sad because I LOVE Poisoned Apples, but I haven’t read The Madman of Piney Woods yet. I may love it even more so I have nothing constructive to add to a comparison of these two as it stands. But I want to say I, again, applaud Kid Commentator RGN for the insightful and spot-on commentary. Well done.

  4. Benji Martin says

    I’m really happy about this decision. Madman of Piney Woods was one of my favorites of the year. I’m not entirely sure that I agree that it’s a “novel for boys” but I’m glad that it won.

    • Genevieve says

      Yes, I found that statement problematic, especially in light of recent discussions about not labeling “books for boys” and “books for girls”.

  5. Jonathan Hunt Jonathan Hunt says

    I enjoyed both of these books, but I’m somewhat ambivalent about them, too. Kind of feel like whatever advances here loses in the next round. Others?

  6. I’m glad Poisoned Apples got the ax. Sorry. I wanted to like it, but it was boring, and entirely heterosexual, which just doesn’t “work” in a book that’s supposed to be about telling people (girls), “you are worthwhile, and you are not alone.”

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