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Round 1, Match 8: We Were Liars vs. West of the Moon
JUDGE – KELLY BARNHILL
|We Were Liars
by E. Lockhart
|West of the Moon
by Margi Preus
Once upon a time, there were two books, each alike in beauty and strength and faithfulness. They each had clear eyes and nimble feet and clever fingers. They each had strong backs and sturdy strides and a satchel full of useful tools. When they spoke, their voices sang.
Once upon a time, a hapless writer was given a task. “Choose,” said a voice. “You can only take one. Choose.”
“I cannot,” said the writer. “How could I possibly choose?”
At first glance, We Were Liars by E. Lockhart and West of the Moon by Margi Preus have little in common. One takes place among the stratospherically wealthy families who summer in Martha’s Vineyard – the sort of people who use “summer” as a verb, who have boats and multiple houses and people who look after them who are referred to as the “staff” or the “help”. The other takes place among the desperate poor of nineteenth century Norway, people eking out a meager existence on the rocky soil and the punishing winters and the stony remains of ill-fated trolls.
That’s the first glance. If there is one thing we learn from fairy tales, it is this: the first glance never tells you everything you want to know. The first glance is always a lie.
Both West of the Moon and We Were Liars are realistic stories built on the foundation of fairy tales. In both stories, fairy tales infect the structure of the story, hiding in the shadows, stalking the outside of the house, peeking in the windows, following soundlessly in the footsteps. In West of the Moon, a man arrives to claim Astri and take her away, having paid for her fair and square. Astri’s mind goes instantly to the story of the White Bear of Valemon, in which an enchanted prince asks a young girl to go with him, if she wishes. Astri is given no such choice. The man who buys her is not “a splotch of sunlight, penetrating the gloom”, but is rather just a shadow, a dark space, “and even after it passes, the darkness lingers, as if the sun has gone for good.” Astri must leave her beloved sister in the hands of a sinister aunt, and is sent to do backbreaking work for the more-sinister Goat Man.
As Astri finds ways to protect herself, she finds herself returning again and again to fairy tales – The White Bear of Valemon, specifically. The stories both illuminate her situation and clarify her plans for escape, as they simultaneously obscure the facts on the ground and confuse the reality of her situation. Stories, in this case, are both mirror and lamp, but the mirror is cloudy and the light is dim. And Astri is bound to make mistakes.
We Were Liars starts with three lies. “No one is a criminal,” Cadence tells us. “No one is an addict. No one is a failure.” Three lies, three sisters, three princesses ready to tear their family apart. Set among the über-rich and the astonishingly privileged, We Were Liars is ultimately a modern fairy tale, chronicling the disasters that invariably follow the sin of greed. An aging patrician graspingly hordes the thin proof his daughters’ love and devotion as his daughters tear one another apart, trying to secure their portions of an ever-decreasing pie. What could possibly go wrong?
Cadence returns to her family’s summer island with a broken mind and a broken heart and a debilitating case of migraines. She has no memory of the accident that left her separate and hurting. Indeed, she has very few memories of the summer when she was fifteen. All she has is questions. And lies. And stories. Once upon a time there was a king with three beautiful daughters. It is the insistence of stories and faded memories and whispering ghosts that lead her, step by step, toward a reckoning of what happened to perfect, fairy-tale life that she thought she had.
I cannot choose between these books. I must choose between these books. Both were searing, honest and brutal. Both tangled their webs of truth and lies, story and myth, understanding and obfuscation, intentionally winding the reader into a tight, clever knot. These books make you squirm. These books make you gasp. These books make you untangle your bonds all on your own – they do not offer a helping hand. This is my favorite kind of book.
In the end, I can only tip my hat to the book that I am more likely to read again (and in this case, I shall read it again, and again, and again. Indeed, I am re-reading it right now, out loud, to my son. And it is marvelous) and that is West of the Moon by Margi Preus. Despite the darkness of the tale, and crushing insurmountability of the stakes involved, at the center of Astri’s story is the splotch of sunlight, penetrating the gloom – that bright, hopeful heart. Astri is a flawed heroine, and her progress is impeded not only by dreadful antagonists, but her own foolish mistakes. Still, it is her love for her sister and her undaunted hope for something better that makes this story transcend its subject matter. It is not a happy book – no, it most certainly is not – but it is a joyful book. And it is that joy that I offer you, dear readers – a white bear that can change your circumstances; a bright talisman, hidden from your enemies; a courageous princess who saves the day.
— Kelly Barnhill
Perhaps stories, then, and fairy tales, are at the center of this year’s BoB. Owen, Poisoned Apples, Madman, and Egg and Spoon stand out particularly. Then there are many books that discuss race and history an incredibly complex way for young readers. Memoirs, too, have their place, and so does poetry. Not to mention the wonderful graphic novels we have – the “younger” one a Newbery honor and the “older” one a Caldecott! But besides Cece, perhaps no character is as lovable as Astri herself, even over her sister(s). She’s that wonderful character for whom somehow, things end up right in the end, against all odds. It’s a fairy tale story of the American Dream of an immigrant from Norway, back when that dream seemed more viable in name. But while we know little of what happens to Astri in America, we know that Cadence’s dream is a lie. It’s moving, of course, but, for me, We Were Liars is another one of those overwrought YA books that ends up being melodramatic, worse than Eleanor and Park and The Fault in Our Stars. It tries so hard to find the truth in lies and lies in truth that it gets a bit much. Maybe I’ve just read enough of these books, maybe it’s because I am an upper middle class kid with exposure to Sinclair-like wealth, but it didn’t work for me. It’s better if you consider it as a fairy tale instead of being real, as Ms. Barnhill wisely does and can definitely be supported, because, if so, Cadence is still lying at the end of the book. Anyways, I’d argue stories are at their simplest true lies.
– Kid Commentator RGN
West of the Moon, for me at least, is an inspiring tale that chronicles the life of a poor immigrant from Norway, with a fairy tale thrown into the mix. We Were Liars feels like overprivileged rich kids complaining about their first world problems. I loved West of the Moon, and it’s definitely among my favorites of the BoB books this year. It brought something new to the table: a historical fiction novel about the peasants. We Were Liars wasn’t really executed properly. It was like most of the other YA novels of today (that aren’t dystopian, of course), rich, or at least upper middle class, white kids with problems that would only be considered because they don’t have any real problems. The plot was more complicated than it needed to be, and it felt like a poorly adapted, modern rendition of Downton Abbey. I read this a while back, so I reread it for the battle. It is, without a doubt, a “one time read” book. The first time I read it, I really liked it. After rereading it, however, it was much less enjoyable, possibly because I already knew the ending. Maybe it was just me, but We Were Liars didn’t leave me with any real morals, while West of the Moon did.
– Kid Commentator NS
THE WINNER OF ROUND 1 MATCH 8:
WEST OF THE MOON
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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