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Round 2, Match 1: Brown Girl Dreaming vs Egg and Spoon
JUDGE – JASON REYNOLDS
|Brown Girl Dreaming
by Jacqueline Woodson
Nancy Paulsen Books/Penguin
|Egg and Spoon
by Gregory Maguire
Here’s the thing. It was never my intention to be a novelist, because when I was a kid, novels just seemed way too long and way too boring for me to care about. So since I didn’t read them, I knew I’d never be able to write them. But poetry…ah, poetry. My syntax savior, my literary get out of jail free card. It was poetry that first sucked me in and convinced me that maybe I could be a reader as long as I was reading poetry, and I could be a writer, as long as I was writing it. Not to mention, when poetry was taught in school it was always treated with such reverence and so much scholarly butt-kissing that not only was I attracted to the fact that I could write and read less words on the page, but I could do so and quite possibly be respected as much as those that read and wrote prose. Oh snap! That’s all I needed to hear.
Of course, as my relationship with literature evolved, I realized that the beauty in poetry’s brevity could also sometimes be a bit limiting, and that I was just as obsessed with stories as I was with, well, not reading them. So as I read, Jacqueline Woodson’s, Brown Girl Dreaming, all I could think about was how this is the book of my teenage dreams. Not really my teenage dreams…but…you get what I’m saying. The one that would’ve delivered a story in an almost palpable beauty, without me, a reluctant reader, drowning in the density of the diction.
By now, I’m sure we all know about this book. But in case you live on the moon, — though I’m sure there’s probably a flag up there with Woodson’s face on it — Brown Girl Dreaming is a memoir, chronicling Woodson’s childhood as she and her family moved from Ohio, to segregated South Carolina, to Brooklyn, each knew place birthing new experiences for young Jacqueline. It delves into her family, race, religion, prison, fear, pain, love, friendship, and her relentless yearning to be a writer, each poem serving as a brick, stacking higher with every page, eventually building the magical house of Woodson. A house perfect for me, at fourteen. As a matter of fact, a house perfect for me, and many others, right now.
The magic found in Jacqueline Woodson’s memoir is woven into the essence of the story, where as the magic in Gregory Maguire’s new novel is far more direct. As in, actual magic happens, which should come as no surprise from the man who wrote, Wicked. In Egg & Spoon, Elena, a thirteen-year-old Russian girl living in a village on the precipice of extinction, meets Ekaterina, also thirteen, but from a wealthy, aristocratic family, and through an unlikely series of events, the two girls swap identities. From there the book becomes a stewpot of madness, involving two eggs — a Faberge´ egg and a Firebird’s egg — an ice dragon, a prince, a monk, and a witch named Baba Yaga who has a talking cat, Mewster, and lives in a house that moves around on chicken legs. See? Magic.
There’s so much I want to tell you, especially about the ice dragon, but if I say too much about it, I’ll totally spoil the book. And we all know how lame that is. Just know that there are some really important themes resting brilliantly beneath the surface of this complex story. But besides all the fantastic intricacies, if I’m being completely honest, I must admit that this is exactly the kind of book that would’ve scared me to death when I was younger. Not because of the content, but because of the heft. To be even more honest, it still freaked me out a bit, and I’m totally not that young anymore. But once I started reading, I was captivated by the narrator’s voice, an imprisoned man who I found myself wanting to know more about. It was his voice that was most intriguing to me, that I was most drawn to. That, along with the whimsical, loose, almost snapshot structure, the novel immediately became more palatable, and far lot less daunting. I found myself turning the pages, and turning the pages, devouring the mystical landscapes and all the kooky characters, until halfway through the book when I suddenly felt the need to start over. Yes, I had to start the novel again. I was totally lost. It seemed to me that the whimsy of the book, the thing that makes this epic story so readable, also makes it difficult to keep the reader nestled in the pocket of the actual story. It’s like a jazz band. Every musician could be the master of their instrument, but if they all solo at the same time, and for too long, though the audience knows they’re witnessing something brilliant, it can become difficult to catch the beat.
If SLJ had asked me to judge solely based on characters, this would’ve been a no-brainer. An unfair no-brainer since Woodson’s book is biographical, but a no-brainer nonetheless. Maguire, all the way. The guy has a masterful imagination. I mean, seriously. A witch who lives in a house that has chicken legs? Who does that? He does.
But since I have to pick which I thought was the better book (which always sucks to do, by the way) then, I have to go with Brown Girl Dreaming, a memoir rich with truth and complexity, and language and imagery so vibrant that it could’ve easily been a work of fiction. Or even fantasy. She could’ve thrown a fire-breathing chipmunk in there and it probably would’ve still worked somehow, just because the writing is so strong. Okay, not a fire-breathing chipmunk. But still. The point is, I know sometimes when a book is praised as much as Brown Girl Dreaming has been, people can start to resent it or believe that the success of the book is the result of groupthink, or sheep-ism. But this is not that. This isn’t a freebie or a fluke. This isn’t lightning striking or a happy accident or a trending topic. Trust me, the guy who never even intended on being a novelist and didn’t read one until he was sixteen — Brown Girl Dreaming is just that freakin’ good.
— Jason Reynolds
As Reynolds discusses, Egg and Spoon is definitely “like a jazz band.” With Maguire’s wonderful voice, imagination, and characters – Baba Yaga! Mewster! – you really can get lost in the magical world of revolutionary Russia. (Almost a fantasy version of Family Romanov, or is that stretching it? Yes, it’s epic, and I can see why Reynolds would have to restart halfway through. I think that’s what both makes and breaks the book, getting lost in its fantasy and literally lost in the pages. And, of course, Brown Girl Dreaming…needless to say, I am not a brown girl dreaming. But everybody dreams, about writing, friendship, growing up, life. The poems become universal, capturing the little moments of childhood which everyone has somehow. And most of all, it’s a book of remembering the power that kids have, to learn, create, write, discover. What could be better than that? It fully deserves to go far in the Battle, never mind what it’s already won. Even better, if El Deafo wins tomorrow, we have two wonderful memoirs up against each other, both moving and beautiful. Now that would be something.
– Kid Commentator RGN
THE WINNER OF ROUND 2 MATCH 1:
BROWN GIRL DREAMING
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 email@example.com.
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