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Battle of the Books

The Closing Match: El Deafo vs The Port Chicago 50 vs We Were Liars


El Deafo
by Cece Bell
Harry Abrams
The Port Chicago 50
by Steve Sheinkin
Roaring Brook/Macmillan
We Were Liars
by E. Lockhart
Delacorte/Random House

I’ve always considered myself to be a fairly eclectic reader so I wasn’t particularly intimidated by the diversity in the three titles I received for this last round of SLJ’s Battle of the Books.  I was intimidated, however, and still am, by having to select one to win.   Any fan of graphic novels, historical non-fiction, and contemporary YA would absolutely love their favorite genre in this group.

All three of these books led me back to my childhood reading roots.  Cece Bell’s El Deafo took me back to the road trips of my younger years.  On these long drives, I could be found wedged between my brothers in the backseat, armed with an array of comic books.   I mostly read about super heroes, the Archies, and the occasional Tom & Jerry.  So it was a joy to encounter a young Cece Bell in a wonderful biographical story of her childhood after she got meningitis and suffered a profound hearing loss.

The illustrations are quirky and sweet, working in tandem with the text to tell a beautiful, funny, and touching story of young Cece navigating her way through doctor’s appointments, new schools, hearing devices, and lip reading.  Not to mention the perils and pitfalls of girlfriends and sleepovers and boys.  Her crush on a neighbor boy brings about one of my favorite lines.  The picture shows Cece with a bubble daydream above her head.  Mike says, “Cece, can you help me with my Math?”  Cece replies, “You plus me equals US, baby.”  Who wouldn’t love a girl like that?

As a child of the 70’s I enjoyed all the period references from the AM/FM transistor radio and the Partridge Family to Twister and Hostess fruit pies.  I also appreciated the balance struck between information and story.   I learned about visual clues and Phonic Ears and sign language, but these healthy and nutritional morsels were always coated in the sweetness of story.  This is first and foremost Cece’s story and I loved her humor and honesty – her heartaches and her hopefulness.  Young Cece imagines herself as the superhero – El Deafo.  But she’s better than an imaginary superhero.  She’s a girl who grows into her own heart and mind.  She’s the kind of girl my younger self would have loved sitting beside in the backseat of the car on those road trips, sharing stories and comic books and a Hostess fruit pie.  Cherry, of course.

Sometimes road trips take unexpected turns.  Like when you think you’re going to Disney World and you end up at Walley World.  But sometimes you think you’re going to Sioux Falls and you end up at Niagara Falls!  Steve Sheinkin’s Port Chicago 50 was one of those unexpected turns.

I enjoyed history as a kid, but most of my early reading in this genre was limited to Signature Books, those highly fictionalized, and probably sometimes not exactly true biographies from way back.  Even today, my tastes veer towards historical fiction rather than non-fiction.  So when I started Port Chicago 50, I braced myself for a possible slog.  It didn’t take long to realize that while I could have been heading toward dates and footnotes and timelines, I ended up at Joe Small and Robert Edwards and Percy Robinson.  Real men who, along with the other 47 African American members of the Port Chicago 50, endured discrimination, disaster, and charges of mutiny for standing up to the United States Navy.

There were the obligatory footnotes but these only served to add to the authenticity of the story at hand.  A story that reads with enough suspense and drama to keep even a reluctant reader of history turning the pages.

The writing is taut and direct, matching the way these sailors might tell their own story.  And what a story it is.  A terrible explosion kills 650 men and the remaining sailors are told to get back to work.  Getting swept up in the account, I found myself frustrated and angry at the injustice, rooting for these men in their stand for better working conditions and equality in the navy, saddened and dismayed at the toll it took on all of them.  But I also found myself surprised and even a little ashamed that I was not the least bit familiar with their story.  That is the beauty of Sheinkin’s writing.  I learned something compelling and relevant and it came in the form of an interesting and gripping narrative.  Historical non-fiction at its best.

Then there is the Back from the Dead book—E. Lockhart’s We Were Liars.  The Sinclairs are not exactly road trip people.  But if they had been, their trip would have taken a dark turn and ended up in a blaze of tragedy.  The Liars—Cady, Johnny, Mirren, and Gat spend their summers playing tennis, boating, and eating ice cream on a private island off the coast of Massachusetts.  But something terrible happens during Summer Seventeen leaving Cady with terrible headaches and large holes in her memory of what happened.

The Liars lead a seemingly fairy tale life but as Cady reveals in her own variations on tales of kings and princesses, beneath the surface, fairy tales are indeed dark, mysterious, and haunting.  We Were Liars is that kind of tale.  Mystery, family drama, romance, and rivalry all work together in this story to create a compelling read and leave the reader guessing until the end.

And what twisty-turny use of imagery that keeps the reader poised, teetering really, between reality and metaphor.  Cady’s dad is leaving the family.  He’s in the car pulling out of the driveway.  “Then he pulled out a handgun and shot me in the chest…The bullet hole opened wide and my heart rolled out of my rib cage.”  I read this twice and both times I thought it was real… until I realized it was a metaphor, and therefore even more real.

Twists and turns.  Crossroads.  Switchbacks.  Forks in the road.  Roadtrips and reading are full of choices and peril.  It seems safer to sit idling in the middle of the road.  But it’s time to crank up the engine, fold up the map and choose a course.  For a  wonderful story of history, honor, and courage, I choose Port Chicago 50.  

— Clare Vanderpool

No! This cannot be happening! I was sure El Deafo would win… I was counting on it after it beat Brown Girl Dreaming. The Port Chicago 50 just didn’t work for me: it was more a history lesson than a story to devour and treasure.  I already expressed why I thought We Were Liars should not have won. An El Deafo WIN was really the only outcome that could have made me anything but aggravated.

— Kid Commentator NS

Yes! As Vanderpool realizes, The Port Chicago 50 isn’t a “slog” at all, but an important, gripping true historical narrative. It definitely deserves to win, although El Deafo would also have been a wonderful choice, and We Were Liars is certainly an exciting “fairy tale.” Still, it doesn’t really matter which one wins. Using Vanderpool’s comparison, we’ve all gone on a fantastic roadtrip reading the 16 books in this battle, learning about and loving these illuminating stories. So a heartfelt thanks to everyone involved in the battle: judges, authors, commenters, kid commentators, and, of course, the Battle Commander.

— Kid Commentator RGN





2015 Battle of the Kids’ Books


  1. Leonard Kim says

    I feel like we need to sic Dwight on somebody, maybe the U.S. Navy court-martial that led to the writing of _The Port Chicago 50_. (We’re all too nice to wish Mr. Sheinkin or Ms. Vanderpool ill.)

    from _The Strange Case of Origami Yoda_ (pp. 87-89):

    “She is kind of famous at school because she’s a lip reader. She wears hearing aids, but I’ve heard that she can tell what you’re saying just by watching your mouth move. I guess she must be deaf, but I’ve never seen her use sign language, and she seems to talk all right, although she doesn’t say much during Fun Night.

    Anyway, she came over at lunch one day to talk to Origami Yoda. It looked like she had been upset, maybe even crying, but now she was just mad.

    “Do you have Origami Yoda today?”


    “I want Yoda to tell me how I can stop him.”

    That was a tough one, even for Origami Yoda, who sat there on Dwight’s finger apparently thinking it over for a while. Then Origami Yoda whispered in Dwight’s ear. Dwight actually whispered something to himself!

    Finally Dwight turned to Caroline and said, “I’ll take care of it.”

  2. Sam Bloom says

    HOORAY FOR TEAM NONFICTION! Well done, Clare! (Also, Leonard… WTF?!)

    • Leonard Kim says

      Sorry, I was rooting for El Deafo and that was the first thing that came to mind too early in the morning. (Cece Bell is married to Tom Angleberger, and the character of Caroline Broome in the Origami Yoda books is clearly based on her. The incident alluded to in the quoted excerpt — Caroline’s special pencils being broken by a bully — is also depicted in El Deafo.)

  3. Jonathan Hunt Jonathan Hunt says

    I didn’t get your point either, Leonard. Thanks for clarifying. If the Undead Poll results are any indication, most people were rooting for EL DEAFO–and with good reason: it’s an amazing book. However, yay for THE PORT CHICAGO 50!

    • Sam Bloom says

      Yes, thanks Leonard; makes sense now. And I’m glad you brought up the parallels between the stories (it has been a LONG time since I’ve read the original ORIGAMI YODA and I’d totally forgotten about those plot points). Much as I loved EL DEAFO, I’m glad Clare chose PORT CHICAGO 50…

  4. A worthy winner! And one book I would not have read were it not in the Battle — I’m so glad I did. However, I wish some reasons had been given for the decision rather than just a recap of each book, information we already knew.

  5. Oh, I was rooting for El Deafo! But if it couldn’t win, I’m thrilled Port Chicago 50 won! Go Team NF! I want to thank the Battle Commanders, Kid Commentators, the graphic artist and all the wonderful judges this year. This year was superb! Do we really need to go another entire year without BoB? I don’t suppose you would consider one for perhaps October, would you? OK, I know, I know, you guys do a tremendous amount of work and twice a year would be too much. But you made the month of March really wonderful now! Thank you all! And of course, thanks to all the authors whose writing makes this possible!

    • Battle Commander Battle Commander says

      Thanks Joan, for your kind words! We’re so thrilled with the passionate opinions from all around — and seeing old and new followers gives us ample fuel to go on planning and carrying out next year’s Battle! We want to also publicly thank SLJ, and especially Shelley Diaz, Senior Editor of School Library Journal’s Reviews, for their support in contacting and securing Author Judges and in managing a lot of the detailed work that allows for Battle of the Kids’ Books to run so smoothly behind the scene! You can read Shelley’s many articles and interviews here:

  6. Chiming in to say congratulations to The Port Chicago 50! I am delighted with this outcome but really very pleased to see all three of these in the final round. And yes, many thanks to Shelley Diaz and the organizers. I *loved* being part of this discussion. SAD IT IS OVER. :'(

  7. Once again, I enjoyed reading the thoughtful and perceptive judgments, each one making me think a little more about what makes a good book. I also wanted to give a salute to the illustrator! The details on the battling books always make me laugh, especially today’s, with El Deafo proudly sprouting its hearing-aid backpack. Thanks, everyone, for another great year with the best brackets I know!

    • Mark Tuchman says

      Thank you Jessica. I appreciate the shout-out! [ :-o]= (<—that's supposed to be a sideways BoB book)

      • Mark Tuchman says

        Ha. That didn’t work! [ : – 0] = (trying again)

        • Can I just fangirl a bit and say here how much I LOVED Code Name Verity and Bomb in flight together back in 2013!?

          • Battle Commander Battle Commander says

            We’ve all been fangirling/fanboying Mark’s illustrations for BoB for years! Wouldn’t it be amazing if all judge statements + the artwork are collected in a Printed Book?

          • YES! I’ve been wanting to go back and see how BoB has evolved and changed! And I wanted to read the battles before I became aware of this. It would be much easier in a book!

          • Mark Tuchman says

            Thank you!!!

  8. Of course, once BoB has been going on 16 years (or can we settle for only 8 years?), we need to have a Battle of the winners! 🙂


  1. […] BOB’s final round, The Closer, Newbery Medalist Clare Vanderpool, selects Steve Sheinkin’s Port Chicago 50 (Roaring […]

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