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Battle of the Books

Round 1, Match 2: Drowned City vs Echo


JUDGE – Maris Wicks

Drowned City
by Don Brown
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
by Pam Muñoz Ryan
Scholastic Press

True confession: I have not had to write a book report in decades. That was part of the allure of participating in this year’s SLJ’s Battle of the Kid’s Books. The other part was the chance to be assigned two random books to read. It may sound a bit odd, but when you don’t have school or homework or assignments for so long, they seem… sort of appealing (Did I just say that? Am I feeling okay?). That said, I should also confess: I wasn’t that great at school. Science: Yes! Art: Yes! Everything else…really not so great. I struggled with writing and was definitely what we call today a reluctant reader. This chance to read, analyze and write about books seemed like an opportunity for grown-up Maris to get a second chance at something that would’ve filled kid/teen Maris with fear and agony. So here we go!

A quick overview of Echo (Disclaimer: If you want to just go right into this book without knowing anything about it like I did, stop reading right now and DON’T READ THIS UNTIL YOU’VE READ THE BOOK.) Echo follows the tales of three kids – Friedrich in Germany, Mike in Pennsylvania, and Ivy in California – during the 1930s and 40s. Friedrich and his family are trying to leave Germany just as the Nazi Party is coming to power, Mike and his brother Frankie are looking for an escape from an orphanage, and Ivy is coping with constantly moving around due to her father’s jobs. Their stories, though taking place geographically far apart, are woven together with music – the sound of music, the love of music, the act of making music.

And now, Drowned City. I knew very well what this book would be about: Hurricane Katrina. I also knew that this would be a heavy read, as that disaster was still fresh in my mind. I’d read some of Don Brown’s other books (The Great American Dustbowl), and I loved his use of comic book format for telling history. Drowned City follows the events leading up to, during, and after Hurricane Katrina hits New Orleans. The images where words are absent are just haunting, and when there are words, they not only communicate actual events, but also critique the government’s response to the disaster.

I read Echo first – I had no idea what to expect, even after reading the summary in the inside fold of the cover. I had planned to read the book over a few days but…whoops! I didn’t put it down until I was finished. The fairytale-esque introduction threw me; I wasn’t sure if I was ready for a story of fantasy (which is the sense that I got from the summary). But immediately after starting section one, I went “ooooooooooh this is definitely NOT what I was expecting.” Historical fiction! Yet another confession: When I did read as a kid (and this carried on into adulthood), I preferred nonfiction. (This is probably why I excelled at science in school.) Echo is so well researched in its history, yet the stories of the characters were so intimate. I had never experienced this in a book. (That’s right, I had never read historic fiction before!).

I read Drowned City the day after. I had a bit more of an idea of what to expect given that the style of this book is told in the format that I work in: comics. I found myself as I often do with comics: rushing through, and then going back and reading the book once again much slower, allowing myself to take in each panel. I think the immediacy of this book is needed – all too often, “history” seems to be distant in the past.

So, here’s the tricky part: which one do I pick? It’s like there’s a battle going on INSIDE me (only in my brain; all my other vital organs are safe and sound)! Educator-Maris wants to go with Drowned City, because books like this help us to remember, but also encourage us to ask “How can we do things better? How can we let this never happen again?” But Personal-Maris wants Echo because of the closeness that I felt with the individual characters. I wish that all of the events of Echo were real (even though some of them are, or at least they’re based on actual experiences) just as how I wish that there was one character that I could follow through Drowned City, and feel that same closeness. It’s safe to say that each book evoked an emotional response from me (aka my eyeballs leaked a little bit) but for very different reasons.

As an adult, the books I choose to read either serve as research for whatever book I’m currently writing, or as escapism from everyday life (ahem, I’m looking at you, science fiction). Both of these books took me out of this routine in the best possible way, and have inspired me to be more adventurous in what I read. That said, I’m going with Echo. It is the book that I felt closest to. That glimpse into each of the character’s lives, seeing their struggles and getting to experience those hardships vicariously through each of them demonstrated the versatility of historical fiction. But that’s just me; you can read them both and decide for yourself.

— Maris Wicks

As Wicks observes in her funny and laidback tone, Ryan blends her three distinct and touching tales perfectly with historical research and fantastical fable. Impressively, she does that while increasing young readers’ awareness of Nazi oppression, Japanese American internment, income disparities, and migrant labor. But it’s not at all didactic: Echo’s suspense and intimacy leave us with as full a story as we could ask for. And bravo for the music, which is a theme in this battle, with Shostakovich and Berry Gordy joining in the chorus later on. Brown also tells many stories in Drowned City. We get little optimism, only evocative and affecting images of disaster, resilience, incompetence, and, most of all, New Orleans. Although, as Wicks points out, a central character might help us relate, I didn’t mind much, feeling for each of the people depicted in Brown’s snapshots. But I read it too quickly and will have to revisit both it and learn more about Katrina. I don’t feel like I can give Drowned City its due consideration, particularly because of the effect Katrina has had and should continue to have on our national consciousness. But that’s not the only point. Images like his drawings manifest in your subconscious. His book brings up how we deal with memory, as a nation and as individuals, and what could be more important?

– Kid Commentator RGN

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  1. Kathleen Butler says

    I was so afraid to read the last paragraph. I would have been devastated if Echo didn’t win this round. It would have been like reliving the Newbery announcement all over again. Thank you Maris Wicks for your wise decision.

  2. I am in complete agreement with the judges so far this year. Drowned City contained a lot of important information and I’m glad I read it, but I didn’t feel the same connection to it that I did with Echo. All the characters were so real to me and I was so invested in their lives that the pages flew by. I’m so happy it’s moving on to the next round!

  3. Yep, my streak continues. I enjoyed Echo, but I liked Drowned City much better. Maybe my losing streak will be broken tomorrow!

  4. Three of my 5th graders worked hard to compose their own judgement for Match #2 before Maris Wicks posted her own.
    We’re going to try to share the link to their blogpost here.
    If you have some time, please read and feel free to leave some comments.

  5. Other Meredith says

    I have read both of these books! This is not the case with most of the rounds this year, so I’m very excited. I totally agree with this decision and her reasoning. I loved Echo a lot. If I decide to learn the harmonica this year, you will all know why.

  6. Paige Ysteboe says

    I completely agree with tis round. As sorry as I felt for the people of the Kathryn and as mad as I was about circumstances that didn’t have to happen, the characters I really connected to were those in Echo. I especially loved the way music wrapped it way into each character’s lives.

  7. I think I would have been content with wins for either of these books. I found them both to be spectacular in their own rights. And with both the formatting added much to their delivery.

    I did love that Judge Wicks used the personal connection she had to ECHO to make her final decision. I see that in my students when they read that book. They can hardly contain how wonderfully woven together all three stories are. It is such a perfect middle-grade novel.

  8. Bernadette Mount says

    I highly recommend the audiobook version of ECHO. The actual music is included in the production and adds an element to the story that can’t be “heard” in a reading of the physical copy!

  9. I read and loved ECHO. Will be posting a review soon! The judges got it right.

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