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Battle of the Books

Round 1, Match 5: The Marvels vs Most Dangerous


JUDGE –  Tim Federle

The Marvels
by Brian Selznick
Most Dangerous
by Steve Sheinkin
Roaring Brook Press

When School Library Journal emailed to ask if I’d be a judge in the Battle of the Kids’ Books competition (which is very famous, not to brag), it was a no-brainer. “Of course I’ll watch Steve Sheinkin box Brian Selznick,” I believe I replied, as I’d just seen the movie CREED.

Reader, don’t get your bloody hopes too high! Turns out this isn’t an author vs. author fight club, but, rather, a cage match to the death — but between books. (“But books don’t even have hands!” you’re probably saying. Same. But I didn’t make up the rules.)

My greatest weakness is: I don’t back out on promises, so the competition was on. Also, I’ll read anything Steve Sheinkin writes and anything Brian Selznick drites, which is the technical term for drawing and writing (look it up). So here we are.

Let’s start with Steve Sheinkin’s Most Dangerous, which is not about Donald Trump’s presidential bid. The book instead concerns real-life government insider Daniel Ellsberg, who turned his back on the Vietnam War and leaked classified papers to the press. If anything about that description made you fall into a restful sleep, blame it on me, not the author; fans of Sheinkin’s award-winning nonfiction know that he can spin the knottiest civics lesson into binge-worthy books that always earn a solar system worth of starred reviews.

I loved Most Dangerous: how Sheinkin’s exhaustive research is never exhausting and always enlightening; how he highlighted the whistleblower parallels between Edward Snowden and Ellsberg, which makes the text all the more relevant for a modern teen audience. (Not to mention this not-teen reader; everything I learned about the Vietnam war came from the time my mom took me to see “Miss Saigon” as my 14th birthday present.) And I especially-especially loved how Sheinkin included a lot of pictures throughout. All in all, I give the book 10 points out of 10 in a closely guarded point system only I know.

Now, please welcome to the boxing ring Brian Selznick, who does things with a #2 pencil that probably make those fill-in bubble tests rage with jealousy.

Does this man need more of an intro? In addition to the Caldecott(s), he’s the snappiest dresser in publishing (I’d love his tailor’s number). In The Marvels, Selznick starts off with hundreds of pages of wordless drawings that take us from onboard a boat to backstage at a theater. The second half of the story, told in text, takes place in a 1990s world I barely recognized, as the New Kids on the Block aren’t mentioned once (which I almost took a point off for). Selznick takes us to modern-ish London, where a mystery unfolds between a bitter man and his young nephew, who sets about unraveling the story behind a strange Victorian-era house — itself based upon a real-life 10-room museum in London. To quote all the librarians currently reading this, “I won’t spoil the ending but you’ll have to read it and it will probably make you cry but in a good way.” I give the book 10 points out of 10 in a closely guarded point system only I know.

So it’s a tie! Which means what you’re thinking, yes: it’s time for a book-off.

-For Sheinkin’s usage of the word “literally” that actually meant “literally” (p. 39), Most Dangerous gets 10,037 bonus points.

-For Selznick’s heartwarming depiction of a girl rescuing a dog in the middle of a shipwreck (page number unknown, as the book is 11.6 billion pages), The Marvels gets 270,191 bonus points.

-HOWEVER! For Sheinkin’s neglect to mention Lea Salonga’s Tony-award winning performance in MISS SAIGON even once, Most Dangerous gets 10,046 points off, which leaves him with 1 point.

-AND YET! For the fact that Selznick’s book is so heavy that it pinched a nerve in my neck — from across the room! — The Marvels gets 270,199 points off…leaving it with…

2 points!

The Marvels “wins” this round, but, really, I’m cringing here.

These guys are celebrated (and very good-humored, I hope?) authors for a reason. Protocol forces me to choose one, but make sure both are stocked in your library. They are to be treasured and admired.

And, Brian, I really would like the name of your tailor. Thanks.

— Tim Federle

Battle Commander (gravatar)

I picked Most Dangerous over The Marvels because it made clear an important period of time in our history, without bias, when the US government was lying to its citizens. The author also took all the larger than life figures and put them in human terms. it is written clearly and flows as a story, which kept me involved, nonfiction is not my first choice of genre. The Marvels was a lovely story and the artwork is, of course, amazing but there are a lot of wonderful stories out there and not too many nonfiction books for young almost adult readers that read so smoothly and are written in such a thorough manner.

— Guest Commentator Nina Farnsworth (4th Grade Teacher)

First off, Federle’s hilarious. Always appreciated. I don’t know if the subtracting 10 more points than necessary was intentional – technically should have been negative points, instead of 1 and 2 points, which was confusing, but still great. And I do love me a good old points-based system, way more efficient than some other ways of judging. It’s a bit of a shame that The Marvels won out, mostly because any chance of a Symphony for the City of the Dead vs. Most Dangerous match, where we could’ve had not just two nonfiction books facing off, but a battle of antiwar messaging between two eccentric guys whose work the government censored. As Federle knows, it’s only secondary, of course, that Sheinkin can turn a long, complicated history into a stunning page turner; it’s way more important than that he uses the word “literary” well. Sure, it’d be nice if he talked a little more about the Cold War, but the pictures – I mean, you get to see Ellsberg’s associate with long hair and everything, almost a hippie. But The Marvels gives us an intimate look at art, family, and love. With Brian Selznick drawings. And now there’s the possibility of a Nimona vs. The Marvels dream graphic novel matchup Round 3. Need I say more?

– Kid Commentator RGN

Battle Commander (gravatar)




  1. Other Meredith says

    Hey, my undead vote was not wasted! That’s always exciting. I would have picked Most Dangerous, mostly because I didn’t feel like The Marvels was a kids’ book. The format is certainly child friendly, but the plotline itself felt grownup book to me. Does anyone know any actual kids who have read it? My library does not have a lot of readers (sad face), so the only people I know who have read The Marvels are other grownup librarians.

    • In our 6th grade Mock Newbery, The Marvels placed third – with 36 students casting votes.

      Kids spoke passionately about the book – one girl in particular was almost moved to tears talking about how important this book is.

      • Other Meredith says

        Good to know! I really wish I could get one of my kids to read it. I also think I would have liked it better I hadn’t read Hugo Cabret and Wonderstruck, both of which I feel really use the format more effectively than the Marvels. Anywho, Most Dangerous was my jam, so I’m really hope it wins Undead.

    • I’m in a 5 – 8 middle school and it circulates briskly.

  2. I do know children who have read it and enjoyed it, although I’m sure what they see is different than what an adult sees.
    Tim – how many points for shiny gold pages? Really makes the kids treat it with respect!

  3. Tim Federle is hilarious as always. 10,672 points to him for such an amusing judgement! I’m still only partway through Most Dangerous and I’m really enjoying it but I loved Marvels so much! I also feel like it’s more unique in its storytelling style whereas while Most Dangerous tells an important story it’s pretty similar to Sheinkin’s other books. There’s some interesting nonfiction tidbits in Marvels too–I really want to go to that museum now. Just figuring out how the two stories fit together was a lot of fun.
    As to Other Meredith’s point I have a lot of great readers at my school and they love Marvels! It also sold out in our school’s book fair despite the rather hefty price tag. Have you seen the trailer Selznick made for it? It’s wonderful and might be good at drumming up kid interest if you have some way to share it at your library.

  4. Incredibly amusing post about these books, Tim.

    I loved both dearly – emotionally and personally to the content of the Marvels, sheer WOW factor for Most Dangerous.

    I’m glad I didn’t waste my undead vote… ‘Most Dangerous’ deserves a second chance!

  5. RGN, I think you missed the first 10 points Tim Federle gave each book. Loved this judging! Love those precision ratings…. 🙂

  6. Paige Ysteboe says

    I loved both of these, so I was going to be happy with either winning. Even though I was born during the Vietnam War and am a history major, I learned a ton by reading Most Dangerous. And The Marvels was amazing, as all of Selznick’s books are.

  7. Sam Bloom says

    Tim Federle should be a judge every year! Love it! (And not terribly upset with the decision; can’t go wrong with those two.)

  8. Heidi Hammond says

    I was on the YALSA 2016 Non-fiction Award Committee that selected Most Wanted, and I am biased. I loved that book! While I was a young adult during the Vietnam War, I learned more about what happened both in Vietnam and the U. S. from Steve Sheinkin due to the perspective and meticulous research he brings to his work.

    But, I am not disappointed The Marvels won. I was the first person to visit the Dennis Severs house in London last summer based on having read the book. (I received an arc at ALA Annual.) You can ask David Milne. He very kindly showed me around the house and also helped me see more than I would have on my own. “You either see it or you don’t.” Marvelous choice!

  9. I fully endorse Judge Federle scoring system as someone who routinely hands out meaningless and arbitrary points to my students.

    “Five points if you can name the creator of the Dewey Decimal system with an additional 602 points if you know his first name.”
    “What do we do with our points, Mrs. Leu.”
    “Keep them safe, and don’t lose them at recess.”

    I was a bit saddened by the outcome as MOST DANGEROUS changed the way I hear every news story that comes out of Washington. But I can also get behind THE MARVELS. Both books, at their core, deal with the power of storytelling. One focusing on the beauty of stories we chose for ourselves and the other the danger of institutional fabrication presented as truth.

    I want to live in a world where we are allowed to invent our personal truths and our government is subject to run any dangerous collisions through a lie detector so powerful it would turn Trump’s hair white.

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