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Battle of the Books

Round 1, Match 6: My Seneca Village vs Nest


JUDGE – Frances Hardinge

My Seneca Village
by Marilyn Nelson
The Nest
by Kenneth Oppel
Simon & Schuster

I may be insufficiently ruthless for this job. Having read these books, there was nothing I wanted more than to let them both through to the next round, even if I had to give one a change of identity and a dust-jacket disguise, so that I could sneak it past everyone’s noses.

In my defence, they’re both well-written and original, with that creep-inside-your-brain quality that leaves you haunted by them afterwards.

Marilyn Nelson’s My Seneca Village is a collection of poems, dedicated to “Manhattan’s first significant community of African American property owners”. During its thirty-two year history, the district of Seneca Village welcomed immigrants from Ireland, Germany and elsewhere. Then, in 1857, it was erased to make way for the creation of Central Park, and its inhabitants forced to move on.

However, this book is not simply a lament for the lost Seneca Village. Every poem drops us into a vital, living moment. Then becomes now. The community is brought to life, voice by voice.

Each poem is preceded by a vivid little description of a scene, a cross between a snapshot and a stage direction. My sense of the community grew poem by poem, as I started to recognise recurrent characters, and watched them age, marry, thrive or flounder. In a series of little jolts and shocks I also learnt more about the time, but without feeling that I was being hit over the head with explanations.

There’s an inspired balance of ‘big’ newsworthy events (riots, fires and epidemics) with ‘small’ events that are, in their own way, colossal. Three of my favourite poems mark ‘small’ moments. A woman who owns land (and herself) for the first time, plants apple tree saplings, and puts down roots. A daughter refuses to accept the hand-me-down petticoat of her mother’s employer. A mother feels her world expand as her son teaches her to read.

Amongst the other characters walks Epiphany Davis, conjure-man and card-reader, a 15 cent fortune-teller who sees our own time in fractured glimpses. He is like the reader, witnessing each living instant in Seneca Village, while knowing too much about the future.

It seems only right that his is the last voice to be heard. Seneca Village is gone, but he still sees the past and future as part of the same tapestry. These people lived. These events happened, and will never un-happen.

There is a sad poignancy in the image of a woman planting saplings as a symbol of putting down new roots, and imagining a long future for the orchard and her community. But in another sense, her faith is not ill-founded. The roots she is putting down do matter. Seneca Village is itself the roots of the future, and remains so after all physical traces of it are gone.

Kenneth Oppel’s The Nest, on the other hand, is a creepily insidious middle grade modern gothic. Even the physical book itself is cunningly designed, with its misty, half-obscuring dustjacket and the rough, nibbled edges to its pages. (This is a book about imperfections – and nibbling, for that matter, but I won’t go into that.) Jon Klassen’s illustrations are an excellent match for the story, the outlines deceptively naive, every image eerily dense with shadows and hints.

Steve and his family are living under a shadow. There is something wrong with his new-born baby brother, and nobody knows what, not even the doctors. Worse still, his parents are clearly coming apart at the seams from the strain.

Confronted with his parents’ vulnerability and helplessness, Steve’s reaction is a very believable mix of panic, dismay and protectiveness.

I hated it when her eyes got wet. It made me scared. Like she wasn’t my mom any more, but something fragile that might break.

Then they start to appear in Steve’s dreams. He thinks at first that they are angels. They say they can fix everything – fix the baby. They are willing and eager to do so. The female being who speaks to Steve is understanding, glibly commonsensical, even a little maternal.

They are not angels, he quickly realises that. But they are offering to save Steve’s family. He only needs to say yes…

Of course Steve wants his little brother to be well and his parents to stop crying. But there are shadows of other fears and desires lurking behind this uneasy, complicated tale. For one thing, it’s a story about replacement. Is the new baby really the only child that Steve imagines being replaced by an improved model? Perhaps there’s more than one reason why Steve is so reluctant to call the baby by his name, and think of him as a real person?

I rather liked the fact that Steve’s insights into the other members of his family are intermittent. It’s sometimes hard for him to see them past his own concerns – not because he’s self-obsessed, but because his own concerns are actually pretty concerning. His days are dominated by anxieties and compulsive rituals, which he does his best to hide. His nights are taken over by the phantasmagoria of his dreams.

His younger sister Nicole is intriguing. At first her blithe optimism seems like the happy denial of a little kid shielded from the family crisis. Only later are there hints that she has her own inner life, coping strategies and hotline to important insights.

It’s a pacey read, but sneaks in a hefty amount of menace, tension, sympathy, emotional baggage and bizarrely memorable images. I read half of this book, then noticed how late it was, and put the book away so that I could finish it next day. And… then I got it straight out of my bag again and kept reading until the end.

After vacillating wildly, I have chosen The Nest to go through to the next round, mostly because it wouldn’t let me stop reading. It was a tough decision, and I thoroughly recommend hunting down Marilyn Nelson’s book and spending some time with Seneca Village’s fierce and fascinating ghosts. However, in the end I chose Kenneth Oppel’s sneakily compulsive read – a middle grade psychological horror with compassion and punch.

— Frances Hardinge

I would’ve been happy with either one of these books moving on, and Hardinge’s decision does justice to both. There’s no better way to describe My Seneca Village than a collection of poems (expertly rhymed and structured, by the way) that makes small moments “colossal,” that puts the reader in a “vital, living moment.” Epiphany Davis’s poems do both spectacularly, and, since it’s out of the running (and unlikely to win the Undead Poll), let’s take a moment to read this gem from

15¢ Futures

It’s a new world up here, of beggar millionaires:
neighbors who know how we all scrimped and saved
to own this stony swamp with its fetid air,
to claim the dream for dreamers yet enslaved.

Hardinge fully appreciates both the significance of historical memory and forgetfulness in Nelson’s work, and also observes how the poems are deeply personal. Obviously, Nest is as well, but in more ways than one: it puts the reader in the middle of Steven’s anxiety at a constant, stressful pace. It’s hard, beautiful, and harrowing reading, making us question our conceptions of ownership, normalcy, and family. Hardinge astutely discusses how Steven, clouded by his own concerns, makes intermittent insights into his family members’ own challenges. As if it were a poem, it seems every word Nest counts, and it would be a treat to read it slowly for the details instead of plowing through it like I did. But poetry is often overlooked for young readers, so I would have picked My Seneca Village to move on to Round 2!

– Kid Commentator RGN

Battle Commander (gravatar)





  1. Other Meredith says

    I really loved both of these books, so I think I would have been both happy and sad no matter how things turned. out.

  2. Both of these books are wonderful and I would have been happy either way. I did like Nest a bit better though just because I had a better sense for the characters. I wish My Seneca Village would have gone into a bit more detail about the various characters so I could have got to know them better. The poetry was absolutely gorgeous though and introduced so many important topics.
    Nest was a rare middle grade novel that has a page-turning pace, a lot of heart, and deals with some difficult issues such as mental health and infant illness with amazing grace. I’m excited to pass it on to students and glad to see it move on to the next round. Congratulations to both worthy contenders!

  3. One thing I really look forward to in Battle of the Books is the opportunity to see non-Newbery-eligible books get their day.

    Of course I planned on CUCKOO SONG being front and center this year.

    But apparently BoB needed Judge Hardinge to do other duties this season. (Still not sure how I feel about that, but I’ve pouted enough.) Anyone who can use ‘phantasmagoria’ blithely in a sentence has every right to have her voice heard.

    THE NEST is so deserving for this battle and certainly packs enough venom to needle through lesser foes. Back last October, I was talking both THE NEST and CUCKOO SONG as worthy creepy reads for the season. I have and excellent shudder to illustrate the point that I’d be happy to demonstrate.

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