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Round 1, Match 7: Nimona vs Rhythm Ride
JUDGE – Cece Bell
by Noelle Stevenson
by Andrea Davis Pinkney
Roaring Brook Press
School Library Journal has a slightly wicked reputation of pairing up two wildly different books for its Battle of the Kids’ Books judges to read and discuss. I was no exception to this practice, as I was assigned an apple—Andrea Davis Pinkney’s Rhythm Ride: A Road Trip Through the Motown Sound—and an orange—Noelle Stevenson’s Nimona. Luckily, they were both tasty.
First, the apple. Pinkney’s Rhythm Ride tells the story of the Motown record label and its founder, Berry Gordy. Before reading this book, my knowledge of Motown was limited to the tail end of its heyday, in the 1980s. My parents had splurged for HBO, and I watched, over and over again, a couple of movies starring Diana Ross: Lady Sings the Blues and The Wiz. Berry Gordy and his Motown Productions had produced both, and I remember Gordy’s name in the credits, but I was all about Diana. I had black-and-white postcards of Diana Ross and the Supremes taped to my bureau mirror, and I’d look at Diana every morning, wondering if I—a short, chubby white kid with hearing aids and glasses—could ever look and sound as good as Diana did.
I didn’t realize until reading Pinkney’s book just how far back Berry Gordy’s influence reached. I didn’t even realize that he was the founder of Motown. Not only that, Gordy was responsible for making my Diana a star in the 1960s, long before she starred in the movies I had loved. And not only that, Gordy was responsible for the careers of so many entertainers whose music and moves I enjoyed, including Stevie Wonder, Marvin Gaye, the Temptations, Smokey Robinson and the Miracles, Gladys Knight and the Pips, and the Jackson 5. I clearly needed to read this book!
Pinkney hooked me right away with the voice of her narrator, the Groove, “an elder entity whose voice is that of someone who’s traveled the journey to Motown’s development.” Inspired by Pinkney’s cousin, a DJ and radio professional who was spinning Motown tunes from the very beginning, the Groove punctuates its telling of Motown’s history by affectionately calling us readers “child” and “honey.” When the Groove introduced itself at the start of the book, it commanded me to “Buckle up, Baby. Settle in.” Sure enough, I did.
That “buckle up” fits right in with the predominant metaphor (of the road, cars, and the automobile industry) that Pinkney uses to chronicle Motown’s historic journey. It’s apt, since Gordy founded Motown in 1959 in the capital of the automobile industry—Detroit, Michigan, America’s Motor City. Rhythm Ride is, as the title states, a road trip, sometimes smooth and sometimes bumpy, with accelerated good times and decelerated bad times both. Even the automobile industry’s method of making cars—the assembly line—becomes part of this metaphor: a regular person could, according to Pinkney, enter the back door of Motown’s modest offices in the house at 2648 West Grand Boulevard and exit the front door a star.
The most effective and affective parts of Rhythm Ride are when Pinkney employs both the Groove and her road metaphor to show how Motown’s development was inextricably intertwined with the events of the civil rights movement. The Groove shares the important moments of the movement as a grandfather might, and from the front seat of the car we’ve been riding in; its voice soothes us along this bumpy, scary stretch of road, while kindly instructing us to examine the devastation along the way. Pinkney discerns that Gordy’s main contribution to the movement was also his main desire: he wanted Motown to be the “Sound of Young America,” loved by black kids and white kids alike. As a white kid whose fascination with Diana Ross proves the success of Gordy’s vision for “crossover appeal,” I appreciated Pinkney’s thoughtful analysis of Gordy’s aims during this period.
Near the end of the book, the Groove comes to a split in the road. Motown’s assembly line had churned out hit after hit, star after star, and had long ago outgrown its humble beginnings at 2648 West Grand Boulevard. In 1972, Gordy left Detroit and divided Motown, setting up headquarters in Hollywood while still maintaining offices in Detroit. Soon after, Motown started losing its biggest stars, including Marvin Gaye, Diana Ross, and the Jackson 5. Here’s the Groove’s take on the situation: “[Gordy] spent so much time and creativity building [these artists], and now they were leaving. It was like Berry’s closest kin were turning their backs on the family that had nurtured them…. [The artists] appreciated all that [Gordy] had done to launch their careers but now felt slighted by what he wouldn’t provide—bigger salaries and greater exposure they felt they deserved.” I kept looking for more between these lines—something feels hidden here, as though the Groove, in its loyalty to Gordy, was staying tight-lipped about what was going on behind the scenes of Motown’s offices. I wanted more details, more dish. Was Gordy a hero who didn’t deserve such treatment from his artists? Or had he abused his power and was therefore sampling the bitter taste of hubris? Based on a little bit of extra research, I felt that the answer to both questions was yes, and so I kept hoping that the Groove would admonish Gordy in the same way that it had supported him. Maybe something along the lines of, “Berry, you’re getting too big for your britches, son.” But the Groove did not deliver.
A word about the design of Rhythm Ride, which is only fair because the orange I’m about to discuss is a graphic novel: This is a beautiful book. Designer Elliot Kreloff chose a clear font with just the right amount of leading; that, and his generous helping of white space around words and pictures, make the book easy on the eyes. Page numbers are contained within albums (which could also be interpreted as tires from Pinkney’s metaphorical road); a decorative linear design runs along the bottom of the pages, indicative of grooves on a record, or an abstract musical staff. The archival photographs are generous and gorgeous; they and the other design elements stay consistently black and white. Rhythm Ride was a pleasure to read, thanks to both Pinkney’s sparkling writing and Kreloff’s attentive design.
Next, the orange: Noelle Stevenson’s beautifully drawn graphic novel, Nimona. Once again I had to read between the lines—though perhaps in this case between the panels—to figure out who, or what, Nimona is, and how she came to be. I had so much fun doing so! (Ahem…SPOILERS AHEAD!)
Stevenson’s story takes place in a kingdom both medieval and futuristic. There are lords and ladies, knights in armor and peasants in tunics. There’s a king we never see, and jousts and county fairs and a dragon. There are also scientists in white lab coats and an anchorwoman on a TV news show. Projected computer screens pop up everywhere and characters refer to “voice activation” and “retinal scanners” and “software.” There are tricked-out accessories for one’s armor and sleek metal appendages for replacing limbs lost in jousts. The county fair is actually a “Science Expo” with a variety of bubbling experiments. And that dragon? She might be an experiment, too.
At the very start of the book, Nimona bursts into the life of supervillain Lord Ballister Blackheart, hoping to be his sidekick. Nimona initially appears to be a 13 or 14 year old girl with a penchant for blowing things up, but it’s soon evident that she is much more complicated than that. She’s a shapeshifter, and her ability to “turn into creatures that actually exist…[and] into any person, real or made-up” make her a powerful ally for Ballister. Ballister himself is also complicated. He claims he’s evil, but he’s more like Robin Hood: He does bad things to help the people who are ruled—and possibly experimented upon—by a corrupt governing body known as the Institution of Law Enforcement and Heroics. Ballister spars often with the Institution’s Director, a malevolent woman reminiscent of some of Disney’s more evil queens. (Stevenson’s color and line remind me of Mary Blair’s work for Disney, particularly from Sleeping Beauty and Alice in Wonderland. If you know me, that’s some of the highest praise you can get.)
Ballister’s real nemesis, however, is the hilariously named Sir Ambrosius Goldenloin, the Institution’s “champion” and the guy who keeps messing up all of Ballister’s evil plans. Goldenloin is also the reason for that aforementioned sleek metal appendage where Ballister’s right arm should be. The story behind Ballister and Ambrosius’s nuanced relationship is my favorite part of the book, as Stevenson gradually, and artfully, shares the tragedy of a deep friendship gone sour.
Nimona proves herself indispensable to Ballister, and the two become not just co-conspirators, but friends. Together, they take on the Institution in general and Goldenloin in particular, and without giving away more than I already have, I can say that Stevenson delivers amazing action scenes, tense confrontations, and jaw-clenching moments of suspense. I was astonished at how quickly Stevenson’s artwork and story had me caring for the characters—genuinely worrying about them—even Goldenloin.
While this book is most certainly a swashbuckling sci-fi fantasy, it is also a complex story about the nature and malleability of friendship. Shapeshifter Nimona is the perfect metaphor for the complicated relationships all of us have with our friends. Just as we shift our personalities and adopt different roles based on who we’re with, Nimona literally shifts and takes on different roles with Ballister. She can be to Ballister whatever each situation might call for—the flirty gal pal, the kid sister, the vulnerable daughter, the impish pet cat, the terrifying pet dragon, the best friend. In a more subtle way, Ballister and Goldenloin also do some of their own shifting as the book progresses. I found these natural shifts every bit as meaningful and thrilling as Nimona’s more fantastical kind.
Stevenson’s art is stunning. She is able, with deceptively simple lines and a gorgeously rustic palette, to perfectly capture both the subtle emotions of her characters and their wildly dramatic battles. My only (small) complaint is with the size of the book. Nimona began as a web series, and when it’s viewed online, it is clearer and easier to read than it is in its book format, simply because it’s larger. Perhaps expense was an issue for HarperCollins, but the book would definitely benefit from a bigger format. The artwork and the text are dense and sometimes confusing—I occasionally found myself squinting in an effort to decipher the text and some of the more elaborately drawn action scenes. Maybe now that Fox Animation Studios is turning Nimona into a full-length feature, there will be money floating around to reprint the book in the size it deserves.
So, which tasted better, the apple or the orange? Both books represent genres I don’t normally choose to read—non-fiction and fantasy/sci-fi. But both authors hooked me immediately, Pinkney with her creative choice of first-person narrator, Stevenson with her art. Both authors maintained my interest, Pinkney with the forward momentum of her metaphorical road, Stevenson with the humor and pathos of her complicated crew.
As I stated before, both authors also compelled me to read between their respective lines. This caused a small problem for me with Rhythm Ride, as I experienced that nagging sensation that Pinkney was leaving a few things out of the ending of her otherwise generous narrative. Conversely, it didn’t cause a problem for me with Nimona, because trying to figure out the puzzle that is Nimona did not distract me from the thrill of reading the book—on the contrary, it only added to my enjoyment of it. This is admittedly unfair to Pinkney, since Nimona is fiction and Rhythm Ride is not; I couldn’t exactly research Nimona and discover possible gaps in her story, as I was able to do with Berry Gordy’s story.
That feeling of missing a few bits of information (but just a few! It pains me that I’ve said anything negative about Pinkney’s book!), and the fact that I adore Stevenson’s gorgeous artwork and her masterful storytelling, mean that I had a slightly easier time peeling the orange than the apple. Nimona wins it. I hope she’ll come on over and listen to my Diana Ross and the Supremes 45s with me sometime.
— Cece Bell
Nimona is really lovely and challenges stereotypes through the creation of vivid characters who love who they love, and I loved it. Ultimately, I choose Rhythm Ride. Andrea Pinkney’s narrative structure makes clear the realities of economic and social inequity, violence and hatred, talent, ambition and entrepreneurship. Although written for children, her narrative casts a wide net, capturing nuances while at the same time keeping the pace for a young reader. She artfully tells the tale, and does so with photos, references to real people and songs, as well as a creative narrative device. The work is empowering. This was not easy choice, and I would recommend that students read both books. However, I feel that Rhythm Ride is a really beautifully constructed book, with subtlety and strong narration. It is also an important book that should be part of social studies curriculum and should be read by all kids.
— Guest Commentator Tracy Fedonchik (Middle School Administrator)
NIMONA WILL MOVE ON TO ROUND 2
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 firstname.lastname@example.org.
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