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Round 2, Match 4: Nimona vs Symphony for the City of the Dead
JUDGE – Mariko Tamaki
by Noelle Stevenson
|Symphony for the City of the Dead
by M.T. Anderson
I was fortunate to have two great books to read and select from. I thoroughly enjoyed both.
M.T. Anderson’s Symphony for the City of the Dead, while not my selection, is an impeccably researched and accounted story of composer Dmitri Shostakovich, and an essential record of art in a time of war. Anderson brings life to Shostakovich’s struggles, those of the people of Leningrad, all wrapped in a detailed and compelling portrait of World War II.
My selected book, Noelle Stevenson’s Nimona, is the enchanting tale of shape-shifting villain in training Nimona, and her one armed, noble, villain mentor, Ballister Blackheart. Stevenson combines classic fairytale story stuff, jousts and brave knights in shiny golden armor, seamlessly with modern superhero twists, like an evil corporate institutions with evil corporate plans to infect the village’s food supply, in a mix that is as satisfying as a perfect softee swirl on a summer day.
This book is funny: funny like slapstick, funny like your best friend in grade 10 (who hates Zombie movies but forces you to watch them), funny in a way that is self aware (“Hold up there villain! We’ve got to fight because that’s my job!”), while remaining sincere.
Stevenson’s illustrations swell with personality and expressive gestures, with evil grins and exuberant victory dances. Her characters are stiff and noble, loose and goofy, larger than life and entirely human.
Nimona is a story about the power to transform, to become anything your imagination can dream up. The main character, Nimona, can shape shift into any creature she can think of (dragon, rat, little kid, kitten, shark). With the ability to be as big and bad as she wants to be, Nimona is determined to use her powers to become a great villain. On the flip side, Nimona’s reluctant mentor Ballister Blackheart, is a villain because the Institution made him one (as opposed to golden boy Sir Ambrosius Goldenloin – who clearly has the name to be the good guy). In different ways, almost all of Stevenson’s characters are boxed in by the conventions, forced to be good or bad. Fortunately in Nimona, destiny may dictate your character, but it doesn’t have to control your actions. Being cast in a limited role doesn’t mean you can’t fight back against the Institution, or for your friends.
One of the great achievements of Nimona is that it is a hero story with feelings. It’s a story about being a hero, but it’s also about fear, anger, grief and joy. It’s a story not just about the victoriousness of defeating your enemy, but the frustration of feeling deserted by the people you trusted. It’s about being a little kid and a big bad dragon, about feeling powerful and vulnerable all at once.
Overall Nimona is a joy to read, a modern day Paper Bag Princess superhero, full of heart and soul.
The hardest match of them all. Why can’t both these books just parachute to the Final Round? Nimona can survive anything, after all, and Shostakovich’s music is immortal, too – and he survived Stalin. I mean, really. Now, I love Nimona, would’ve been happy with either book, and appreciate Tamaki’s ideas about the various conventions that bind Blackheart and Goldenloin, and how Nimona herself breaks all convention. But Symphony was not given its due in this decision and write-up. As Anderson so touchingly details, Shostakovich is also bound by convention – at first. But as Russia gets under an increasingly tight noose, the composer stands for all that is complicated and profound, dissonant and harmonic. Shostakovich was a real-world hero, if there ever can be one. Even if he acquiesced to Soviet authorities at times, none of us can realize the enormity of living in not an evil corporate institution but a brutal totalitarian one. We read along through the darkness of 20th century Russian history guided by M. T. Anderson’s achingly beautiful language and exhaustive research. He doesn’t go easy on us, either; we read about starvation and cannibalism along with music. Here we have some extremes of human experience, something almost unfathomable, that Anderson begins to make palpable. But to really supplement the book you need to listen to Shostakovich, where the visceral emotion comes through. The very air of Symphony for the City of the Dead is, as Anderson once describes the streets of Leningrad, “filled with a deadening mist. It smelled of ham and butter.”
– Kid Commentator RGN
NIMONA WILL MOVE ON TO ROUND 3
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 email@example.com.
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