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Battle of the Books

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
Candlewick Press

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.

–Mariko Tamaki

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

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  1. Paige Ysteboe says:

    What RGN said. Brilliant

  2. Bird Cramer says:

    RGN is spot on, yet again. Review is signed by Noelle Stevenson?

  3. Man. I think this is the only judge write-up that I’ve been thoroughly dissatisfied with. Knowing who wins by the second sentence was a letdown, and Symphony is given almost no attention.

    Bummer. It makes me feel like Nimona is an undeserved win… even though I love that graphic novel. :/

    • Mrs. Cheney says:

      My class was a bit let down by this review. We like reading the whole review before the winner is divulged. We also noticed that the review is signed by the author of Nimona and not the actual reviewer. We agree with Joe!

    • Bird Cramer says:

      My class agrees with you also Joe!

  4. Kid – thanks for giving Symphony its due!

  5. Too bad there was no bracket contest this year because I have an actual perfect bracket for the first two rounds, and all my favorites are still standing. I can’t believe it. My brackets are usually blown apart by the middle of the first round. Now if only Goodbye Stranger would rise from the dead…As much as I love Nimona, an all-middle-grade final would be awesome!

  6. I’d like to nominate Kid RGN for Closer Judge,Battle 2017. Bravo/a.

  7. I don’t know, I kind of like the way Tamaki did this. At a certain point don’t you get tired of all the variations on the “I wish I didn’t have to choose between apples and oranges” thing that happens pretty much every time? (No offense, other judges.) I think it’s a nice change, and I actually like knowing what was going to happen. It’s a literary device, right? We can just pretend it was, even if it wasn’t meant that way. =) I still haven’t gotten around to reading SYMPHONY (obviously I need to) but hooray for NIMONA!

    This Final Four is pretty high-powered; the Women’s and Men’s NCAA tourneys can only hope they have these kinds of match-ups! Two award-winning middle grade novels, two graphic novels (at least sort of where The Marvels is concerned). Can’t wait for the decisions!

    • I’m with Sam. I was happy for a break in what has become, for me, a tired format. When it gets to the point that I can pretty much guess how many sentences from the end I can find the winner, it’s turned into a very predictable pattern. I was happy for a bit of variety. Having said that, I understand how young students, in particular, can take comfort in a familiar format.

  8. Sara Ralph says:

    I was initially taken aback, but I really did not mind the lack of “oh this is such a hard choice, but I have to pick one” pattern. As far as Tamaki’s brief comments for the unchosen book, this isn’t the first round for The Symphony of the City of the Dead either. That being said, I finished reading it earlier this week and it took my breath away. The struggle, the strength and the sacrifice unknown to this reader (in the details) and now that I will forever appreciate. Thank heavens for the Soviets; we always want to think the USA came in and saved the day, and while that’s true to an extent, the Soviet Union really did wear Germany down, to unbelievable sacrifice. That Shostakovich could make music in this environment shows the heart of a true musician and a kind man. I also loved that the book focused on how he was always speaking out for others, even at risk to himself. I highly recommend reading it this one if you haven’t.

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