Follow This Blog: RSS feed
Battle of the Books

The Closing Match: The Marvels vs Gone Crazy in Alabama vs Nimona


JUDGE – Ann M. Martin

Gone Crazy in Alabama
by Rita Williams-Garcia
The Marvels
by Brian Selznick
by Noelle Stevenson

It sounded if not easy, then not particularly daunting either: the chance to read three books in the last round of SLJ’s Battle of the Books and select one as the winner. I love to read. I love to talk about books. I’ve been an avid reader – and an eclectic one – since the moment in kindergarten when letters on a page began to shape themselves into words. I gobble up kids’ books, adult books, memoirs, mysteries, classics. So I accepted the offer.

Then I was presented with the three finalists and discovered that I was going to have to choose a winner from Gone Crazy in Alabama, The Marvels, and Nimona. That’s when the project tipped over into daunting territory.

I drew in a breath and opened the cover of Gone Crazy in Alabama.

In the first chapter I was drawn into the summer of 1969 and twelve-year-old Delphine Gaither’s world. By the end of that chapter I had learned about the close relationship among Delphine and her sisters, the complicated relationship between Delphine’s parents, Delphine’s stepmother’s pregnancy, and the long-awaited trip that the Gaither girls were about to embark upon. The sisters, who are African-American, were to travel to Alabama, and their father reminds them that “The South’s not like Bed-Stuyvesant and you can’t get more southern than Alabama.” These elements were introduced fluidly and flawlessly, along with the sounds, smells, and tastes of the Gaithers’ Brooklyn neighborhood. And all in four pages.

Delphine’s story and her family history are complicated. But in the hands of Rita Williams-Garcia they don’t feel complicated. Quirky characters come to life with depth and nuance, as do the settings in the story. What a visit the Gaither girls have with their grandmother, Big Ma, and their great-grandmother, Ma Charles, that summer. The Alabama countryside in which they live, across a creek from Ma Charles’s estranged half-sister, Miss Trotter, seems quiet. But hiding just beneath the surface are racial tensions with far-reaching tentacles. Delphine and her sisters cross the creek almost daily to visit with Miss Trotter and learn about their complex family history. At the same time, Delphine tries to reconcile the more conservative views of the southern side of her family with the ties of her outspoken mother to the Black Panthers.

Delphine and her sisters, who have recently visited their mother in Oakland, seem comfortable with the duality of their existence that summer. I felt comfortable with it too, until a tornado sweeps through their town and the white sheriff, who is distantly related to Ma Charles, says, referring to Delphine’s little sister who has gone missing during the storm, that the tornado “was bad enough to toss that Negro rag doll clear ‘cross the country, out of this lifetime.”


And there are several whams in Gone Crazy in Alabama. Williams-Garcia touches upon a great many issues, but each is dealt with deftly and in the arms of such a caring family that I wanted to be able to step into Big Ma’s house myself, even if it meant I would have to brave the sheriff or watch the Klan ride at night.

I read the last page of this gem and felt certain I had already found the winner of the battle.

I turned next to The Marvels. I breezed through the first 400 pages of the book – this part of the story told entirely in pictures – and quickly realized that breezing through them was not a good idea. I needed to pay close attention to the details, so I turned back to the beginning and started over.

The Marvels, which is told in pictures, then in words, then in pictures again, swoops the reader up in the first few pages and swoops back and forth throughout the story, from twist to twist, right up to the surprising and satisfying conclusion. The beginning is an adventure story, the saga of the Marvels, a dazzling theatre family. It starts in 1766 and ends more than 200 years later with a stunning cliffhanger. The second part of the story begins almost a hundred years after that, spotlighting a character named Joseph who seems unrelated to the Marvels. But clues in the earlier pictures tell the reader that the address runaway Joseph seeks is the address at which Leontes Marvel lived in 1900.

Joseph’s story then becomes a mystery, but much more than that. It’s a tale of alienation and longing, family ties and forgiveness, love and art and poetry. Joseph struggles mightily to reconcile the story of the Marvels, which he listens to on a cache of hidden tapes in the mysterious house owned by his equally mysterious uncle, with what he knows of the past. In an ingenious twist, Joseph learns that the story of the Marvels is just that. A made-up story. This is quite a surprise for the reader too. Furthermore, there is no mystery to the seemingly mysterious house. There’s a fascinating and heartbreaking explanation, but not the mystery Joseph expected. And pinning all these elements together is a love story, one that was shaped by the beginning of the AIDS epidemic. Eventually, Joseph loses the uncle to whom he has grown close, but he has learned something about stories and storytelling, so he embarks on the rest of his own story, the rest of his life, finally feeling comfortable in his skin.

Another gem. I closed the book, opened it again, looked through the final part of the story, and was certain, for the second time, that I had found the winner of the battle.

I opened Nimona. What a setting Noelle Stevenson has created – one in which the worlds of technology and peasantry merge seamlessly. Nimona, the sidekick (that’s how she introduces herself) to supervillain Ballister Blackheart, was first introduced as a web comic. In Nimona she stars in her own full-length graphic novel. Nimona is fierce, brash, intrepid, gutsy, and sometimes violent. She seems to be fighting on the wrong side of the law (after all, she’s the sidekick to a supervillain), yet the reader roots for her from her first words on the first page of the book. And what’s the first thing Nimona does on that first page? She lies to Sir Blackheart. After that, her behavior crashes from bad to worse. It turns out that she’s a shapeshifter. Given her ability to become a shark or a fire-breathing dragon, you can imagine how helpful she might be to a supervillain. But she’s unpredictable and apt to take matters into her own hands.

Nimona, however, is not a tale told in black and white. The lines between good and evil blur very quickly. There’s more Robin Hood than Captain Hook to Lord Blackheart, and Nimona’s behavior is more a hindrance to his quest than a help. Yet Blackheart, grumpy though he may be, sees beneath her wild exterior to her vulnerable core, and so does the reader. Even when Nimona is vicious and caged, we’re rooting for a happy ending for her. The ending, though, is not happy for Nimona. But it’s believable and manages, after pages and pages of villains and duals and dragons and evil plans, to come down to love, friendship, and loyalty.

I set Nimona down with a sigh. I had just found my third winner. Three gems. Three books that I would enthusiastically put in the hands of any kid I know. And I had to choose one of them. All three stories are, one way or another, about identity – about searching for your past and trying to fit into your present. The stories of the Gaither sisters and Nimona are told with humor, not an easy feat where Gone Crazy in Alabama is concerned. All three include breathlessly unexpected plot twists.

But in the end I chose the story that plays with the very art of storytelling – The Marvels.

— Ann M. Martin

Kid Commentator Statements will be featured in the Comments area since neither of them knew the outcome before the final match day!


Battle Commander (gravatar)


Congratulations to 



2016 SLJ Battle of the Kids’ Books

A Final Thank You to all our judges, the SLJ team, and BoB followers.
Mark, you have once again enlivened these pages with your whimsical and thoughtful art!

See you all next year!


  1. I am so happy this important, wonderful, and overlooked-at-awards-season book has come out on top. A lovely, winning choice, Ms. Martin. My 6th grade Mock Newbery Club will be thrilled!

  2. Book hunter says:

    I didn’t think the Marvels would win because it is a picture book, but it is proved me wrong. I can’t wait to read it. If Gone Crazy won again I would have ripped my hair out. Nimona and The Marvels play against each other and once again the Marvels won out. I feel Echo would have won the whole thing if the judge of Gone Crazy vs. Echo wasn’t so bad!!!!!!!!! I am so happy with Ann M. Martin and think The Marvels was the best choice out of these three books.

  3. Darth Odiris says:

    Honestly, I’m just glad that “Gone Crazy in Alabama” didn’t win. When reading THAT book I almost quit reading it. I would have been fine with either “Nimona” or “Marvels” and I respect the judges opinion and choice.

  4. Lilly (Kitty) says:

    I am SO happy about this! Well, I would prefer if Nimona won, because that book was AMAZING, but I’m just happy Gone Crazy in Alabama didn’t win. THANK GOD, I would’ve slammed my face into a wall. Go marvels!!!!!!!!! Sorry Nimona. <3

  5. MR. BOSTON says:

    I read the marvels and I thought it was ok

  6. Darth Odiris says:

    I completely agree with you Lilly.

  7. Avid Reader says:

    Seriously???? ‘The Marvels’ is a PICTURE BOOK! ‘Nimona’ was 10 times better. The Newberry winner was a picture book, AND BoB was a picture book, too! I thought that this was YA competition. ‘Nimona’ was well driven book with remarkable well developed characters. I am very happy that ‘Gone Crazy in Alabama’ didn’t win. At least ‘Nimona’ won the Undead Poll….

    • Marcie Haloin says:

      Wait a minute. Isn’t Nimona also essentially a picture book, just for YA readers. Although I didn’t love it, without the illustrations it wouldn’t have worked. I think we all need to realize that the lines between picture books and graphic novels, historical novels and narrative non-fiction, are all beginning to blur. I personally always tend to like middle grade over Y.A., and I apprediate that this competition has both. It is Battle of the Kid’s books. Thanks to SLJ, the judges, and the talented Kid Commentators for encouraging me to read all these books and providing a place to review and reflect on the blurring of genres.

    • Junior Kid Commentater says:

      Marvels has 200 pages of text. Picture book? Not really! If ou read it you might like it. So… Back off!

  8. YES!!!!!!! Gone Crazy in Alabama has finally been defeated! It was in the final round, but it still was defeated! I have not read The Marvels, but I plan to. I heard it was a pretty good book. I thought Nimona was another strong contender also. Congratulations to The Marvels for winning!

  9. Tucker Trigg says:

    Although The Marvels would not have been my first choices as the winner, I am just glad that Gone Crazy in Alabama did not win. I do not see why all of the judges that helped to get Gone Crazy in Alabama to the finals liked it so much. Even though I did not read The Marvels, it seems like a very good book and I would really like to read it.

  10. I’m pleased with any of the outcomes, but I think The Marvels is the one I least wanted to win. Sure, I’m biased, because I only read it in June. I did LOVE it then, too. I really have to reread it. And Brian Selznick does what he does amazingly well – and includes, as Martin describes, history and storytelling, queer characters and the AIDS crisis, and love stories. His use of illustration and words, however, does not seem revolutionary today, after Hugo Cabret and Wonderstruck. Gone Crazy, to me, feels more like the culmination of a directly connected series which has had strong entries in BoB in 2011, 2014, and 2016. Adding on to the “wham” Martin felt, there’s the sibling relationship between Delphine, Vonetta, and Fern: a true trio of sisters. In my mind, Gone Crazy deserves the win more than the Marvels. And then we come to Nimona, dear, dear Nimona (the fan favorite). There’s much more to Nimona than just the world, Blackheart, and the shapeshifter herself. There’s love, Blackheart and Goldenloin’s own vulnerability, and not just “technology and peasantry” but a dark science fantasy medieval future. All originally from a web comic…in my mind, Nimona isn’t just a kids’ book. The Marvels isn’t only as well, with its references to AIDS. Gone Crazy also contains “adult” themes, but really, racism is something that kids have to deal with, too. I think both Gone Crazy and Nimona are very educational and fun for kids without being didactic…but, for my 8-year-old self (and, yes, my 16-year-old self) Nimona would win. As Martin said, though, all three books are winners. Now, that’s a (true) cliche that’s too often repeated, and, next time, I want more criticism overall from the judges. Despite an unfortunate lack of snarkiness, though, the judges have been amazing, as have the Battle Commanders, SLJ, my fellow Kid Commentator, the commenters, the kids, and, last but definitely not least, the books. Thank you so much to everyone!

  11. This news is not the best way for me to begin my morning. While I did enjoy The Marvels, I found it to be predictable (I guessed the twist only a short way into the “print” portion of the book) and, lets face it, a tad over-hyped. And wouldn’t have picked it to be the BOB Winner. For me, The Marvels can’t even begin to compete with Nimona, which was funny, heartwarming, and freshly original. And I’m very sorry to see Nimona didn’t win.

    Just my honest opinion here.

  12. Kid Commentator NS says:

    Congratulations to The Marvels! While I’m not displeased in Ann Martin’s final decision, I would’ve liked a little more criticism from her. Having read all three books, I didn’t need a plot summary for each nor did I need praise; what I needed was a reason why Marvels bested Nimona and Gone Crazy. I honestly would have been happy if any one of these three books had won, but I felt that Marvels was a little anticlimactic. While it was a wonderful read, we’ve seen this from Selznick before. A story told by illustrations and words, (but for middle graders, not preschoolers) in a historical context. And then there’s the cherry on top, the mystery. Don’t get me wrong; I absolutely loved the book, but it wasn’t groundbreaking or completely surprising, and I preferred both Gone Crazy and Nimona just the slightest bit. Gone Crazy’s plot wasn’t what drew me in nor was it what kept me reading. It really always boils down to the characters for me. While I adore the Gaither sisters, and a younger me may have needed the reflection of herself and her siblings in their bickering (and that was the only part I really related to), the current me needed Nimona. I needed to see her confidence in herself, in her ever changing body that never once ended up looking like a supermodel’s, her short, dyed hair (by magic, I assume), her spunkiness, and her wit. Sure, the whole government institution vs. the outcast hero-turned-villain where everything is black and white with almost no grey area world was a little cliché, but I was willing to overlook the flaws in favor of where it excels. When push comes to shove, Marvels had a great plot, but not-so-great characters, while Gone Crazy had great characters with a not-so-great plot. Ultimately, Nimona wins in my book, but I wholeheartedly believe it when I say I’m happy with The Marvels as the winner. I’m thoroughly impressed with the judges, as always, and with the Battle Commanders, the commenters, and of course my fellow, far superior Kid Commentator RGN. (Seriously, can we get him an award or something?) Until next year!

  13. Battle Commander Battle Commander says:

    Just want to clarify a couple of things for our readers:

    1. The Marvels is definitely not a “Picture Book” in any traditional sense — it contains more than 400 pages of artwork and about 200 pages of text.

    2. Battle of the Kids’ Books was never set up as a YA Lit competition. During the book selection process, we paid a lot of attention to the diversity of age ranges and different genres.

    • Avid Reader says:

      Artwork? Pictures! You backed up my reasons. THE MAJORITY OF THE BOOKS IS PICTURES. Exactly what I said: “Picture book”. Im sure that someone that is commenting on the BoB webpage even said it was a YA competition.

      • Battle Commander Battle Commander says:

        From the About page above: “In 2009, the first year of the contest, even before making up their long list, they spent a lot of time considering criteria. For example, how would a picture book fare against a YA novel? Recognizing that there had to be some form of unity among the books on the roster they decided that the “fairest” thing was to select titles for a similar audience (middle grade, middle school, and high school readers). “

  14. Battle Commander Battle Commander says:

    In our official post we forgot to extend a huge hearty thank-you to our kid commentators! Thank you, RGN (Is this really your last year here or may we have one more from you?) and NS (hopefully still have a few more years to go?) for your steadfastness in reading all the books, all the judge statements, and others’ comments and in writing honest and thoughtful comments.

  15. Other Meredith says:

    Since my favorite book was eliminated in round 1 (I still mourn for you, Most Dangerous!), I didn’t care too much which book won. I think I probably enjoyed Nimona most, followed by the Marvels. Gone Crazy, for me, suffers from the same problem as the rest of the trilogy-it’s well written, but I do not like that family. Delphine and Fern I really enjoy, but everyone else makes me want to rip my hair out. As for The Marvels, I agree with RGN-the format isn’t revolutionary anymore (still super impressive, though), and it doesn’t further the story the way it does in Wonderstruck or Hugo Cabret. Really though, I wish there had been more criticism. The love fest this year got a little bit boring to read.

  16. Well, the comments are more than making up for the lack of criticism 🙂 I for one appreciated the lack of snark in the judgements this year. Reviews and critiques are fine, and I appreciate the art of the good critique, but I love these books! Thank you to the authors who have to judge their peers, and choose to do so kindly. And thank you, moderators, for yet another year of introducing me to books I might never have read, such as the great Nimona.

  17. ewein2412 says:

    Kid Commentator RGN I WILL MISS YOU IF IT IS YOUR LAST YEAR! Both kid Commentators, you are fantastic. I don’t know how the heck you manage to do so much reading AND put together such insightful commentary in addition to what is no doubt a hefty school schedule. I love reading your contributions – it is my favorite thing about BoB.

    Thank you, Battle Commanders, for including them along with the fabulous judges. 😀

    • Well, I cheated a bit this year – still haven’t read Rhythm Ride, which I have to read soon and have at home. Hopefully I’ll be able to stay another year. Thanks! 🙂

    • Kid Commentator NS says:

      Thank you so much! I’m only in 8th grade, so my school schedule isn’t nearly as hefty as RGN’s. As far as how I have the time to read so much? I prioritize books over sleep. 😉

    • Bernadette Mount says:

      I totally agree about the kid commentators! Who better to hear from in a battle of kids’ books than a couple of well-read kids. Their comments were always honest and well-thought, with just the right amount of emotion to know they invested their hearts in the reading without losing their heads.

  18. Piece of Dirt says:

    I’m happy that Alabama didn’t win!! I’m happy with anyone except for Alabama winning. So I’m happy

  19. MR. BOSTON says:

    I wish Nimona won the battle of the books:) (::__::)

  20. I’m so ANGRY that “GONE CRAZY IN ALABAMA” did not win. Even though I didn’t read it, the people in the class spoke trash on that book. Knowing that no one liked I thought that Gone Crazy in Alabama would actually win. When it got to the finalists and I heard that Alabama lost I almost punched myself in the face.

  21. Darth Odiris says:

    I haven’t read “The Marvels” yet but I have heard good reviews. Battle Commander, you seem to have a very big opinion of “Gone Crazy in Alabama” now I ask you in all modesty, why? What makes it so special. What are your reasons for liking it so much?

    • Battle Commander Battle Commander says:

      We of the Battle Commander are actually three people. You can get a taste of Monica’s feelings about Gone Crazy here and Jonathan’s here. What this contest always indicates is how differently readers can feel about the same book.

  22. Lilly (Kitty) says:

    if only

Speak Your Mind