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Round 1, Match 5: Samurai Rising vs Some Writer!
JUDGE – TANYA LEE STONE
by Pamela S. Turner
illustrated by Gareth Hinds
by Melissa Sweet
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
When I was 8, my Dad built me an L-shaped reading nook, which hung about three feet below a corner of our family-room ceiling. It was accessible only by ladder rungs narrow enough for small shoes. Up I would climb, disappearing into The Kingdom of Wisdom, Whangdoodleland, or Camazotz. Real-life dramas sucked me in, too, especially those that featured can-do, resilient survivors of the worst fires, earthquakes, and floods in history. As I gobbled up more and more true stories, I found nirvana—an entire series of books all about famous Americans and what they were like as kids. I was a convert. A nonfiction fanatic…until I uncovered the horrible truth.
The authors of that series had staged a coup in my brain. They had peppered their plots with a bunch of details designed to impress, and had achieved this goal in dastardly fashion by…are you ready for it?…
…MAKING STUFF UP. Whaaaaaa???
Hell hath no fury like a young girl scorned. I dealt my own drastic measure and turned my back on any more “nonfiction” unless I was sure it was “the truth.” I hadn’t yet realized we were all doomed to deal with the insidious infiltration of “alternative facts.” So I took up with the likes of the straight-up factual—your basic encyclopedia entries, newspaper articles, history textbooks. We’re just not even going to get into how factual the latter were. You can guess what happened next. Boredom set in. History went from my best to worst subject.
Swearing off nonfiction forever, I sought solace back in my nook with Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret, The Other Side of the Mountain, Bridge to Terabithia, and—as I grew—Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. The same year I fell for Hunter, my English teacher handed me Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States. Riveting, detailed true stories with nothing fabricated? Sound the trumpets; can I get a Hallelujah! My reading world grew wide again.
Both Pamela Turner’s Samurai Rising and Melissa Sweet’s Some Writer! would make Zinn proud. They have each crafted narratives that allow us to fully step into real worlds while remaining true to their subjects. One gave me an intimate sense of an artist whose books are a bedrock of our field, but whose daily life, and the depths to which that life informed his approach to creativity, I knew little about. The other put me right on the battlefield with teenage samurai Minamoto Yoshitsune in the late 1100s. I felt the fierce and mysterious culture of the samurai, and was somehow able to look at the world through the eyes of a fifteen-year-old force of nature. I will forever be in awe of a writer who can shake off thick layers of dust from the past and have me fearing, and cheering for, a boy who lived eight centuries ago—even more so when the subject matter happens to stray far from my personal penchants.
Samurai Rising is not for the faint of heart. Full disclosure, I am the faint of heart. So while others may indeed revel in tales like Tametomo cutting out his own belly, a boy warrior’s head being sliced off, and other gruesome realities of samurai life, I am not that reader. But Turner paints these images with bold strokes and I have no doubt that such scenes will enthrall countless readers.
The overall world building of this story also has the added punch of power that Gareth Hinds and his illustrative prowess brings to the page. Hinds bowled me over with his stark brush and ink images exuding a life force worthy of the Japanese samurai. And the horses! From Turner we learn that there may be nothing quite as important to a samurai warrior as his horse. This book is flush with them. Magnificent beasts in all their glory—seen both through Turner’s descriptions and Hinds’ depictions. Drinking in the horses kept me going when the going got rough. As for maps in works of nonfiction, I am a sucker for how they ground me in place, and Hinds delivers on that front as well.
Where Samurai Rising is terrifying, Some Writer! is tender. Sweet has carefully curated a loving tribute of E. B. White. She presents a story that is delightful to read while simultaneously stepping out of the way to give the reader ample opportunities to enjoy En’s own clippings and comments. The way she weaves the artifacts into the narrative let me fall head first into the past, as if I was flipping through my very own beautifully presented archive complete with En’s poem in New York World, his hand-drawn map of the White farm in Maine, personal pages from an early draft of Stuart Little, a handwritten letter to Ursula Nordstrom, and oh my oh my, the Garth Williams sketches of Charlotte and the editorial evolution of what became that famous first line: “Where’s Papa going with that axe?”
White was the beneficiary of some excellent advice as a young reporter. His boss at the Seattle Times told him: “Just say the words.” Sweet has taken that advice one step farther while retaining the simplicity of its truth. While she has indeed just said the words, it is also our great fortune that as an illustrator she has also just sketched and drawn and painted and designed this gift of a book.
One of my pet peeves in nonfiction is a writer tempted to fill in gaps where the research is missing. We find neither Turner nor Sweet taking this liberty. My ear is tuned to appreciate the brevity with which Turner lets us know her knowledge of something is limited without distracting us from her story. When we travel with Yoshitsune and his “raging fleet,” she informs us “we don’t know his exact route,” and is transparent about the fact that what follows is a well-informed hypothesis.
And about the research that makes an author an authority; well, both Turner and Sweet have clearly done their homework. From Author’s Note to Afterword, a writer of true stories couldn’t wish for a better endorsement than the one Sweet received from White’s granddaughter. And while both Sweet and Turner include back matter that inspires trust, Turner earns a slight edge over Sweet by sheer volume. More than seventy pages of back matter? Be still my geeky heart!
A close call between these terrific true tales, but overall, the win has to go to Some Writer!, if only for the unsettling dreams Samurai Rising has inflicted on this writer.
— Tanya Lee Stone
Ms. Stone raises a fascinating question in her decision: what’s the value of truth in a kids’ non-fiction book? How much do kids care? Fifth-grade me, for one, loved researching the Vikings in exhaustive detail, so I’m all for the factual tidbits, and both books are chock-full of them. Through such specifics as Yoshitsune’s elaborate battle plans – charge down the vertical cliff! – and E.B. White’s winning line in the Minneapolis Journal Limerick Contest (“A bubble the spot now denotes”), both Sweet and Turner expertly draw the reader into engrossing worlds. I, for one, loved the terrifying exploits of the samurai just a little less than En’s guidebook to the Belgrade Lakes, and I’m happy with the outcome. Just as noteworthy, though, is Ms. Stone’s wonderful account of her love-hate relationship with nonfiction as a kid. In closing, here’s a limerick celebrating this battle:
When a spider can trap a samurai sword
I remember the power of words.
With their brilliant art
These two books fought hard,
But En, well he won my heart.
P.S. Pamela S. Turner wrote The Frog Scientist, which shockingly won the Undead Poll back in 2009. Can she do it again with samurai at her side?
– Kid Commentator RGN
Though I did enjoy Some Writer! and in fact preferred it over many of the books this year, Samurai Rising would have been my choice undoubtedly. Ms. Stone is correct: it is definitely not for the faint of heart. I’ve always been like this, but I relish tales that seem too crazy, too horrible, too anything to be true. But aside from the somewhat satisfyingly horrifying mental images, Turner’s vivid description makes the story is extremely engrossing. Unlike Some Writer!, which took me about three days of lazy reading in 10 minute intervals, I finished Samurai in one three hour sitting. That’s not to say I didn’t like Some Writer! (because I truly did). I only wish there was more of an explanation for Ms. Stone’s decision––was her real qualm the gruesome details of Samurai? On the bright side, I’m not upset that Some Writer! is advancing. I’m just disappointed that Samurai won’t be.
(And with that, I copied RGN’s limerick idea. I’m liking this trend of poetic responses, even if I can’t execute it as well!)
Yoshitsune Versus En: A Limerick
Neither character’s feats should be ignored
But this match could be only one’s reward
So Some Writer!’s En
Proved––this time––the pen
Is mightier than a samurai’s sword
– Kid Commentator NS
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 email@example.com.
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