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Battle of the Books

Round 1, Match 6: Wet Cement vs When the Sea Turned to Silver




Wet Cement
by Bob Raczka
When the Sea Turned to Silver
by Grace Lin
Little Brown

Bob Raczka’s concrete poetry collection Wet Cement begins with a pun (concrete/cement, get it?) and ends with a copyright notice that is itself a concrete piece, though not an actual poem.

The spreads are constantly and consistently clever, playful, and inventive. However, as a poet myself, I kept getting caught on rhymes that just missed—one of his quirks is rhyming a singular word with a plural: Or using rhyme words that are not quite slant and not quite right: twelve/himself; shawls/at all; there/scared.

And yet when his poetry hat is on tight, the poem is as clever and perfect as the art.

For example. the Big Dipper poem works as a poem even without the concrete art making the poem look like the Dipper. It is both clever and deep.

Way down there on earth, you hold firefly jars

Filled up to their lids with light.

Up here in the sky, I’m a vessel of stars,

My brim overflowing with night.

But the editor in me wanted one more pass on the poem to straighten out its meter so that the first two lines read:

Down there on earth you hold firefly jars

Filled up to their lids with bright light.

All in all, a good book of concrete poetry that just (slightly) misses the mark. I happen to be a huge fan of Raczka’s work in concrete poems, especially the formatting. We once talked about doing a book together. I just wanted the poems inWest Cement themselves to be as perfect, surprising, and thought-provoking as the amazing art.

Ritual disclaimer: Grace Lin is a friend of mine and a neighbor two towns away.

It took a few chapters before I totally got into both the rhythm and the magic system of When the Sea Turned to Silver, but suddenly, and without realizing it, I was totally engaged. After that, I was reading the book any time I could, galloping through both the narrative portions and the tales within the tale.

The book begins with disaster, is filled with magical journeys, ends with. . .but I shall not tell you that.

Along the way are stories—some noted as such and told as if an old storyteller had written those chapters. Others are embedded in the fabric of the novel itself.

The prose is metaphor rich, and lyrical. The storyteller’s voice is engaged and engaging.

Some of the stories are ones I recognized, having put together twelve anthologies of folk tales. Others I recognized parts of, either as strictly Chinese or as ones with European variants. But knowing the provenance of the tales within the tale was an added bonus for me. A young reader (or even a non-nuanced older reader) can enjoy them as they meet them here for the first time.

Lin is a magician of this kind of weaving which—like the magic jacket of many patches in the novel—keeps us warm and warns us in days of danger, political upheavals, and mystery.

If I have to choose between these two very different books for the one to move on in the Battle of the Books, without hesitation I would choose Grace Linn’sWhen the Sea Turned to Silver.

Jane Yolen

Lin’s storytelling captured me back in the 2013 battle when I read Starry River of the Sky, and When the Sea Turned to Silver is no different. It’s one of my favorites this year, and I’m ecstatic that it’s continuing in the battle. The folklore’s fascinating partly because it speaks in a language we see so rarely these days: that of fables. A king helps an old man and gets a Paper of Answers that saves his kingdom; two patricians are turned into monkeys for their greed; an artist whose paintings come to life gets revenge through his art on those who would abuse his talent. In some ways, it’s a very different moral universe than the stories we tell today. The villains get punished in an unexpected yet fitting way, and the protagonists win out of love and goodness. In the end, though, we’re rooting for Pinmei and Yiishan, marveling at their innocence and growth as they navigate a fantastical and awe-inspiring world.

Raczka, turning poetry into visual art, also creates something unexpected. Ms. Yolen makes a good point that the poetry could be a little tighter, but that didn’t inhibit my enjoyment of Wet Cement’s delightful inventiveness. The joy of both books is that they take us into amazing worlds we don’t expect – and if books are for anything, that’s what they’re for.

– Kid Commentator RGN

Battle Commander (gravatar)



  1. Kid Judge Kid Judge says:

    Although I thoroughly enjoyed reading both Wet Cement, by Bob Raczka, and When The Sea Turned To Silver, by Grace Lin, the latter was my winner. Even though Wet Cement, which is a book of concrete poems, was very entertaining, it was hard to really get into the book. This is because each poem has nothing to do with each other so the reader can not really get absorbed into it. I will have to say that the shapes and designs of the poems do really turn each one into not only writing, but artwork as well. When The Sea Turned To Silver is a very good book. It is basically an adventure story with folktales seamlessly intertwined within it. Grace Lin does a fantastic job of making sure that each folktale doesn’t seem forced into the story and instead, truly has to do with what the characters are talking about. Clearly, these two books couldn’t have been more different, and it was hard to make a decision. However, when I factor in the fact that I do like getting into a good story, I have to choose When The Sea Turned To Silver. (Fantasy BoB Kid Judge Eliza G.)

  2. Sarah Cheney says:

    Dear SLJ Editors,
    For the third time in a row, I am finding typos in your posts (for this year – last year I didn’t say anything). First the misuse of “then” in the very first battle, now the misspelling of Wet (your post reads West) in the title of the book. Wow! That’s a big mistake!

    I am concerned that you are not only showing our students that correctness is not important, but leaving the typos days later shows carelessness. I am truly disappointed.

    I use this battle every year to demonstrate to my students excellent writing and vocabulary. While it provides an excellent teaching moment to explain the correct use of then vs. than, I wish it were not necessary.
    I hope that in the future, I can count on your contest for excellent modeling of Blogging as well.
    Sarah Cheney

    • Battle Commander Battle Commander says:

      Thanks for letting us know. We all proofread the write-ups, but things get through and so we are enormously appreciative of these being pointed out so we can quickly correct them. As for students, we find ours love finding the occasional typos in their books! It does seem to happen even with multiple eyes checking so carefully to make a published work error free.

  3. Other Meredith says:

    I really loved both, so I’m not disappointed but I will say that I don’t get the criticism of the poetry in Wet Cement. I am an avowed poetry hater, and I was into it.

  4. Paige Ysteboe says:

    Each year I read books for this battle that I probably wouldn’t have otherwise read — that was the case this year with several of the books, most notably When the Sea Turns to Silver. I can only read so much and since I had already read Starry River of the Sky, I probably would have skipped this and therefore missed one of my favorite books of the year (so far). This trilogy by Grace Lin is truly a treasure.

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