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Round 1, Match 7: Anna and the Swallow Man vs The Lie Tree
JUDGE – NOVA REN SUMA
|Anna and the Swallow Man
by Gavriel Savit
|The Lie Tree
by Frances Hardinge
After I finished the two books up in this round, I was left excited by the depths of imagination both of these authors created on the page.
I’ll tell you what I look for as a reader: I like to be delighted by language, I like to forge a deep connection with a character, and always, always, I want to be swept away by a story. Both of these books succeeded in sweeping me away. I loved the language in each. They showed artistry, and imagination, and I would recommend them both: Anna and the Swallow Man by Gavriel Savit and The Lie Tree by Frances Hardinge. But only one can be chosen to move on to the next round, and, to me, ultimately, that choice was clear.
Let me begin by telling you about Anna and the Swallow Man, a moving and surreal story that sweeps you up from the first page. We begin in Krakow, Poland, in 1939, on the day seven-year-old Anna’s father is taken away by the Gestapo and sent to a concentration camp to die. But Anna doesn’t know this. She can’t know. She is only seven, and the story unfolds in a subtle, heart-wrenching manner, allowing us a sense of the greater world surrounding Anna—that terrifying world—while also letting us to see how she interprets it. Of Krakow, we are told, “What was that place now, what were its rooms and sidewalks, what was each inch of negative space between the buildings and automobiles and boot heels of the city, if it was not the great open mouth that had swallowed her father up?”
With her father gone, her new life begins when she meets a strange man who seems as if he can understand the language of swallows. He won’t give her, or anyone, his name, and so she calls him the Swallow Man. Soon, fatherless, she follows him, and their adventures lead them to wander from place to place, hiding much of their time in the woods of Poland, skirting the edges of violence. They come upon a man who escaped the Jewish ghetto, and soon he, too, joins them in their wandering, until he meets his tragic end. The book doesn’t shy away from tragedy. We learn, “It is not good to stay living amidst death. But attempting to think of that time—of those days in that place—without an understanding of horror is like trying to draw the spaces between fingers without an understanding of the fingers themselves.”
I appreciated the elegance of the prose and the balance between what Anna knows and understands as a young child, and what the reader knows and understands from context, from history. Anna and the Swallow Man was wonderfully creative, elegantly written, and a fairy tale in itself. The end is left open—which is something I personally love as a reader, handing over the power of interpretation, so the story lives on in my imagination. I will be thinking about this novel for a long time.
Next let me tell you about The Lie Tree, because here, too, I was swept away.
Now we are in Victorian England, and we begin as fourteen-year-old Faith is forced to move with her famous scientist father and the rest of her family to the remote island of Vane, where her father’s expertise in the field has been sought out by local scientists. But very soon upon arrival, and after some odd and even frightening behavior, Faith’s father is dead in the night… murdered, she suspects. Her father has left behind a secret only Faith knows: a secret he was guarding from everyone in the scientific community. Hidden in a sea cave is a magical specimen known as the Lie Tree. It feeds off lies and can ultimately reveal deep and lasting truths, and Faith will make it grow larger than it ever has before once she starts lying to feed it. “A lie was like a fire,” Faith discovers, and she will about burn up the whole island with hers, all so she can find out the truth and avenge her father’s untimely death from those who stole him from her.
Faith was a character I hungered to follow. She was aching to break free of the confines and expectations of girls of her station and time, desperate to be acknowledged and seen for her intellect. She was brave in the face of her fears. Witnessing her transformation throughout the story was one of the great joys of the book.
Her father said these cold words to her before he died, “A girl cannot be brave, or clever, or skilled as a boy can. If she is not good, she is nothing.” But Faith proves this wrong. We watch her transform: “I am not good. Something in Faith’s head broke free, beating black wings into the sky. Nobody good could feel what I feel. I am wicked and deceitful and full of rage. I cannot be saved. She did not feel hot or helpless anymore. She felt the way snakes look when they moved.”
It was moments like that—as Faith deepened and grew and exposed who she was meant to be—that sang for me. The Lie Tree is a murder mystery, a fantastical adventure, a story of revenge and of coming-of-age. It was thrilling to read, at once a page-turner and a book I wanted to savor for all the gorgeous feats of language.
So how to make a choice between these two books?
To those who know me, or know my own work, you might think you can guess my choice: I appreciate surreal storytelling, and I always love an imaginative open end. And while I do admire Anna and the Swallow Man for these qualities especially, it was the deft plotting and delicious writing and deep characterization found in The Lie Tree that soared for me. There is a singular power in The Lie Tree that cannot be denied. This power shows through in every line, in the assured plotting, and in the intricate workings of the mystery. A writer who can so artfully weave a mystery until it bursts open at the end in such a satisfying way, and all the while write page after page with incisive beauty that punctures the depths of her character, has my awe—and my vote—every time.
This is a writer with undeniable mastery of her craft. With admiration, and a marked-up copy of the book littered with underlined passages that wowed me, I choose The Lie Tree by Frances Hardinge to move on to the next round.
—Nova Ren Suma
And we enter a new category: YA books! What exactly is a YA book? We think of it as a book geared towards teenage audiences, but there’s so much variation in what teenagers appreciate and are mature enough to read, not just in terms of content but style. I, for one, was enthralled by Anna and the Swallow Man, but the literary style and the sobering content made it seem “adult” despite Anna’s young age. In grappling with the actions of a young girl in WWII, Savrit’s beautifully written story reminds me of Between Shades of Grey, a finalist in the 2012 battle, which some also felt was slightly “adult.” These books, as well as The Lie Tree, are in the end about female empowerment, but Anna’s story ends in a complex way that both empowers Anna and prevents her from acting powerfully. Like Ms. Ren Suma, I like its open-endedness, but after talking to a teacher about it, I also recognize the problems in an ending that gives Anna a lack of control (although she is 7, and this is 1941 Poland). Faith’s story ends differently: it’s the girl who has control over a powerful, magical tree. As Ms. Ren Suma said, The Lie Tree swept me away in its fantastical, historical world, and I’m delighted that it’s moving on to the next round.
– Kid Commentator RGN
Moving into this year’s YA brackets, I’m glad I’m actually part of the intended audience. I crave validity! But regardless, I’m so pleased with the winner of this round. The Lie Tree! (So good.) I was in awe of the Faith’s (and the plot’s) complexity. And there were some spot-on yet subtle bits of wisdom that crept up on me, making the book that much more enjoyable. (One of my favorites, you request? Thanks for asking!) “‘I assume that the high road is a longer and more wearisome journey?’ Myrtle asked briskly.” Of course, Myrtle was referring to a literal high and low road, but there were so many moments where the reader could see Frances Hardinge’s intent. But amidst these tidbits and the fascinating historical details, Faith still managed to steal the show. I felt so strongly attached to her by the end that it pained me to close the book. As for Anna and the Swallow Man? Unfortunately, as is the case with many WWII novels that I’ve read, I didn’t enjoy it as much as I thought I would. Though I think the plot was very well done (the ending was my favorite part), I share RGN’s sentiment regarding Anna’s narrative. I could have used more of her and less of her circumstance, but maybe that’s just me. Regardless, I’m just happy that The Lie Tree is moving forward!
– Kid Commentator NS
THE LIE TREE
WILL MOVE ON TO ROUND TWO
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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