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Round 1, Match 8: The Passion of Dolssa vs The Sun Is Also a Star
JUDGE – BRENDAN KIELY
|The Passion of Dolssa
by Julie Berry
|The Sun is Also a Star
by Nicola Yoon
What a difficult task! Of all the books to have paired together, here are two uniformly critically acclaimed, wildly successful and popular books, both Printz Honor finalists, one a National Book Award finalist, the other a Los Angeles Times Book Prize finalist—the list goes on and on for both of these books, and asking someone to chose between them is next to impossible. What’s more, they are vastly different kinds of stories. One is a work of historical fiction, bursting with vivid medieval and religious detail from the times of the Inquisition, and the other is a contemporary romance, a story of doomed love when political forces much larger than the lovers seem certain to keep them apart. This enormous distinction may have tipped the scales for another judge, but not for this one. Instead, it was like being given a menu with only two desserts listed—my favorite two!—and I still had to choose one. (What if I want both?)
Both books dance between multiple perspectives. Nicola Yoon in The Sun is Also a Star flips back and forth between the two young lovers, Natasha and Daniel, and adds a third perspective, a kaleidoscope of people and situations that weave a web of interconnectivity between Natasha and Daniel. Likewise, Julie Berry in The Passion of Dolssa toggles between a charismatic matchmaker, Botille, who will do everything she can to help her family, the visionary saint on the run for her life, Dolssa, and Lucien, the maniacal clergyman chasing her. But Berry doesn’t stop there. She complicates (in a good way) and broadens the story by creating a frame within a frame, within a frame, investing a haunting power to Dolssa’s story that sends echoes of her name and story from 1241 right up through today. It’s a magnificent feat of storytelling.
I admire both authors’ ambition and execution. Writing multiple perspectives in one story is already hard—making each point of view distinct and vital to enriching the overall story and not overwhelming one perspective or another is incredibly difficult. And in both novels, the choice to tackle the story in this way is not only a demonstration of writing mastery (Nicola Yoon and Julie Berry are both masters I deeply admire), it’s also a way to deftly build the world in which the story takes place, to layer it with complexity and depth—in short, to make it more epic!
In The Passion of Dolssa, we begin in 1241. I can see and smell the dirt roads Dolssa travels as she flees Lucien, and the clouds of dust still lingering as Lucien interviews the people who’ve seen her. The attention to historic detail is perfectly balanced, lifting the book into the cinematic without ever bogging the reader down in over-researched minutia. The medieval world in all its grim and muddy glory is vibrantly alive.
I really like that Dolssa and Botille flourish with empowerment. It’s important—not only these days, rather, always!—to read and champion stories that portray young women boldly navigating and standing up against the impossible odds of a world so awfully determined to harm them. In fact, Botille’s line near the beginning of the book rings like a bell whose vibrations we still hear today: “To be needed is one way to be safe. The other is to have money.” And by the end of the story, this question of needing to be safe is haunting and palpable as it is entirely up to Botille to save the ones she loves. What resonates most for this reader, too, is the notion that storytelling in and of itself might have the power to save us.
In effect, both books leave us with a sense, or an assurance, of grace, that while the trials and tribulations of our everyday lives (and these are not to be understated, the Inquisition and the imminent threat of deportation are intense pressures) seem omnipotent and omnipresent, there is still something larger at work that provides hope.
And yet, I must choose one of these books. In the end, The Sun is Also a Star rises to the top for its bold insistence that falling in love with the one person best suited for you is every bit as magical and improbable, as it is certain and inevitable.
For every person who has fallen so deeply in love, The Sun is Also a Star reaffirms the nearly ineffable quality of joy you already know, and for those looking for love, it promises that given time, the circumstances will slowly arrange and you’ll find yourself joyously falling when you least expect it. Even professed cynics find their voice in this novel, voicing the quiet hopes that lie beneath steely veneers. As Natasha says halfway through the novel, “But there’s part of me, the part that doesn’t believe in God or true love, that really wants him to prove me wrong about not believing in those things.”
The Sun is Also a Star is a book for our times, not for it’s politics (which it showcases in all the terror and horror of deportation and immigration rights in the United States today) but even more so for its proud reminder that love indeed can conquer all.
It’s noteworthy that Mr. Kiely himself coauthored a book balancing two perspectives. All American Boys, the recent much-acclaimed YA novel by Kiely and Jason Reynolds (Ghost!), uses the voice of both a white teen and a black teen in a powerful book that makes us (and its protagonists) confront police brutality. Yoon’s romance and Berry’s historical fiction novel are less overtly political than All American Boys, but both provide their own take on the personal being political. Natasha, as an undocumented immigrant, faces the threat of deportation, but she and Daniel fight back with their endearing love. Even the inquisitors of 13th century France meet the resilience and passion of three sisters in a small, provincial town. Yet although the writers’ sympathies clearly lie with the oppressed, the plethora of perspectives gives us access to the inquisitors, the family members, the security officers. I found The Sun Is Also A Star a bit sappy despite its brilliant characters and backdrop of politics, culture, and history, but it’s still an incredibly moving book. And both these novels just affirm humanity in this troubling time. Hurrah for that.
– Kid Commentator RGN
Every year that I’ve done this, there’s one book––historical fiction––that gets eliminated in the first round against a book that I enjoyed but not nearly as much. I think of it as my own private version of the Newberry Curse. In 2015, it was The Family Romanov. Last year, it was The Hired Girl. This year, it’s The Passion of Dolssa. (What do the judges have against historical fiction? Can we call it the Historical Fiction Curse? No? You think I’m too bitter about a book that got eliminated two years ago? Fine then.)
Don’t get me wrong, I really liked The Sun Is Also a Star! But I’ve never been a sucker for romances unless they’re really good or heart wrenching. Sun was neither,. I spent a lot of time thinking I should be crying, and no time actually crying. But to each their own I guess! I never expected Passion to advance farther than Round 2, so I’m not that upset that Sun is advancing. This time, at least.
– Kid Commentator NS
THE SUN IS ALSO A STAR
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 firstname.lastname@example.org.
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