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Battle of the Books

Round 2, Match 3: Some Writer! vs When The Sea Turned to Silver



Some Writer!
by Melissa Sweet
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
When the Sea Turned to Silver
by Grace Lin
Little Brown


On the surface, Some Writer! and When the Sea Turned to Silver are utterly different books, one nonfiction and filled with details from author E.B. White’s real life, and one a fantastical journey through a vividly imagined world. Yet both are about finding your way to your destiny.

In Grace Lin’s When the Sea Turned to Silver, the young protagonist Pinmei thinks of herself as “a scared mouse, a quiet girl, a coward.” She lives with her grandmother, Amah, a renowned storyteller, in a hut on the side of a mountain. A brutal new emperor has been sending his soldiers to all the villages, taking away the men to build a wall around his vast kingdom. Whenever a wife, child, or mother begs for a man’s freedom, the soldiers say, “Bring the emperor a Luminous Stone That Lights the Night and you can have your wish.” One night, the soldiers come to Pinmei’s house and take away her grandmother, though Pinmei doesn’t understand why. She and her young friend, Yishan, set out to find the Luminous Stone and rescue Amah.

Amah ends up in a prison with a stonecutter, who is grateful to be imprisoned with her. As a storyteller, the stonecutter says,“You can make time disappear. You can bring us to places we have never dreamed of. You can make us feel sorrow and joy and peace.”

As Pinmei searches for her grandmother, she discovers that she too can make time disappear for others, because she’s actually a talented storyteller herself. The main action alternates with many short stories filled with color and texture, darkness and light, that hold within themselves their own perfect logic and offer moments of epiphany connecting to the main story. During their quest, Pinmei and Yishan encounter magical items and animals and people that Lin masterfully manages to root in their own firm reality. It’s amazing how involving each smaller story is, and amazing as well how Lin weaves all the parts together as Pinmei takes her hero’s journey through the ancient Chinese landscape. There is evil and sadness in these pages, but also triumph, courage, and discovery. And, of course, in the end Lin ties everything together as only she can – there’s nobody else quite like her. She has also illustrated the novel, including the beautiful cover. All in all, a bravura performance.

Some Writer!, a biography of E.B. White, is written by Melissa Sweet, a Caldecott Honor winner. It’s the story of Elwyn Brooks White, who was born on July 11, 1899 and knew he wanted to be a writer by the time he was seven or eight. As a child, he was kind of frightened: of the dark, of the future, of public speaking, of not knowing things he really ought to know. But he was abundantly loved and lived a happy and safe childhood with his large family. He owned a dog, chicks, lizards, and pigeons. He loved summer and animals and words. Some Writer is told scrapbook-style, with photographs, illustrations, pages from book manuscripts, poems, and handwritten journal excerpts. It’s a book best not rushed through, but rather savored and wandered through, the way you might wander through a forest, stopping to closely examine a leaf here, a snail there.

While White was growing up, he wrote stories and poems, and in the summer loved to wake up before his family and canoe by himself on a glassy lake. By 1917 he was set to go to Cornell. The summer before he left for college, he wrote “My utter dependence galls me, and I am living the life of a slacker.” And “Eighteen and still no future! I’d be more contented in prison, for there at least I would know precisely what I had to look forward to.” He traveled to Ithaca, New York, before college started, and then he got so distracted by hanging about town that he missed the first few days of school. He enjoyed college, and afterwards he worked as a camp counselor and then found employment at a few writing jobs he disliked. He took a road trip across America, “travelling light and trying new adventures.” In the mid-1920’s, he got a low-paying job at The New Yorker writing captions, short articles, and fillers. Then, on a train trip in 1926, he fell asleep and “dreamt of a mouse who was fully dressed in dapper clothing with a hat and cane.” He wrote a few stories about this mouse, but it was not until 1945 that his first children’s novel, based on this dream, was published. Stuart Little was banned by some libraries, but kids loved it, and thousands of them wrote to him. White went on, of course, to write Charlotte’s Web and The Trumpet of the Swan. And perhaps, during this time of strife – and of intolerance from both sides of the fence in America – one more item about his life is worth noting. White fiercely opposed McCarthy-era blacklisting, and was courageous about saying so. “It is not a crime to believe anything at all in America,” he said.

One hates to choose between two such excellent books, but one must. Grace Lin is one of our most talented writers: her prose is extraordinary and her storytelling divine. I’ll never forget first reading When the Mountain Meets the Moon – it blew me away – and When the Sea Turned to Silver is also very, very lovely. But my heart was just so moved by the life E.B. White lived, by the way your years can seem to meander at times and still lead to greatness. I love the idea of kids reading this book and seeing that you can get extraordinarily good at something while still receiving an occasional D in school; taking a road trip here and slacking off there; and working for years in jobs that are wonderful but not really your destiny. Then you take all your accumulated skill and focus everything you have – and end up one of the finest children’s writers of all time. You can not know where you’re headed, and yet you can be headed in exactly the right direction. While When the Sea Turned to Silver takes the magical and makes it real, Some Writer is real enough to touch, it’s down-to-earth, and yet it’s totally mystical.

For that reason, I have to choose Some Writer. I simply loved this book.

Cynthia Kadohata

Cynthia Kadohata fangirling right now: The Thing About Luck was my favorite book of the 2014 battle, a deeply moving and subtle story. And Ms. Kadohata’s decision lives up to my hopes, with insightful and beautifully written phrases. She expresses a “clear preference” for Some Writer!, which is the part of a decision Roger Sutton said “matter[ed] most” in 2013. Her specificity (in the penultimate sentence) is a solid achievement, especially considering that not all the judges this year fully clarified their reasoning. (That is, if you want logic in the first place: Mr. Dashner, in his hilarious decision, simply went by his gut.) Mr. Kiely, for instance, advanced The Sun is Also a Star because it was an inspiring love story, but he didn’t compare it with Dolssa or identify a flaw in either book that would cause the other to win.

The Round 2 decisions, though, have spelled out their logic very well, from Mr. Steptoe’s musical metaphors to Mr. Schrefer’s talk about book structure. Interestingly, Ms. Kadohata summarized the books’ plots much more than other judges this year, which is useful for those who haven’t read the books, but superfluous for those who have.

I also want to note Mr. Sutton’s “frequent assertion” in 2013 “that there’s too much diplomacy in children’s book discussion.” As usual, many judges have given their praise––obligatory, if heartfelt––without substantively critiquing the books. (Shouts out to Ms. Yolen for her constructive criticism of Wet Cement!) Perhaps the overwhelming positivity is due to the lack of controversial books in this year’s battle, while earlier we had books like X and Grasshopper Jungle

– Kid Commentator RGN

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  1. Paige Ysteboe says

    I don’t know if I could have decided between these two books — they are both so incredibly wonderful. Maybe When the Sea Turned to Silver will be the undead pick.

  2. I loved SOME WRITER!, so am super happy with this, but mostly I need to say how much I enjoy RGN’s commentary and how much I’m going to miss it!

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