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March 30, 2013 by Battle Commander
Our money was on THE FAULT IN OUR STARS and WONDER as the winners of the Undead Poll, and those books fared quite well, coming in second and third respectively. SERAPHINA came in fourth, THE ONE AND ONLY IVAN fifth, and BOMB sixth. What came in first? Well, it’s a book that captured 27% of the vote, and held a commanding lead from start to finish. It is such a great book that, for the first time, I think the Undead Poll winner might win the whole thing. Could it be SPLENDORS AND GLOOMS? LIAR & SPY? MOONBIRD? STARRY RIVER OF THE SKY? Nah, it’s ...
Congratulations, Code Name Verity! See you on Monday, April 1st!
March 29, 2013 by Battle Commander
|No Crystal Stair by Vaunda Nelson Carolrhoda Books/Lerner||Splendors and Glooms by Laura Amy Schlitz Candlewick|
Judged by James Patterson
It seems criminal to have to pick between SPLENDORS AND GLOOMS and NO CRYSTAL STAIR, to lead kids away from either of these tremendous stories.
SLJ, what gives?
SPLENDORS AND GLOOMS is one of the year’s best. It’s on the bestseller lists, won a Newbery honor, and is certainly worthy of all the attention -- kids are loving the mystery story of two young puppeteers willing their new friend out of a curse. I loved it, too.
It’s peppered with twists and turns. Author Laura Amy Schlitz says she’s paying homage to Dickens, and she’s done him justice—I jumped from cliffhanger to cliffhanger, and was genuinely afraid for these poor kids. And I can’t decide who I’d run faster from, OLIVER TWIST’S lurking Fagin or SPLENDORS’ drunken Grisini.
There’s years of rich research packed into the story here. I can see classrooms reading this book and talking about the poverty of Victorian London, the history of entertainment, the thrills of steampunk…
Suffice to say, SPLENDORS AND GLOOMS is a pageturner to be reckoned with for years to come.
But NO CRYSTAL STAIR hit a vulnerable spot for me, and what I think should be a vulnerable spot for everybody: it proves that books, and people like the librarians and booksellers who surround others in books, can change lives, strengthen neighborhoods, even change the world. There’s power in a place that gives access to books and reading—a power we can’t afford to lose.
NO CRYSTAL STAIR, by Vaunda Michaeux Nelson, tracks the life of Lewis Michaux (who happens to be Nelson’s grand-uncle) and his founding of the African National Memorial Bookstore in Harlem. Michaux started by setting up a cart of books on the street corner and yelling “Don’t get took! Read a book! Come on by and take a look!” (Man, I miss living in New York City.)
Langston Hughes, Zora Neale Hurston, W. E. B. DuBois, and Malcolm X hung out at Lewis Michaux’s bookstore, and Michaux’s number one priority (after selling books, of course) was to keep their minds fueled, and keep the conversation heated.
I love that this could be read as a book, or played as a documentary. The quick monologues fly off the page like a movie.
And Michaux is a character and a half. The FBI—whose files are printed alongside his accounts--kept a watch on Michaux for selling “antiwhite” literature. But what Michaux was really doing, was providing the best place of learning to ever hit New York City.
The African National Memorial Bookstore was a forum for people who didn’t have one before, and a rich source of African American authors and culture too. He pointed his finger at the white students who made their way uptown; he accused them of not doing enough to help their black neighbors. And when Black Panthers came in the store, holding up their fists, he unclenched them, and gave them books to clench instead. Michaux’s book collection and his personality began to change people’s habits, change people’s minds.
Nelson notes in the back of the book that she visited the store once as a child, but had no idea of its influence, or the story she had at her fingertips, until she was older. At that point, Michaux was already gone. And soon, as is becoming the trend in this country, the bookstore was gone too.
How could I resist this almost-non-fiction, Civil Rights-insider, media map of a story? A book about a man who grew up picking berries, then worked hard, opened up a bookstore, and became a superstar?
Sorry, but that’s my idea of a national hero.
Is it too late for us to redefine who we’re calling heroes in this country? Can’t the booksellers, the librarians, be king?
While kids read NO CRYSTAL STAIR, flipping through the mixed media, jumping through the different people’s voices, they’re getting a great message, one of the most important messages we have to offer as authors and librarians and teachers and gatekeepers: it’s cool to love books, to come together and share your ideas and passions. Books can be powerful enough to upset the norm, to actually change the way our world thinks. We’ve got to keep hammering this point home, because it’s true, but too many people out there seem to have forgotten it.
We’ve got to face the facts. Bookstores in this country are dying. Libraries are being pulled out from under us. The chances of a kid in this country coming in contact with a book he or she will love are getting pretty slim. Isn’t that scary?
So what are we doing about it? Let’s start with making some noise about this no-more-books, no-more-bookstores problem. And then, of course, let’s go out, and pick up books to bring home for our kids—books as great as NO CRYSTAL STAIR and SPLENDORS AND GLOOMS.
Give SPLENDORS AND GLOOMS to all of your kids who want a terrific, meaty mystery. But everyone should read NO CRYSTAL STAIR, which, if I must call a winner here, is my pick. Give it to all of your students, and let them flip around and go at it at their own pace. Better yet, bring a bunch of kids together and read this one aloud.
-- James Patterson
I’m already on record as belatedly and somewhat reluctantly jumping on the SPLENDORS AND GLOOMS bandwagon. I really do think it is a fabulous novel—even if it’s not quite my cup of tea. On the other hand, I’ve announced my unwavering support for NO CRYSTAL STAIR since the very beginning of the Heavy Medal season. I understand why some people have trouble warming up to it, but James has articulated what works so well that I find no way to improve upon it. What he said.
-- Commentator Jonathan Hunt
Rooting for both Splendors and Glooms and No Crystal Stair in the previous rounds puts me in a tough position to comment on this match. With Round 3 coming to a tight close, the victor of this match goes on to the Big Kahuna Round, the round which determines this years winners. Both books are highly qualified to win this title, but one must prevail over the other. Splendors and Glooms transported me into a dark, twisted , fantastical world that imprisoned my outside thoughts and focused my every being on the story unfolding before my eyes. No Crystal Stair told a story that every human being regardless of age should read and have knowledge about, a story that was both moving and important about our country's past. Although I was strongly compelled and moved by the heartwarming story about the African American fight for racial equality, Splendors and Glooms not only interested me and transfixed me, but gave me the power to let go of my wandering thoughts and focus on the truly amazing masterpiece that Laura Amy Schiltz created.
-- Kid Commentator GI
Again, I can't trust myself with Splendors and Glooms. In hindsight, I've appreciated it more, but I really have to read it again. And Mr. Patterson is definitely right – No Crystal Stair is an important book. Since Lewis Michaux's story is also absolutely fascinating, it definitely deserves a spot in the finals. But, as of this match, there is no middle-grade fiction left, and it is unlikely to come back in the Undead Poll; Code Name Verity will probably win (which isn't a bad thing). Is MG Fiction cursed? They fare badly against non-fiction, worse against YA fiction… Although the judges clearly enjoy books like Splendors and Glooms, those stories just don't seem to have enough importance to most readers (including myself). And middle-grade fiction does have meaning, just not as tragically.
-- Kid Commentator RGN
March 28, 2013 by Battle Commander
|Bomb by Steve Sheinkin Roaring Brook/Macmillan||The Fault in Our Stars by John Green Dutton/Penguin|
Judged by Lynne Rae Perkins
I would secretly like to be Barbara Tuchman. That is, to be historically knowledgeable, to have an encyclopedic yet Big Picture understanding of history, or some slices of it. Even just one slice. I want to know and understand stuff. I like knowing stuff.
But (how do I say this without embarrassing myself?) as interested as I feel myself to be, there comes a time in many nonfiction books when I begin to feel overwhelmed by minutiae, a time when I lose track of who is who. Followed shortly by a time when I fall asleep.
When I received word that one of my books would be Steve Sheinkin’s Bomb: the Race to Build -- and Steal -- the World’s Most Dangerous Weapon, my heart dipped a little. Would I be able to get through it? The book jacket was a mottled tan and had a picture of an airplane on it. A part of me that I’m not proud of said, “Boy Book.”
I decided I would read Bomb first and save the second book, The Fault in Our Stars by John Green, as a reward.
My husband was going to be out of the house all Saturday running a pond hockey tournament at the ice rink down the street. I set myself up in the living room with a pot of coffee, good lighting and determination, and read the first sentences of the prologue:
“He had a few more minutes to destroy seventeen years worth of evidence. Still in pajamas, Harry Gold raced around his cluttered bedroom . . .”
A page of black and white photos showed this Harry Gold: dressed in graduation regalia, he had a round, calmly pleasant face that would have been comfortable in a book of nursery rhymes with a cow jumping over it.
Really? I thought. This guy was a spy?
Next came the story of how the physicist Robert Oppenheimer wandered away from the car where he had been sitting with his date, looking out over the San Francisco Bay. Absorbed in thinking about theoretical physics, he walked and walked until, finding himself at his own apartment, he went in and went to bed. He had forgotten his date, and his car, entirely.
One well-chosen, telling, and well-told anecdote followed another. Before I knew it, I was eavesdropping on the conversation between two physicists sitting on a log in the Swedish snow, speculating about how a speeding neutron might cause an atom to split in the same way that a “wobbly droplet” of water can stretch, until it splits in two. I was eavesdropping, imagining the diagram being drawn in the snow with a stick, and thinking I almost understood it.
Story by story, Steve Sheinkin pieces together the very big story he wants to tell us of the scientific and political developments that led to the making and using of the first atomic bomb. He never lets us forget that this big story is the result of the accumulating, intersecting smaller stories, each with individuals, human beings, at the center.
We feel the physicists’ pure love of science.
We understand how different individuals made the choice to become spies.
We see half-starved Norwegian resistance fighters jumping between floating chunks of ice and climbing the rocky cliffs to destroy the Nazi heavy water plant.
We feel horror with the scientists as they realize the destructive power of what they worked so hard to create.
We experience the great multiplicity of the events that together make life, which we later call “history.”
At one particularly colorful point, I wondered if things had really happened that way or if Mr. Sheinkin was maybe juicing it up a little bit. How could he know these things? I flipped to the back, to the extremely clear appendix that tells just where each quote or anecdote was found.
The text is filled with striking images. So are the 16 pages of black-and-white photos.
Together, the text and the photos help us to an understanding of this slice of history, one of the most significant of the twentieth century.
This kind of story can’t include every detail. There were a few details I thought could have been thrown in without mucking things up. For example, when Robert Oppenheim’s wife was mentioned, I thought, Wife? How does this guy have a wife? When FDR died, I thought, can you just remind me what killed him? When the scientists knew that fallout was deadly, I wondered how they knew. Wasn’t this the very first bomb?
But, hey -- wanting to know more -- that’s a good thing. And the appendix tells me right where I can find the answers to these questions.
Steve Sheinkin, you won me over. I am a new fan of yours and hope to read more of your books. I am glad to know so much more than I did about this slice of time.
On day 2, I read John Green’s The Fault in Our Stars, a novel of the true love of Hazel and Augustus, two teenagers living with/dying of cancer, in Indianapolis.
Other important people are their parents, their friend Isaac who also has cancer, and a reclusive writer whose book about a girl with cancer becomes important to both of them.
Every sentence is kind of brilliant. Okay, don’t hold me to that. There are probably some pedestrian sentences in there. But I was so rapt and laughing so much that I was on page 104 before I said to myself, Someone is going to die here and you’re going to be bawling before this is over.
True, and true.
That was also the point at which I wondered if the book was going to end in the middle of a sentence. If you read it, which you should, you’ll see why I wondered. But I decided not to peek. And sometimes I do peek, so that is significant.
Hazel and Augustus are sharp, articulate, funny. They are resolutely unsappy about their situations.
I was so grateful for that. They know for real that “The world is not a wish-granting factory.”
Mostly, they want a no-bullshit way of understanding life and death that allows for beauty and meaning.
Actually, what they mostly want is to live. They want to be able to marvel at the way the light hits the grass, even when they are noticing this because they have fallen on their faces.
And they do.
But “Some infinities are larger than others.”
Their infinity includes a “Wish” trip to the Netherlands to meet the famous author. Some important things happen while they are there.
I didn’t really buy it later in the story when circumstances brought the reclusive author from Amsterdam to Indianapolis. I bought it even less when he was still there a week later, popping up in the back of Hazel’s family’s minivan.
“What?” I said. Out loud. I’m still wondering if he was supposed to be a hallucination. Maybe I missed something. But such was my investment in the characters at that point that I said, Okay, whatever. To paraphrase what Hazel wrote in a letter to the favorite author, I would read a grocery list if John Green wrote it.
You might consider that last sentence a foreshadowing.
My first reaction on learning which two books I was to choose between was, But that’s apples and oranges.
It is, and it isn’t.
Each book is looking for truths, important ones. Each book is interested in what it means to be human. I realize the broadness of these statements could be matched by, Each book is written with words. English words.
Fault laments the prospect of oblivion, of living and dying and leaving no trace. And then concludes that it might not be such a bad thing. Bomb tells us about individuals who did leave a trace, and how some came to feel deep regret, or at least ambivalence, about having done so.
I am so glad to have read both of these books.
I had some tentative ideas about how to choose one. I considered, Which one has more post-it notes? Each had eight.
Which one did I want to share with more people? Again, a similar number, though different people. How to choose?
Which one would I be reading again?
The train began to pull away. The conductor told me I could only choose one.
I reached out and grabbed The Fault in Our Stars.
For its clear-eyed funny transcendence.
-- Lynne Rae Perkins
For me, this is the best round of the tournament because each book—BOMB, THE FAULT IN OUR STARS, SPLENDORS AND GLOOMS, and NO CRYSTAL STAIR—has already beaten two books to get this far. Sure, one judge can make a “wrong” decision, shutting a good book out, but it’s hard to argue that what remains is unworthy of winning the whole tournament. While it’s probably no surprise that I would have picked BOMB here, I’m starting to feel as if, indeed, there is actually no fault in the stars of THE FAULT IN OUR STARS. Each judge has praised the sentence-level writing, the impressive characterizations of Hazel and Augustus, and those grand themes of love and death, living and dying.We have a history of picking the popular books that got passed over, most notably THE HUNGER GAMES and OKAY FOR NOW. Will this one join them?
-- Commentator Jonathan Hunt
Of course. This has to happen. But I've been thinking a little bit. I love The Fault in Our Stars – it deserves all the praise the judges have given it – yet I'm unsure if I want it to win. Is it because it's a favorite? Yes. But more than that, while it's a great book, it's a big book. It seems as if its sole purpose is to make readers think about love, life, death, infinity, being; like Ms. Perkins, I was invested in Augustus and Hazel, but their story seems somewhat contrived, unreal. And then you get into a complicated question: is it another one of those “magical” books? Perhaps. Is that a good thing? I really don't know, so I'm conflicted in this battle. For Bomb, too, comments on very important issues, in a much more natural way.
-- Kid Commentator RGN
March 27, 2013 by Battle Commander
|No Crystal Stair by Vaunda Nelson Carolrhoda Books/Lerner||Seraphina by Rachel Hartman Random House|
Judged by Paul Griffin
The absolute last guy you want to be a judge is somebody who takes an hour to figure out which pair of pants he should wear for the day, especially when that guy owns two pairs of pants. I begged, I pleaded not to be made to do this, but Scottie Bowditch, who is the Director of School and Library Marketing at Penguin, and who is also very lovely, said, “Please?” then “Please!” then, “You’re doing it.” I, being an idiot guy, always do whatever lovely women tell me to do, just ask anybody at Penguin, which is pretty much all women and all lovely, and so here I am. Also, Rick Margolis is one of the nicest people on the planet, and if he asks you to be a judge, you do it. And just so you know, just in case you have to be a BotKB judge in the future: The stress involved in being part of this thing exceeded my already considerable trepidations.
We all know that the amount of betting that goes on for Battle of the Kids’ Books is insane to the point it’s vital to the infrastructure of the nation’s gaming industry. What I didn’t know was that the stakes would get to where I would be begged—nay, bullied—for inside information. I was offered things. Things like candy. Yes, half the take of the paper mache trophy filled with mini Snickers bars awarded to the BotKB bracket winner at Dial Books, which is the bad girl crew of children’s publishing—as if I needed to tell you this. As if the implication that one would willingly be involved in such a sordid form of cheating isn’t awful enough to bear, they tempt you with Snickers. Snickers are, like, awesome. Saying no to mini Snickers is almost as impossible as saying no to Scottie Bowditch.
Bad news first: I think I went over this already, the fact that somehow I’ve been allowed to be a judge. Worse: My battle? It’s a tie. Good news: I figured out how to break it, sort of. Best yet: Both books are unconditionally amazing. At the same time, they are very different. One is a hard-hitting biography described by its author as a “documentary novel,” and the other is a lyrical yet equally hard-hitting fantasy. So on what basis or bases does one judge them?
The great Jonathan Stroud asked the same question in his marvelous review of last year’s BotKB finalists, so I borrowed from the Big Kahuna’s strategy (all right, I outright stole it) and decided that my best chance of being of service to both books would be found in comparing them based on what they had in common. While both stories speak to many issues and themes, they are, for me, mostly and most beautifully about courage.
Okay, so I’ll start with No Crystal Stair because it came first in the mail and also because, unlike the package containing poor Seraphina, it came with a very sweet letter from one Ms. Katie O’Neel, who signed off with, “Please contact me with any questions or problems.” (Clearly this is code for “pick our book, and we’ll send you a sack full o’ Snickers,” but we must give K.O. points for trying. Also, Ms. O’Neel, when I called you and left a message letting you know that I would very much love to talk with you about my problems, you did not return my call. Qu’est-ce qui se passe ici?) No Crystal Stair is as uplifting as it is heartbreaking. You will cry when you read this book, even as your heart soars. Here’s why:
Our protagonist Lewis Michaux (author Vaunda Micheaux [sic] Nelson’s grand-uncle), overcomes odds that are not only so not in his favor but also so deliberately stacked against him—and that’s just to get to the beginning of his stunningly beautiful dream, which I’ll get to in a minute. Lewis is in no way his mother’s favorite son, and he finds himself in trouble early on when as a boy he’s publicly whipped by a cop for stealing peanuts. Later, he’s incarcerated for running an illegal gambling parlor. When the police raid his joint, one of the cops doesn’t like Lewis’s quick wit and pokes out the young man’s eye.
Lewis attempts to change his ways, sort of, and agrees to a marriage arranged by his venerable older brother, the Reverend Elder Lightfoot Michaux, who is Mom’s favorite and is now leader of a flourishing and financially rewarding religious organization, the Church of God. Lewis is less a man of God and very much a man of the people, and he heads north from his native Virginia to Harlem to recruit members for the church’s newest venture, a planned community being developed in Pennsylvania farm country. Lewis’s recruiting efforts fail along with his marriage, and he’s left homeless and penniless. Without enough money to buy lunch, he offers to wash diner windows for a cup of soup. Lewis’s situation is grim, but Vaunda, our fearless storyteller, doesn’t pull out the violins. (She is remarkable in her restraint, and in so many other ways.) Rather, she celebrates Lewis’s extraordinary ability to find hope in his improbable dream. Now for the dream, and the comeback…
Lewis wants to open a bookstore and “sell books to black people.” We’re in the 1930’s now, and when Lewis applies for a business loan, the banker tells him, “Negroes don’t read. Now, if [you] wanted to open a place to sell fried chicken or chitterlings, we could do business.” Lewis’s younger brother Norris says, “Selling books? To colored folks? I may be a gambling man, but not when the odds of winning are zero.”
Lewis takes to the streets, selling books by hand until he can save up enough money to rent a storefront. Oh so slowly, he builds his business, and by the time Lewis retires decades later in the 1970’s, the store holds a quarter of a million volumes. But the journey is never easy. The police and the FBI are forever watching Lewis. You see, the shop offers more than books. It’s a place where pioneers in social justice come to get schooled by “The Professor,” as Lewis is now known. In the back of the shop, over strong cups of Ivory Coast coffee (a gift from Kwame Nkrumah, President of Ghana), Muhammad Ali and Malcolm X come for counseling. (Incidentally, Lewis was supposed to have been sitting next to Malcolm X when Malcolm was assassinated. He arrived a few minutes late after being delayed in traffic, returning from picking up his son from an ice skating event downtown.)
More than anything else, for this reader anyway, the shop is a literacy center. Lewis has set aside a reading room for people hungry for books but unable to afford them. In one of the book’s most touching moments, Langston Hughes asks Lewis for help in getting his poetry out into the world, and Lewis does, one book at a time. He pulls an out of work young man off the street, sits him down in “the library” and sets The Dream Keeper before him. The library visitor, who goes by the name of Snooze, reads:
Bring me all of your dreams, You dreamer, Bring me all your Heart melodies That I may wrap them In a blue cloud-cloth Away from the too-rough fingers Of the world.
And in that dream-like shelter of a reading room, Snooze’s life changes. He keeps coming to the store for more poetry. He goes on to finish school and starts calling himself Samuel. He becomes Youth Supervisor and Program Director of a local community center. Gorgeous.
Lewis Michaux’s legacy is one of courage. It’s in the literacy and fearless love he gave to his neighbors. Part of Vaunda’s legacy will be that she showed us that love with selflessness. Fifteen years of research went into recreating her grand-uncle’s journey. Fifteen years of persistence and courage, and then even more courage to fill in the gaps, the periods when little or nothing was known about Lewis’s life, with empathic imagination. Let me add here that R. Gregory Christie’s illustrations too are as brave as they are beautiful. Mr. Christie uses black ink—that’s it, and that’s everything. Like Vaunda’s language, the lines in the illustrations flow so smoothly, curling inward to bring our attention to the characters’ eyes. More often than not those eyes are looking “off screen,” as if focused on the near horizon, on a coming dream…
…which brings me to Rachel Hartman’s brilliant Seraphina, also a heartbreaker infused with hope against all odds. Seraphina is one of those characters you’ll just never be able to forget—not that you’d ever want to. I dare you not to love this kid. Imagine your mom dies in childbirth (yours) and the first thing your dad does is try to expunge every memory of his wife and your mom from his and your life. Why would he do that, unless he has something to hide?
Well, as Seraphina discovers in a scene that literally had me shoving a pair of snoring dogs off me so I could sit up in bed to reread it to be sure I was reading what I thought I’d read, Mom was a saarantras, a dragon hiding out in human form. The scene: Seraphina, age 11, is caught in the middle of a mob that is trying to take over a peaceful parade of dragons brought into town by the queen, who hopes that if dragons and humans spend more time together, they will know and understand each other better and strengthen the tentative peace between them. The mob tramples Seraphina, until a dragon literally takes her under his giant wing and ushers her to safety. The dragon speaks with Seraphina’s uncle’s voice. If Mom’s brother is a dragon, then that can only mean… Seraphina passes out and succumbs to strange visions that will haunt her for the next five years, into the story’s present day. In her dreams are creatures that exhibit characteristics—both physical and emotional—of humans and dragons, as if the creatures are the offspring of unions between the two species. Seraphina wakes to find her arm is itchy—very itchy. She scratches fiercely. Scabs form. Then the scabs turn into scales... Wow!
For humans and dragons to marry, never mind have children together, is forbidden. While the peace treaty forged by the dragons and humans does not explicitly offer what punishment is due such an offense, on the fear-filled streets of Goredd the answer is perfectly clear: death for the parents, dismemberment for the child. Thus Seraphina has to hide the bands of scales that circle her arm and now her waist. This isn’t easy when she’s very much a visible figure at the palace court, assistant to the queen’s music director and the princess’s voice teacher. Seraphina stands out most of all when she sings. Her voice brings all around her to silence, and then to tears—as does Rachel’s lyrical writing. In an inherited memory, Seraphina sees her saarantras mother sing to her human father,
My faith does not come easily; There is no Heaven without pain. My days should never flutter past Unnoted, nor my past remain Beyond its span of usefulness; Let me not hold to grief. My hope, my light, my Saint is love; In love my one belief.
A good portion of Seraphina’s story takes place in an alternate reality that we at first believe is confined to her dreams, but gradually the creatures from her dreams begin to show up in her waking life—to help or to hinder, we’re never certain, until the story’s end. Rachel is as fearless as Seraphina as she lets her imagination soar in the alternate universe she builds inside Seraphina’s mind. One of these alternate reality/inherited memory scenes stands out: Serpahina’s mother, in dragon form, recounts, “I burst from the mountainside and fly into the sun… I dive east, with the wind, careening through low lenticular clouds in a glacial cirque.” Well, with that kind of writing, I’m the one who’s bursting, diving, careening. Exquisite.
That Seraphina is, in her mind at least if not yet in the minds of the unknowing citizens of her native Goredd, a freak, is not her only problem. She discovers a plot to overturn the treaty that has kept dragons and humans at peace for forty years. To divulge the plot, she will have to give up her secret, that she is half dragon. Fortunately she’s not alone—well, sort of fortunately. Bastard prince Lucian Kiggs has to work hard to overcome his conscience, or maybe to follow it truly. As Captain of the Guard, Kiggs has a duty to report Seraphina’s illegal parentage, regardless of the consequences, i.e., Seraphina’s certain death. Or is he strong enough to let Seraphina’s bravery win his heart? Rachel never lets up on the tension, and this 450-page novel reads like a 200-page thriller. I can see our YA friends trying to read it all in one sitting. I know I did. The story ends in a cliffhanger, and I better be getting a galley for book 2.
As I look over what I’ve written here, I see that for both books I’ve leaned hard on plot. But this is what most stood out to me—the meticulous scene-by-scene construction and perfect pacing. Both books are just good old fashioned storytelling: provocative beginnings, wild-ride middles, and endings that are at the same time happy and heart-rippingly poignant. While plot-driven, both books are gorgeous stylistically too. The language is pure and the writing generous. Both Vaunda and Rachel are like great movie directors, selfless, invisible, never drawing attention to themselves with flashy moves. They never let the writing get showy, and we’re left to focus on the characters and their struggles. Lines like, “You can’t walk straight on a crooked line,” (No Crystal Stair) and “My other hand wants to touch his face, and I let it. He leans into it like a cat,” (Seraphina) killed me. Vaunda in multiple first person points of view assumes the voices—the hearts—of her many characters with the everydayness of the way we speak, and that’s my favorite kind of music. And the choice of first person narration for a biography is a brave one and gives the story an intimacy more often found in autobiography. Rachel also chose to speak through a first person narrator, and her voice is pitch-perfect for the dragon-inhabited alternate reality she has created, which mostly feels Renaissance-ish in terms of time period. I’ll admit that I always found Shakespeare a tough read. I’ll take Rachel over Bill any day. While rich and poetic, Rachel’s writing is never intimidating and never tries to be clever. Rather, it invites the reader into the heart of a sixteen year old who is trapped in a horrible predicament.
So in the end we have two profiles in courage about underdogs who dare to follow their hearts. One features a groundbreaking bookseller and literacy pioneer, the other a girl dealing with more than a dragon tattoo. Which one would you choose? Well, if you’re like me, and I know I am, you wouldn’t, and I can’t. Both books are too great to send one on and leave the other behind. I don’t even have the heart to flip the coin. I’m going to leave that to Rick Margolis. Look, my job was to tell you about the books, and I did that at length, so I don’t feel too bad about the mini-mess I’ve made here. The skinny is this: You’ll be doing our YA friends a big favor if you feature both of these books front and center at your libraries. And hey, there’s an upside to my refusing to choose: I will never be asked to be a judge again, for anything, which is best for all of us.
I’m sorry, Rick. I’ll make it up to you. You have a Hefty-sack filled with mini-Snickers heading your way.
UPDATE: Okay, Rick just pleaded, begged, implored me to please flip the coin. So heads No Crystal Stair, tails Seraphina.
Heads. It's No Crystal Stair.
-- Paul Griffin
The more I see judges in a quandary about which book to chose, the more I realize how well suited I am to this cold-blooded task. I can weigh books fairly objectively. If I feel two books are pretty close then I default to my natural preferences of fantasy and nonfiction. And I have no qualms about making these decisions publicly. SERAPHINA is a great high fantasy novel, just the kind I would have liked as a teen reader and it would be very easy for me to pick this book were it not for NO CRYSTAL STAIR. This fictionalized biography moves me in deep and profound ways. I’m not sure that my teenage self would appreciate it nearly as much, but it’s definitely the one I would choose to advance. There’s so much to admire here: the voices, the setting, the structure, the design, and the themes.
-- Commentator Jonathan Hunt
As a hardcore fantasy and dragon lover, I was overjoyed when I saw that Seraphina would be on this year's roster. After it prevailed over Moonbird in the first round, I kept my fingers crossed that it would not be pitted against No Crystal Stair, as I would have an incredibly difficult time weighing in on that battle. Obviously I had no such luck. No Crystal Stair was a beautiful twist of fact and fiction about the need for education in the Harlem community. I found it intriguing and impossible to put down. And if this wasn't already enough to win the readers over, it came complete with gorgeous illustrations that brought the text to life in a way that I did not think possible. Although I loved Seraphina with all my heart, and am hoping for it to be resurrected, I respect and agree with Judge Paul Griffin's decision to crown No Crystal Stair as the victor.
-- Kid Commentator GI
March 26, 2013 by Battle Commander
|Starry River of the Sky by Grace Lin Little, Brown||Splendors and Glooms by Laura Amy Schlitz Candlewick|
Judged by Thanhha Lai
I usually have no problem sitting in judgment. Years ago I zapped the writer’s guilt of finishing every novel because someone had bled to write it. Now I give the first 50 pages my absolute attention. If not enthralled, I advance to the art of flipping.
Still, my quick fingers proved useless while reading Starry River of the Sky and Splendors and Glooms. I read every page, felt every dramatic pulse and closed the novels with Rendi and Madame Chang, Lizzie Rose and Parsefall embedded into the crevices of my mind.
Starry River drops readers into ancient China, yet its timeless theme of finding one’s self by returning to one’s roots will be understood by any video-game junkie living in, let’s say, Dallas. This junkie will be introduced to a world where people make lanterns from fireflies and linger at the dinner table to hear stories—for entertainment.
Splendors and Glooms drops readers into 1860 London, where the details of rich lives and poor lives so infused the narrative that buttered toast and strawberry jam enter the nostrils as surely as the sour stiffness of one’s only dress. Readers then step into the enchanting horror of icy Strachan’s Ghyll, where a puppet, a witch, two kids and a villain come together for a good vs. evil battle that rivals any video game. In this verbal version, the sentences alone will remind a certain junkie of what words can do—as entertainment.I thank Grace Lin and Laura Amy Schlitz for crafting such concrete, entertaining worlds. But I’m told I must choose one, so I shall choose Splendors and Glooms. Now I will quickly send off this review before I flip flop, again.
-- Thanhha Lai
It’s a quirk of fate that most of the middle grade novels have been assigned to the second half of the bracket, and it means that after beating LIAR & SPY and STARRY RIVER OF THE SKY, SPLENDORS AND GLOOMS might have faced THE ONE AND ONLY IVAN in the next round, but for the Newbery Curse. I admire both SPLENDORS and STARRY, and in spite of the fact that this more apples vs. apples than most matches, I still find these books widely disparate in terms of style, one an homage to the Victorian novel, the other an ode to fairy tales. I could have been happy with either book moving forward, but I think SPLENDORS is better suited to go up against either NO CRYSTAL STAIR or SERAPHINA. Is there a subtle bias at work that favors young adult novels over middle grade novels?
-- Commentator Jonathan Hunt
For the first time in this round, the books pitted against each other are incredibly different. I wasn't particularly eager to read Starry River of the Sky, worried that it would not excite me like the other books in this competition had, but I was pleasantly surprised by the quality of Lin's writing. She crafts and manipulates the literary elements like a sculptor with a piece of clay, masterfully and beautifully. As a lover of dark fantasy, I was quite excited to sink my teeth into Splendors and Glooms, and it did not disappoint me. I found the story enchanting, marvelous, and above all creepy. It did have some dull and confusing points, but I did manage to enjoy the wittiness of the characters although I did not completely fall in love with them. Overall, I think that it was a fair pairing, and I respect Judge Lai's decision, and would probably have gone the same way. -- Kid Commentator GI
March 25, 2013 by Battle Commander
|Endangered by Elliot Schrefer Scholastic||The Fault in Our Stars by John Green Dutton/Penguin|
Judged by Martine Leavitt
I opened Endangered by Eliot Schrefer, took one look at the photo of the baby bonobo, and significantly increased in understanding for the mother of the Ikea monkey. I thought, “Gimme that baby! I wannit!” So hello good book design: I was hooked before page one. Set in the Democratic Republic of Congo, Endangered is about a girl, Sophie, who rescues an infant bonobo, Otto, and brings him home to the sanctuary her Congolese mother has instituted for the rehabilitation of bonobos who have been abducted from the wild by bushmeat traders. The reader falls in love with Otto just as Sophie does, and from then on the stakes are high. Sophie goes to great lengths, at the risk of her own safety and life, to keep Otto safe, and the reader sticks with her to the very end to ensure that the little guy makes it. You like adventure stories? Animal stories? War/dystopian stories? This book has it all. Sophie survives in the sanctuary with the bonobos for several weeks until she is no longer safe there. She begins a journey through the Congo to find her mother at the site where the bonobos are released into the wild. There are a lot of guns in the book. There are lots of bugs in this book. Deliciously horrible. You are never allowed to stop worrying about Otto. You are never allowed to stop loving him. You are never allowed to put the book down. If you educate me while I am turning the pages as fast as ever I can, I am a most happy reader. I was fascinated by everything I learned about the Congo. How can I practically be elderly and not know that the principle language of the nation is French? That the country has about the same landmass as Western Europe? That many complex conditions contribute to the Congo’s political corruption and upheaval, including, and possibly most significantly, a lack of economic resources. The writer performs the most wonderful sleight of hand by making us hate the violence of political turbulence, and at the same time making us love the people. How did he do that? Magic, that’s how. I loved this line from the question and answer pages at the back of the book: “What I love most about the peaceful, matriarchal bonobos is that they prove war and conflict aren’t inevitable.” Given plentiful resources, bonobos live peaceably with one another, Schrefer explains. We conclude that bonobos have something to teach us, that given more plentiful resources, human beings could also live more peaceably with one another. Good job, Mr. Schrefer. Come right out and say it. Thank you. The book has a happy ending, too. Was it too happy? Not for me. I don’t just believe in happy endings, I insist upon them. If Otto hadn’t grown up to be a handsome bonobo with a nice little wife and baby, it couldn’t have been borne. So. Now I will compare this book to The Fault in Our Stars by John Green. Because they told me I must. The Fault in Our Stars is set in ordinary North American. It is about two ordinary teenagers, Hazel and Augustus, who are diagnosed with cancer. Except, well, they aren’t terribly ordinary. They are bright and funny and devastatingly honest as they deal with their illness and as they fall in love. They do travel together to Amsterdam to meet up with the fictional author Peter van Houten who writes the fictional fiction novel An Imperial Affliction. In Amsterdam they kiss. Except this kiss is not “only” a kiss. It is a kiss in the hiding place of Anne Frank and, please, could there be a better place to kiss. Somehow John Green writes the most romantic romance-story-that-is-not-a-romance-story ever. This book also educated me. I learned, for example, how stupid some of the platitudes must sound to kids who are living with cancer. I learned the qualities of a good nurse: doesn’t pun on your disability, gets blood on the first try, and doesn’t use a condescending voice. I learned that when you are young and suddenly facing your early demise, you are thrust somewhat out of the ideological constructs of our everyday existence. You ask big questions: What the heck is this all about, anyway? Why me and not someone else? Why not me? The book also makes the reader ask small questions. I have been eating an egg almost every day for breakfast for half a century. Then I read this: “It’s embarrassing that we all just walk through life blindly accepting that scrambled eggs are fundamentally associated with mornings.” I determined to eat pizza for breakfast the next day, and eggs for supper. That’s the sort of thing a book should do. It should make you eat different. Be different. And I was. When I finished this book I was different. The author says in the front pages, “Neither novels or their readers benefit from attempts to divine whether any facts hide inside a story. Such efforts attack the very idea that made-up stories can matter, which is sort of the foundational assumption of our species.” And that is the foundational assumption behind my evaluation. Because this story does matter. It matters to anyone who wonders how kids deal with suffering and still find joy in their lives. It matters to anyone who believes that love is really the only thing that survives us. It matters to anyone who can’t stand it that sometimes bad stuff happens to the young and the innocent. The voice sounded adult to me at first – I don’t know any teenagers who talk like Hazel. But after a while I didn’t mind. Surely cancer makes you grow up faster, makes you grow a language to fit the life you weren’t supposed to have but which you now do. And if you make me laugh, you can take me anywhere. This book made me laugh. And cry. And anytime a book does that, baby, I’m yours. I felt these kids. In contrast, I found it hard to feel Sophie. Otto, yes, but Sophie often felt far away, though she is the viewpoint character. Perhaps it was that Schrefer named emotions rather that showing them. “It made me angry, but I couldn’t find the words to tell her.” “I missed them so much at that moment and was struck through with concern for their well-being.” Of course, naming emotions is one technique in a writer’s toolbox, but it was used, perhaps, a little too exclusively. When her voice was “full of tears,” or her sorrow “swelled” in her, I felt like there was no room for me, the reader, to experience those emotions in a visceral way. Well, of course I’m being picky. But I guess I had to find something. The fault in the stars of Eliot Schrefer is that his book came up against The Fault in Our Stars. I wouldn’t want my book to come up against a John Green book in a dark alley. So the winner is John Green’s The Fault in Our Stars. I like my choice. I hope you do, too.
-- Martine Leavitt
Of all the second round battles, this one is the most mismatched, and it’s no surprise that THE FAULT IN OUR STARS vanquishes the last serious underdog in this competition. Despite being a National Book Award finalist, ENDANGERED just never picked up any steam. I’m surprised that it beat out THREE TIMES LUCKY to advance to this point. While I wholeheartedly agree with Martine’s choice, I’m going to bicker about the details. I didn’t have a problem with the characterization of Sophie, and I think show-not-tell is the most overused and misunderstood piece of writing advice. (Writers, discuss in the comments.) John Green novels always employ a heady, intoxicating mix of sparkling wit and intellectual food for thought, but more than any of his previous books, this one elicits tender, sad emotions; it’s a real tearjerker. Is it the best book he’s ever written? (Readers, discuss in the comments.)
-- Commentator Jonathan Hunt
With the battle now halfway through its second round, the competition is getting fiercer and the pairings harder to weigh. Both books in this round happen to be of my favorites; two books that I simply could not put down. Endangered was a novel that was both incredibly compelling and phenomenally written. The main character, Sophie, was fierce, courageous, and shrewd, containing all of the ingredients of a loveable protagonist. It truly portrayed the difficulties that humans have with the world around us. From the very minute that I picked up The Fault in Our Stars, it immediately made me feel all different kinds of emotions: from making me laugh out loud, to even shedding a few tears. I never thought that I could feel so strongly for people who did not exist. Above all other things, the story is honest, and is relatable to everyone who is trying to find their place in this world, not only to those with terminal illnesses. John Green weaves an intricate, star crossed love story that made me look at my own life differently, and although I also enjoyed Endangered, my heart will forever lie with Augustus and Hazel.
-- Kid Commentator GI
March 23, 2013 by Battle CommanderProvo Library Children's Book Review is creating completely AWESOME displays. Here are a couple of them.
Leila at bookshelves of doom thinks that:
Speaking of which, Judge of Judges Sutton on Gidwitz v. Billingsley begins:
More entertaining than SLJ's Battle of the Kids' Books...
Let us first note that both Adam Gidwitz (Jepp, Who Defied the Stars v. Starry River of the Sky) and Franny Billingsley (Liar & Spyv. Splendors and Glooms) break the mold by discussing their winning books first.Check-out what he thinks about Murdoch v. Lu and who won his First Round. Lisa at Read for Keeps noted that:
…but there’s also a serious trend of water playing a huge role in the plot. The Titanic sinking, the drowning inSplendors and Glooms, the Resistance canoeing down a river in CNV, the river in Three Times Lucky, the Moonbirdcoastlines…I could go on. Am I missing something? Are books usually so water-heavy, or is there something special about this year’s lot?Miss Tiff Reads caught up to us:
Blast it all! I was so busy reading random books, trying to slog through my book club book, and stringing balloons that I forgot it was Battle of the Kids' Books time!!And Liz B is all starry-eyed, weighing in on Stars v Grandin, Stars v Starry, Spy v Splendors, and Crystal v Ivan. BooksnStories was all Crystal Ball, Crystal Ball. Sondy (who discovered on Friday that she is not the only Sondy here:) got ready for Round Two. Random Musing of a Bibliophile considered Round One and gave her druthers for Round Two. The LibrariYAn is keeping up with us: Temple Grandin vs The Fault in Our Stars, Jepp, Who Defied the Stars vs Starry River of the Sky, Prediction for Moonbird vs Seraphina, Splendors and Glooms vs Liar & Spy, Moonbird vs Seraphina, Cecelia over at The Card Catalog is on the case with Bullies, Shipwrecks & Spies, Animals, Mysteries, and Romance, Stars, Puppets, and More Spies, and Dragons, Birds, and Gorillas. The Dirigible Plum has the Battle of the Books So Far. Jen at Reads for Keeps has some thoughts about the past week. Over at Twitter there have been some strong reactions this past week! Here is a selection of them: