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Battle of the Books

Round 2, Match 2: El Deafo vs The Key That Swallowed Joey Pigza

JUDGE – CAT WINTERS El Deafo by Cece Bell Abrams The Key That Swallowed Joey Pigza by Jack Gantos FSG/Macmillan On the surface, there are two notable differences between the books in my assigned bracket: Cece Bell’s El Deafo is a graphic novel featuring people who look like rabbits, whereas Jack Gantos’s The Key That […]

Round 2, Match 1: Brown Girl Dreaming vs Egg and Spoon

JUDGE – JASON REYNOLDS Brown Girl Dreaming by Jacqueline Woodson Nancy Paulsen Books/Penguin Egg and Spoon by Gregory Maguire Candlewick Press Here’s the thing. It was never my intention to be a novelist, because when I was a kid, novels just seemed way too long and way too boring for me to care about. So since […]

Round 2, Match 4: The Thing About Luck vs The True Blue Scouts of Sugar Man Swamp

JUDGE – KATHERINE MARSH The Thing About Luck by Cynthia Kadohata Atheneum Books for Young Readers The True Blue Scouts of Sugar Man Swamp by Kathy Appelt Atheneum Books for Young Readers Sugar and wheat: two staples of the American diet; two unlikely subjects for children’s books.  And yet sugar and wheat, or sugar versus […]

Round 2, Match 3: Hokey Pokey vs P.S. Be Eleven

JUDGE – JOSEPH BRUCHAC Hokey Pokey by Jerry Spinelli Knopf Books for Young Readers P.S. Be Eleven by Rita Williams-Garcia Amistad/HarperCollins One of the joys of reading a well-written book is that you can be transported by it to a reality that is other than your own. You find yourself totally immersed in another place, […]

Round 2, Match 2: Eleanor & Park vs Far Far Away

JUDGE – RAE CARSON Eleanor & Park by Rainbow Rowell Saint Martin’s Press Far Far Away by Tom McNeal Knopf/Random House I read Eleanor & Park by the phenomenally gifted Rainbow Rowell first. The narrative is a strongly voiced tight third, rotating between Eleanor, the chubby, wild-haired, fashion-challenged new girl in town, and Park, the half-Korean […]

Round 2, Match 1: The Animal Book vs Boxers and Saints

JUDGE – TONYA BOLDEN The Animal Book by Steve Jenkins Houghton Mifflin Boxers & Saints by Gene Luen Yang FirstSecond/Macmillan Ah . . . the joys of reading!—especially when the reading includes Gene Luen Yang’s Boxers & Saints and Steven Jenkins’s The Animal World: A Collection of the Fastest, Fiercest, Toughest, Cleverest, Shyest—and Most Surprising—Animals […]

Round 2, Match 4: Seraphina vs No Crystal Stair

No Crystal Stair
by Vaunda Nelson
Carolrhoda Books/Lerner
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


And the Winner of this match is……

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


Round 2, Match 3: Starry River of the Sky vs Splendors and Glooms

Starry River of the Sky
by Grace Lin
Little, Brown
Splendors and Glooms
by Laura Amy Schlitz

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


And the Winner of this match is……

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


Round 2, Match 2: Endangered vs The Fault in Our Stars

by Elliot Schrefer
The Fault in Our Stars
by John Green

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

And the Winner of this match is……

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


Round 2, Match 1: Bomb vs Code Name Verity


by Steve Sheinkin
Roaring Brook/Macmillan
Code Name Verity
by Elizabeth Wein

Judged by
Donna Jo Napoli



Both CODE NAME VERITY and BOMB are set during WWII.  The first is historical fiction, the second is creative nonfiction.  Both the setting and the genres are dear to me.  Both books were meticulously researched, and both books held me spellbound to the end.

CODE NAME VERITY is told in the first person present tense.  An unnamed woman is a prisoner-of-f.  She is a spy for the UK (not British, but Scottish – a point she insists on), who landed in a small town in Nazi-occupied France, and got caught almost immediately upon arrival because she looked the wrong way when she was crossing the street.  She is writing an account of everything that happened leading up to her being caught, from the very beginning of her involvement in the war effort.  When she finishes that account, she is quite sure the Nazis will no longer have any use for her, which means she will be killed.  In the pages she scrawls, she describes at length how Maddie, a British girl, came to learn to fly an airplane and wound up joining the Women’s Auxiliary Air Force (WAAF) as a radio operator.  Events conspired to place Maddie in the chair at the airstrip when a damaged plane called in, “Mayday, Mayday…” It was a young German pilot who was so lost, he thought he was landing in France, rather than England.  Maddie quickly enlisted the help of another WAAF wireless operator, nicknamed Queenie because of her superior attitude.  Queenie was upper-class, educated in Switzerland, and fluent in both German and French.  Following Maddie’s directions, Queenie talked the pilot through a safe landing, and then, when he was taken prisoner, she interrogated him.  The tense experience binds Maddie and Queenie together.  They talk about the ten things that most frighten them.  We learn Maddie’s words as she moves from being a radio operator to actually flying military planes.  We come to know Maddie so well, it feels obvious that the person writing these pages, the prisoner of the Nazis, is in fact Maddie.  But then we learn it’s Queenie, instead, and the reason so much intimate knowledge of Maddie enriches the account is because Queenie loves Maddie.  Queenie writes these pages as much as a tribute to her valiant friend as an effort to stall her own death.  We learn how the two young women wind up in France, one jumping out of the plane because it might crash-land, and the other staying in the plane to the end.  Queenie suffers from the fear that Maddie died in a crash.  She suffers from the shame of writing information the Nazis want.  She is tortured by her guard Fräulein Engel and the German office von Linden.  She finally ends her story.

And suddenly we are in Part 2, told in first person present tense.  But the narrator now is Maddie herself, and we learn that she landed that damaged plane safely and that she is now stuck in France, hiding in a barn, hoping to find a way back to England, and worried sick about her friend Julie, which is Queenie’s real name.  As various attempts to get Maddie on a plane back to England fail, she becomes mobilized into subversive action against the Nazis.  She learns that Julie is a prisoner in an old hotel that has been taken over by the Nazis.  She learns that Fräulein Engel, Julie’s tormenter, is really an allied sympathizer who in the end saves Julie’s many pages and turns them over to Maddie.  It turns out that nothing Julie wrote was true.  She didn’t, in fact, give the Germans any secret information.  And she revealed information about the Nazis and her own location in a round-about way to Maddie as she read those pages. Julie played a role, very well, and kept herself alive by doing it.  But when she is being transferred to a new prison (or, more probably, to her execution spot), she gets killed.  I won’t say how, because how is what makes this book such a powerful heart-breaker, and if you haven’t yet read it, I won’t spoil it for you.

So many things we learn in the first part of the book are revealed as false in the second part.  But we don’t feel tricked, because the author gets us so deeply inside Julie that the revelations only make us say, “Of course.”  This is the mark of a master story-teller.  I couldn’t put this book down.

BOMB doesn’t have two main characters, or even one.  BOMB is the story of how a range of intelligent and largely well-meaning men (and all were, indeed, men – though some women were involved in ancillary roles) came together to build the first atomic bomb.  It deftly weaves together the individuals, giving their backgrounds and the relevant factors that led them to be willing to join the Manhattan Project at Los Alamos in New Mexico – the secret enclave where the bomb was developed.  We come to understand why some of those men betrayed the United States by giving information to the Soviets; they feared that the bomb’s being in the hands of only one nation would lead to too much of an imbalance of power, and they admired the philosophy (if not the actuality) of communism.  The tension builds in this book as the war in Europe and Asia claims more lives and it becomes clear (or so it seems) that Germany is in the race to build an atomic bomb.  One of the most compelling parts of the whole story is the remarkable bravery of the Norwegians who blew up a factory in Nazi-occupied Norway – a factory that was producing heavy water, which the Germans would use in building the bomb.  Their goal was to stop progress on building such a devastating weapon, and they suffered tremendous cold, great hunger, and the fear of almost definite death in carrying out their operation.  True heroes.  The other characters in this story, though, are all responsible for building the bomb – which is a very different matter from stopping the Germans from building it.  And, once the bomb was dropped on Hiroshima and a second on Nagasaki, they recognized the blood on their hands.  Would Japan not have surrendered without dropping those bombs?  It is an unanswerable question, of course.  But Japan was starving and its supply of weapons was depleted.  In this book we see that so much effort was put into building the atomic bomb that the momentum to drop it on someone – to show the world that the USA was that powerful – to beat the Soviets at such a development – to justify all the expense put into the project – all that momentum nearly blinded those in charge to the moral issue of causing the deaths and suffering of so many Japanese civilians.

As it turned out, the Germans did not, in fact, make progress in the race to build the bomb.  The Russians did, however, but only because they had stolen the blueprints from the Americans.  Perhaps the bomb would have been developed by someone else at some point; scientific developments often arise nearly contemporaneously in multiple places independently.  But the fact is, it was America that developed it and that dropped it on other human beings.  The scientists involved in the Manhattan Project objected to further development of new bombs, in particular, to the hydrogen bomb.  But President Truman didn’t listen to them.  And nuclear proliferation is the result.  The book ends honestly, which is a difficult thing to do when the blame for the untenable position the world is in rests squarely on our own beloved country.  It tells how if only one half of one percent of all the atomic bombs on earth today were detonated, the dust and smoke resulting from them would block enough sunlight to make the planet colder and darker for a decade, halting agriculture and causing widespread starvation.  This is the predicament we are in.

Which book is better?  This is like comparing apples and oranges, or diamonds and emeralds.  Both books reveal how complex are the decisions people have to make in times of war.  Both are respectful of the strengths and weaknesses of humanity.  I love CODE NAME VERITY.  It made me love the characters.  It made me cry for them.  But BOMB reveals an important truth that desperately needs to be faced, or we are doomed.  I wish I didn’t have to pick.  I do so reluctantly.  I vote for BOMB.

—  Donna Jo Napoli


And the Winner of this match is……

This is a very tough match because, as with LIAR & SPY vs. SPLENDORS AND GLOOMS, this one is worthy of being in the final round.  Moreover, I’m not terribly optimistic about either of these books returning as the Undead winner.  Not that each book doesn’t have great fans, but I expect WONDER or THE FAULT IN MY STARS to take that honor, and if there’s an upset in the making then I think it’s more likely to come from the middle grade quartet of Applegate, Lin, Schlitz, or Stead.  And then there’s those wacky frog scientists who may get wind of TEMPLE GRANDIN and MOONBIRD.  I’m happy to see BOMB move forward—it’s the last remaining member of Team Nonfiction.  As for CODE NAME VERITY, I’ve just learned that it has been named a finalist for the Los Angeles Times Book Prize; I hope it wins.

— Commentator Jonathan Hunt

With both books so similar in their common goal for our generation to have an understanding of World War II, I cannot think of a better pair of books to commence Round 2 of this year’s battle. Ever since I read last year’s finalist, Countdown, by Deborah Wiles, the topic of nuclear weapons has been of great interest to me. To compare the two books is both an incredibly easy and hard task for me to do, as I hold them both quite dearly to my heart. BOMB provides a more factual look of World War II. The topic of nuclear weapons in general is something that I believe is important to have knowledge on, and this book teaches this while grabbing the readers’ attention and interesting them further. Code Name Verity provides a more fictional insight about World War II.Elizabeth Wein weaves a fascinating, complicated, and enthralling story. With gut wrenching plot twists and nail biting cliffhangers, Code Name Verity is a novel that will be treasured for many years to come. Choosing between the two novels is something that would be incredibly difficult for me to do, and I can only imagine how hard Judge Donna Jo Napoli’s decision must have been. But with all due respect, I happen to disagree with her choice. Although BOMB was an amazing book that I will truly never forget, fiction books like Code Name Verity that glue my eyes to the pages are by far my favorites, and Code Name Verity exceeded all of my expectations. From the enchanting writing, to the fascinating plot, and the loveable characters, the clear winner of this match for me is Code Name Verity.

— Kid Commentator GI