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Battle of the Books

Round 3, Match 2: Some Writer! vs The Sun Is Also a Star

JUDGE – SABAA TAHIR Some Writer! by Melissa Sweet Houghton Mifflin Harcourt The Sun Is Also a Star by Nicola Yoon Random House Generally I’m one of those people who snorts at the idea of giving trophies to everyone. Losing builds character, I always say. (Ok, I don’t always say that, but it sounds like something I might […]

Round 3, Match 1: Freedom in Congo Square vs March: Book Three

JUDGE – ELLEN OH Freedom in Congo Square By Carole Boston Weatherford, Illustrated by R. Gregory Christie Little Bee March: Book Three by Congressman John Lewis, Andrew Aydin, and Nate Powell Top Shelf Productions   I feel a great and heavy burden on my shoulders as I find myself trying to compare these two brilliant […]

Round 3: Match 2: The Marvels vs Nimona

This is definitely not by design — but by pure chance and circumstances: two heavily illustrated novels are paired against each other in another highly anticipated semifinal match!

Round 3, Match 1: Echo vs Gone Crazy in Alabama

Having advanced to the semi-finals, two middle grade historical novels face off in a nail-biter of a match!

Round 3, Match 2: The Port Chicago 50 vs West of the Moon

Chalk and cheese. Apples and Oranges. I know I’m not the only judge to wonder how on Earth to put two novels into direct competition with each other and pronounce one to be the winner. (I also tremble at the notion of judging another writer’s work, but, that’s the deal, so I’ll get over my nervous English hand-wringing and get on with it).

Round 3, Match 1: Brown Girl Dreaming vs El Deafo

So…yeah. No pressure. “Just choose your favorite of the two Newbery Honor books, Sophie.”


Don’t get me wrong—I was thrilled to learn that I’d be judging El Deafo by Cece Bell and Brown Girl Dreaming by Jacqueline Woodson….right up until they reminded me that I was going to have to choose a winner. *sob*

Round 3, Match 2: P.S. Be Eleven vs The Thing About Luck

  JUDGE – ROBIN LAFEVERS P.S. Be Eleven by Rita Williams-Garcia Amistad/HarperCollins The Thing About Luck by Cynthia Kadohata Atheneum Books for Young Readers I was so excited to be invited to be a judge in School Library Journal’s Battle of the Books! If there is one thing I know how to do, it is […]

Round 3, Match 1: Boxers and Saints vs Far Far Away

JUDGE – PATRICK NESS Boxers & Saints by Gene Luen Yang FirstSecond/Macmillan Far Far Away by Tom McNeal Knopf/Random House What should we demand of YA literature?  Is that even an answerable question?  YA has grown into such a gorgeous, vast country that to narrow it down seems impossible, and probably undesirable.  It has any genre you’d like, […]

Round 3, Match 2: Splendors and Glooms vs No Crystal Stair

No Crystal Stair
by Vaunda Nelson
Carolrhoda Books/Lerner
Splendors and Glooms
by Laura Amy Schlitz

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


And the Winner of this match is……

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


Round 3, Match 1: Bomb vs The Fault in Our Stars

by Steve Sheinkin
Roaring Brook/Macmillan
The Fault in Our Stars
by John Green

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

And the Winner of this match is……

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