Smackdown Books 2018

Wolf Hollow
Salt to the Sea
The Serpent King
Optimists Die First
The Hate U Give
Orphan Island
Dan vs. Nature
The Female of the Species
Upside Down in the Middle of Nowhere
Paper Girls, Vol. 1
The Passion of Dolssa
The Distance Between Us
When We Collided
Louis parmi les spectres
Girl in the Blue Coat
Defy the Stars

Thursday, March 8, 2018

Let's Make This Clear - 4 Books Battle for 2 Spots!

With only two rounds left there has been some very interesting plot and character twists.

 Henry has developed into quite the antagonist. Plenty of people want to know what book Henry would like - remains to be seen! If I recall a previous Smackdown winner The Thing About Jellyfish  was booted out by his vote in the first round.

A beloved favourite of many (not Henry) is out in the closest vote of round three.  Holding Up the Universe moves on while Hate U Give is gone but maybe not zombie forgotten. Please search earlier posts for "I Have What is Likely a Stupid Idea" to start registering your ideas for zombie picks.

Scythe handily beat out Refugee as did Girl in the Blue Coat win over OCDaniel.

In the division with much less raving Smell of Other People's Houses stayed standing while Burn Baby Burn...burned. (This the book that took out March...hmmm).

The plot thickens...participants will now flip sides of the draw and let the fun continue!

Wednesday, March 7, 2018

Not a Lotta Love for The Hate U Give

When our little SBS cohort got together to duke it out over which of our two books was going to move forward, I expected some spirited debate and maybe some agonizing reversals before we finally made our decision. But alas, there would be no duking or teeth gnashing. We all just flat out enjoyed Holding up the Universe better and there are certainly lots of things to like about it, but I think we all seemed a little befuddled that we weren’t more taken with The Hate U Give. I mean, it is timely as all get out. It speaks directly to the sorrow and anger that many of us feel when we look to our neighbours to the South and see the deep divisions in class and race -and the intensifying violence in word and deed - overseen by the tweeter in chief. I was really expecting to love this book and I am feeling a bit confused (and maybe a bit guilty) about why I didn’t. It certainly wasn’t for want of an interesting central character; I loved Starr and thought she was a fully realized character who was asked to deal with both the mundane and the tragic throughout the course of the novel. The other characters, and there are many, are perhaps not so well-developed, although they are all given distinct voices and each serve a discernible purpose and I guess that while those two things are areas of strength, they may also be its downfall. This is an exceptionally dialogue heavy book, so we hear a lot from these characters, but Starr, as the narrator, is ultimately the only one who has a truly resonant voice and I was left wondering if the structure of the novel maybe let’s us down a bit. Thomas handles the dialogue very well and there is a consistency in dialect that really helps ground the novel in place and time and is key to showing how Starr needs to navigate a host of different realities within her teenage world. The effect, however, of Starr serving as the centre of the universe with these other characters (each with powerful and complex stories of their own) orbiting her is that the book feels a bit didactic at times. I can’t believe I’m writing this -as I’ve often railed against those prose poem, multi-voice YA novels -but I think that if there were more opportunities in this book for other voices -and the nuances of the stories behind those voices -to come to the fore, we might have been able to appreciate the complexities of Starr’s life just as much, but also felt a little more like we were meeting unique characters rather than learning an, admittedly, important lesson in sociology. It’s still a book I’d recommend reading, both for the aforementioned lesson and for some genuinely poignant moments, but I don’t think it offered any of us the same level of reading engagement as Holding Up the Universe.

The premise of Holding Up The Universe, while unique, didn’t seem to hold a lot of promise for me at the outset, but I was taken in by these characters, particularly Libby, right from the start. Jack’s voice emerges, perhaps more slowly, but this is in keeping with a character who seems to be continually in the midst of a pause, which makes complete sense as we learn about Jack’s condition which stops him from an immediate level of connection - recognizing faces - that most of us take for granted. (Hold Up:  Is it really possible that 1/50 people have this affliction? If so, wouldn’t all of us educators with thousands and thousands of kids taught come across it more? Or is that a reflection of the insidious nature of the disorder, in that most people simple cope and keep it hidden, knowingly or unknowingly? Please discuss and get back to me). One of the things our group discussed was that this book had a more of that compulsively readable factor than The Hate U Give and here I think this too had to do with the structure of the novel. The alternating narrative structure is pretty common in the YA universe from what I can discern and it is predictably hit or miss, but here I think it allows for some mounting tension and a progression of the narrative. As we get to know each character better we start to fill in some blanks about them, but they also fill in some blanks about each other, in sometimes surprising ways. Jack has a literal connection and level of understanding of Libby that she only fully appreciates at the end, and while Libby learns of Jack’s condition fairly early on, she reveals a profound understanding of him that lets her reveal her empathetic nature. Does her highly recognizable life allow her some insight into the struggles he faces through his failure to recognize even those closest to him? It seems so.  There are ebbs and flows in their burgeoning relationship, but there is a very real sense of these characters moving both together and towards something bigger than themselves. As one of our group noted, we were “rooting for them” and it wasn’t just that we were rooting for them to fall in love (although we were), but I think we were rooting for them because as they battled through indignities both small and heartbreakingly large they symbolized a struggle that every kid we know goes through in one way or another, and (spoiler alert) they were able to find their way through with kindness and love. One last plug for Starr in The Hate U Give: everything I just wrote applies to her as well. Both books offered us a glimpse of young people grappling with issues that required real personal sacrifice, but for our group Holding Up the Universe is the book we’d like to see move forward.

Holding Up the Universe vs. The Hate U Give

From DDM, all three of us read The Hate U Give and loved it. We all agreed that the main character had a strong, authentic voice. The issues raised may have been hard for us to fully understand because we don't live in that world, but the message was strong and we felt it was an important book to read and share with others.

Only one of us had a chance to read Holding Up the Universe. It was generally an entertaining read but after a while it sort of felt like reading a script for your average teen movie. Yes, the prosopagnosia may be a unique feature, but all of the usual suspects were there (the outcast, the cool guy, the immature jocks, the popular girls, etc). It went on a little too long and had a few too many sub-conflicts that dragged the story down in some places.

Our votes go to The Hate U Give for this round.

OCDaniel vs The Girl in the Blue Coat

OCDaniel Vs. The Girl in the Blue Coat
The Girl in the Blue Coat:
To me, the clear winner is Girl in the Blue Coat. Initially, I was a little reluctant to read another historical fiction on WWII as we’ve had quite a few titles in this genre over the years in Smackdown. In the end, I was pleasantly surprised. The narrative was intriguing and the pace of the novel kept the pages turning for me. I enjoyed watching Hanneke evolve into a brave, determined, and a more active participant in her study/supper group. I think mature Div II and most Div III readers would enjoy tackling this text to uncover a different perspective of WWII.

Other thoughts on Blue Coat
  • Hanneke and Elsbeth comparison is interesting and worthwhile to look at how people react to the atrocities of war.
  • Hanneke’s reluctance to be brave and really join the resistance feels believable and authentic - how can anyone today really understand what it means to risk one’s life by joining resistance movements? Can anyone say with true certainty that they would do more?
  • All of the plot twists and the momentum of the novel kept me interested and stuck to my couch for two days
    • I felt like once the story finally picked up, parts of the plot were abandoned (Hanneke’s job, her parents, Elsbeth, to name a few). Maybe this was intentional… I can only assume that once you get wrapped up in a resistance movement, all other parts of your life kind of fade into the background. Maybe I’m reading into this too much and trying to let Hesse off the hook.
  • The conclusion/ resolution of the story feels kind of “happily ever after” (even as I type this, I realize how offensive that comes across…). I appreciate that Hesse didn’t force the narrative or neatly tie up all of the loose ends - that would have ruined everything. Perhaps I’m selfishly looking for more, I want to know a little more about how and where our friends ended up. Were Mina and Judith found? Whatever happens to Willem, Ollie, Hanneke, et al?
  • I really appreciate the writing style of Hesse. I don’t always read the acknowledgements and notes, but this time I did. - I enjoyed her journalistic eye and how this comes across in her writing.

I have a few issues with OCDaniel. Overall, I would recommend this book as a gateway for discussions of mental health in the classroom. This might also serve as a stepping stone for some research into Mental Health. The story would likely be exciting and interesting for a Div II and III student - basketball, girls, nerves around girls, a potential murder mystery, aliens, etc…  However, in my humble experiences with OCD, I do not appreciate how neatly Daniel’s issues are addressed by his new girlfriend: i.e. “text me when you feel the zaps…”.

I agree that all individuals who struggle with mental illnesses need a lifeline, but this person will not necessarily solve the problem. Finally understanding what is happening to him is a great first step for Daniel, but I think it needs to be clearly stated (perhaps I missed this if I happened to skip the notes following Daniel’s story) that he needs to inform an adult about what is going on. It is so important to seek support from trusted adults and trained professionals. I only worry this story encourages silence - the idea that once we confide in a trusted friend, it’s okay to keep this information from parents and families until we feel better about it.

Refugee vs. Scythe


My vote is without a doubt Scythe by Neal Schusterman. I read this book before Refugee. I was immediately drawn to this book and found myself sharing information about it (not all, of course) with students and staff. Several of my students took interest and about ten of them (grade 8 and grade 9 girls) had started reading it as well. They loved it and many of them have already finished the sequel, Thunderhead. 

This book is unlike any other book I have read. I loved how the scythes consistently referred back to the Age of Mortality and used this time period as a way to justify their actions. I found it particularly interesting that each scythe had a different method of gleaning. I would highly recommend this book to students who have a passion for reading or those you may consider more advanced readers. This would make for a great high level grade 8 or 9 book club, in my opinion. 

I believe Refugee is a very good book for grade 7 or grade 8 readers. It was by far an easier read than Scythe. Students should have at least some background knowledge regarding WWII and the Holocaust to really understand and empathize with Josef's story. For me personally, Scythe was a much more engaging and intriguing read but I do believe Refugee is an important read for our students to understand the challenges that come along with fleeing and moving to a new country.

Now, onto reading Thunderhead! 

Nellie Carlson votes for "Smell of Other People's House"

We all have secrets, helping us identify with the characters in the Smell of Other People's Houses. This book reminds us that all of our stories are connected and impact those we encounter along the way. The reader sees into the Inuit life of 4 young people and their families. There are many social issues touched upon, the reader is maybe left wishing there was more depth. This lacking depth is made up for by how well the reader gets to know the main characters. I felt myself looking for the connections between the characters before the author made it obvious.
Although 'The Smell of Other People's Houses' stunk, (according to Henry), the rest of the team feels it wins out over Burn Baby Burn, which, in Henry's opinion, was equally lacking and should burn baby burn! 

Refugee VS Scythe

Here are my thoughts regarding Refugee by Alan Gratz. 

Choosing a winner between Refugee and Scythe was definitely a struggle. We thought both books were fabulous. In the end I voted for Refugee and Nancy chose Scythe. Something that cannot be overlooked is that Scythe is the first book in a new series. We are both looking forward to reading subsequent novels.

The story of Refugee took on a new twist by transcending time and weaving three harrowing stories together. I personally loved the connections Gratz includes in the novel. This book explores the themes that unite us: family, love, and persistence. I believe students will relate to Josef, Isabel, and Mahmoud in a way that will provide readers a way to explore some of the issues refugees experience and endure.