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

Sunday, January 14, 2018

I Have What is Likely a Stupid Idea.....

But, whatever.

It's round about this time in the Smackdown where I realize that, in a few scant months, I am going to be expected to choose a Zombie Pick (which is actually kind of a big deal when you recall the number of Zombie Picks that have battled back from the dead to win the whole shebang).  And, invariably, I am basing my choice for Zombie Pick on a couple of books that I managed to read over the summer/school breaks and those that have already been cast off by myself (or the hive mind of my team).  I might not be remotely close to choosing the ZP that deserves an actual resurrection.


Comment to this post about those books that YOU CAN'T BELIEVE ARE ALREADY GONE.  Maybe a few words why.  Actually, I'll make this easier:  if you can't believe that another team has cruelly dumped something that you really believe is great, something that you read of your own volition or in an earlier round, and could potentially win the whole thing, post the title and four words that describe the book in the comments.

This way, in all of our spare time (HAH!), we could read a few things that would steer us in the way of making a more-informed Zombie Pick.

I'll start:

March (John Lewis and Andrew Aydin):  moving, important, intensely relevant

Calvin (Martine Leavitt):  charming, clever, dream-like (periodically)

Any other MUST READS for a ZP?

Friday, January 12, 2018

“Holding Up The Universe” is the winner of this round for our team.

Full Disclosure….after reading I usually very quickly forget character’s names and the details become fuzzy for me. Instead I tend to focus on how I feel after I finish reading a book.  Did I connect with the characters, plot, setting, writing style, one of these or all of them,  etc? Also, can I recommend the book to a student, a friend, a colleague or even my book club?  I can definitely recommend this unforgettable book. Jack and Libby are characters whose story is one that you just can’t forget. Prosopagnosia is a unique condition that you can't forget.  I didn’t expect to love this book but I fell in like with Libby and Jack and their unique story.  One of the things that didn’t quite add up for me is how Jack’s parents had absolutely no idea that something was different with their son.  I could see this if he was very young but I find it so strange that he was so old and he was the one who had to tell them.  How did others feel about this?

“Vincent and Theo” was a book that I just struggled to maintain my interest in.  Having said this I am grateful that I have read it because I will never look at a Van Gogh in the same way again.

- Shelley

Thursday, January 11, 2018

We Didn't Agree!

We didn't agree!  We read Vincent and Theo and Holding Up the Universe.  Kerri and Laura spoke right after Christmas and agreed that we preferred Holding Up the Universe.  We thought it was engaging, liked the characters well enough, and were sure that we knew lots of students who would read it.  Laura also remembered being fascinated with face-blindness when she read Bone Gap in a previous Smackdown edition, and this book built on the background information she researched after reading that book.  Vincent and Theo, on the other hand, felt way too much like homework.  IF a person HAD to do a biography on Vincent Van Gogh, this would be the book we would recommend.  But we couldn't imagine a person who would read it for pleasure.  Then Kerri looked back in the blog to see what it had possibly beat out, and discovered that our previous reviewers had only selected it as slightly better in a pair of poor choices and weren't endorsing it for any particular virtues.  

Then we heard from Wendy.  She said Holding up the Universe was formulaic -- disease of the week.  Romance.  She enjoyed the book despite all that but noticed that the same formula is used in her next book-- the disease is somnambulism or narcolepsy but she also covers suicide and depression and oh- there is a death.  Have I read too many of these? Perhaps.  Vincent and Theo was interesting because it was non fiction and didn't cater so baldly to its audience but it was ultimately just a timeline.  The relationship was interesting but there was only a one note analysis of that relationship and it was a relationship that didn't change over the years.  Thus was repetitive and boring.
I didn't like either of these books.  Do I have to pick one? I'll pick Vincent and Theo if I have to.  

But she refused to be swayed to vote with us for Holding Up the Universe, for much the same reasons as the previous bracket who chose Vincent and Theo.  Ultimately, she's only one vote, though.  We throw in two votes for Holding Up the Universe, but we probably didn't read the Smackdown winner this round.  

Wednesday, January 10, 2018

Refugee vs The Passion of Dolsa

Image result for the passion of dolssa review                                                   Image result for refugee book

These were both lovely books but I am casting my vote for Refugee.  Refugee by Alan Gratz speaks to an idea or issue that is prevalent in our culture at this time.  It gives context to what a refugee is and how different cultures have been refugees.  I love that this was a novel with three different refugee experiences that happened in different countries and different time periods.  While I do understand the complaint that the novel might be a little heavy handed in supporting refugees, I feel this is a question lots of students have especially in junior high and reading about the experience from varying points of view allows them to make up their own minds about these people's plight. It is so easy for me to see adding this book to my literature circle next year.  It has great character development, comparison of experiences and topical themes. This novel would be a great addition to the classroom for sure.

I really liked "The Passion of Dolsa".  To be honest I am almost finished.  It was beautifully written and I love the relationship between the two girls and the time period.  I think a relationship like this is not explored very often in novels but in the end, it was a lot like other books for me that I read.  A book I would add to my library and suggest for some students but it is not for everybody in my opinion.

In this case, I decided to go with the book I felt would make a greater impact with my students and not the entertaining story.  This is not always the case, I am whimsical like that.  My vote is for Refugee.

Tuesday, January 9, 2018

By a vote of 9 to 1, we vote for Scythe by Neal Shusterman, over Upside Down in the Middle of Nowhere by Julie T. Lamana, to go through to the next round. Here are our reasons why:

Judy:  Upside Down in The Middle of Nowhere is based on real events.  It clearly shows the struggles and strength of people in times of catastrophe.  It also portrays how the will to survive kicks in plus people pitching in and reaching out to help others during tragic events. Scythe hits right to the heart and makes you examine the meaning of life and death. It is thrilling but also chilling all at the same time. In coming to a discussion, I pondered a few questions such as, “Which one leaves me wanting more OR which story stuck in my head like an ear-worm OR has you questioning and thinking about life -could that really happen - what would I do??? Upside Down in the Middle of Nowhere and Scythe are both good reads for totally different reasons. BUT hands-down, not even a blink I liked Scythe more -right down from the book jacket cover, to the name Scythe (grim reaper) to the last page of the story.  Definitely looking forward to the sequel Thunderhead.

Suanne:  Judy got it right, without a doubt Scythe is the clear winner. Now let me go back to reading Thunderhead! Oh, and if you want to you can ask the Thunderhead a question.  

Warning: Don’t ask Thunderhead about Scythe.

Monica: Although the beginning of Scythe had me hooked and I was liking Shusterman’s writing style, I found the tone quickly became one that I could not complete. I tried on a few occasions to keep reading but as the topic of the novel came through, I was disturbed and found myself getting angry and anxious. Therefore, I could not finish this novel and will not be recommending it.
Upside Down in the Middle of Nowhere gets my vote. The way in which Lamana brings across the devastation of Hurricane Katrina was page turning. I was captivated by the description of the setting, the worry, the sacrifice, the honesty of the characters reactions, and the telling of this natural disaster from a child’s perspective who was just looking for a normal birthday. I appreciated how the chapters were short as I am a reader who has to finish a chapter before taking a break. However, I found myself wanting to read on and find out exactly what was going to happen next. This would be a novel I recommend to young readers. Not only does it portray a strong female character, Armani, but it connects with a real-life situation that can create excellent discussion and reflection.

Mark: He was overheard saying that he liked Scythe and wanted to see this book move on.

Katrina: Obviously I vote to move on Scythe.  There are many, many dystopian books that have come out in the last couple of years and it is easy to become a bit bored and start overlooking the genre.  I am really glad I did not do that with this book. As I read this book it made me think about would I want to live forever?  Would my life become meaningless after a while because there is no real struggle?
I really enjoyed the beginning of Upside Down in the Middle of Nowhere, I enjoyed the main characters voice at the beginning, her interaction with her family and those around her. I really wanted to keep loving this book, but once Hurricane Katrina hit and the family became separated I started to lose interest. I just felt the characters started to fall a bit flat and it wrapped up a little too neatly.
Of the two books in this read I felt Scythe was the better read.

Linda: My choice to move forward in this round is Scythe. This novel is the new dystopian or speculative fiction of our time. This novel begs the reader to think. Although the context may be difficult for some readers, it is necessary to force our young readers to think and ask some tough questions. Through the personal relationships between scythes and the apprentice scythes, the reader is able to think and reconcile their ideas about these ideas presented in the novel. This is a novel that has sparked many conversations with students and colleagues. A must read for any ELA teacher!

Upside Down in the Middle of Nowhere - For me this novel seemed to reach to younger readers in the 9-12 age group. Meant to be a coming of age novel, the author is not consistent in her voice. This novel had potential, but for me, fell flat. For a younger reader, this would be an engaging text to teach about loss in the face of a disaster.

Eleni (and Shannon): While Shannon indicated she preferred Scythe over Upside Down in the Middle of Nowhere, I loved Scythe.  I thoroughly enjoyed Faraday’s journal entries because of his focus on empathy and how empathy “makes us human”.  I found it quite relevant considering the state of our current world.  

Fred: Loved Scythe and all the twists and turns that it offered. Was intrigued by the dilemma faced by Citra and Rowan on their 'chosen' life path and the added twist with the possibility of having to glean each other. Found the book hard to put down and it would certainly appeal to a teen reader.  Lots of moral questions raised in this book which could lead to great class discussions. I'm a fan and can't wait for the movie version!

Miriam: Scythe gets my vote. I thought the idea of a sentient internet cloud was fascinating, especially the fact that an AI can solve humanity’s problems, instead of being responsible for its destruction. I thought this was a fresh take on the whole “machines taking over” trope. I also thought the concept that without something to fight for, people become aimless and bored, so they go through the motions. Not so different from the world we live in now: people, bored and aimless, put their faith in technology to solve all their problems. Lots of food for thought in this book.

Why Must Everything I Love Die?

Perhaps that's a bit melodramatic, but, for the second time in as many rounds, the book that I thought was the clear winner is voted out unceremoniously.  So....I'll be uncharacteristically brief.

I think it might be that whole "Best Book Overall/Best Book for Teaching in Our Classrooms" dichotomy that keeps defeating my favorite (although I seriously challenge the wisdom of Calvin going out in the first round; it made me want to teach it RIGHT. NOW. I bought a class set immediately, and Book Outlet still has them on the cheap [hint hint]).

Both books are charming in their own respective ways, well-worth the reads, and I genuinely enjoyed both.  Like, a lot. And, by far, OCDaniel is the one that would find its way into most classrooms.  It is unfailingly authentic and honest, but sometimes a little too cutesy/quirky (cuteky? quirtsey?) for me.  But, I get it.  I'm not the target audience.

I am also decidedly NOT the audience for When We Collided (ostensibly sort of a swoony-teenaged romance with grief and bipolar disorder) either, but, boy, it had me from moment one.  And in ways that I'm not even sure I could identify:  look--I realize that there are ludicrous moments, and that it is often "too much" (hey, Vanessa and Deb!), but that didn't stop me from:  1. bawling on more than one occasion (actually, way more than I would want to admit) and 2. reading it in one big ol' gulp.  I was invested in these kooky kids, and I really sort of loved them.  I certainly cared enough about them that I stayed up way too late before the first day back to school (where I arrived, on time, but still puffy-eyed from full-on weeping.  I blamed snow allergies).

How does it work?  Not sure.  Propulsive, cinematic writing sure helps.  As does the alternating perspective, which has, let's be honest, become an overused and hackneyed trope of YA in the last few years, but Lord finds interesting and revelatory ways to make this structure really pay off (particularly in revealing Vivi's bipolar disorder--clever and moving stuff).  There are problems, sure (particularly with the depiction/ramifications of Vivi's bipolar disorder), but I inexplicably and somewhat shockingly loved it.

I'll shut up now.  When We Collided is going nowhere.  And it isn't even my Zombie Pick thus far (Calvin, people.  Read Calvin.).

I'm not infuriated that OCDaniel is moving on though.  Not at all.

Girl in the Blue Coat Survives a Scare from Dan vs Nature

Girl in the Blue Coat Survives a Scare from Dan vs Nature

Ok, maybe “a scare” is a bit strongly worded considering we were unanimous in our decision to move The Girl in the Blue Coat on, but darn it, there was some genuine affection for Dan vs. Nature. It had a few YA tropes I can generally live without like the awkward genius sidekick, the equally genius-level love interest who is also a curvy goddess and a host of “quirky” characters, including some uniquely determined animals, but overall, it all works. I think it is a testament to Calame’s vivid prose and his ability to establish a likeable and grounding central character and narrator in Dan, that he’s created a generally enjoyable read. I found Charlie a bit much from the outset, but the rest of the characters generally worked for me. I actually admired Hank as a good man caught in an impossible situation and dealing with it with almost superhuman good grace, but this only fully works because Calame establishes a reveal at the end that makes Hank both fallible and vulnerable, and ultimately, at least partially the architect of his own misfortune. That’s just one example of the author’s ability to keep his narrative on the rails despite more madcap hijinks than you can shake a stick at. As the novel wears on, the events strain believability, but the characters are both multi-faceted and consistent and this creates some reliability to the narrative in spite of some “Oh, no you didn’t!” (Picture me with my hands on my hips wagging my finger) moments. I’m not sure I’d go so far as to call it, as per the cover blurb, “Outrageously funny” - although it is often quite amusing- or “wickedly raunchy” - although it does have its gently naughty bits and some appropriately foul language- but I think this is a book that most people are going to take some small measure of joy in and I think a lot of kids would find it a hoot from start to finish.

I will not be using “joy” or “hoot” at any point moving forward, as Monica Hesse’s Girl in the Blue Coat has a mood, and a plot- for that matter- that is much more reminiscent of Spielberg’s Schindler’s List (which its cover seems to be channeling) than the teen comedy vibe that Dan vs. Nature was working. This novel works on a number of different levels: it has legitimate historical fiction bonafides -one of our group (Hi Christy!) has Dutch roots and discussed the novel with her mom who confirmed its historical veracity- but it also functions as a really gripping mystery thriller with various levels of intrigue and some heart-stopping moments. Ultimately, though, this is a character study of the highest order, with our protagonist and narrator Hanneke at once every teenage girl we’d ever met and also like no teenage girl we’ve ever met, thrust as she is into the quagmire of the Holocaust. Hanneke can see herself as equal parts hero and coward, but really she’s little more than a painfully young girl forced to deal with the doubts, fears and delicate duplicities that living in occupied Amsterdam in 1943 entails. One thing we discussed a bit as a group was what appears to be a slight inconsistency in Hanneke’s motivations: she defies all measure of good sense in launching and sustaining her quest for Mirjam and yet wavers when initially asked to support the resistance. Ultimately, this inconsistency may actually keep her true to a broader character arc that has her buffeted by normal experiences - her first true love, her first true friendship, her commitment to her family - that are perverted by the unique horrors of this war. I’m not sure that Hanneke can even make sense of her motivations throughout this novel and that makes perfect sense in a world where right and wrong are necessarily situational. Hanneke says it perfectly near the end of the novel: ”I would care that someone understood we were flawed and scarred and doing the best we could in this war. We were wrapped up in things that were so much bigger than ourselves. We didn’t know. We didn’t mean it. It wasn’t our fault.” (298) The plot is gripping and the characters, even beyond Hanneke, are, if not fully realized, then at least carefully crafted, but ultimately, I think it is Hesse’s prose that makes this a transcendent novel. In looking for a small section of text to illustrate this point I reread the first two pages and the last two pages of the novel and I’m not sure that we’ll find too many novels, YA or otherwise, that are going to provide such nuance and depth in their prose structure. Some of the most beautiful passages are either too revealing or too obscure to present here when taken out of context and that is the mark of a remarkably crafted novel. We were pleased, again, to have two good books come our way, but there was no debate that Girl in the Blue Coat should move on.