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

Friday, January 14, 2011

The Unwritten vs. Nothing

O.K.. Here I go. Why do I feel like this is some sort of examination? O.K.. Ready. On to the two books:

The Unwritten

Plot in a nutshell: Graphic novel. Tom Taylor’s father wrote an incredibly popular series of Harry Potter-esque Y.A. novels, but has since disappeared (one of the central mysteries of the series: has he simply become reclusive, a la Salinger? Something more nefarious?). The boy-wizard protagonist of the series, Tommy Taylor, may or may not have been killed off in the final novel. And then…the real world and the constructed fantasy world begin to collide, as characters from the novels start appearing in the real world. And Tom may, in fact, actually be Tommy, as in, a fictional character living in the real world. Meta-hi-jinks ensue.

First of all, I have to say I’m not a fan of fantasy as a genre, but I recognize this as a failing on my part. I can’t make it through The Lord of the Rings movies. I read the first four Harry Potter books, and enjoyed them, but wasn’t moved to read the final books. I can recognize that they are great, but I just can’t wrap my pea-sized brain around the strange names of the characters and the worlds of swords and spells and unicorns. I lack the “suspension of disbelief” chip in my brain, and have trouble giving myself over to the narrative in Fantasy books. So for me to even like something in this genre is a feat in itself, and I really liked this text, enough to even purchase the next volume in the series and read it as well.

The Unwritten is one of those great opportunities to put a graphic novel in someone’s hands to say “This is a graphic novel that will change your perception that comic books are ‘kidstuff.’ No kidding. This is really smart and clever and academic. And engaging and fun.” The Unwritten is peppered with literary allusions (note: brush up on your Frankenstein, Dickens and Mark Twain for full effect), and really interesting choices in form: we often oscillate back and forth between both print and film versions of the Tommy Taylor series and reality, each informing the narratives of the other. Embedded web pages are used, as are CNN-style news scrolls to great effect. You find yourself scrutinizing these pages for clues and extra information to confirm your suspicions of key plot points. Great fun.


it appropriate for Young Adults? Well, the language is pretty salty at times (absolutely every one of the “big” swears is used, often with wild abandon). The violence can be a bit graphic (more in possibility than in actuality though) and there are a few double entendres that might just be entendres, if you know what I mean (although this is more prevalent in Volume 2 of the series). I’m not entirely sure I’d feel comfy sitting down with the kids explaining some of it. Teachable? Maybe not. It sure is fun though.


Plot in a nutshell: Novel. Danish 14-year old climbs a tree, decrying the meaningless of the world; his classmates try to get him down by establishing a “heap of meaning,” a pile of their most prized possessions that give their lives purpose. But…in order to ensure that what a person adds to the pile truly is his or her most prized possession, someone chooses for him or her what he or she have to add to the pile. The hideousness of humanity is exposed. Painfully.

Clearly, Danish Young Adult fiction is a tad stronger than North American Young Adult fiction. Nothing is, quite honestly, one of the most disturbing things I have ever read. Disturbing, disturbing, disturbing. No joke. And, while there is plenty of physical violence, it is the psychological violence that gets under your skin and festers. The dustjacket draws parallels to Lord of the Flies, and I can certainly see it, although Nothing, for me at least, was way more shocking and upsetting. To be honest, I wouldn’t ever visit this sort of horror on a class of students[1], not even a class of Grade 12 I.B.s. And I’m no prude. It’s just that horrific.

But having said all that…

As troubled as I was, I was riveted. Horrified and troubled, to be sure, but it is a well-written, cleverly crafted novel of savagery and cruelty. Janne Teller is absolutely exacting and relentless as events meet their inevitable and logical conclusion; as much as your mouth hangs open as each child dictates what the next child must add to the “heap of meaning,” it is always coolly realistic and plausible. Not that I like to ponder the, perhaps boundless, capacity for cruelty that we possess, but it is something to consider and reflect upon.

And, I’m going to read it again. The novel is pretty clearly an allegory, but I couldn’t keep track of the roles each kid “plays” the first time through the novel—I lost myself to the narrative, like in all good fiction, and the “Teacher/Thinker” part of my brain was overruled entirely by the “Reader/What Happens Next?” part of my brain. Like I said, it is exceedingly clever and smart, demanding, I think, a second or third read.

The question, for the purposes of The Smackdown however, is does it go into the next round, considering that I would never put it in the hands of a class? Clearly someone thinks it is fine/appropriate for young adults; as I type this, Dia has informed me that Nothing was named one of the Printz Honour books. Maybe I’m just getting older and more easily schocked….

SO….Which Goes Forward…

I can’t imagine asking someone to read Nothing. However, I sure would like it if someone would, so I could talk about it to someone. Hammer out some of the complexities. It’s the kind of book that demands discussion during and afterward. BUT, it is a thoroughly unpleasant experience, the kind that makes you want to take a bleach shower afterward. And The Unwritten is pretty fun. So…The Unwritten it is!

[1] But I might put it in the hands of a kid that might be able to handle it. But I can’t think of one that I currently teach.



  1. I really want to read Nothing -- I do -- but I can't. Brad was telling me about it, and I was almost in tears just thinking about the horror of it all (and I'm not the teary type). I'm glad Nothing didn't make it through, so that I don't have to read it, and I can continue to live in denial of such things a little bit longer.

  2. It is sitting in my bookcase waiting for me...I'm going to read it but I get what you say. I think it is books and comments like this that will ultimately make this whole process worthwhile. What are we putting on shelves and how much diligence are we putting into the process?

  3. I could not put it down. I read it all in one sitting. Nothing is indeed a disturbing book. It is also extremely well written. I can see why it is a Printz Honor Book and why it won the Best Children’s Book Prize from the Danish Cultural Ministry as well as the prestigious Le Prix Libbylit 2008 for best novel for children in the French-Speaking world. Without any graphic description Janne Teller manages to make the reader horrified at what is happening. It’s like a train wreck. You just have to watch. What will be the next item added to the pile of meaning?

    That being said, Nothing is not the most horrific YA book I have ever read. Would I recommend this book for class study? No. Would I recommend it to every student? No. Are there students I could recommend it to? Yes. Would I use it as a student book club book? Absolutely.

  4. This post definitely has me interested in reading "Nothing". It is going on my ever-growing list of must-reads.

  5. Ok, so I got around to reading "Nothing." What can I say? It was riveting, horrifying, and absolutely BRILLIANT. This is one of the best YA books I have ever read, even if it was just morbid curiosity that got me to open it and turn to the first page. I could not put it down, needing to know what horrors could be imagined next for the heap of meaning.

    For those who have read the book, I was most intrigued by the character of Sophie. Her sacrifice and character development was fascinating and her speeches near the end of the novel really gave meaning to the meaning.

    This is a dark book, but a great book. I highly recommend it.