Smackdown Books 2019

Piecing Me Together
We Are Okay
Hello, Universe
Nevermoor: The Trials of Morrigan Crow
The Marrow Thieves
The 57 Bus: A True Story of Two Teenagers and the Crime That Changed Their Lives
The Poet X
Children of Blood and Bone
Far from the Tree
Long Way Down
The Goat
Amina's Voice
Macy McMillan and the Rainbow Goddess
The First Rule of Punk
24 Hours in Nowhere
The Astonishing Color of After
Obsessed: : A Memoir of My Life with OCD
Train I Ride

Friday, April 15, 2011

And What Does Jaylene Think?

Is it proximity to Angela? Do all Laura's great comments mean nothing to Jaylene because of the river between them? Apparently. In a brief but clear email to this reporter Jaylene has chosen to move Flash Burnout forward. Here is her reasoning: 1. She learned more in this book than Whisper 2. Photographic advice at the beginning of chapters was a bonus 3. Page 213 ties things together nicely 4. Hurdles are not for Jaylene Cryptic indeed.....I guess I have to read to fully understand - hope it's clear to those that have.

Thursday, April 14, 2011

Bamboo People vs. The Great Wide Sea

First off, we want to say that we hope neither of these books win. We've both read books that have already been eliminated that we enjoyed more.
We wouldn't recommend either book for high school. They would have to be pushed into the hands of upper elementary and junior high boys in order for them to be read as the covers and descriptions are not very appealing.
There were certainly parts in both books we enjoyed.
In The Great Wide Sea the bond between brothers and the danger and excitement of their adventures, while somewhat unrealistic, was what kept us reading. Spoiler alert!! We would have both been happier if the dad had not miraculously walked into the room at the end, but had died instead.
In Bamboo People, we liked the convergence of the two different viewpoints and the way that child soldiers, refugees and the Burmese conflict were worked into the story without lecturing. The themes of humanity in intolerable situations and friendship were also compelling. We felt the book would be more appropriate with an upper elementary class and that there are better choices for studying conflicts or child soldiers once students hit junior high (Chanda's Wars and A Long Way Gone).
Since we can't throw both books out, we choose Bamboo People to go on to the next round.
Barb and Mona

Monday, April 11, 2011

And now for something completely different…

We decided to try to put the “smack” in “The Mighty Smackdown” by engaging in a real-time dialogue on a share site; we had no idea how it would work, but what follows is the (mostly) unedited ramblings of three people trying to decide which of the two books (Elaine Marie Alphin’s The Perfect Shot or Rebecca Stead’s When You Reach Me) to put forward…

Dia: Okay, let’s begin. I’d like to start off by saying I hope Andrew had a good night’s sleep, woke up and decided that When You Reach Me is so much better than The Perfect Shot...

Andrew: Well, the sleep part is correct … the rest is just a dream. The Perfect Shot is the better choice, much deeper in content. Brad?

Brad: Please say that you are kidding, Warke.

Andrew: O.K.--so now I’m sorry that I got you on the share site... look at the ideas that are presented in The Perfect Shot...can you continue to ask yourself and question about every discussion that you made? When is doing the right thing better than doing the easy thing? I didn’t find that in the other book.

Brad: I’ll give you that there are things to admire in The Perfect Shot. I liked the fragmented narrative, the interstitial dialogue between a medical team that gives sense of suspense throughout the novel. I liked the interplay between the school project and the current happenings, the intermingling of the present and the past. All interesting. I’ll give you that. But there is lots to irritate as well. As far as I’m concerned, When You Reach Me might be one of the best books I’ll read all year. It’s pretty much perfect.

Dia: Yahoo! You know why? Because When You Reach Me is about that time when you go from being all kid into adulthood all due to to a slight twist and Stead nailed it.

Brad: Absolutely. And Miranda, the protagonist’s, voice never drops. It sounds real and authentic the whole way through the novel. It’s kind of a dizzying feat, in many ways.

Andrew: It’s not that I dislike When You Reach Me... I just didn’t think that it is as appealing to younger readers as The Perfect Shot. The time in which the story is written speaks to me (and you) as we were alive when the $20000 Pyramid-like game shows were on, and we understand that schools had dentists and all the other things in the 70s referenced in the novel. I just don’t see the students getting hooked into this book and, as a result, the message is then lost. I would have a harder time finding a student that I think this would be a good match for as compared to the other book.

Dia: I’ll admit the time is set when I was that age, so for sure that is a plus for me. I’ll also give you that the popularity might go to The Perfect Shot because of the basketball action, but that just means we have to use When You Reach Me to teach the power of little things strung together to make something beautiful and there is no way I’m going to let the “rhythm…of….the…ball” and some fake street talk (in The Perfect Shot) bowl it over.

Andrew: I agree that the “bounce bounce bounce” of the basketball, the street talk and the out of body experience are all items that were flaws in this book--but to have the hidden hero of your story as [EDITED FOR SPOILERS] isn’t great writing either. I think that the issues still have to outweigh the minor flaws in writing. When it comes down to the heart of the story, which is stronger?

Brad: [EDITED--SPOILERS, WHILE BRAD AND DIA JUSTIFY THE PURPOSE OF THE “HERO” OF WHEN YOU REACH ME] The Perfect Shot has more than a few writing flaws. I hate it when author’s have established characters do things completely out of character, like when the protagonist’s father, a guitar-building pseudo-hippy, almost drops the N-word (?!?!?!?). Or when Joyous starts talking like the jive-talking Barbara Billingsley in Airplane, overnight, to shoehorn in some sort of racial issues into the novel to give it purpose. As for When You Reach Me-- the fact that it takes place in a different time, foreign to the kids, is what would make it SUCH a rich learning experience. The whole book is about displaced time. And faith. And compassion. About the rational and the mysterious conflating into something, well, beautiful.

Dia: Wow...what he said....I also have to give a shout out to the main character and few scenes with the Mom that have nothing to do with time travel - except the kind we do when we change forever. For instance, page 120, where she knows her Mom sees the apartment everyday like she sees it and she still can’t apologize made me cry.

Andrew: Cry? Really?

Brad: I got a misty a few times as well.

Andrew: O.K.. So tell me. Could you name a student from, say, the past two years to whom you would give this book with your recommendation?

Dia: If I had read this last year, I would have done it across the board with the challenge class.

Brad: Ditto. Further to that, I can almost guarantee that I will be buying this book for my niece, and my brother, and friends, and anyone else I know who likes reading. True dat. The book is something I haven’t encountered before (although I admit I am a complete novitiate when it comes to Young Adult fiction): Young Adult North American Magic Realism. I hesitate to “talk the book up” too much because one of its many charms is how understated and plausible the elements of the fantastic are. If I knew that this was a time travel novel, I probably wouldn’t have engaged in it as readily as I did. That the “science-fictiony” stuff was so grounded and, well, quiet and matter-of-fact and moving, just made it...I don’t know....special. Like A Wrinkle in Time, which the novel references and aspires to be (and succeeds in being as effective, I think, in a wholly different way).

Andrew: I have a hard time giving up on a book (The Perfect Shot) that has such a good history teacher character and a plot centering around the growth of young people when put into uncomfortable situations and having to resolve them: The Challenge of Co-existence. But, as I have said, I do like both of the stories and would support moving When You Reach Me to the next level.

Dia: Sure--play the Co-existence Card.

Brad: I totally agree that the history class stuff, history teacher included, is the best part of The Perfect Shot. I thought that it was engaging and interesting, and that it was when the characters were at their most grounded and appealing. But the book, ultimately, is a mystery/thriller where the solution to the mystery is pretty obvious on page 2 or 3, and the thrills never...thrill. At no point did I feel that anyone was really in jeopardy (well, except after the initial horrifying murder stuff).

Dia: Great! We move the best book one while agreeing that The Perfect Shot could be given out to students because of redeeming qualities. Let’s face it--kids don’t come with a ton of background knowledge, so they might be a little more thrilled by the thrills we thought were a bit simplistic.

Andrew: I don’t think it’s the thrills that will capture the students as much as the notion of the injustice of the courts. I think that they would really buy into this as students do like everything to be “fair and equal” where wrong people are punished (as long as it isn’t them) and this book is filled with those events. However...

I will agree that When You Reach Me is the stronger book...well done both of you.

Dia: Then I’m leaving now, my work here is done. Great job to the both of you and thanks for thinking of a creative way to show this dialogue, Brad, and thanks to Andrew for pulling us out of The Dark Ages.

Sunday, April 10, 2011

Flash Burnout vs. Whisper

Hmmm. I'm not so sure the books I'm reading are getting better and better. What I have noticed is that they're getting more similar, but maybe that's just the luck (or not) of the draw. Flash Burnout was a great read. I especially like the little photography text "excerpts" at the start of each chapter, although I'm not sure kids would get the metaphors. I like to be entertained and learn something when I invest my precious time in a novel. This book didn't fail on either of those accounts. Now I know a bit about photography, like what "flash burnout" means! I thought the love triangle in this story was a bit boring, actually. Very predictable. But the relationships between the main players and their siblings and parents were complex and diverse (from an adolescent's point of view). In addition, those characters brought other interesting story lines -- with the medical-examiner dad, and the "hurtling" brother, oh, and the drug-addicted, tattooed mom. There's lots here for the YA crowd. I like a bit of action/grittiness in a story; and although this book delivers some, it's mild. Even the sex scene is "tasteful". What appeals to me most as a teacher is that Flash Burnout isn't a chick book. Girls would definitely enjoy this book, but it is told from a boy's perspective. I think it's important that kids get to see boys struggling with relationships and involved in activities other than sports. ...I'm not sure the cover sells the story (and that's important to me); I think kids would pick up the book expecting some kind of thriller or mystery, but that's not really what's delivered. Whisper is a chick book. It's a really interesting story, not unlike many others that are on the shelves right now -- a (perfect) girl struggles with her special powers and meets up with a (messed-up) boy struggling with his special powers... you get the picture. I enjoyed the read. However, I think that the first three-quarters of the book is so full of girliness that boys wouldn't wade through it. There's a lot of description of what the girls are wearing, who their friends are, what their hair is like, and cupcakes and lattes, etc., etc. So that being said, it's definitely going to appeal to girls, and the main character, although she starts out as one of those "goody-two-shoes" types, does develop some gutsiness as the story progresses. She ends up being a resourceful heroine, just as you would expect. I guess that's what I disliked about this book; it's very predictable. On the other hand, who doesn't like to imagine what it would be like to read minds? The perks and challenges of that power make for an interesting story. The alternate point of view, with the messed-up sister and perfect brother, would have also been an interesting story (with a bit more grittiness). Nevertheless, this book would be an easy sell to the grade 8 and 9 girls I teach. My vote is for Flash Burnout. (There's nothing like a little friendly competition.)

Friday, April 8, 2011

Flash Burnout vs Whisper

Wow. The books are getting better and better for me. I was hoping not to be the first one to post on these two books, but I guess I will risk being the loser who picks a different book than my two colleagues reading the same novels. Frankly, I am having hard time deciding which book to move on, so I will share my thoughts on pros and cons and then make a decision by the end of this post. (I won't torture those of you who have read the books and moved them on with another plot synopsis.)

Flash Burnout. Pros: I really enjoyed the protagonist's voice and his sense of humour. The characters are well developed and very real. I like the family dynamic; the supporting character of the older brother who hassles his younger sibling, but comes through as someone to count on in a crisis, won me over. I think boys and girls will be able to read and relate to the characters and conflicts. Overall, I enjoyed reading the book myself. Cons: The climax that I was hoping for involved the conflict with Marissa's mom, the addict, and their relationship, and hopefully some kind of adventure, but the climax I got involved a love triangle with the characters, whom I liked, letting me down in their inability to remain faithful. Is it really so impossible for a girl and a boy to be "just friends"? I am not sure I like that model for our young adult readers. Maybe I could just to go back and watch When Harry Met Sally again if I want to explore that idea again, rather than getting kind of creeped out by teenagers exploring that idea (don't worry, I've already been identified as "old-fashioned" and "bleeding heart" in other venues this week, so you don't need to comment about it).

Whisper. Pros: I liked reading this book more. Despite its fantasy genre, the characters are believable and likable (even cranky Icka soon had my sympathy). Some of the problems about fitting in and wondering what your friends and family really think about you are issues to which lots of teen readers will relate. I think teens will recognize family members and friends in their own lives and girls, in particular, will relate to the sister rivalry and friendship dynamics. The climax was very exciting. It also has characters who redeem themselves. Cons: It is another fantasy novel to add to the pile. I don't think boys will pick this one up.

Hmmm. Aren't these pro and con lists supposed to clarify my choice?

The debate really seems to be how we are defining "best" book. Is it the one I enjoy more? The most exciting? The one more students will read? A book I can teach? A book that will appeal equally to both genders? A book that teaches the best lessons? All of these questions have me voting for different books.

Where is the rubric?

Without one, I am just going to say I liked Whisper more and let my other two colleagues make the deciding votes.

Thursday, April 7, 2011

Round 3: Scrawl vs. The Demon's Lexicon

Yay, look at me, the first poster of Round 3! I'm supposed to be reading these and deciding the winner with the good folks over at Kenilworth (sp?), but they haven't posted yet, so I will put my opinion out there on which of these two novels needs to move forward.

The Demon's Lexicon by Sarah Rees Brennan

As soon as I got this book through truck mail, I was already dreading reading it. Another book about fantastical creatures that don't really exist, but are supposed to kinda be normal teenagers like the ones we see every day? Yup. There is no end to the vampires, werewolves, fairies, demons,
shape-shifters, zombies, gods and goddesses, those who hunt them and those who love them, is there? Aren't there real people out there anymore that are worth writing about?

I used to enjoy this genre and its connections to the dark underworld and the occult. I even took a Vampire Literature course during my University days, where I had the chance to shred Twilight and get in heated arguments with fangirls over the merits of Buffy. At this point in the development of this fad, I think that enough is enough.

The Demon's Lexicon isn't about vampires (thankfully), but it is about magicians and teens marked by demons. If you can get past the absolutely wretched front cover, which seems like it combines the worst of Edward Cullen and an artsy, emo, 20-something, new version of the lone wolf t-shirt, this book is a good read. I won't go into too many plot details, because it has already been outlined by other bloggers, but there is still some originality here; some respectable characters (albeit the same cliched characters seen in many novels of this genre), and a very good OMG moment at the end of the novel that I didn't see coming.

Naturally this will be a series, which I have ranted about in a previous post. When it comes down to it, I think students who have not already become bored by this fantasy genre will enjoy this book, and probably want to read on as the rest of the trilogy is released. But I couldn't help getting the feeling as I read through this novel that we have seen all of this before, and will probably see it again before this sparkly, "Yes, I have the ancient mark of a demon, but I just want to be a normal teen!" trend nears its death rattle.

As negative as this review is, I must reiterate that the book is good. It is entertaining, and once you get past the slow beginning (at least I thought it was slow), you will be rewarded with where the novel leads the reader.

Scrawl by Mark Shulman

Ok, a book about regular people. No super powers here. Nobody is being chased by magicians. Scrawl was an interesting read, because for the first few chapters of the book, I thought it was about a bully being forced to write down all the bad things he had done. To atone for his deplorable behavior in detention under the watchful eye of a caring guidance councilor.

But Scrawl is more than that, and the reader sees this as they get to know the writer/main character, Tod. He may do some reprehensible things. He may be a thief and he may extort money from students in his school. But really, he has no clue who he is, and this comes across in his actions as he steps into various of the high school niches. He hangs out with other bullies. He is a petty criminal. Yet he enters a spelling bee. He makes sure he is never late for his English class. He always shows up to detention and doesn't protest too much when he is required to write every day after school. He interacts with artists, and the AV club, and the drama kids. He knows how to hem a skirt.

What I liked about Tod is that he is a realistic character. He is a teenager. He really has no clue what he is all about yet. The identity he has created for himself is not how others view him. The notebook he is forced to write in helps him see himself in a different light. What he will do with that is up to him, as well up to the mind of the reader (because thankfully this isn't a series!).

This novel is not really plot driven, but it provides an honest high school voice, one that I feel many students could relate to. I felt that this book really did provide some insight into how a teenager perceives themselves compared to what others think about them, and the constant struggle and amount of thought that goes into the creation, manipulation and maintenance of identity.

And my winner is...

It has to be Scrawl. I tried my best to put aside my prejudices against the genre of The Demon's Lexicon when choosing which one to advance. When all is said and done, in my opinion, Scrawl is just a better book. I think it is good for a wide range of ages and reading abilities, and amidst all the teens who sparkle and fight were-monkeys in the night, there is a real character here that teens can understand, and maybe even learn from.