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.