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

Tuesday, January 24, 2012

What happens when...

Ok - you join the Mighty Smackdown to read some new books, some books you wouldn't otherwise choose, or maybe, just because you like to read. So here is my round two, Jaylene and I have been given 2 books. One, realistic know, boy has troubles, some of them girl, he may or may not be fat, etc... and one, a combo of historical fiction and fantasy. I am mostly NOT a historical fiction fan and I am mostly NOT a fantasy fan. So when you combine the two together..oi! Here is a line , " My uncle who was Sounis has sent me to Letnos with Terve to separate me from the magus" What? Huh?Anglais? Jaylene had read the book and assures me it is good, someone else moved it along.
I cannot do it folks, too many books, too little time. I cannot read it (honestly, I can barely look at it and i tried!!!) BUT just because it "ain't my thang" doesn't mean it isn't someone else's. No one I would hang out with but probably still a nice person.
I don't feel comfortable giving it a bad review because I haven't read it all but then again isn't it bad if I cannot get past the first chapter. Sigh...Jaylene and I will get back to you...

Sunday, January 15, 2012

This Dark Endeavour: The Apprenticeship of Victor Frankenstein

Even thought this title didn't make it to round two, I thought this article in today's Edmonton Journal might be of interest.

Kenneth Oppel's website

Wednesday, January 11, 2012

Round One - The Wrap Up and Round Two - What do I get?

Arlene and I want to start off saying thank you so much to our bloggers for doing a masterful and on time job with round one. What happened you ask?

Two biggies the Newberry and the National Book Award failed to move on to round two. Arlene and Dia's choices made it. VOYAs perfect 10s did not. Two and 1/2 graphic novels continue to battle it out (the 1/2 is for Wonderstruck) but 1 and 1/2 go head to head in the next round. We loved the tough choices whether it was putting forward the best of the blah or cutting out a book that you did love. Some of you had an easier time...but round two is coming up.

Round Two:

Tales Dark and Grimm vs Beauty Queens (I'm weeping already)
A Monster Calls vs Yummy
Split vs The Mostly True Story of Jack
Mangaman vs Wonderstruck (Good luck Kenilworth!)
Okay for Now vs Conspiracy of Kings
Freak Observer vs Wither
Every You Every Me vs Dark Days of Hamburger Halpin
Revolution vs Guantanomo Boy

Who gets what will be emailed to bloggers today books will be sent out ASAP. Please feel free to comment on blogs posted - next due date FEBRUARY 6th.

SMACK on in 2012!

Wither VS Out of Shadows

Fantasy vs. Historical fiction = neither I would pick off a shelf to read. Although, I will have to say that in the past year I have found several fantasy books I have actually enjoyed. Not that I have begun to read many but it is a start...

Wither - As with many books, my first impression came from the cover. Young girl, long blonde hair (a bit frizzy in my opinion!), bird cage, fancy dress....I didn't like it already! When I actually started reading the concept was interesting - what if you knew when you would die? - but in the beginning the story line was a bit of Hunger Games contestants meets Cinderella meets Sister Wives! I wasn't sure which way it was going to go....then, I realized it actually was the survival of Cinderella and her sister wives! As the story continued, I fell into the trap of any good book and wanted to know what happened in the end. When I got to the end I was a bit confused. I looked it up only to discover I will only find out what happens if I read the entire trilogy! UGHHH! I didn't love it but didn't hate it either. Teenage girls will be all over it looking for the happy ending with romance and the search for love.

Out of Shadows - After reading Bamboo People last year I had high hopes for my next historical fiction read. I have done some reading and work in my SS 8 classes with regards to Robert Mugabe and his rule in Zimbabwe and was hopeful this YA novel would prove to be another resource representing the Worldview of a teenage boy. It is. However, even though the events are disturbing and true to real life events, the overall writing left something to be desired. In many cases I felt the author was beating me over the head with the repetitive events of bullying and race relations. I am not by any means making light of historical atrocities but I can't imagine a teenage boy or girl wanting to read until the end. Everyone knows how it ends. The other bothersome part of the book was the authors insistence on commenting on the later / adult life of the other characters early on in the story. This was disturbing to me as it took away the suspense of what could be to come. It was not even close to foreshadowing when he states when and how they ended up or what his role was. Teens will get some thought provoking questions from the book but not to the level it has been reviewed by others.

The decision -In the beginning I predicted the historical fiction story would win out, but, both Andrew and I agree that although we wouldn't pick either one as exceptional, in the spirit of competition we will choose Wither to last another round!

Team DA (Donna and Andrew)

Tuesday, January 10, 2012


Upon first receiving my books, I was immediately struck by how different they seemed to be (as seems to be the theme amongst these pairings). I worried about the challenges that this may have provided in choosing a winner, knowing how partial I can be to particular styles & genres. However, the challenge ended up being much less than I anticipated - I was able to settle on a clear winner right away.

The first, Shine by Lauren Myracle is a dramatic coming-of-age tale, set in a sleepy Southern town, wrought with all the token ailments one would expect of it - bigotry, misogyny & drastic socio-economic gaps among them. The central conflict is sparked by a violent hate crime victimizing a gay teenager in the town, providing Myracle with a valuable platform to explore an important humanitarian issue. Aside from occasional, varying glimpses into the reactions of the townspeople, however, she eschews the political for the more sensational & creates an almost noir-esque pulp detective novel, wrought with mysterious alibis & red herrings. Cat, the damaged protagonist, leaves no stone unturned as she searches for justice, discovers her true self, & of course, falls in love with a handsome, green-eyed co-ed from the nearby college. I found Shine to be far more emotional & predictable than enlightening. It is much more about the narrative than the circumstances. Perhaps treating the social aspects so flipantly was more intentional on her part than I picked up on, but nonetheless, it fell a bit short for me. It was an easy & relatively compelling read – something I would certainly recommend picking up casually, but perhaps not one I would recommend investing considerable amounts of time, energy or money into.

In contrast, Manga Man, a joint literary/artistic effort by Barry Lyga & Colleen Doran focuses on sociological politics under a completely different light. Although I had a difficult time with the artistic busy-ness at first (the panels are jam-packed, occasionally overwhelmingly so), the concept is charming & original. As a result of a supernatural rip in his universe, anime character Ryoko is dropped, unaware & unprepared, into an alternate, American-style comic book universe. As Ryoko navigates his new surroundings, shocks classmates with his animated idiosyncrasies (his eyes turning into hearts at the sight of a pretty girl, rain clouds spoiling surrounding fabric when he’s upset, speed lines crashing to the ground when he runs… the list goes on…) & falls in love with the beautiful, blond, adventurous Marissa, Lyga & Doran playfully explore the conventions of the comic genre. Although far from a manga fan, I was delighted by the spirited references & entertained by the clever use of artwork. Additionally, there were tonnes of little details could potentially open themselves up for some great discussion! 

With all of that said (phew!) I feel confident in recommending Manga Man to continue on to the next round. Enjoy!

Remember December 23rd? Do you? Round about 3:30 p.m., when sixteen days languorously sprawled ahead of you, days where you saw yourself spending endless hours under the Christmas tree, reading countless books off your Shelf of Shame, catching up on every movie that you’ve put off for the last four months? When you thought to yourself, “there is no way I’m going to be hunched over my computer at two in the morning on January 10th writing blogs about books that I just finished minutes ago”? Do you?

December 23rd. That was a good day.

This Dark Endeavour by Kenneth Oppel

Nutshell: Teenaged Victor Frankenstein, Elizabeth, and Henry must undertake a supernatural/spiritual journey to discover the Elixir of Life in an attempt to save the life of Konrad, Victor’s twin brother. The kind of book that contains sentences such as “ I remembered how he had talked about the myth of the lynx, the Keeper of the Secrets of the Forest, harvesting gemstones from its own urine,” and you don’t burst out laughing because you’re too busy flipping to the next page.

I kind of love Mary Shelleys Frankenstein, in all of its incarnations: the James Whale movies, the Groovie Goolies, Blade Runner--man, I still special order Frankenberry cereal from the States (I’m not kidding). Kenneth Oppel also loves Frankenstein; his book is peppered with lines of dialogue that foreshadow events to come in Shelley’s novel, moments that are almost inside jokes with the reader who comes armed with the knowledge of Shelley’s classic. All of the key motifs of Frankenstein are very much present in Oppels novel: science versus faith, doppelgangers, questioning who/what is the “monstrous,” etc. This is a man who has done his homework, and one of the chief pleasures of the novel is Oppel’s ingenuity in writing a YA adventure prequel to a literary classic for which he obviously has a great deal of passion.

This Dark Endeavour is a lot of fun. In one word, rollicking. There are plenty of hidden passages and secret libraries, mysterious traps, and moments of squeamish sacrifice. If you’re about the same age as I am, you might remember the breathless thrill of reading The Hardy Boys novels, truly believing that Joe and Frank were in real, honest to God peril, when you thought that they might not actually be able to escape Dr. MacGregor’s hidden lair on some Greek island, even though you were reading Book 53, and Books 54 - 86 were still awaiting you on your bookshelf. This Dark Endeavour conjured in me those nostalgic feelings with its double-crosses and narrow escapes.

OK. It does go on a bit at times; at least 50 or so pages could have disappeared without me missing a thing. Konrad gets sicker and then better and then even sicker and then still sicker. And there are a few trappings of the modern YA novel that I could have done without. Do we really need another sorta love triangle (“Soon to be a movie by the makers of Twilight!,” the cover shrieks, like this is a good thing)? And I’m a bit weary of the last few pages of YA novels that set everything up for the inevitable sequel, sort of relegating the almost 300 pages before it to antecedent action to the REAL STORY coming soon to a bookstore near you in about a year.

But good, clean fun. Nothing that knocked my socks off, but a zippy read with dastardly villains and moonlit chases.

Seven Axe Body Sprays out of Ten.

Every You, Every Me by David Levithan

Nutshell: Evan is an angst-ridden young man who grieves over the loss of his angst-ridden best friend, Ariel, while recollecting her relationship with Jack, a semi-angsty member of the track team. And then mysterious angst-filled photographs start appearing to Evan, and the fate of the angst-ridden Ariel is called into question, and angsty shenanigans ensue…

So, here’s the deal. Every You, Every Me is a bit of a stunt-novel. Not only are there photographs throughout, photographs that you end up scrutinizing almost as obsessively as the protagonist Evan, but Levithan employs this strange technique where a good third of the novel is crossed out, edited, almost redacted. So you read a sentence, followed by a sentence that is crossed out, and then you read the next sentence (not crossed out), and you have to go back to the preceding sentences to figure out the context. Sometimes entire passages are crossed out.

Irritating, right? Well, at first yes. Initially I found it to be a bit jarring, a little bit excessive, more than a little twee. But there’s really clever stuff going on here, and, as I read on, I sort of got the hang of the crossed out bits, which exist as a metonym for all of the “twinning” and “mirroring” that are thematically so key to the novel. Many of the “revisions” are excised thoughts, those we all purge from memory so that we can continue on. Some are fantasies, replaced by he reality of what is actually said. Other times, Levithan just engages in clever word play and diction. Evan realizes what he is doing is “investing.” Cross out “investing.” “Investigating.” Levithan transforms his usage of the “redaction effect” throughout, in a manner that always reveals character or whispers to theme.

This is a novel that has the courage to wrestle with some big, heady ideas: the intersection between memory and reality, fractals, even a Deleuzian mediation on the ways time and space traverse in a photograph. No joke. And, man, can Levithan ever write. There is periodically real beauty in his minimalist prose, often peppered with philosophical bifurcations, asking his readers to really question the semantic difference between “something” and “anything,” or “void” and “empty,” sometimes in that short-hand dialogue that only two really close friends share. That stuff is hard to capture on a page, but Levithan does so, and so successfully, that I really had no problem “hearing” every character’s voice.

But, OMG, the angst! Again, for the first thirty pages or so, I thought the bleak angstiness of it all would impede any sort of appreciation for the narrative or his writing. But, I would argue, that this is as close to the genuine-angsty (and aren't they all)-brooding-fifteenyearold-boy voice as I've read in a long, long time. It captures, perhaps perfectly, that horrible, dizzying time when the girl that you are pretty much sure you are in fifteenyearold love with loves someone else. But she still, you know, really likes you. But not likes you, likes you. And you, mute in all of your strangled boy rage, go home and listen to The Smiths for six hours straight.

Oh. Yes. Where was I?

This is some pretty good stuff. But here’s the catch. I suspect that this novel will be appreciated more by its male readers. For those of us that felt, and still feel, that Some Kind of Wonderful is better, and better because it's more real and relevant, than Pretty in Pink. Heresy, I know.

It is pretty clear to me that Every You, Every Me is moving on:

Eight (maybe even nine) bars of Teen Spirit deodorant out of Ten.


Moon Over Manifest by Clare Vanderpool

This is a beautifully written, but slow moving historical fiction which explores the concept of home, family and community. Powerful descriptive writing brings to life the small town of Manifest in both 1918 and 1936 through the eyes, experiences and unravelling of clues by protagonist Abilene Tucker. This plucky young girl has been raised by her father during the Depression but after a close call with death for Abilene he decides to send her to Manifest, Kansas for the summer. Feeling abandoned by her father, Abilene discovers hidden treasures in the floorboards of Pastor Shady's house where she is staying. Using these trinkets she sets out to discover the true meaning of home, family and community while unraveling the identity of her father. The book moves seamlessly between the two time periods as Abilene uncovers the history of Manifest and all that it was and has become. The characters are quirky, meaningful and worthy of further discussion and while the plot twists and turns in interesting ways, it does move more slowly than many young adult readers would like. Those intrigued by historical fiction will find this book fascinating as the description and detail is fabulous but I think it would be a hard sell to those not interested in this genre. As this book was competing with A Monster Calls in this round, it does not move on.

A Monster Calls A novel by Patrick Ness, inspired by an idea from Siobhan Dowd

This British book is sharp, thoughtful, desperately sad, but perhaps brutally honest and comforting all at the same time. It is based on an idea conceived by Siobhan Dowd before she died of cancer at the age of 47 but is written by Patrick Ness. In his words in the introduction to the book he writes, "I had only a single guideline:to write a book I think Siobhan would have liked. No other criteria could really matter." This book is hauntingly illustrated by Jim Kay in black and white and his illustrations bring to life the fabulous but terrifying monster and the overwhelming emotions thirteen year old Connor experiences as his mother bravely fights her battle against cancer. The monster visits Conner at the same time each night - a wonderful element of foreshadowing - and tells Connor three tales, he then waits for Connor to tell his own.

You will tell me a fourth, the monster repeated, and it will be the truth.
"The truth?"
Not just any truth. Your truth.
"O-kay," Connor said, "but you said I'd be scared before the end of all this, and that doesn't sound scary at all."
You know that is not true, the monster said. You know that your truth, the one that you hide, Connor O'Malley, is the thing you are most afraid of.
Connor stopped squirming.
It couldn't mean -
There was no
way it could mean -
There was no way it could know
(p. 36)

Throughout the novel Connor must come to terms with living with his grandmother, with whom he has very little in common, and must spend time with his father who has begun an unrecognizable new life in America complete with a new wife and baby. He must deal with school bullies, compassionate teachers and friends desperate to reach him as he battles against himself and alongside his mother.

I found this book gripping, haunting, delicate, thoughtful, indescribably sad and intricate. Would I hesitate before giving it or recommending it to students, certainly yes a thousand times. Would I say it is a book you must read yourself before you pass it on or recommend it, definitely. It is heavy matter indeed but important, maybe even essential matter, in the right reading hands, with the right guidance at the right time. I think the reading experience with this novel will always be tinged with our own experiences with loss and will colour our view of this novel. However, I move it on in this competition in the spirit of truly excellent, and challenging, literature.


Revolution vs. Mockingbird

My first post and I am entirely uncertain whether this post will appear where it should. Ignorance is not always bliss. This post will be short (but then brevity is the soul of wit), so consider it witty. Of the two books given to me, I found Revolution by Jennifer Donnelly the more engaging. It deals with the plight of depressed and medicated Andi Alpers who is struggling to get through her last year of high school. Her brother was killed in an accident for which she feels responsibility. Her mother is withdrawn and in despair. Her father (a Nobel prize winner geneticist) has left the family. Andi finds her only release in her music. Partly through her father's insistence, Andi is dragged off to Paris to complete an honour's paper on a eighteenth century French innovative composer. While there, she comes upon a hidden diary of a young street girl of Paris (a street performer) who is caught up in the early years of the French Revolution (1789-1790). The two stories become interesting parallels. The characters are engaging if the prose style is simple and unchallenging. Mockingbird by Kathryn Erksine is a little less engaging. It is set up to be very touching. Our protagonist Caitlin has Asperger's syndrome and she too has lost her brother (apparently in the violence at Virginia Tech a number of years ag0). Few of the adults around her know how to deal with her syndrome and most sound uniformly doltish. The story seems a trifle contrived to pull at the heartstrings. Thus, I vote for Revolution. John F.

Monday, January 9, 2012

To Read, or Not to Read

Friends, Romans, Countrymen, lend me your ears.Or a few minutes of your time as I share with you my thoughts on the two Smackdown books I read over the holidays.

The first, Kill Shakespeare, created by the team of Anthony Del Col, Connor McCreery, Andy B, Ian Herring and Kagan McLeod, is  a fun little romp in the world of what if.  What if Shakespeare was the ultimate wizard?  What if Richard the III, Iago and Lady Macbeth were pals bent on destroying this interfering and unjust wizard?  What if Hamlet really was a naive fop who could be manipulated not only by the Triumvirate of Evil into destroying the great wizard, but by a lusty Falstaff (I'll let you play with any puns that may spring to mind), grumpy Othello, and sassy Juliet (who finally found a backbone after the demise of her husband) who are bent on finding said Great One for themselves?   The answer to all of those what ifs is Kill Shakespeare. 

Beautifully animated, and laden with inside jokes and a smart storyline, this graphic novel is a great way to while away an hour with your favourite Shakespearean heroes and  villains.  But its virtues are, however, what would cause most young readers to give this book a miss.  If you aren't familiar with the bard's plays, and the all of the little nuances of the characters - I mean, was I surprised when Lady Macbeth killed her husband by bricking him up alive behind a wall a' la "The Cask of the Amontillado", because she felt Macbeth was being to namby pamby in his negotiations with Richard - interest would wane quickly.

In a heartbeat I would bring this book into my grade eleven or twelve classroom and show it off to my kids. A few, who by this point have studied two or three plays, would likely take great pleasure in supporting Richard and Lady M.'s quest to kill Shakespeare. However, I think an average junior high reader would be left non-plussed.  Me, I want the Kill Shakespeare t-shirt from the creators' website.

My second read, The Dark Days of Hamburger Halpin, read much like it punning namesake tastes.  Conventional, predictable, and ultimately, nothing you want to base an entire diet on.  Selling itself as a murder mystery, the real mystery to me was why author Josh Berk spent the first third of the novel describing how the main character, Will Halpin, is over-weight, deaf, and a misfit at his new school, Coaler High.  No surprise, Will can only find friendship with another misfit.

paperback cover If the plot is supposed to turn on who killed the  popular quarterback, then make that your story.  Instead, we are subjected to a number of stereotypical characters (all teachers are rather inept, ignorant, or desperate to win the approval  of the cool kids), contrived subplots (is Will Halpin related to "Dummy" Halpin, a deaf miner who died in a mining accident over 50 years ago), and a predictable outcome.

Will kids read this book?  Sure.  Hamburger Halpin reads easily and quickly, and many kids will enjoy Will's self-deprecating humour and the value the book places on friendship.  But your more sophisticated readers, the ones who don't just want packaged goods, may finish the book still hungry for a richer serving of story-telling.

Having said this, I am putting The Dark Days of Hamburger Halpin forward for the next level of Smackdown.  I want to read what someone else has to say about this book, and if we are looking for a book kids will read, despite my love of Lady Macbeth, a second "Halpin" of Will is in order.

Tracy Wright

A Tale Dark and Grimm vs. Stuck on Earth

When I finished reading my second book over the holiday, I kept thinking back to my first round from last year. Last year, I started out by reading When You Reach Me, the book I thought I would not like as much, and saved Fever Crumb for the holiday, and ended up being disappointed. I just did a book talk for When You Reach Me today and I was quite excited to share it with students. This all makes me think about using these books in the near future.
So this year, I switched things up and read the one that caught my eye first: A Tale Dark and Grimm by Adam Gidwitz. The book trailer is cool and the reference to fairy tales was both interesting seemed readily applicable to a Fractured Fairy Tales unit I already do. The book begins with a teaser, warning, “Read on if you dare” and cautions the reader to make sure that the little children are all in bed because the story we are about to read is a dark one. The story begins, “Once upon a time, fairy tales were awesome.” The narrator laments that the original Grimms’ fairy tales have been watered down, and insists that the original, bloody, gory, nasty stories were better (and who would argue?). This new tale takes the original Grimms’ Hansel and Gretel and spins out their tale to follow them on a journey through eight other fairy tales (on the premise that Hansel and Gretel are really the characters in other tales). What is really engaging about this book, though, is the narrator’s voice. He (or she?) is the one who warns us to put the little kids to bed and reminds us that fairy tales are awesome. He interjects frequently to warn us about upcoming gore and to give us comments on the action. The narrator’s voice is what makes this story fun to read. I think kids will like it a lot, too. I read it quickly because I didn’t want to put it down, but I certainly did not read it out loud to my three-year-old. Junior High students may also enjoy the fact that Hansel and Gretel are definitely the heroes and the adults are largely flawed. This book is my winner for this round.
If you’re still interested in knowing about Stuck on Earth, I’ll let you know that I was much more impressed with it than my second book from last year’s round one. However, unlike the narrator in the Grimm book, I found the narrator in Stuck on Earth to be annoying. I had reservations to begin with. The story is about an alien who comes to earth to determine whether humans have redeeming qualities or if we should all be blown up. The narrator is Ketchvar III, a snail-like alien come to earth to inhabit an earthling’s body to investigate our species. He crawls up fourteen-year-old Tom Filber’s nose to get into his brain and banishes Tom’s consciousness to his colon. I am always leery of books with jokes about snot and poop. I was further annoyed by the tone of the narrator. Some parts of the book were meant to be his correspondence with the mother ship, but the voice falters as he explains things to his commanders in a way that he wouldn’t have to. It’s just there to explain things to the reader. The tone falls apart distractingly. However, I have to admit that, about halfway through, when the mother ship isn’t responding and he has an identity crisis and begins to wonder if he’s really an alien, or if he’s really Tom Filber, going crazy, it gets a bit interesting. The story is fairly predictable, but I think some students might enjoy it. If I was doing an environmental theme, I might recommend it or read it to kids. It was certainly not as bad as Fever Crumb, but not as good as A Tale Dark and Grimm. So, I’ve weeded it out of competition for you. You’re welcome. Send me something good for round two in return, please!

The Mostly True Story of Jack vs. Marbury Lens

Best beginning ever! Not this blog entry but the beginning of The Mostly True Story of Jack by Kelly Barnhill. I was hooked and could hook every junior high reader in my school after the first page:

“His mother said his face looked like a field of roses. What his mother did not know was that the scars had memories. They knew things. It’s coming, the scars said. It’s back, they whispered. No, Frankie thought, shaking his head. Not it. He. He’s coming. We knew he’d come back.”

Jack’s parents are divorcing and he must go to stay with his Aunt and Uncle while his older brother, mother and father get things sorted out. As soon as Jack’s mom leaves however, Jack finds he can’t make contact with her any longer, his Aunt and Uncle are weird and there seems to be vines creeping into his room. Did I mention the house seems to be breathing? Did I mention that the man in charge of this new town has made a pact that involves his son’s life and Jack’s? And of course there is Frankie who disappeared years ago only to be forgotten by everyone but his twin sister until he returned with the scars. Yep that will do it, sold to the kid who sails across the table first. The story continues with adventure twinning with fable through this mostly true tale. It may lose a few readers as fable takes the upper hand in a don’t piss off Mother Nature ending but I really liked the flow and along with Arlene would move this one on.

Meanwhile while I read Jack, Arlene started Marbury Lens. Each day Arlene would look paler and say this book is disturbing. Excellent I thought bring on the crazy. This book has another Jack and things aren’t going so well with him. He is kidnapped after a drunken party and barely escapes the sexual predator who has him. He chooses not to go to the police but winds up along with his best friend kidnapping the kidnapper who they accidently kill when he falls bound out of the truck. They choose not to call the police. This all happens before page 50. At this point, I figure mature reader but very exciting….then Jack goes to London to check out a boarding school. In a pub he meets Henry, someone who insists he knows Jack. He leaves Jack a pair of purple glasses and disappears. Once Jack tries on the glasses he is flipped into another world where he and two other boys run for their lives from flesh eating beetles and strange men with black and white eyes, purple boils on their bodies and body parts hung around their necks. There are plenty of entrails, death violence and gore. For the Darren Shan crowd they might really like this. The problems is Jack continues to flip through both worlds, promptly vomiting upon return (I swear it happens about 20 times) meets a ghost to start a third story and frankly by this time I’m a little bored. Jack what’s the point? By the end I still don’t know. We're going with the younger Jack.

Dia and Arlene

OK for Now vs. Prince of Mist

Well, this round was an easy pick for me. One book I absolutely loved, and the other one couldn't have been more lame.

OK FOR NOW - This novel is set in the 1960s and is told from the perspective of Doug, an 8th grader who moves to a small town with his timid mother, abusive father, and cruel older brother. He also has another brother (the oldest) who is away fighting in Vietnam. Each chapter begins with a painting of a bird by an artist called Audubon. The paintings intrigue Doug and are interwoven into the plot as symbolism for him and his experiences with other characters. OK for Now is funny, dramatic, tense, and light-hearted all at the same time. Doug encounters many struggles throughout the book but only grows stronger from each of them, and best of all, affects the other characters he comes into contact with in a positive way. My favorite aspect of the book is the author's ability to convey layers of meaning with few words, always alluding to some larger idea without coming right out and saying it (which was a MAJOR flaw of the other novel I read). The underlying idea of the story reminds me of a quote I heard once, which is, "Be kind to everyone you meet; you never know when someone is fighting a harder battle than you." It might sound sappy, but the book had a great message about overcoming adversity and other peoples' negativity when it comes to achieving one's own dreams and realizing potential. I don't think I've done it justice at all in my description, but this book just made me happy and I would whole-heartedly use it with my grade 7 or 8 students.

PRINCE OF MIST - This story is also set in the past, although this time it's 1943 (I think) and the Carver family is leaving town to escape the ravages of WW2. The father, a watchmaker, moves his family into this old house in a harbor town far away from the troubles of the war. However, the family soon encounters problems much worse in the form of an evil ghost statue/man/clown/fortune teller/fog monster (he changes forms) who has come to settle a bet that was made with him long ago. This book tries way to hard to be scary and comes across as a joke. As I mentioned with my other novel, everything is spelled out exactly how the reader is intended to interpret something, which gets annoying after a while. There are parts of the plot that are completely ignored as the story carries on. For example, the oldest sister, Alicia, is portrayed as a sullen, moody girl who apparently "has left more behind than anyone realizes" when their family has to move. Then, one day, the main character Max (her brother) invites her to go diving with his new friend and all of a sudden she is happy and personable. What happened to all of this baggage she supposedly had? Why was that even mentioned at least 3 times in the first two chapters and then totally forgotten? This book is just too contrived for me to like it. The horror parts weren't scary, the romance parts were awkward, and I couldn't wait for it to be over.

If I had to recommend a reading level, I would say junior high. It's hard to say if a younger audience would find this book scary or interesting. I think I have a pretty low threshold for horror, so if I thought it was cheesy, I'm sure a junior high kid who has more tolerance for the weird and gruesome would not find this much of a thriller either.

That said, OK For Now moves on to the next round!

Beauty Queens vs Draw the Dark

Van said “ Both books has pros and cons and I am delighted to say I liked both more than I didn’t like them. Draw the Dark seemed like it had such great potential. It was a real-life story with a slight fantasy-like twist. The problem was that I would read some, enjoy it, put it down then have no desire to pick it up again. The story was good but not deep but it was more like a nice, light snack. I ate it, it tasted OK, I forgot about it. Beauty Queens grabbed me from the beginning. I loved the idea of teenage beauty queens stranded on an island and how the new society would play out. It was light and funny and Libba Bray went after the jocks, the pretties and the nerds equally. The problem I found was the end of the book. It needed some serious editing which is a typical problem in many Libba Bray books. That being said, I still loved it. It is Beauty Queens for me!”

Jaylene said, “While both of these are higher level than Junior High due to language and content, they are very different reads. Draw the Dark was an awesome read until about half way and then it failed to keep my interest. Beauty Queens is full of fun (pirates included) and unusual twists (who owns the island?), yet there was the impression of trying to include absolutely every possible element to the point of being over the top. In the end, Beauty Queens was simply cooler.

Beauty Queens to the next round!

Yummy vs. Sign Language

Definition of SMACKDOWN

1: the act of knocking down or bringing down an opponent

2: a contest in entertainment wrestling

3: a decisive defeat

4: a confrontation between rivals or competitors

OK. So, I’ll start this out by admitting that going into this, while I understood the whole literary blog thing, I was a little fuzzy on the concept of “Smackdown.” As a boy I was busy reading poetry, petting dogs and getting my ass kicked, while my classmates were watching WWF and perfecting various forms of playground torture, so you’ll forgive the initial ignorance. When I tracked down the above definition I thought that item #4 was most useful as a way to consider what we are doing here.

And then I read my books. Yummy: The Last Days of a Southside Shorty by G. Neri and Randy Duburke, and Sign Language by Amy Ackley both fall under the broad banner of YA literature and both feature young protagonists who are damaged by circumstances beyond their control. Beyond those connections, it is hard to imagine two books that are more different in tone, subject matter and, I suspect, target audience. This makes the process of voting one of them off the island painfully arbitrary. I see now that my eyes lit upon the wrong definition initially; this will really be “a contest in entertainment wrestling” with the opponent being my conscience. Here is a quick overview of each book:

 Yummy is a short graphic novel (94 pages) that depicts the true story of the life and death of Robert “Yummy” Sandifer (Here is the link to the Time magazine article that brought nation-wide attention to the story a young boy who was both a perpetrator and a victim of gang violence in Southside Chicago. The story unfolds through the perspective of, Roger, an eleven year old classmate of Yummy’s, who serves as our narrative thread throughout the novel. Roger is our guide through the story, but Neri allows for a number of voices to be heard, and these often disparate pieces of dialogue add to the poignancy of a story that we are forced to bear witness to. Duburke’s black and white palate adds a starkness and a sharpness to images that are meticulously detailed (think Craig Thompson level of craftsmanship with a grittier feel befitting the subject matter) to capture the emotional weight of each moment. This is a novel that can – and in most cases, will –be consumed in one sitting, but it also will encourage and reward re-readings. The novel forces us to not only deal with the “truth” of a central character for whom a teddy bear and gun are both accurate symbols, but also with larger issues of representation of truth that are complicated (in a really great way) by the graphic novel form.

The subject matter of Amy Ackley’s Sign Language is no less serious: 12 year old Abby’s father fights – and loses –a battle with terminal cancer and this becomes the frame –and distorting lens –for Abby’s coming of age (Amy is 14 at the novel’s close) story to play out. Rather than the mean streets of Yummy’s Chicago we get the calm lakeshore and middle-class sensibilities of Highland, Michigan. Throughout this long (391 pages), but carefully crafted, novel, we will revisit a host of familiar teen novel tropes: crush on brother’s friend (Check), close friend of opposite sex who is, of course, much more (Check), very public experience of first menstrual period (Check), Etc. I realize that the previous sentence sounds dismissive, but to Ackley’s credit these experiences are clearly Abby’s – not some generic teen construct ‘s–and the presence and, later, the absence of her father lends nuance and depth to scenes that we may initially feel like we’ve seen before. Ackley is at her best when dealing with the complex emotional and intellectual discourse that emerges from the juxtaposition of the “normal” trauma that is being 13 and the abnormal trauma of losing a parent in a slow and painful manner. Midway through the book, it was so clear to me that Ackley had nailed what Abby was going through that I actually looked to her biographical details to see if she had experienced it herself. Not surprisingly, Ackley’s father died of kidney cancer when she was a teenager, and there is a depth and poignancy to her handling of Abby’s – and to a lesser extent the family’s – multi-faceted grief that rewards a careful and attentive reader.

So, as I noted at the outset, we are faced with two novels – two very good novels –that offer very different reading experiences, although they also offer some remarkably common ground. Reading these two books together in a short time period forced me to grapple with some compelling questions relating to medium and message: How do the “facts” of Yummy’s story change when presented in sequential image? How does Amy Ackley’s own story shift when it is transformed into Abby’s story in a work of fiction? Were I forced to decide between these two books for my classroom, I suspect that I wouldn’t and would rather, as I’ve already started to do here, explore the possibilities that emerge when we bring these two works together. For the purposes of the Smackdown, however, I don’t think I can get away without declaring a winner. Ultimately, I’ll have to go with Yummy, despite my respect for Sign Language. It would be a disservice to Sign Language to dismiss it as vacuous “chicklit”, because it is a lot more than that, but it is also hard for me to picture many teenage boys – and a number of teenage girls- reading Sign Language from start to finish, even though they would probably emerge from the experience with a better understanding of an important dimension of the human experience. I think I could realistically hand Yummy to anyone of any age and feel confident that they would be intrigued and quite possibly moved by the experience. Read them both if you can, but we’ll see Yummy in the next round, and, I expect, well beyond that.

Sunday, January 8, 2012

Running in the Direction of Wonder!

Now Is the Time for RunningNow is The ime for Running by Michael Williams is a pretty real look at two brothers fleeing from Zimbabwe. The only problem is that this book has everything. First, it has a developmentally challenged brother whom the hero struggles to protect during the annihilation of their village and their subsequent run into South Africa. They later encounter forms of refugee slavery, immolation and rioting by a xenophobic crowd, a descent into hopelessness and drugs, and finally redemption on the pitch of the International Homeless Soccer games. I really enjoyed this book. It tells an important story and is entirely accessible by teenage readers. The brothers’ love and co-dependence palliates the horror of the story. The book though felt a bit like the author was covering all the possible permutations—there were about three different stories here. The main character’s motivation revolves around the care of his brother, so when his brother dies (halfway through the book,) the character and the story lose focus.

Story is timely too as we are not too far from the vuvuzelas of the World Soccer Games in South Africa. And it’s really neat that the homeless games actually exist—and in Canada too!

So--- I read Now is The Time for Running first. Couldn’t put it down and had absolutely no interest in my other book—the silly picture book Wonder Struck by Brian Selznick. Wasn’t too interested in Wonderstruck’s artwork either— I gather that I am in the minority on this one but thought the drawings a bit pedestrian. But—this is the book I will choose. I was wonderstruck! Stayed with me.

Selznick melds two stories together in a magical way that is all his own. I enjoyed the book a lot. Made me want to read his first, The Invention of Hugo Cabret. Story deals with loss – our heroes both are deaf and both have lost their sense of self (dealt with in non-sentimental, almost perfunctory way.) Lots of coincidence and unexplained characters make entrances and exits, but because of the magic of the format (pictures that covered huge chunks of the plot) all things became acceptable.

It is deceptive—the pictures take the story in linear and non linear directions so story is complex and still will attract students who don’t like reading. So- I’ll choose Wonderstruck to go on to the next round but I will buy Now is the Time for Running for the library and for our Peace Unit. I figured out the best way to sit on the fence!! Oh yeah!

Tuesday, January 3, 2012

The Freak Observer vs. Down the Mysterly River

The Freak Observer by Blythe Woolston

There are two distinct ways to review this novel by Blythe Woolston: as a piece of literature intended for mature and close reading audiences; or as a YA book intended for a high school student. And both would produce quite different results.

As a novel, The Freak Observer is intelligent and subtle. Each chapter begins with a physics problem, and by the end of the novel, they all begin to connect together (I must admit some of--ok, most of-- the theoretical physics went right over my head…I study the humanities, not science!). I don’t know how many teenage readers

looking for something about teens are going to connect with the physics aspect of it either, but for those willing to put in the time, the connections are strong.

The novel focuses on a teen girl named Loa (although it took alot of pages before I figured out she was a girl) who is from a poor family that has experienced its share of tragedy, including the death of her younger sister. But we don’t hear too much about that. She has haunting dreams of death, but we only hear about that occasionally. She sort of has a boyfriend for a while, but once he is gone we almost never hear about that again. This novel feels as though Woolston has started several stories and not really finished any of them. This is certainly just my opinion, but the novel felt irritatingly fractured at points. There was very little flow.

Now, of course, this fractured narrative is the very definition of a teenager, as they move on quickly from things in their lives, and they really don’t want to talk about the things that they don’t want to talk about. That is clear. And it makes sense in the novel. Loa is a very authentic voice, and her thoughts and words ring true to who she is. But I still can’t decide if it made a great novel or not.

I also question how many teen readers will take the time to take in and enjoy the subtlety of this novel. I question if Woolston really hit her target audience here. I can see some students really getting it, but I can see the majority of them becoming frustrated with the story and either giving up on the book, or not enjoying it.

Some people will love this book, and some will hate it. I still can't decide if it is a really great book or if it is just a failed attempt at targeting the pains that teenage girls must deal with.

Down the Mysterly River by Bill Willingham

This book, for me, had the potential to be excellent. A lost Boy Scout, talking animals, an endless series of adventures, and bad guys with mysteriously powerful blue swords. It all sounded good to me, maybe it would bring me back to being a kid and loving the Redwall series. But it didn't.

The story isn't bad, the action sequences are pretty good, and the mystery is alright, but none of it is great. Most of this book is distinctly average. I quite liked the ending (even though I guessed the solution to the main mystery part way through the story), and wonder if it would have been better to know the ending before the end. It could have made the story so much more than it already was. And that is the main issue that I had with Mysterly River: the possibility of greatness, but never truly achieving what it could have been.

There are definitely good parts to this book, including the cast of heroes, who are enjoyable and provide good contrasts to one another. The imagination used to create the invented world is good as well. But for a book that is supposed to be a fun adventure, it just wasn't fun enough.

This novel is definitely for a lower reading level than is The Freak Observer, as I could see kids in grades 7 and 8 liking the book. And it would be useful in finding examples of foreshadowing, as it is possible to figure out what the big surprise at the end will be.

And the Winner is...

I'm going to advance The Freak Observer. It deserves the opportunity to have someone else read it, and see what they think.