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

Monday, December 17, 2012

Given the fact that Shelley and I spend most of our waking (kind of)  hours in the same building, you'd think we might find a few spare moments to sit down over a cup of coffee, discuss the merits of each  and craft a subtle and eloquent exploration of each text before rendering our judgments. Dream on Smackdownians! We're in a junior high in December, after all. So here some of our still eloquent, if not exactly subtle email exchanges and our final call on these two fine books.

From: Shelley Kunicki
Sent: Friday, December 14, 2012 7:54 AM
To: Brent McKeown
Subject: Mighty Smack Down Blog

Yikes, we need to have this done for Monday.

 My views are as follows:
 The Reluctant Journal of Henry K. Klassen:  While I did enjoy this one more than I thought I would, I still feel that this topic has been done ad nauseam.  It was interesting, however, that the point of view came from the family whose son committed murder and suicide as a result of bullying.   The narrator ‘s reaction to this situation was certainly believable as well; he felt guilty because he was a bystander who did nothing to help, and then he felt angry as his life changed so dramatically. The anger at his parents, I am sure, would be something students would relate to.
 Was this well done?  Yes, it was.  It was a compelling read. 
Is it something students could relate to?  It deals with many issues that are certainly part of their lives.
But... I don’t think it is the “essential” literary work that we are looking for.
No Crystal Staircase:  The more I think about this book and talk about it, the more I like it and think that this is the one we should put forward.   It is a book that is not my usual choice, but I really enjoyed it.  So I think it might appeal to some students too.  I really enjoyed  the “documentary” style to it and I actually visualized each speaker as they told their story.  Historically, I think it is an undiscovered treasure – especially with the whole idea of the “power of the word” and understanding an individual’s history is so important.  All of the important names during this time who dropped by the book store is an eye opener as well.

Hi Shelley,

As we kind of thought in our few hurried conversations about these books over this past month, we are on the same page on this one.

 I was pleasantly surprised with The Reluctant Journal of Henry K. Klassen. I was a little worried in the early going that the narrative voice would become overly cloying, but it really didn't despite a few too many references to Henry's "wobblies" and a couple of other overly precious touches. Overall, though, I really liked Henry and I thought all of the major characters - with the possible exception of the weird male neighbour with the heart of gold (whose name escapes me right now) - were complex characters who moved beyond (maybe not far beyond, but beyond) the simple types that they appear to be when first introduced. If not, perhaps, compulsively readable, I still enjoyed the reading experience and I too though the concept of telling a bullying story through the lens of a school shooting was intriguing, but also, in some ways, overly ambitious. Is it possible to do justice to such a complex web of emotions in such a relatively slim volume? I don't know, but I think that Nielsen probably does as much as she can with it given her target audience. I have read Lionel Shriver's We Need to Talk About Kevin which looks through a mother's eyes as she surveys the damage of wrought by her psychopathic, school shooter son and it was one of the most intellectually rewarding and emotionally devastating reading experiences I've ever had. I don't think we should be looking for something similar here, but because I can seemingly never quite do anything significantly ahead of a deadline, I’m writing this at 7:30 on Monday night after a weekend where I just couldn't quite shake what happened in Connecticut. While in this book, the school shooting is really used more as an expression of how the violence of bullying can beget another type of violence, it will be difficult for anyone to read this book in the coming months without finding some disconcerting resonance with the real world. And, maybe that’s a point to argue for the relevance of this novel in our kids’ lives. I don’t know. Ultimately, this is a book that you could give to most kids in junior high or high school and I think they would enjoy the experience.

No Crystal Stair: A Documentary Novel of the Life and Work of Lewis Michaux, Harlem Bookseller by Vaunda Micheaux Nelson is about as different a book fromThe Reluctant Journal of Henry K. Klassen as one can imagine. I don’t know that I’d ever heard the term “documentary novel” before picking up this book and I’m always excited to explore a new text form. I also went through a period in university when I did a lot of reading in black history and I was particularly interested in Malcolm X, so in many ways I am an ideal target audience for this book.  I really enjoyed it, but I’m well aware that it would be a different type of read for a young person . I found it thought-provoking and evocative both in substance and in style, but I’ve struggled with the degree to which I would consider this to be a young adult book. As noted above, I’m pretty confident that I could give The Reluctant . . .  to most kids and they would read it and find something of value. No Crystal Stair would be a tougher sell in terms of immediate appeal and it does require some persistence to work through. We are dealing with an extremely complex period of American history and the print documentary style requires students to synthesize a great deal of information in a variety of forms. 

 So, what I’ve been grappling with here is how to compare a well written, in many ways prototypical YA novel that would be accessible for most (The Reluctant Journal . . .) versus an eclectic hybrid novel that certainly won’t be for everyone. There is no question that No Crystal Stair is a novel that stretches the boundaries of what YA literature can be. I still don’t think I’d recommend it for everyone, but it is a book with some powerful ideas about history, culture and most of all, the power of books to change our perceptions and our space in the world.

 Brent and Shelley Agree! No Crystal Stair goes forward.

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