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 22, 2013

Fault in Our Stars VS Where Things Come Back

I know this doesn’t happen often but surprisingly all four of us at ABM agreed that although both books were enjoyable to read, Fault in Our Stars was by far the better book overall. We all love some good smack but none going on here for this round! This book had everything – humor, relationships, reality, a bit of crazy and a lot of emotion! A few of us have also agreed that it could go all the way!! Emotionally gripping with believable characters – even the drunk author! I agree with everything Wendy posted in the previous round!! Although I wouldn’t recommend to all JH students I would have no problem sharing with mature HS students.  This is by far one of my favorite all time books! Keep it going!!  Team ABM – Tristin, Chris, Annabel, Donna

Monday, January 21, 2013

No Crystal Stair vs. Every Day

This one ended up being more hotly contested than I had originally suspected. Maybe I was just being blind to the idea that entertainment trumped substance, or that maybe I foolishly found substance where others pointed out that there was very little. Here is the conversation between the three of us on these books. Brad has posted his own ideas on the books, and has voted for No Crystal Stair to move on. Despite the issues Tracy and I have with the book, we have voted for Every Day to move forward. We are as divided as possible on this one. I think Every Day moves on easily. Tracy feels neither should be going forward. And Brad is the exact opposite from me, feeling No Crystal Stair should go on.

Andrew: To me, the winner of this round is obvious. It comes down to which book a student would be more likely to read. David Levithan took a very interesting idea in Every Day, the concept of waking up in a different body every day, and made it an interesting read. By no means is this book perfect, in fact, there are several things that irritate me about it, but it is definitely more readable than No Crystal Stair, the more unique of the two. Unique, but dull, looking through the eyes of a student.

Tracy: So here’s the question.  Do we really have to put forward either of the books?  I finished reading Every Day Friday night, and had to resist chucking it against the wall.  Andrew, I know you enjoyed the book, but what was a painful beginning, became an okay middle, to finish up with a ridiculous ending.  Seriously, what is with that Poole character?  The ominous figure looming in the shadows of this strange body snatching  existence.  (Imagine an overly exaggerated dramatic voice while reading this last sentence)  A threat to A and the others like him.  And then what does Levithan do with him?  Nothing.  Why even bother.  I think the author watched too many episodes of Quantum Leap, read the Time Traveler’s Wife,  and then thought, “Have I got a great idea!”  And love the “subtle” shout out to his friends – if you haven’t read Feed, The Book Thief, Destroy all Cars and First Day on Earth, he’s got the plug in for you to do so.

What was probably most disappointing is that there are some very clever ideas wanting to be written about – the idea that our body controls more of our actions and responses than we like to think.  Some of the best chapters were A inhabiting the body of the junkie, who had to lock himself in the bedroom for the day; and Dana, the girl abusing alcohol after a drunk driving accident which killed her brother.  I also thought that Levithan’s exploration of sexuality had great potential – that A felt comfortable as male and female, and the chapters with Vic and Dawn and Zara and Amelia.  And then, you have the magical plot contrivance that almost every body who A inhabits magically can drive, has a car, and can get to Rhiannon with little challenge. 

The other book, No Crystal Stair, was also a no go.  The idea, again had merit. But it was BORING!  I admit to skipping sections of the book because there was little being said about Lewis Michaux.  Here is a man who obviously did something amazing for his community, and the stories from people who were actually there are lost, or compiled into a mash-up character.  His brother the preacher seemed more interesting based on the development of the story.

If I have to choose one, I will pick Every Day, because I think kids will read it.  Sigh.

Brad: Oh, Ms. Tracy.  I couldn't agree with you more!

However, I didn't find No Crystal Stair boring at all.  But you are right--kids would, for sure.  Too many voices, too many temporal shifts, too many anecdotes that might seem like they aren't adding up to something.  But I really think that they are.  Which is why I think it would have to be taught. 

I honestly think there is real potential there!

I’m not denying that Every Day is deeply flawed, but there are issues in there that are done well enough. Tracy mentioned the exploration of sexuality, and I think that he did this in a subtle enough way that it would not deter students who would be scared off by a book that has more in-you-face sexual questions. At the risk of picking more on the book that I want to advance, I also hate that it is one of those books where the narrator sets out a rule that they never break (A claims that he/she never tries to become too involved in the lives of the people he inhabits) and then goes about for the entire novel flagrantly disregarding his rule. That annoyed me, but it wouldn’t be much of a novel if it was followed.

The character of Poole does seem like wasted time. It was touched on, but not really enough depth. In the end, we don’t really know anything about him. I will say, however, that the ending was good for me, because it could have gone down the even more predictable path that would involved Poole. I’m glad Levithan avoided that and gave us something more fresh (I know I’m opening myself up to being assaulted on that opinion, but I have thick skin).

I feel like I am fighting an uphill battle with this book!

And seriously, what is wrong with a little Quantum Leap? Isn’t Scott Bakula one of the greatest actors of his generation?

BradThat's not the only rule for body swapping that changes, repeatedly throughout the book.  New rules are introduced as deus ex machinas (how does one make this plural?  Latin peeps?)  throughout.

If the most (only?) interesting part of a book is the premise, and that premise is poorly dealt with throughout the novel, I would suggest that the novel is not just deeply flawed, but craptacular.
BradWait a second.  This dialogue that I'm participating in won't be posted, will it?

I have not been paying attention to grammar.

Sunday, January 20, 2013

No Crystal Stair vs. Every Day

Full disclosure:  as I sit down to write this, I KNOW that I am about to be blasted.  Entirely.  But I write in the spirit of both physical and metaphysical Smacking, and I’m ready for the heat.  Sort of.

No Crystal Stair by Yaunda Micheaux Nelson

There is lots to like, maybe even love, in this text, but I can’t help but think that its greatest accomplishment, its form (a documentary novel), is also its greatest failing.  All the FBI reports and snippets of voices from Lewis Michaux’s family/friends/acquaintances and photographs have this objectifying effect on the persona of Lewis Michaux, where, even though we hear “from” him repeatedly, we never really get to see him from the inside.  This is not to suggest that there is not emotional resonance throughout the text (because I sure did cry), but there is something…I don’t know…distancing about the chosen form.  Maybe it is just me.  But it sure is an interesting choice for textual form.  And one I would like others to experiment with.

What we get is an almost Gump-esque (but real!) tour through 1906 to the mid-1970s, as this incredible man comes in contact with Richard Wright, Langston Hughes, Martin Luther King, Eldridge Cleaver…truly, a remarkable (and at times moving) story.  And, appealing to the English teacher in all of us, ultimately this is a story about the power of words and books to transform the human heart, and, by extension, to transform an entire nation.  There is salvation in those scribbles bound into books, and No Crystal Stair is at its best when it is dealing with these words--a real emotional resonance catalyzed through context.  We meet Langston Hughes as a character in this novel, but we are cognizant of the veracity of Nelson’s portrayal, and when we read Hughes' poetry, poetry we have read before, but never in this context, it is both moving and revelatory.  When Michaux muses “how does Hughes know this stuff?  It’s like he’s inside my head.  Like he’s reading my mind,” it’s hard not to muse alongside Michaux and reflect upon what the best of literature does to move us profoundly.

Nelson wisely chooses not to deify Michaux however—this is a (at times) flawed and unsympathetic but (always) thoughtful boy and man who didn’t always do the “right” thing throughout life, but he sure did what he could see as just in order to better his life and the lives of those around him.  The first thing that young Lewis does, literally on page one, is to steal a bike and to justify his actions.  This is no simple lionizing of a man.  And it would be so easy to make him a saint, to be ultimately played by Morgan Freeman in a movie adaptation.  But Michaux respects the man more than that, and gives us an honest and complex depiction (that is ridiculously well-researched).

This is a book that inspires a person to research as he reads; I found myself constantly looking up things on the net (who was Marcus Garvey?  Or Frederick Douglass?), and I was always a little ashamed that I had not known more of these individuals before.  This is a text that begs to be taught (there are tricky temporal shifts and some allusions that some students would find immediately off-putting), but I’m also impressed how much it inspired me to read more and think more and do a little independent learning.  I’m not sure too many kids would read it on their own, but I can see this being a powerful whole class exploration.

I liked it, but I didn’t love it.  But I liked what it did for my brain and my heart.

Every Day by David Levithan

Here are five things I hate:  being sick for the majority of the Christmas holidays, raisins in baked goods, realizing you are out of windshield wiper fluid while sailing down the Whitemud at 100 km/hr during a January chinook, Lance Armstrong’s smug “contrition,” and the novel Every Day.

I really hated this book.

A lot.

Perhaps it is one of those cases where the book (or the movie, or the T.V. show…) is too “built up” prior to reading it; near the end of the summer, shortly before its release, many critics were waxing poetically about Every Day, some using it to frame this notion of a “Golden Age of Young Adult Literature.”  So, I sure was excited to delve into a new book, critically-loved, from an author who has impressed me before (Sidebar: I would like to point out that Every Day seems strangely absent from a whole lot of People-Who-Loved-It’s Best Of Y.A. lists at year end…).

The book starts off just fine, I suppose, but becomes more plodding and ridiculous and clichéd as it proceeds, to the point where I didn’t feel like finishing.  The basic premise is promising, to be sure, but in execution falls entirely flat.  If an entire novel is going to be predicated on one (arguably interesting) idea (each day, a person [soul? entity?], named “A,” is reborn in another body, only to be “reborn” in another the following day, retaining that person’s consciousness), perhaps it might be a good idea to establish some of the “rules” as to the “how?” and the “why?” this happens.  Instead, inconsistencies as to “how it all works” abound throughout the novel—A introduces new information, repeatedly, which completely negates the possibility of how some of the body swapping occurred earlier in the novel.   So the “rules” for body swapping change depending on what “startling” revelation has to occur, or what difficult situation A finds himself/herself in.  Foul, I cry.
The ostensible love interest is simpering and poorly sketched, her motivations never really understood or discussed (just what is it about A’s soul/persona that she finds so appealing?); in fact, the way that A treats Rhiannon is also intensely problematic in a novel that is about compassion and individuality.  Opportunities to address gender, identity, and consciousness are entirely squandered; here’s the opportunity to say something interesting about these issues, and I’m not sure Levithan ever does.  A (somewhat) interesting subplot regarding “demonic” possession, one that has the potential to honestly address issues about the confluence of faith and identity, fizzles out entirely with an illogical “Is-That-It?” conclusion.

However, I have a sneaking feeling that this book might move on to the next round.  The premise is engaging, and a few of the episodes of A’s inhabitings are somewhat interesting and well written (but why doesn’t A inhabit an “average” kid’s body periodically?  Wouldn’t A spend most of his/her/its time in young adults who are, well, just “average” kids?  Not much of a book, I suppose, but, wouldn’t this happen?  I digress.).  

I get it.  Sometimes, when a movie or book or TV show is critically lauded, and you finally read/see it, the text collapses under the weight of your expectations, we tend to be a little harder on it then we should.  Something that was O.K., but built up to be great, then feels less than O.K.—more like bad (I’m looking at you, Silver Linings Playbook).

As a narrative whole, I found the whole thing to be a writerly exercise rather than a novel.  And not a good one at that.  Gimicky and trite.  Disappointing.

Let the smacking down commence.  I await full-throttle smacking from Mr. Thompson and Ms. Wright.

My vote is for No Crystal Stair.

The Raven Boys vs My Sister Lives on the Mantelpiece

Tough one but not so tough. Both books were good reads - lots I could talk up to kids about both. My Sister Lives on the Mantelpiece has humour, angst, and a little of the cray-cray family dynamic. It also tells the story of what happens when you don't let race interfere with who your friends are. Lots to like there. But almost...too much. Is the book about the family struggle to come to terms with the death of a child or is the book about an interracial relationship? Pick a lane. Raven Boy had me from the start with the intriguing tale of the prep school boys versus the psychic, free-spirited Blue. It has the right combination of creepy, and scary without being gratuitous about it. There are real people out there seeking ley lines and hidden treasures - these people exist( albeit you usually find them in chat rooms about Dungeons and Dragons, but they exist). Whether I believe you could live with a dead guy for a year and not realize he was a ghost and not a real boy is something different but who hasn't felt that weird cold chill go through them at the same time they are thinking of a person who is "beyond the grave"? The story held me start to finish and I am anxiously awaiting part deux!Who is Blue's one true love and will she kiss and kill? Sandra will report back on her thoughts on the books but we have decided that Raven Boys will fly onto the next round and My Sister will have to to back to the Mantelpiece.

Never Fall Down vs Rotters TD BAKER

OK, Smackdown Gods (AKA Arlene and Dia). You’ve done it again. Rotters and Never Fall Down? Two compulsively readable, but almost tragically flawed books that would speak to very different kids? C’mon, man!

So, where to begin? It is hard not to like Never Fall Down, in that often unsettling way that we “like” books like Elie Wiesel’s Night or Romeo Dallaire’s Shake Hands With The Devil: books that show the darkest capabilities of the human animal, but also provide that spark of hope that we can transcend even the most horrific situations history presents us with. Never Fall Down is a novel (and it’s not, in a way) inspired by the life story of Arn Chorn-Pond, a survivor of -and active participant in- the Cambodian genocide. The author, Patricia McCormack, a former journalist who is well known for her social conscience, is clearly inspired by Arn’s story and his subsequent humanitarian work and she is not alone as we see back cover blurbs from Desmond Tutu and Peter Gabriel. (Cut to Brent furiously mining the remnants of his pubescent brain for a Peter Gabriel reference. Got it. Watch for it later). The book is a compelling read regardless of how much one might know about Cambodia –I’m assuming very little for most of our students –and McCormack has done an exceptional job of crafting a complex central character. Arn’s experiences are horrifying and emotionally exhausting, but the novel is more than just a catalogue of atrocities and we see Arn – just a child when the narrative begins –suffer through an adolescence marked by loss and abuse. In a book like this aimed at a younger demographic it must be tempting to simplify Arn’s emotional and intellectual journey, by painting his experiences with the broadest strokes, but McCormack never falls into that trap. In the hands of a lesser writer we would experience each horrifying moment as repeated blows with a sledgehammer and the title would manifest as a constant refrain of “Don’t Give Up.” This, in itself, is a validation of McCormack’s decision to render Arn’s story through fiction; I believe that her skills as a novelist allowed her to get at a more profound series of truths than a memoir could. It’s a relatively slim volume and while I generally am in favor of YA books that go the less- is- more route, because of that tendency towards bloat (See Rotters, below) we all had a sense that the sections in the latter part of the novel where Arn was in America were fascinating and would have strengthened the book by adding increased nuance and depth.

So, well done, Ms. McCormack, but despite all of the above, there was one aspect of the book that threatens to be a deal breaker in moving Never Falls Down on to greater Smackdown glory. When you read this book – and I think you should regardless of whether we move it on or not –you will be immediately struck by McCormack’s decision to present Arn’s voice in fractured English.   In her author’s note at the back of the book, she explains her decision as follows:
Trying to capture that voice was like trying to bottle a lightning bug. Every time I impose the rules of grammar or syntax on it, the light went out. And so, in telling Arn’s story I chose his own distinct and beautiful voice. The end result, I hope, captures the courageous and unforgettable person he is.
I’m afraid that I have to call bullshit on this rationale. McCormack has successfully conveyed Arn’s courage and his unique persona, but this is in spite of, rather than because of, the voice she has given Arn. I have no doubt that what we hear as we read is an accurate representation of what Arn sounds like when he tells his story to an English speaking audience,  but that is not his voice; it is his voice through the filter of a language he has not mastered. When Arn tells his story in his native tongue or in his own mind – which is where we are situated as readers throughout this narrative –he would not be presenting himself as an outsider in the way that he is here. It is his story, but we hear it through the barrier of our choice of language. Who is empowered by this choice? It is not Arn; it is us. I am not saying that there isn’t a power and beauty in the way that Arn – or at least McCormack’s interpretation of Arn –uses the English language, but it creates a distance from him as a narrator that smacks of the kind of American privilege that I would guess McCormack would recoil from being associated with. She is a talented writer and she should have been able to craft a voice for Arn that reflected what he hears when he tells his story, not what she hears. All that being said, I would actually teach the book because of this “flaw”; it offers an invaluable space to have this important discussion about voice with our students.

And what about Rotters?

I think we were all very taken with this book – to a point – and I can see myself recommending it to a number of students. Is there a more difficult concept to grapple with in YA literature – or any literature for that matter – than death? Rotters somehow manages to approach this delicate subject head-on –often literally – in a way that is both –and I’m not sure this is possible –reverent and irreverent. We were all very engaged with the first part of the book, as Shelley noted in her response to the Round One posts, and the main draw was the historical context that is so much a part of how the author establishes, and makes accessible, the macabre and often grotesque world of the “Diggers.” This is no small feat as there are some scenes in this novel that will test the stomach of even those of us who cut their reading teeth on vintage Stephen King (Y’know before he got all literary and respected and all). I think we also thought that the author did a pretty good job navigating some of the usual teen angsty stuff as Joey deals with the bully, the hot chick, the bad reputation, the mean teacher, the nice teacher, etc. (There is much more, but I’m trying to avoid any spoilers) and he does so largely through Joey’s voice which is quite self-aware and articulate (although the prose gets a bit purple at times) and by building an ongoing series of mysteries for the reader to puzzle through.

I would guess that Mr. Krause has not only read his fair share of the aforementioned Mr. King, but also his Dickens and Poe, as there are moments throughout this novel that are reminiscent of the best- and to be fair, the worst -of those 19th century masters. It is a sprawling and ambitious novel with Krause trying to connect the dots on a coming of age story, the previously referred to teen- in- new school drama, a father-son story, a story of grief and loss, a historical drama, a gothic melodrama and, well, you get the picture. This guy has a lot of balls up in the air and for the first part of the novel he does an admirable job in keeping everything aloft and affecting a rhythm that is both thrilling and controlled. In the second part of the novel, however, I would say at about page 283 things start to, and here I’ll switch metaphors, go off the rails. There must have been a moment when Krause realized “Hey, I’m not George R.R. Martin or Hillary Mantel. I actually have to finish this novel at some point.” At that point things start to speed up as we head towards some spectacular collisions and there will be certain readers who are really going to enjoy the pace, the drama and the twists and turns. We’re probably not going to have kids saying, “You know, it kind of got boring near the end,” although for me, it kind of did.

I can’t say that Krause lost his narrative thread (oh, mixed metaphors, my curse!), but I do think it is fair to say that he lost his narrator and central character. I felt like I knew Joey pretty well in the first part of the novel, but in the second part he is basically narrating event after event and while he does his fair share of teeth-gnashing and takes some stabs at introspection, he (and Krause) has given himself up to the unfolding events. Krause isn’t exactly a master of dialogue at any point in the novel, but I think the dialogue –in direct parallel to the events –becomes less believable as the novel careens towards the ending. I don’t need realism in a novel like this, but I do need – Hello, Alberta Program of Studies –verisimilitude and I think that is lacking in the later stages. I’m not sure who Joey is at the end of this novel and I’m not sure if I care nearly as much as I thought I would when I was in the early stages of the book.

 An imperfect novel, to be sure, but I also admire Krause for attempting to create a host of complex characters, a fully-fleshed out sub-culture and his willingness to address some issues about our relationships with both the living and the dead that will strike a chord with most readers. As with the tragic flaw we see in Never Fall Down, I think that were we teaching Rotters, there would be much to discuss about narrative structure and character voice. Which brings us back to where we began: two engaging, if less than perfect books, that are not for the faint of heart. Both books would shock and appall some young readers and even some of us not so young readers.

At the end of the day – or, more precisely, the end of last Thursday after our department meeting –we chose Rotters to move forward, but I’d be lying if I said I was totally convinced of that and I have been vacillating between the two even while I write this. There are more problems with Rotters, but I also think he is attempting to do a lot more with his book and I think we have to take this into consideration.

We’ll go with Rotters to move forward . . . unless we don’t. (Sorry, Dia. Patience.) I’m posting this on Sunday the 20th. Chandra? Shelley? We have until the clock strikes midnight on January 21st to change our mind. There is still opportunity for some serious Smack.

Friday, January 18, 2013

The Silence of Murder vs. The Fingertips of Duncan Dorfman

So imagine being placed on a team, and the one day you are at home, sick in bed (cough, cough, hack, sneeze) your so-called “teammates” conspire together and elect you to write the Smackdown blog.  Thanks, Arlene and Maureen.

Our choice was unanimous and a fairly easy one to make.  It was not that one book outperformed the other, as neither book is strong enough to make it past the next round; rather, one book did not deliver what I had expected. Perhaps it was “judging a book by its cover” that swayed my decision. When the cover art shows three teens, one of whom is on a skateboard, being chased by a person in an alligator costume, I assume some lighthearted and funny episodes lie within. Even the title The Fingertips of Duncan Dorfman leads the reader to expect a certain level of humor to be present. Now to be fair, the book starts off well enough with Duncan claiming the nickname of “Lunchmeat”, but it never seems to gain a comfortable rhythm or flow. Add to this the exhilarating play-by-play action of Scrabble, and the plot gets mired in the TEDIUM (9 points) of the letter tiles. Perhaps there are some readers that love to follow a game of Scrabble in a novel; I am not one of these nor do I expect that most students are. Overall, the necessary ingredients for a humorous novel were present, but they were never fully developed.  A theme park called Funswamp and a character’s supernatural ability to read with his fingers should provide much more levity than they did. This is a very easy, light and enjoyable read, but not the book to move on in Smackdown.

So why is The Silence of Murder our choice to move forward to the next round?
Right from the start, the reader is intrigued.  I found myself wondering, “What is the voice of God?” and  “Why is Jeremy not talking?” The plot moves quickly to the main problem of the story which, as the title indicates,  is that Jeremy is charged with murder.  Unlike most murder stories that are written for young adults, this one doesn’t have detailed crime scene descriptions of violence, blood and gore, which is a nice change and keeps the story moving.  There are, however, some weaknesses with this book. For most experienced readers of young adult fiction, the plot is telegraphed early on. For a student that is just beginning to get hooked, this may not be the case.  To be fair, I haven’t finished this book and perhaps in the last few chapters horrid events will occur that were not present earlier.  However, my teammates who have read both books also selected this one to go forward, so we are united in our decision.

So The Silence of Murder lives on for another day and The Fingertips of Duncan Dorfman gets put on the library shelf for immediate checkout.

Thursday, January 17, 2013

Bluefish vs All Good Children

We had a lively discussion and we all agree that Dia and Arlene should be smacked for putting an even number in our group!

Laura: Happy New Year! 
Well, ladies, Wendy and Laura agree.  We want All Good Children to move on (but like both well enough).  What say you?  Are we split and needing smack or presenting a united front?  We’re just about ready to post, but need to know what we can say about a winner in the end. 
Hope you’re all having a good first week back.  Now, this twin incubator is going for a nap…  J ( It would be worth being jealous of if I didn’t have every other pregnancy symptom in the book, too. )

Barb: I thought the beginning of All Good Children was a snooze-fest. I think it’s one of those books that starts slow and ends well. I couldn’t put it down during the last 40 pages. I feel when a book does that you tend to feel that it is better than it really is. I like the premise but not the execution. There are several books in the same genre that I would recommend before this one. I really enjoyed Bluefish but I’m not sure how many students would be interested. I thoroughly enjoyed Velveeta. So, do I pick the book that starts slow and ends well or the one I’m not sure students will like? In the end, I’m picking the one I like the best. Bluefish for me.

Laura: Well, Barb is making this interesting.  I agree with what she says, but here’s what I said to Wendy originally on that point:  I really liked Bluefish, but I think I liked it as a teacher and enjoying the story of learning to read and the allusions to The Book Thief.  I think All Good Children has wider appeal and equal merit.  Especially with all the market for stories of dystopian futures and the value of individuality messages. 
So, Mona, will you put in us in a knock-down tie or create a majority? 

Mona: Finally finished Bluefish, and sorry.  Knock down tie. J 
Loved the characters, the humour and the relationships in Bluefish.  I think that the appeal would be fairly wide, (but maybe more for girls). Easy to recommend to fans of The Perks of Being a Wallflower, or authors Rachel Cohn, Gayle Forman, John Green, Sarah Dessen...
I also liked All Good Children – I imagine that it would be easy to recommend to all the Hunger Games, Maze Runner, Gone, dystopia etc. fans.  Like Barb, there are many I would recommend before this one. 
I enjoyed both books, though I don’t think either of them will make it too the end.
My choice is Bluefish!!

Laura: Uhoh, all!  Who’s the best arm wrestler? 
Do you really think people who have not read The Book Thief would get Bluefish that well? 
I see your point about recommending Hunger Games, Maze Runner, Gone, etc before All Good Children, but I was picturing recommending it to those who had read all of the other choices up my sleeve. 
Hmmmm.  Maybe we should smack Dia and Arlene for putting us in a bracket with an even number of readers! 
Or do I count as three votes (me and the twins)?  Or does my baby brain cancel out my vote? 

Barb: I don’t think you need to have read The Book Thief to get Bluefish. My reasons for liking Bluefish have nothing to do with The Book Thief. I never jumped on that band wagon – not really a fan of that book. After thinking about it over the weekend I too believe John Green fans et. al. will like Bluefish. I laughed, I cried, I love Velveeta.

The thing that makes books like Hunger Games, Maze Runner, Gone, Legend, etc. really good is that they grab you  right from the beginning. All Good Children does not do that. Unless the student is really devoted I don’t believe they’ll make it to the good part. I probably wouldn’t have continued reading if I didn’t feel I had to.

That being said, I don’t believe either of these books will be the eventual winner so what we decide probably doesn’t matter. We are not allowed to have a tie so one of us will have to give in but it won’t be me J.

Laura: Well, Wendy and I spoke again yesterday.  Neither of us felt that All Good Children was too slow at the beginning.  The ending was most exciting, but that’s as it should be.  From the book jacket I knew that the inoculation program was coming and watching for that kept me engaged.  We both also really value the themes emphasizing a value for creativity in individuals and in society.  While we enjoyed Bluefish and liked Velveeta, we both felt we liked it as teachers.  We’re suckers for stories of a student learning to read and the triumph of literacy.  But we both still feel more kids would put their time into All Good Children. 
Either of you persuaded to change your vote yet?  You’re right in that we likely don’t have the end winner anyway.

Barb:  I like the idea of smacking Dia and Arlene!

I can't vote for All Good Children. We have a student (and avid reader) who returned it yesterday and said it was ok, “it drags in parts”. While I am not willing to change my vote I am willing to let Laura’s twins vote J

Mona: Me too.
All Good Children can go on with the twins blessings.

Wendy: I think the twins are already arguing. 
We were quite willing to be persuaded—we thought we would give it one more try!

By a vote of 4 (Wendy, Laura and the twins) to 2 (Mona and Barb), All Good Children moves on.

The Year of Beasts Vs. Between Shades of Grey

This was a difficult bracket to judge because we all really enjoyed the literature; however, the more we discussed the great elements of each text, the easier it became to see that there was one obvious winner. With that we delve into the genocide of a people vs. teen angst bracket:

The Year of Beasts

The Year of Beasts is filled with wonderful imagery, descriptive language, a contemporary setting and circumstances that students could relate to. The characters were believable without being overly cliché and the technique of weaving in the graphic novel portion with the regular text was really effective and deepened the meaning and impact of the story. The graphic portion of the novel showed in an artistic way what the main character felt she was experiencing even though no one else could see it. Lastly, The Year of Beasts did a better job of tying the story back around to a complete finish, which started at the beginning. 

Between Shades of Grey

In our discussion of Between Shades of Grey we agreed that it deals with a more noble and important topic. Prior to reading the novel, our collective knowledge about the Lithuanian deportation was minimal and this may have affected our experience with the text. The characters were realistic and it was interesting to see how each of them reacted to the horrible conditions they were forced to exist in. Between Shades would be a good addition to a unit that looks at the Holocaust, where we commonly will use the Anne Frank story, as a way of comparing other similar events. Between Shades of Grey may be the better story of the two and the topic allows for more cross-curricular conversations.  One element that worked effectively for the novel was how the chapters were punctuated with poigniant, often emotion-filled, lines; For example, "It was the last time I would look into a real mirror for more than a decade." or "I looked back to the hole.  What if we were digging our own graves?”

The Big Reveal…

One realization that we came to prior to our decision is that we needed to put through the novel that is best suited for our teen audiences. We liked both novels, but felt that one was more unique, better written, had more emotional pull that would appeal to a greater range of kids. Although we LEARNED more in one, we FELT more in the other. 

This bracket appears to be the case of an interesting novel that we all thought was superior vs. an average novel that is probably supposed to win – please see Dia’s pre-round predictions. Ultimately there was a connection to the narrative in The Year of Beasts that was missing from Between Shades of Grey.

Sorry Arlene…

Unanimously, The Year of Beasts is the novel to advance to the next round!

Thursday, January 10, 2013

Round 2:Island's End VS Inside Out & Back Again

     Robin and Dia agree - no smacking required: Inside Out & Back Again moves on.

Robin's comments: Inside Out and Back Again gets my vote. I'm a sucker for free verse "prose" or whatever it's called - is there a term for this genre that I should know? I loved the first person narrator's sense of voice, her spunk, and the author's ability to put a haiku-ish like twist/surprise at the end of many of the chapters/poems. My biggest reservations would be (a) the protagonist is a 10 year old girl, and I find that many junior and senior high readers are not yet distanced enough from their own childhoods to enjoy/appreciate a child's version of events, and (b) the actual leave-taking and time aboard ship seem to be a bit glossed over and "safer" than I remember reading about in the late 70's/early 80's when the Vietnamese "boat people" were making their way out of the country. However, perhaps the author wanted to concentrate more on the immigrant experience, and this is where I really liked the book too. I think it is a good reminder to  teacher readers and an eye-opener for student readers of the intense frustration of our newly-arrived ELL (English Language Learners). I love any opportunity to see the world realistically through the eyes of one whose experience is not my own.  

    I enjoyed Island's End, and I think those of you who teach Social Studies would appreciate the many opportunities to use this novel as a tie in to First Nations' early encounters with Whites and the challenges of keeping traditions versus embracing the inevitable changes of colonialism, but I found some of it a bit far-fetched, despite being apparently research based. A strong female protagonist and a good read, but overall I preferred Inside Out & Back Again.

Dia's comments: Inside Out and Back Again I am also someone who loves free verse poetry and our community has new immigrants on a daily basis. I think this book sits nicely at the division two to grade seven category. I also think this book could be a good jumping off point for writing lessons too.

    Island's End I wanted to like this book so much more than I did. I very much like my history and anthropology delivered in novel form but in this book I find it unbalanced. Story is sacrificed to stuff in more information and opinions and slows the reader down. The tsunami at the end of book did ramp up the action and the reading for about 10 pages but ultimately this was a no contest bracket for me.