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, March 26, 2013

Everyday vs Rotters

Well, much to my surprise, I actually liked Everyday. I’ll admit that A has a few issues and is as annoying as hell sometimes, but I’m willing to cut the kid some slack since he’s lacking a few things that tend to enhance one’s ability to grow up well-adjusted. Things like parents, friends, a body etc.

As noted in previous posts, Levithan seems to play fast and loose with the rules of the game he has created, and for a guy who so clearly wants to discuss issues of gender and identity, he seems incapable of taking these discussions beyond a very superficial level. This may seem a strange thing to say given the alternate heapings of vitriol and praise that have been served up in relation to this novel, but it actually could have used another hundred pages. Despite an attempt at closure, Levithan has left enough up in the air that a sequel looks like at least a possibility, but I’m not sure that a sequel will resolve the fundamental structural choices that limit the book’s potential: 1) an unwillingness to explore the profound metaphysical issues that this consciousness without a body evokes and 2) a slavish devotion to the “true love” framing narrative. Ultimately, I see these as flip sides of the same coin.

I understand the allure of the one true love concept – particularly when you are young and trying to make sense of the emotional overload that is day-to day life –but in order for that concept to play out successfully in a literary work, you need some scope of character development and actual space and time. Regardless of whether you loved or hated The Time-Traveller’s Wife (the novel, not the crappy film) the author was able to establish the love story as a framing narrative because we were able to see the central characters grow, develop and reflect, even with jarring shifts in chronology. In Everyday, Rihannon actually gets what A seems incapable of understanding: because of his youth and his circumstances, he doesn’t “get” love in any meaningful way. If a kid in one of our classes came to us with a dilemma involving his/her one true love, we’d likely, gently, suggest that the kid allow for some time to get a bit more perspective. Even if A’s arguments about the strength of his own unique perspective is true, he’s probably going to need to at least day 7000(?) to sort it all out. To have this kid devoting all of his time – such as it is – and energy chasing after Rihannon, while showing relatively little introspection into the larger dilemmas of his situation, rings a bit hollow to me and actually seems like a huge opportunity missed. I could have maybe got behind the Rihannon story-line if Levithan had established more about A’s character early on. I also think the whole Reverend Poole/Nathan subplot could have been used as an effective means of exploring some of the existential angst that A has to be experiencing.

Let’s consider how Daniel Kraus would have handled this in Rotters, a book not without its issues, as well. Kraus would have likely built up an extensive mythology around the Reverend Poole character that would have allowed us – and A – to delve into both the mechanics and the meta-physics of A’s dilemma. In the process, we would likely see A giving evoking some real thought and emotion as he considers his larger circumstances beyond simply lamenting his inability to be with Rihannon.  I still liked Everyday – I actually wanted to keep reading to find out what would happen, unlike (Why not poke the sleeping bear?) my experience of Raven Boys –but again, and I still acknowledge all my previously stated reservations about Rotters, I think Kraus has offered us a protagonist who is more fully-fleshed out (Sorry, I couldn’t resist) and ultimately, a more evocative narrative. As Brad noted in his post, it is possible that Everyday is falling victim to overly high expectations given its intriguing premise, but as of right now, I would move Rotters on over Everyday. I would welcome a smack or two to get me to change my mind.

Thursday, March 7, 2013

Raven Boys vs. Inside Out and Back Again: The Decision

OK, so our little group (all seven of us, from four different sites) was charged with making a tough decision between Raven Boys and Inside Out and Back Again. I’ll cut to the chase: Five of our seven chose Inside Out and Back Again, and even our two who championed Raven Boys seemed to have a lot of love for Inside Out and Back Again.

Barb, Mona and Shelley P have all posted and made thoughtful points about both books. I’ll keep it brief and try to bring together some of the discussions that the rest of us had.

Raven Boys

None of us were particularly enamored with Raven Boys, although it has a lot of good things going on and I have no doubt that there are lots of kids who would really enjoy it. It definitely has that Twilight vibe, but – and I don’t want to have to go into the witness protection program over this comment or wake up with a horse head in my bed – actually has more interesting characters and is better written. I’ll take Blue over Bella any day, the dialogue is actually polished in places and there are some interesting plot points, but I digress. I’m sure that this is already on its way to becoming the next big franchise (10 seconds later: Yep. New Line has the rights. Thanks, Google) and it will likely make a more engrossing film (at least for me) than it did a book.

Inside Out and Back Again

This is not exactly the kind of book that any of us expected to enjoy as much as we did. The few novels in verse that I’ve experienced have had distinct limitations, and this is no exception, but overall it works. The author’s discussion in the afterword about how her search for a cadence that would mirror the Vietnamese language led her to this form made a lot of sense to us. There are moving turns of phrase and powerful images throughout and the voice just seems authentic.

We were in agreement that it was the second part of the book that takes place in Alabama that really moved us and would really resonate with students. I think any student who has ever tried to master a second language, while feeling hopelessly inept and out of place, would read this novel with a deep sense of appreciation of how the author captures that experience.

As with most of the tough choices that we are forced into in The Mighty Smackdown, neither of these books would be for everyone. A lot of kids will read Raven Boys and have a good time with it and eagerly anticipate the rest of the trilogy. Inside Out and Back Again isn’t going to inspire fan clubs and Taylor Lautner casting speculation, but I do think that many students will see aspects of themselves in Ha’s story and find themselves more engrossed than they might have expected. As has been pointed out, the novel has a mature, meditative quality that would seem to be at odds with where a lot of our kids are at this time in their life, but I also see it as a fundamentally accessible book. I could give this book to one of our struggling grade seven readers and I’m convinced that they would be able to meet it on their own terms just as readily as our grade nine challenge students. They would experience the book in different ways, but that opportunity to connect in different ways is part of the reason why we are moving it on.

Raven Boys vs Inside Out and Back Again Part Two

From Shelley Pitzel

Inside Out and Back Again - So Unexpected

I was thoroughly disappointed when the book arrived and I looked at it. I did NOT expect to like it, nor did I expect that kids would like it either. However, it is an engaging story, told through the eyes of child. I found myself unable to put it down, often reading more than I had originally budgeted for time. Though eloquently written, and filled with emotion, it was a bit too sophisticated for such a young audience.

Raven Boys -

I thought I would like Raven Boys more than I did. It started out strong, that story was very clever and included a lot of rich background information. I liked the juxtaposition of the rich and poor, the traditional, upper-crust prepatory school with the earthy, free-spirited psychics. I think young readers would like the dark nature of the story, for example hanging out in the cemetery waiting for the spirits of dead people. The story seemed to lag a bit in the middle and lose focus. It pulled out of the nose-dive in the end, and so I would say that I liked it, but I didn't love it. The ‘Twilight’ generation, who can appreciate the 'underworld,' and are not burdened with a longing for a good storylines, would be enthralled by Raven Boys. Therefore, my choice is Raven Boys


Rotten to the Core

Just finishing Rotters last night, I am left with the relief that I can end this round of Smackdown on a high, if not dark note.  Silence of Murder has an interesting premise, and I will grant that the discovery of the jars' contents and meaning was well handled, but...

The rest of the book was very pedestrian; it's predictability left me disinterested and unable to persist through the guts of the text.  Whenever you figure out who "dunnit" in the first chapter or two, it's all down hill from there.  Read the first few chapters, skip to the last few chapters.  Realize you have missed nothing.  Abandon book to play Words with Friends.

Rotters, on the other hand was a fun read, albeit twisted.  A fellow Smackdownian read the text in an earlier round, and extolled it virtues to me, so I was already primed to enjoy the story.  I felt for Joey's character, and cheered him along as he brought retribution upon the heads of those who tormented him at school.  Yes, it's kinda shallow to cheer on a kid for hanging corpses of women over Woody instead of believing he should rise above his anger, but seriously, seeing bad people be punished for doing bad things is the karmic high I want to ride.

So like the other members of my group, I too vote for Rotters to move ahead to the next round.  Coffin liquor anyone?


Rotters Vs The Silence of Murder

No pictures - check out the bookshelf!
 Well, here is what we decided:

Vanessa: Hmm - it was an interesting battle, Rotters vs Silence of Murder - two books about death. I have to say, when I read Rotters I thought to myself (screaming) What the Heck!?!?!? Who could I possibly recommend this book to? Honestly, I thought for the first few chapters it was going to be a zombie novel so imagine my surprise when no one was eating brains..instead they were crawling into a grave with their own mother, snuggling with her in her coffin liquor, and then carrying around her femur. And seriously Baby, die already! It was so gross at times, I was engrossed! I kept thinking, “this can’t get worse” and did. But I couldn’t put it down. I really felt for the main character, I was obsessed that his clothes smelled and he hadn’t had a shower. I felt hungry for him. I would have killed off baby 50 pages earlier and gotten on with it but that’s me. Silence of Murder had the opposite effect for me for the 70% of the book. I had to force myself to read 20 page a night to get ‘r done. At times I hoped the mute brother DID kill coach - wouldn’t that have been a nice surprise? I didn’t like most of the characters - I could have cared less about them, except Jer. The last 30% picked up for me and I really loved the imagery of the air captured in the jars. And then it made me root for Jer. The rest of the story was kind of meh. I definitely have students I could recommend it to without having parents ask questions.... So it comes down to this - am I voting for the book I thought was better or the book I thought could get into the hands of kids? For me - it’s the better book, hands down. Rotters had my vote to move on!

 Travis: Good conversation gang. I am in agreement with the majority of the conversation and to avoid being redundant, I’ll just throw in my vote for Rotters to move ahead in the competition.

 Andrew: Typically, I am not a person who is clever enough to figure out who did it before the book or movie is over. But I had the bad guy pegged in this story the very first time he appeared in The Silence of Murder (even before he threw his cellphone). That is not good for me. I shouldn’t be able to guess that kind of surprise on page 13. After that, it is basically waiting for all the plot points to fall into place. It was an alright book, despite its predictability. But at this point in the Smackdown, I think we should be beyond books that are alright. I agree with everyone that I would recommend this book to certain students, but I don’t know that I am fully behind it. It would be more of a pity recommendation, just because that student may like mysteries. As for Rotters, this book is fantastic. I found it impossible not to feel for the main character. I could understand all of his actions and motivations, which can’t be said for every character I have read so far in this competition. I loved the meeting of the Diggers and their stories, I was appalled by the actions of the science teacher who used “Crotch” as his personal whipping boy; I was happy when the teacher got it handed to him. This book kept me engrossed, and not just because it was gross (but that definitely didn’t hurt!). The vivid descriptions of the bodies sticks with you, and you can taste the grit of dirt in your mouth as he furiously digs in his backyard looking for his homework. I think students would enjoy this book because it is different, it is morbid, and it is just really good. Maybe I am messed up in the brain region, but I wouldn’t have too much of a problem recommending this book to a large number of my students. In my opinion, it has to be Rotters that moves on.

 Laura: See, I actually enjoyed both books quite a bit. Rotters completely captured me in the first half, but I concur with earlier posts that, during the second half of the book, I lost some of my empathy for the characters. I agree also with Vanessa, that Baby just needed to die off. Definitely thought lots of kids would buy into the grossness of this book. I enjoyed Silence of Murder, too, though. I had it figured out (spoiler alert if this gets posted for the masses) when the murderer threw his cell phone in a rage, but I still enjoyed watching the story play out and having the other characters figure it out. It was no Curious Incident of the Dog in Nighttime, which I think I was hoping for, but still an enjoyable mystery. In the end, as a sleep deprived mom of two week old twins, I am going to cop out and say that I will happily go along with the majority this time, vote for either of the books, and prevent a tie. Lame, I know. I have to go nap now... 

Sandy: I enjoyed both books as well. In terms of the question Vanessa posed, I feel overall “Rotters” was much better written, but also believe that students who like a good whodunnit will enjoy and not be disappointed with “Silence of Murder”. I would not hesitate to add “Silence of Murder” to our collection and would readily recommend it to students who enjoy a good mystery. Because we are a K – 9 school and even with as well-written as “Rotters” is, it is not a book I would necessarily add to our collection and would need to be very selective in terms of who I would recommend it to. I agree with both Vanessa and Laura that there reached a point in “Rotters” that I felt it went on for a bit and not in a way that enriched or enhanced the story or characters; i.e.,” and seriously Baby, die already!” , but simply was exasperating for the reader. However, I felt there were passages in “Silence of Murder” that could have been much better crafted. Of the two novels, I found “Rotters” much harder to put down than “Silence of the Murder.” Therefore and overall, I am leaning towards having “Rotters” move forward, but would support “Silence of Murder” moving to the next round if that is what the majority of people recommended.

So Silence of Murder: pack you knives and go, the tribe has spoken, you are not the biggest loser, etc...
Rotters is moving on!!!

Tuesday, March 5, 2013

Year of the Beast v. Every Day

The truth is that I am embarrassed to post such an old-and-tired discussion point as my inaugural offering to the blogging Gods, but in truth, much of my life these days could be described as old-and-tired, and herein lies the rub.

Plainly, my vote for this round of the Smackdown goes to Every Day, by David Levithan, if only by an old-and-tired form of acclamation.  I just don’t feel the love for graphic novels.  In this case, the flag of the genre is carried by Year of the Beast, by Cecil Castellucci, itself a hybrid of graphic novel and conventional text that has proven so popular in the wake of The Invention of Hugo Cabret.  (As an aside, I am not blind to the irony that Levithan himself made a foray into this field with Every You, Every Me, another ‘hybrid’ I consider to be an abject failure.)  Notwithstanding references to Greek mythology, which may be heavy-handed depending upon how astute you think young adult readers should be -- my students aren’t -- I don’t feel as though I glean as much by way of exposition, character development, etc. from the limited dialogue provided; I’m just not as deeply invested in a graphic novel.

On a recent trip to MOMA, I happened upon a note suggesting that the average gallery patron allots less than three seconds to viewing each work of art.  Ostensibly, one visits expressly to absorb the minutiae of seminal works of art by the likes of Jackson Pollock and others, but is three seconds really worth a thousand words?  To an untrained eye such as mine -- those being old-and-tired too -- I would argue not, but perhaps I’ve just missed the boat, proverbially speaking.  Younger readers have honed their visual literacy to a much finer point, even by the age of thirteen, than I have at... well, older than that.  I wonder if my age-handicap (pardon the term) prevents me from seeing (pardon the pun) the appeal of graphic novels?  Perhaps a younger eye would appreciate aspects of design and visual motif that make this a compelling read -- think Daniel Pink -- but frankly, I think not.

At this point, I must to atone for my ample derision, as the ‘Smacked’ has eclipsed the laudable achievements of the ‘Smacker.’  I really enjoyed Every Day, which came as a surprise given my earlier sentiments regarding Levithan’s other work; but then, perhaps this was merely an old-and-tired affinity for Quantum Leap?  A colleague pointed out that the author’s position on gender and sexuality were not the most nuanced, true, but then I return to my earlier comments pertaining to Greek mythology.  I found the protagonist’s conflict compelling, if implausible, the nascent love between A. and Rhiannon engaging, and the resolution delightfully mature.  My only real complaint: why do I feel like I’m being set up for another trilogy?  That would be... wait for it... old-and-tired.

Post script: Our discussion resulted in a unanimous decision to advance Every Day, though several of our group did so with considerable apathy; could this be a bad omen for Mr. Levithan?

Monday, March 4, 2013

There is no "fault" in "The fault In Our Stars"

The Fault In Our Stars - Boy meets girl (who happens to have a terminal illness) and girl is charmed by the boy (as is the readers - yes the boy has a secret that we will not share in this blog for those of you who have not read the book yet).  This book is not really a love story made for the movies but is a realistic look at how life can continue to throw you curve balls that you do not expect.  This book is a must read and when you start it, do not expect to want to put it down any time soon.

All Good Children - Drugging children to ensure calmness and tranquility.  This book has the potential to elicit much conversation as to when a society goes too far to reach the goal of conformity.

Although our group generally liked both books it was unanimous that The Fault In Our Stars is moving on to battle another book.

Maureen, Jacquelyn, Robin and Renae