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

Wednesday, December 18, 2013


I would like to say that the three of us at Vimy Ridge Academy probably need to be smacked, instead of smacking down others.  Between deathly illness, a mad food-raising campaign, and somebody who shall go unnamed but just does what he is told, we are now posting as some of you have already begun reading round two books. 

But like a straying lover, we promise we won't do it again.  We promise to be faithful to the Mighty Smack.  We won't find other enticements to lure us away from our first and true commitment.  Sigh.

So here is the dirt.  We chose Leonard Peacock as the book to move forward.  It was unanimous, because Amanda and I decided it was so, and Andrew does what he is told if he doesn't want to experience the wrath of two sparky women.

We both agreed that while Peacock might not be the book you bring in to teach in a grade 7 class - how many time can you say f@#k on a single page in YA Lit - but it was the book that captured our interest of the two, and would be a great addition to our school library.

Leonard's life is miserable - for crying out loud, his own mum forgets its his birthday.  But this kid, on the brink of the big abyss, finds the means through the intervention of a most awesome teacher to step back, and keep trying.  As an extended member of the "sick lit" that is rolling through young adult fiction, Leonard Peacock will appeal to kids who enjoy this genre.

I have to admit that I found the copious use of footnotes to be somewhat distracting and unnecessary, but I can set that aside.  If for no other reason that we needed to pick a book, and I need to go home and mark papers.

So with that, I end this, and wish everyone happy round two readings!

Team VRA

Tuesday, December 17, 2013

If I Ever Get Out of Here vs. Eleanor & Park

While If I Ever Get Out of Here does an effective job of giving an all-too-realistic portrayal of systemic racism, it was crying out for a bit of nuance and subtlety.  Characters were clearly either good or bad – the "good" being shining beacons of humanity and perfection, and the "bad" (particularly the stereotypical bully, Evan) being just so unrelentingly evil that they were little more than caricatures. And while I've never been a teenage boy, the relationship and interactions between Lewis and his best friend George just didn't ring true at times.

Eleanor & Park, on the other hand, was one of those books that was such a joy to read that I forgot I was reading. It’s one of those books where even though it was well past midnight on a school night and I still had over a hundred pages to go, there was no way I was going to put it down. It’s one of those books that the crazies deem dangerous enough to try to pull it off the shelves (and let’s be honest, doesn't that just add to the appeal?) I loved both of these characters, and I loved (most of) both of their families, not because they were all perfect or shining or true, but because they were so relatably, humanly flawed. Okay, this is crossing into cheesy territory now, but seriously, this is one of the best YA novels I've read in a long time.

So, although If I Ever Get Out of Here had its merits, there’s still no question that Eleanor & Park is the clear winner of this round!

Monday, December 16, 2013

Settle in folks....what follows is the email conversation between Jyoti and I regarding far far away and The Children and the Wolves:

Brad:  Well, I guess, welcome, Jyoti, to your first Smackdown.  I honestly think this might be a contentious choice; I certainly have something to say about both books, but I fear (hope?) we may ultimately digress into a deeper conversation before we can, ultimately, make a choice.  Maybe we should start with Tom McNeal’s far far away, which has certainly been making its rounds on year-end Best YA Books of 2013.  What did you think?
Jyoti:  Thanks, Brad. So far this Smackdown thing has been fun & we'll see how this format goes for us. I quite enjoyed the fairy tale/modern-ish mashup of the Far Far Away setting. I liked how we were in a kind-of indeterminate time and place which made it possible to accept the goings on in Never Better. The characters were compelling and I felt drawn in from the outset, but I must say that, overall, the book could have been shorter by about 100 pages.

Brad:  Oh my, yes.  I guess that’s my problem with the novel (which I, nevertheless, enjoyed).  It is so impossibly busy for the first third or so that the reader wonders how McNeal will keep all of the balls he has established in the air:  the ghost of Jacob Grimm’s narration; the compelling notion of him as a guide for Jeremy, our protagonist; young love; the ominous threat of the Finder of Occasions; every conceivable fairy tale trope; a game show, Uncommon Knowledge...the list could go on interminably.  I kind of loved the set up...but then the pace becomes, well, glacial, and the big “twists” are so hopelessly telegraphed that I found myself more peeved at the characters’ inability to figure anything out than excitedly compelled to turn the page.  By the time the endless dungeon sequence played itself out, I was sort of exhausted myself.  I just wish that the big “events” of the novel weren’t so obvious—it really could stand a good unexpected shocker or two.  Or an ample application of a red pen.  Did it seem “teach-able” to you?  Would kids like it?
Jyoti:  I share your "get on with it" sentiment. It feels heavy-handed and clunky in the middle, but, despite that, I think it would be teachable at grade 10. All those fairy tale tropes? Those could be an English teacher's jackpot. You could go for miles on this book if you could move the kids through the plot. But, perhaps, for a term 1 class, they might really enjoy the plot. Maybe we're being picky? The notions of young love, mortality, & injustice do appeal...
Brad:  Yes, yes.  I agree.  There are some beautifully conceived and written passages, and I kind of like those plucky teen protagonists.  I guess part of my “wanting” was that the character I was most intrigued with, Jacob, takes such a back seat to so much of the action.  But, whatever.  Shall we deal with the elephant in the room, Adam Rapp’s The Children and the Wolves?  Give me one word to describe your reaction.
Jyoti:  Disturbed. Deeply. That's my reaction. Two words, but holy man...
Brad:  The Children and the Wolves is a terrifying, fever-dream of a book.  I’m still sort of reeling.  I’m not sure I ever really needed to enter the psyche of a grade eight sociopath who uses drugs and sex to control her two grade seven lackeys.  But there it is.  And it is shockingly, horrifyingly real.  He sure can write.
Jyoti:  A grade eight girl and her two lackeys who kidnap a three-and-a-half year old... I told my principal what it was about and he had to put the book down immediately. He's a risky, edgy reader but the very idea of this one chilled him. The writing is so, so visceral it drew me in immediately. I couldn't put it down, but I didn't want to read the words on the page.
Brad:  Not to mention the violence and the sex and the swearing and the drugs…
I guess the central question for me, ultimately (and I welcome others to weigh in down below in the comments section), is what makes a Young Adult novel a Young Adult novel?  Does a teenaged protagonist suggest that it is suitable for YA audiences (take, for instance, Erdrich's The Round House last year)?  This wasn’t always the case, but in this golden rebirth of YA writing, it seems to be taken for granted (The Round House showed up on many YA lists last year--is it for young adults?).  Even with the steady hand and bravery of a teacher (I’m looking at you, McKeown) to guide a teenaged mind through this nightmare, I think there is simply too much to unpack, and even my best High School readers would have trouble successfully “packing back up” the complex way that Rapp deals with some pretty heady concepts:  Religion.  Race.  The power of stories to heal or to destroy.  Absent parents.  Sex as a means of power and control.  Colonialism and cultural appropriation.  It’s sort of amazing what Rapp accomplishes in so few pages, particularly with the voices of the four characters—internalizations laid bare.  I think everyone (who can stomach it, and, for realsies, it is absolutely harrowing) should read it, but…does it move on?  And what, specifically, did you like about it?  Wait.  Did you like it?
Jyoti:  You know, I did like it. I'd never be able to teach it for the very reasons you stated, but it's a book I'd want in my classroom. I like it because it is raw and unvarnished and ugly. (For the record, I'm wearing a Jane Austen (it's her birthday, by the way) t-shirt right now.) I respect how it rips open the underbelly of neglect whether it comes from poverty or affluence. The thing that scares the protagonists is empathy and that's worth talking about. And your question is a good one. What makes YA Lit YA? Is it the old discussion about Can Lit that (I think) we've put to rest? Because this certainly isn't YA to my mind. Like Kids wasn't for kids...
Brad:  OMG.  Kids is the movie I kept thinking about while reading this, the same need afterwards for a Silkwood shower with bleach and steel wool. You’re right.  Its ugliness is what gives this book its verisimilitude and its power.  I think it might be in my top few books of this year.  It is that good.  But it sure isn’t pleasant.  But it is so incredibly written, so subtle:  OK, maybe the videogame as metaphoric parallel is sort of on the nose, but there are so many beautiful, subtle motifs and metonyms:  water, teeth, technology, time and watches…I could talk about this for a long, long time.  With adults.
So I will leave it to you.  Which book moves on (and, I guess, in some ways, it obliquely answers my question regarding defining YA fiction)?  The charming (yet too long), whimsical confection, or the sparse and gritty book about teens that isn’t necessarily for teens (really, could there be two books that are more diametrically opposed?)?
Jyoti:  What?? I'm supposed to choose? Ugh. I'm not 100% clear on this Smackdown thing. Are we Smacking down on a good book or on a good book to *teach*? Because if it's for the former, I'll go with The Children and the Wolves, without a doubt.  But if it's for the latter, then it is far far away. In this case, the distinction is that clear for me.
Brad:  This is not the first time that this has been the question.  Just choose.  I think it is sort of unlikely that either of our two books would move on beyond the next round.  For very, very, different reasons.
Jyoti:  Ok. The Children and the Wolves.
Brad:  We may have just broke The Mighty Smackdown.  AND ruined Christmas.

The One and Only Ivan vs. Goblin Secrets

The Newbery winner (in the long three year history of the Smackdown) has never moved beyond the first round but there was never a gorilla standing in the way before. Does brute strength win out? Do the poor little goblins run shrieking? These are all questions we thought we would be answering before we sat down to read. In the end it wasn’t Ivan’s brute strength but Applegate’s sparse yet thoughtful writing and Goblin Secret’s underwhelming fantasy world that made this a unanimous decision.

In Goblin Secrets Rownie searches for his missing brother by escaping a Dickensian orphan snatcher who is a mechanical bird woman (steampunk anyone?) and joining a troupe of goblin actors who are not welcome in the city under orders from the mayor. There are moments in Alexander’s writing that made me stop to copy out phrases. In addition, the goblins treatment could be used to mirror many historical situations as the best fantasies often do. For me, though, there was too much in the world underdeveloped for me to focus on the plot. Coming in at just over 200 pages seemed to mean Alexander sacrificed some of his world building leaving me knocking over flimsy stage settings in a quest to understand why there were mechanical people, what happened earlier with the flooding, how did the goblins come to be and what happened in the tunnels.

In the end, Applegate made it easy for us to embrace the humanity of a tiny elephant named Ruby and Ivan the gorilla. I know for some Charlotte’s Web is hallowed ground so I won’t say this lightly.  Charlotte meet Ivan; I think you have a lot in common.

Dia, Arlene, Holly & Annabel

Ask the Passengers vs. Maggot Moon


While on the surface these two novels may appear to exist completely independent of one another - a boy living in a 1950's totalitarian state vs a girl of small town America trying to figure out her sexuality - there are actually similarities between the two novels that make for an interesting discussion. Both novels have great moments but neither novel is without problems. 

Maggot Moon was an interesting and relatively easy read, with the very short chapters, and kid-friendly perspective.  The main character being "different" will appeal to kids who are always feeling out of place.  Particularly as the story centers on him finding a purpose to his life, and showing that his differences were not as significant or debilitating as first thought.  The totalitarian state that the story is set in makes for a very different society, one that is post-WWII England where the Germans won, rather than the allies.  There was enough intrigue to make me want to keep reading to find out what was happening, but there were some events that just didn't seem to make sense.  I would recommend this to some of my students, but I wonder how much they would understand of the background of WWII and such.  

Overall Ask the Passengers was by far the better book (sorry if you were hoping for some drawn out conclusion). Astrid Jones is a 17 year old New York City transplant who finds herself in the whisper-filled town of Unity Valley. Through the novel, she questions whether or not she is gay and the difficulty with identifying as such. The family dynamic in Ask the Passengers is perhaps the strongest literary element and has the reader wanting more pages dedicated to the workaholic mom, stoner dad, and trying-to-fit-in sister. The novel concludes all too conveniently but the earlier moments of the story overshadow the 'Okay for Now' effect. 

Both novels provide great analogy for classroom discussions: Maggot Moon contains several ties to David vs. Goliath. In Ask the Passengers, Frank Socrates is the one person that Astrid turns to when there is no one else. Throughout the narrative there is constant discussion of Greek Philosophy and the Allegory of the Cave. Even in the use of analogy, Passengers is the better novel. 

A comic about a serial killer or Dan Brown for teens? What a choice!

Jacquelyn's thoughts:
First off, we are not two shrinking violets out here in Sherwood Park; we enjoy dark subject matter in our literature and don’t shy away from controversial themes.  Honestly, we were both really looking forward to reading the Dahmer graphic novel!

 I simply found the narration very cavalier.  Here he is, now an adult looking back on his treatment of a young Jeffrey Dahmer.  Numerous times in the text our narrator states, “We weren’t bullying him---just having fun”.  But yes, they were bullying him!!!!

As a teenager in the 70s, I can see the young author believing that, but the graphic was written by a 50+ year old in 2012----he should recognize it as bullying!  He also reiterates numerous times the lack of adult intervention in Dahmer’s life, once again I agree, but none of his so called “friends”, including the author, ever said anything and they knew much more!

If this were a fiction piece I could handle the blasé treatment of the situation, but this is pseudo non-fiction, and as a text we are intending to recommend to young adults, I fear it sends a dangerous message in 2013.

Wasserman’s novel is a delight, if only for the excellent writing.  Although some may find it a bit “Dan Brownish”, I say Bah Humbug!  There’s nothing I love better than to learn as I read( I’m not really a “read to escape” girl), and I learned TONS!  And I was in Prague while doing it!  I’m not saying Book of Smoke and Blood will be our eventual champion, but it deserves to move on.

Carolyn's thoughts:

While I appreciated Wasserman's artistic choices in Book of Smoke and Blood, I have to admit, it left me empty.  The narrator's constant dithering about her love life annoyed me and ultimately, I really didn't care about any of the characters.  Wasserman hooked me in the beginning - wow, what an opening - but the pace for the remainder of the book slowed and for me, was fairly implausible.  However, I do commend her on penning an imaginative tale for teens that plays on the Dan Brown craze and for that and because my partner threatened to beat me up, I allowed this title to move forward.

I was haunted by the Dahmer piece. Obviously, the subject matter is similar to rubber-necking at a traffic accident, but as an educator, to catch a glimpse of the teen before he started making heinous choices, was fascinating.  I did have difficulty marrying the Cracked/Mad-like drawings with the serious nature of the subject and like Jacquelyn, did take issue to the teens' treatment of Dahmer, but ultimately, it's an important perspective on a twisted and disturbed soul.  Read it.

Bomb is da'bomb.  When truth is better than fiction, I love reading about the truth and that's what Bomb is all about.  Hokey spy techniques used to sneak top secret intelligence out of the USA into the hands of the Soviets - and all back in the 1950's when the atomic bomb was just a dream - before it became the nightmare we know now.  This is a book that all should read, to find out an interesting, and very scary part of American, and world, history.

Seraphina, on the other hand, a fantasy about dragons and such.  Lots of imagination and weird vocabulary went in to the telling of this tale.  Also a book of intrigue and upset, but of the fictional variety.  Good for all those dragon-lovers (and haters) out there.  Unfortunately, I am not one of those folk, so this was just an okay read for me.

My vote, for this first round goes to Bomb!


Sunday, December 15, 2013

Code Name Verity vs. Master of Deceit

It bodes well for our burgeoning long-distance Smackdown partnership that Christina and I shared similar takes on both of our books, and this post will echo much of what Christina has already written. One of the things I’ve always found very challenging – and very interesting –about the Smackdown, particularly in the early rounds, is trying to make a sound judgment about books that may have very little in common other than that they have been deemed YA in some way. This was certainly the case with our Code Name Verity versus Master of Deceit opening round. When the books arrived I assumed that a typical apples and oranges comparison had just become apples versus lumberjacks, but surprisingly, I found that despite obvious and profound differences, the books shared a common ethos and were both compelling and thought-provoking reads.

When I read the subtitle of Master of Deceit: America in the Age of Lies plastered over the arresting torn from the headlines cover, it’s perhaps not surprising that my mind jumped to the more sensational aspects of the J. Edgar Hoover story and I approached the reading with less than an open mind. So, I’m going to ask kids to read about a cross-dressing bully in a historical context they have no clue about? Yeah, right! I’m pleased to report that I was wrong and I not only enjoyed the book, but also think it is an accessible and important book for students to read. I had assumed that I had a fairly good working knowledge of this point in American history. You don’t teach The Crucible for 15 years without establishing some foundational knowledge about McCarthy, Hoover et al. but I realize now that my understanding was always one built on fragments and I had never actually read a cohesive piece of writing that brought together all these fragments. Marc Aronson’s book does this and in a way that is clear and accessible and, perhaps surprisingly, does not dwell on some of the more prurient aspects of the J. Edgar Hoover story. Instead, he offers a nuanced and surprisingly wide ranging narrative that presents a cogent argument about why this particular aspect of the American experience is relevant today.

Many years ago, I took an early American literature course and came away with the realization that you cannot understand American culture and its effect on the larger world without understanding the Puritan origins of the land of the free and the home of the brave. Aronson argues, quite successfully, but never pedantically, that our understanding of the post-911 world cannot be complete if we don’t understand Hoover and his far-reaching impact on the American psyche. It is not a long book, so it naturally stops short of being a comprehensive look at the man and the era, but he picks his spots well and if he was aiming to write a book that could be accessed by a broad audience, including young adults, he has been successful. Now, all that being said, I do have some reservations about what kind of readership Aronson’s book is likely to draw from the 140 character, infographic loving, Instagram posting (keep inserting stereotypes at your leisure) set that is a big chunk our current student populace. I think the book would be an excellent one to teach, as there is much that we could explore about style, craft, use of visuals and, most importantly, historical context. The number of students I would recommend the book to with the confidence that he/she would finish it on their own would be limited, however.

This would not be the case with Elizabeth Wein’s Code Name Verity, though. As noted above, this book is very different from Master of Deceit and perhaps more in keeping with what those well-versed in the current YA Renaissance would recognize as high-quality teen fiction. Code Name Verity pretty much offers everything you could want from a novel: morally complex, yet extremely likeable protagonists; an interesting historical context framing a complex and often riveting plot; a narrative structure that does justice to the aforementioned complexities and . . . well, I think you probably get the picture. This is a novel that you are going to feel comfortable placing on your shelf with your classics to keep your big E English teacher street cred, but I think it is also a novel that you might be picking up for a friend for Christmas, or earmarking for that kid who totally “gets” great books, but also that kid who has never “got” books until that elusive right one comes along. This might be that book. Code Named Verity offers multiple entry points for readers and I could see myself trying to get this in the hands of very different people for very different reasons. It is not a particularly easy read: one needs to be fully-present to follow the narrative threads and pick up the nuances of the characterization. It is also emotionally wrenching at times with disturbing glimpses of a world at war and all the inherent brutality and callousness that such a world demands. While there are graphic depictions of violence, particularly torture, Wein never presumes to preach at us about the horrors of war, but rather invites us into the intimate discourse of her characters in such a way that we cannot turn away. It is not a perfect book, but do such things even exist? As Christina noted, and this is perhaps inevitable in a book like this, some of the pieces fall into place a little too easily at times, but that is a minor quibble in an exceptional novel. We both agreed that it should move on into the next round. Code Name Verity may be an early front-runner for the Smackdown crown.

Saturday, December 14, 2013

Gotta Tell the Truth: Code Name Verity vs. Master of Deceit

Both of these books were interesting reads.  This is important to consider, as Master of Deceit: J. Edgar Hoover and America in the Age of Lies is indeed, as the title suggests, a non-fiction tome dealing with the CIA and it's ubiquitous leader for almost 50 years.  Seriously.  It feels strange to type it, but Master of Deceit was actually a mostly absorbing read, and the visuals used to support the author's research were evocative.  It would have been great to move something so unconventional, especially within the world of YA, forward to the next round.  However, even the airing of America's dark and dirty secrets was not a match for the powerhouse that is Code Name: Verity.
The back cover of Verity was deliberately vague, but do not be dissuaded by this.  The story focuses on a captured prisoner of war and her account of the events that have led to her imprisonment and subsequent torture by the Gestapo.  Not only does the protagonist calmly describe the torture she had endured (in an almost flippant manner that makes it seem worse) but she is consumed with concern for her best friend, who was also on the failed mission with her.  The lives of these two girls have been interwoven for so long and in such a manner that you are completely drawn into the protagonist's fears for her friend.  While at times events seemed to line up just a little too perfectly in Code Name: Verity, for the most part this was an engrossing and thought-provoking read.  Move forth!

Friday, December 13, 2013

In Darkness vs The Thing About Luck

While one can describe In Darkness as raw and vibrant in its description of people, violence, and bleak circumstances.  In Darkness is also a rich and complex story with shifting tales and settings.  Colored heavily by the worldview of the main character, it lends itself to a rich discussion of choices and how they are shaped by worldview or life circumstances.  However, it is its very complexity, the deepness of the subject matter, and the graphic description of both the violence and gore that makes it a poor choice as a YA novel.  I believe the novel is far too intricate to be readable for the majority of young readers.  

The Thing About Luck, however, is a story that is both readable and engaging.  While the plot is not strong and contains little action, the story is a charming, character-driven, authenticate account of a family living through poverty and illness. It is told from the perspective of a young woman who is undergoing a period of learning and change.  While the story is not epic, it is relatable, and far better suited for a Young Audience.  

While neither novel was a personal favorite, I choose The Thing About Luck as the better novel for this round.  

What Happened to Ivy VS 13 Hangmen

Well....what to do when you don't like either book? Flip a coin? Spin the title? Which book is heavier? Lighter? Prettier? This was the case with What Happened to Ivy and 13 Hangmen. Both really different stories from the emotional and controversial to thirteen year old boys with time travel magic and mystery. 

13 Hangmen first caught my attention with a baseball player on the cover. If any of you know Dia she was a crazed Boston Red Sox fan in the fall and we listened everyday to the ups and downs and wins or losses of her team. Of course being a sports fan I jumped on the wagon with her and watched until they won the World Series. I hoped the book would continue the Red Sox adventure but it fell well short of the excitement I'd hoped for. In the end it really had nothing to do with baseball and more to do with ghosts and time travel. I just didn't buy the 13 year old inheriting a house from an uncle he met once, or the time travel with ghosts...the other disconcerting thing was the main character always called his parents by their first name!! I don't like it.

What Happened to Ivy was a quick read with complicated controversial issues. A young girl with cerebral palsy and her 14 year old brother David and family are constantly dealing with her seizures. David struggles with loving his sister yet at the same time resenting her. Many things to talk about with students  but I don't see it as the nominated award winner it is touted as. Yes, the topic is emotional and controversial but the characters didn't have the development needed to to put it at the top. I'm not sure if young adults would get it at the level intended without guidance.

So, what did Tristin, Andrew and I decide on? After changing our minds several times and weighing our options....we choose 13 Hangmen to move on.

Tristin, Andrew, Donna O

After the Snow vs. Boxers and Saints

After the Snow starts as a distressing dystopian vision and ends as a distressing dystopian vision.  Willo is a young boy escaping the forces that took his family away for their resistance to some unexplained totalitarian state in the future.  He speaks though the voice of a dog – a voice that dominates the first part of the book and then disappears half way through.    The world is a bleak place—the winter has come and stayed.  People are starving, the country and minerals are reserved for the elite and the government.   The problem of this book for me is that it is a world seen through the limited eye of a young boy.  It is like he is too close to the ground or something—everything is dirty and miserable and redemption, when it comes, is so little that we are really left without hope. The great discovery at the end of the book is that this voice has been his own all along.  Redemption comes in the forgiveness of a girl child he deserts and finds again in some deus ex machine way at the end of the book.  He does apologize.

Boxers and Saints is a two volume graphic novel from the author of American Born Chinese, Gene Luen Yang.  It tells “parallel stories of two  young people” caught up on the opposite sides of the Boxer Rebellion—both of whom are searching for their identity and who find it in opposite faiths.  Bao is fighting to save China from the white faced foreigner in the role of a Chinese god and Vibiana has found herself by becoming a Christian and channeling Joan of Arc.  Both see themselves as warriors and are fanatical about their mission in life.  Sometimes this book felt like a Christian treatise but the redeeming value occurred when both sides realized that they had betrayed their beliefs though we do not see the change that that betrayal should cause. 

Generally, we were disappointed with both books for the most part.  Our vote though goes to Boxers and Saints and though the world is just as miserable in a way as After the Snow, there is plenty of action (blood and swords ) which the kids will enjoy.  Not certain that anyone who does not know about Joan of Arc will be able to follow the mystic reach of the second volume as we found the mysticism difficult in the first book because we knew nothing about the Chinese gods.

Wednesday, December 11, 2013

Summer I Learned to Fly vs Silence of Friends

How do you compare an apple to a doorstop? A cow to a bicycle?  These two books could not be more different.  One a graphic novel, dark, mature - looking back at a very serious time in history.  The other, a nice light snack, based on a 13 year old who works in a cheese shop with her mom.  She is not a particularly interesting character other than she has a pet rat, and in the end, she even lets the rat go.

Silence of Friends has a smaller audience.  It is Div 4 or adult all the way.  The content, a white man and black man who befriend each other in Texas during the time of Martin Luther King.  One a journalist, one an activist.  The language is strong, and the imagery is powerful but we could not recommend it to anyone at our school.  Summer I Learned to Fly has much broader appeal.  We could recommend it to Div 2, 3 and maybe even 4 but it really didn't grab me at all.  The main character was not well developed and we failed to empathize with her.  It had some potential but in the end, it never reached it.  And the last couple of chapters were disappointing.

So..even though we found it more of an adult than a young adult selection, the Silence of Friends was a better book.  Silent no more!

More Than This offers more than Wonder

Wonder – This is one of those cutesy school-problem novels where you know exactly what’s going to happen: charming-but-occasionally-self-doubting-outsider must come to terms with his differences, triumph over mean-spirited bully, and win the love and admiration of friends at school, leaving the audience feeling uplifted and optimistic. Admittedly, Auggie is an endearing character. Born with an unlucky combination of genetic mutations that has left his face severely deformed, he is nevertheless generally positive. Students might identify with some of his concerns about new classes and fitting in, but given the fact that Auggie is only beginning grade 5, the novel feels a bit juvenile for a Jr. High reader. Many of our students actually read the book as a novel study in grade 6, which would be a good fit. The book is told from the perspective of 6 or 7 different characters whose unique voices made for a more interesting read. Kevin also enjoyed the many Star Wars references (however, the author could do with some fact checking regarding Mon Mothma…) and the allusion to Natalie Merchant’s song “Wonder” (because no one is cooler to the Jr. High reader than Natalie Merchant!) Overall, Wonder is a fine, quick read but it lacks the substance to advance to the next round.

More Than This – We’re still not entirely sure what to think of this book. We both read and LOVED previous Smackdown winner, Patrick Ness’ A Monster Calls so we were hoping for more of the same. This was pretty different and hard to classify. Part dystopian in the style of The Matrix and part philosophical exploration of the meaning of life, More than This isn’t easily categorized by genre, nor is it really like many other books.  It’s lengthy (by teen fiction standards at almost 500 pages), dense, and complicated, and definitely suited more for a mature reader.  The story begins with the (disturbingly graphic) drowning death of Seth. He then wakes up in an “afterlife” (though this is not a tale of what lies beyond this world) where he meets two other people like him, including the humorous Thomasz. The post-apocalyptic world they explore together is ruled by The Driver, an ambiguous grim-reaper like figure whose true function remains a mystery for much of the novel. Indeed, the novel is largely driven by mystery, as the teens try to figure out how they got to where they are, how they can leave, and even if they want to. At the same time, we slowly learn through a series of flashbacks about Seth’s backstory – a terrible episode with his younger brother, a complicated relationship with his parents, and a fraught romance with his friend, Gudmund. We both found these dramatic bits more interesting reading than the action-packed main plot. Essentially, in our final discussion it seems we both enjoyed some elements of the book but still had many questions about it.  Also, we were hesitant about for whom we would recommend it. 
While Wonder was sweet, we are moving More Than This on to other readers because we need to hear more opinions on this book!

-Laura and Kevin

Sunday, December 8, 2013

Round One ...Counting by 7's is victorious.

Hokey Pokey: A unique allegory about "coming of age" without any real crisis involved.  This book, however, is too silly for the age group it is aimed at.  Likely younger readers will not quite get the full meaning and older students will not have the patience to relax into the seemingly childishness of it all.  Although, we did like the "bikes are horses" concept ( mainly because both of us still call our bikes "our trusty steeds" and sometimes imagine slapping its flanks in order to power up a hill) , the concept is taken too far and likely will be dismissed by the critical adolescent reader.  Jerry Spinelli does try to wrap up the ideas in a nice parcel in the end but it is all a little too late....for us we will take our "right arm out" and instead of "shaking it all about" we will just leave it out.


Counting by 7s is our winner and will move to the next round. Although some events seemed contrived in their resolution, the short chapters and changing points of view add to its readability.  The "quirky" main character is delightful and the plot portrays an incident which lives out the greatest identified fear of early adolescents: fear of the death of one or more parent.  We can see junior high students loving the main character's resilience and tenacity as well as her ability to bring out the strengths in others. 
Submitted by:  Robin and Maureen (and Maureen's reading buddy - Brenda)

Monday, December 2, 2013

"Ding" there goes round one...

I guess if there is to be a first-round-KO in one of our pairings, it’s best that this happens early -- shame to see a good book go down swinging.  Fortunately, that wasn’t the case in the bout between Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe, by Benjamin Alire Saenz and The True Blue Scouts of Sugar Man Swamp, by Kathi Appelt.  In truth, what we had here was a welterweight taking on a heavy-hitter, with ‘True Blue’ fighting far above its weight-class.  The former is already a reigning champ (Printz, Stonewall and Pura Belpre awards), an edgy account of friendship, loyalty and emerging sexuality -- all haymakers when it comes to engaging teens facing the same issues.  The latter, on the other hand, might be better suited to shadow boxing, with an allegorical take on questions of legend, legacy and unchecked ambition, and a style that is probably better suited to a pre-teen reader.  If you’ll forgive my hamfisted ode to pugilism, there isn’t a real glass jaw amongst any of the Smackdown contenders, so I am hesitant to consign the ‘Scouts’ to the annals of coulda-been-somebodies.  Our resident Don King wants drama, but perhaps this was less a brawl and more light sparring.