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, January 29, 2014


What can be said....beyond wait for that zombie pick it could be a doozie! Ties, bracket predictions, friends and families torn asunder, books thrown in rage and then picked up and returned to libraries...(we're not monsters!) have all brought us to this - THE QUARTER FINALS!!

 Now it will be Blood vs Bomb, Ness vs Ivan, Leonard vs the Witches and 7s vs Aristotle & Dante. What will the odds makers say now? Those reading will learn their brackets by tomorrow with books to follow...those reading feel free to Smack!

Tie No More!

As Holly stated in an earlier post comment, I did go back to the reading lair and sat (sadly without the book slippers - where do I get those?) reading through The Silence of Our Friends last night.

As some know, I like my history wrapped in a story and was very excited to get into this graphic novel. I have read a few entries in this era and enjoyed Lions of Little Rock, Claudette Covin: Twice Toward Freedom and Marching for Freedom: Walk Together Children, And Don't you Get Weary. Frankly, I was leaning towards this book to be an unique graphic novel experience in this reading area.Unfortunately, I found the graphic novel disjointed. The book roamed from the children's perspective - never really fleshed out to the men's friendship - never really fleshed out  and out of the YA arena. Perhaps one focus (I would say child's ) would have enhanced this experience. I do believe background for this book would be important, as it would be for any of the books listed previously. I think Arlene is right this book would go off the shelf easily - more easily than a fantasy book with an unfortunate manga cover; but I don't think the story, as it is told, is worthy. In School of Good and Evil - it's a better story and that's where the gavel is going to come down.

Careful What You Ask For...

Well, Andrew, you wanted more Silence of Our Friends in this discussion.  Here it is.

The book that stood out for me this round was most definitely Silence of Our Friends.  I don't see the same problems with content that my colleagues on the opposing side did. Yes, maybe background knowledge might not be as strong for all readers as it should be to fully grasp the entire story. However, for me its power is in what each reader would take away from it which does not necessarily need to be the same thing at the same level. If our students are reading it with an open mind, asking questions and wondering as we hope that they would, they could come to have the questions that are meaningful to them about the things that they may not have the background. If we are building a community of readers as we hope we are, readers would have individuals with whom they could discuss.  From a library perspective, scaffolding happens when the book is returned and the conversation takes place. The student asks if there are more books like the one being returned or about the same topic to build knowledge around the topic. I can see readers who enjoyed Yummy, a former Smackdown contender, enjoying this book as they work their way up their personal reading ladder. In addition, circulation and student requests of realistic stories and graphic novels far outweigh student requests for fantasy. In the end, part of it is how well we know our students as readers. While we didn't have time to test out School for Good and Evil with a students, we did try out Silence of Our Friends and was enjoyed by a girl in grade nine.

I also wonder if we aren't underestimating our readers. Our students are much more visual learners than we ever were (or are). I think we have to give our students more credit in their ability to determine what the images mean. Some might not always know what the images mean, but would know that they mean something.  My opposition might use my own argument against me as I opened our discussion at lunch the day before yesterday with The School for Good and Evil was too.... Too long. Too repetitive. I know a niche group of a readers who would gobble it up. For others, the message would get lost in the length. Many more would never persist to the end and, if they were a male reader, wouldn't get past the cover art.

The Silence of Our Friends would not sit quietly on the shelf; The School for Good and Evil would.

Tuesday, January 28, 2014

The School for Good and Evil vs Silence of Our Friends

Who would have thought that two books could have divided a staff so much.  As a result we are tied (2 votes Silence of Our friends and 2 votes School for Good and Evil).

As I am one of the supporters for Good and Evil; I do wish that there was a bit more Silence from my Friends in this decision. I do understand that the graphic novel format is quick and easy for students to read and therefore could be accessible for them, but I don't think that this "ease" out weighs the problems with the content. A deep and through set of background knowledge is needed to support the story of Silence of Our Friends. It took me at least two full classes to prepare our students before we watched The Butler earlier this year and even so, students still had questions about events that they could not understand.  This scaffolding does not happen when students simply check a book out of the library. On the other hand, Good and Evil is a story that needs no background teaching or support to understand the concepts or storyline.  I will admit that it is long and somewhat repetitive, but not at the expense of a unique and interesting story line filled with deeper meanings.  I believe that students will quickly find the story  interesting and will grasp the  bigger issues (such as the difference between words and actions - a necessary life lesson).  Bottom line:  I would move The School for Good and Evil forward and let Silence of Our Friends sit quietly on the shelf to be used as a supporting resource for a social studies class.

Smack on ...

Tie Breaker

I will keep this short and sweet. In the history of Smackdown, I have never had to break a tie. I have read both Code Name Verity and Counting by 7s. I enjoyed them both, although I was reminded that it took me a while to get into Code Name Verity. I have used beautiful sentences from both as a place for my students to start writing.

My tie breaking vote has to go to Counting by 7s. Why you ask? It is a book that does not require much, if any, of a sell. Code Name Verity was not a book that my students were interested to read at all, not even my very best readers.

Smackdown History!!!

Never in our long (almost 4 year) history have we ever had to issue this phrase:  Here come the judge...s.  Two brackets battled bravely and could not get past their deadlock.  That means Arlene and I will break the tie.

Arlene will cast the deciding vote between Code Name Verity and Counting by 7s because I smacked without all the results being in (bad me).

I will cast the deciding vote between The Silence of our Friends and School of Good and Evil because I can stand to have at least two more people from my school enraged at my decisions.

Stay tuned friends....end of the day the quarter finals will be set.

Monday, January 27, 2014

13 Hangmen or More Than This?

Brad:  Well, it seems that our esteemed, and clearly-more-organized-than-us, colleagues have already posted their thoughts on our round, and I’m guessing we will be in agreement (he said, hopefully, but not having any idea what Jyoti is about to write).   First up:  Art Corriveau’s 13 Hangmen.

Shockingly, I kind of loved it.  Why shockingly?  Terrible cover.  A premise that (at least initially) seems bordering on redonkulous.  Kind of time-travelly, kind of ghosty shenanigans (both of which I usually despise).  Lots of American history, of which I know almost nothing (other than that which I acquired from Schoolhouse Rock—almost forty years later, I can still tell you how a bill becomes a law).  Some terribly klunky dialogue.  And, the novel’s greatest flaw, an almost interminable first third or so.

But once it gets going…

If my twelve year-old self could think of one book to compare 13 Hangmen to, and this is pretty high praise from twelve year-old me, it would be The Westing Game.  Good lord, I loved that book.  Not so much in style or tone or even plot, but I just loved the riddles and the running around and the over-arching mystery and breathless, goofy, chaos of it all.  And that’s 13 Hangmen for me.  There’s a real satisfaction when it all starts clicking into place, every chapter ending on a cliffhanger or a moment of shocking revelation.  Rollicking.  Maybe even thrilling.  Twelve year-old me would be reading this one under the covers with a flashlight, that’s for sure. 

But…there’s that first third.  Which I think would turn off most readers.  To the point where, I’m not sure I could convince an entire class to keep slogging.  But for some kids?  This would be like literary crack.  Definitely something I would keep in the classroom to put into some lucky kid’s hands.

But first I would burn that terrible dustjacket.

Jyoti:  I can totally see how 13 Hangmen has rollicking appeal for a bit, but I couldn't help but be reminded of that book my junior high kids were reading about six or seven years ago. The one where the boy gets transported to a parallel universe but only his BFFs know about it? The title totally escapes me, but that kind of proves my point. This one was fun once you get into it, but it doesn't really 'stick'.  

 If 13 Hangmen felt more like a bowl of popcorn, then More Than This felt more like...oh forget it...there's absolutely no appropriate food analogy. Well, except maybe a tin of canned goods scavenged from an abandoned supermarket? 

This one was smart and compelling and drew me in immediately, despite my initial fear that it would turn into a boy version of The Lovely Bones. Ness handles sensitive and difficult topics deftly while combining them with some serious suspense. 

Brad:  Man.  I really loved this.  I couldn’t agree more.

And so as not to ruin any of the unfettered joys of pure, unadulterated twistiness of the novel, I think we should keep this as spoiler free as possible.  Hmmm…how to extol the virtues of a book when you can’t really speak of the narrative…?

How about this:  Ness has a knack for having Seth ask himself just the right questions about his circumstances so that his paranoia fuels our paranoia, and Seth’s (sometimes justified, sometimes not so much) suspicions drive us to question everything that we understand, until the next ball drops, and the circumstances change again.  But not in an irritating, eye-rolling, deus ex machina kind-of-way—this is a book that demands careful, deliberate close reading, and one soon realizes that all of the "pieces" are there in front of your eyes for the entire book, from the first three pages onward.  It is a book in which a deliberate, seemingly unimportant word or phrase on page two holds the key to an event hundreds of pages later.  Yep.  This is the kind of book that would demonstrate to a student that what we teach of artistic unity and authorial choice really does matter.  And it is done so in such a compelling, freaky, terrifyingly enthralling narrative, it doesn't even feel like "work."

Jyoti:  You're absolutely right about the close reading Ness demands of his readers. It's such a carefully constructed novel that invites the reader to engage philosophically in ways that are deeply satisfying and quite unexpected. There's nothing that feels contrived or patronizing: he's just that good.

Brad:  Ness sure has a way with language--even in the tensest of chase or fight scenes, a carefully chosen metaphor or simile brings an affective quality to the writing, catalyzing a real cinematic viscerality to what, in the hands of a lesser writer, would be thrilling, perhaps, but clichéd and tired.

Jyoti:  I love how he manages to make it philosophical, suspenseful and emotional all at once.  This is definitely worth the almost 500 pages, and I don't say that lightly at all. Absolutely time well spent.

Brad:  Oh, and those last two pages.  Good lord.  Bawling.  I can’t think of a more satisfying and affecting conclusion to a book in a looonng time.  In such a dark book of terror and suicide and existential misery, the last thing I expected was such kindness and compassion.  Like I said:  bawling.  And not just a little bit.  Entirely, unexpectedly satisfying.

Sooo…it’s pretty clear that we agree with Vanessa and Sandy that More Than This advances.  I’m not sure that we can count on a second Mighty Smackdown victory for Mr. Ness, but expect this one to go pretty far:  maybe Final Four?

Ivan & Eleanor & Park

I believe the result of this round falls into the 'upset' category and unfortunately will ruin many of your brackets. I know the countless hours that I sunk into my prediction bracket* are all for naught as The One and Only Ivan moves off to the zoo that is round 3. Here are our thoughts on both novels:

Eleanor & Park
 We were drawn in by the the quirkiness of the protagonists, found ourselves shuddering with fear at the thought of Eleanor's stepdad, and falling in love with these characters as they developed. Being set in the 80's, Eleanor & Park provided a great window into a lost era but I wonder how much of this helped the atmosphere of the novel and whether or not students would have the same experience. There are little nuances throughout Eleanor and Park's stories that lets the reader see just how much of an effect each was having on the other. The novel is filled with soul-crushing quotations ("We learned how to cry without making a noise"), moments of absolute literary excellence, and a unique narrative style. While Eleanor & Park is a novel that we all thoroughly enjoyed, as a group we felt that perhaps it was limited by its audience-specific approach. We felt that perhaps the ending came too quickly and left a number of questions unanswered. Park, in speaking of Dr. Manhattan from The Watchmen, suggests that "In the end, nothing ends. Nothing ever ends." For Eleanor & Park however, this is the end of the line. 

The One and Only Ivan
The largest criticism for Ivan is that it is at the other end of the spectrum from Eleanor & Park and that it is possibly too elementary for most teens. Having said that, and having no actual basis for the decisions that we make, Ivan advances to the next round being a sweet and touching tale - a modern day Charlotte's Web. Ivan is a quick read and its simplistic sentence structure and short chapters may give it appeal to ESL readers or grade 7 classes. In reading Ivan we found that there is something about the connection with animals which is a timeless and left us with feelings of hope. We felt that you could "teach up" Ivan as there are a number of themes that it touches upon. Strangely, the novel took on additional life when I read authors note at the end of the novel. Knowing that Ivan lived and that Katherine Applegate wanted to give this gorilla a voice in which to share his experiences brought the novel to a deeper appreciation.

Advancing Ivan was not a simple decision. While the consensus was the Eleanor & Park was the more well-written and emotional text, Ivan wins based on being the best novel. The group of Maureen, Donna, Robin, Christine, and I got behind Ivan in its ability to stand out from the crowd and not to be "another love story between two misfits"

Travis, Donna, Maureen, Robin, Christine

* I can only assume in a YA literature review group that everyone has completed their prediction brackets. Right? Guys...?

Ari & Dante vs. Boxers & Saints

I loved the graphic novels Boxers & Saints.  They were a little more graphic than I would have liked, but that would likely engage some YA readers.  It is unusual to find a novel (or two) that is a balanced history lesson, displaying an account that makes both sides seem sympathetic.  It is also unusual to have a historical piece that is also an engaging page-turner.  I found the novels topic to be heavy but the author's style made the reading light.  It was a relatively quick read given its size. 
I felt that the sheer amount of reading would be daunting for most YA readers, and the story line may have been difficult for weaker readers to follow.  While these could easily be covered with teacher guidance, I didn't feel that YA readers would self-select this novel and read it. 
Aristotle and Dante Discover the Mysteries of the Universe was an easy to read, completely relatable story, that I felt had many interesting dimensions. The characters were rich and relatable, though not always sympathetic, but that is kind of the way people are in real life.  I enjoyed the coming-of-age, coming-to-awareness aspect of the book.  While it is primarily a story about Aristotle (Ari) and Dante's relationship, it also explores the ideas of love and loss, relationships that hurt vs. relationships that help, endings and beginnings, and how we define or redefine ourselves.  I thought it was wonderfully written, and wonderfully paced. 
The one thing I did not enjoy was the conversation between Ari and his parents where they told him who he was and how he felt.  That was the only piece that did not come across as authentic.  We do not have someone, even as trusted as our parents, tell us something that monumental and just absorb it. "Oh, I didn't realize that contrary to all other evidence, that was the case."  I would have liked to see a more connected internal struggle for Ari.  Not that Ari should struggle, but if he needed a push in the right direction, then as he explores his thoughts, feelings and ideas with the audience, some evidence of such a monumental shift should have been present long before the final discussion with his parents. 
Ultimately, I have to go with Aristotle and Dante Discover the Mysteries of the Universe for this round. I enjoyed both stories quite a lot and found this round quite enjoyable, but ultimately I found Ari and Dante's story edged out Boxers & Saints for quality of story and impact for the audience. 

The four of us  from Westmin were fairly well agreed that neither of our two books gave great pleasure.  Ask the Passengers does what it wants to do-- provide us with a novel that deals with budding sexuality.  The protagonist attempts to determine her own inclinations but she doesn’t figure it out for e v e r because she is rethinking and looking for proof when it is obvious to us from page one. Kevin didn’t much like the book—said that he was tired of teen 'coming out' narratives because they are too angsty and they don’t seem to have anything else going on in their lives except fretting about their sexuality.  Queer YA lit needs to give more than just that.  We can't really figure out the title.  There is some tentative connection with passing air planes and the passing of quantities of love which doesn't really work and has very little to do with the book.  I was bored frankly.  So were most of us.

The Book of Blood and Shadows is more of an adventure.  It is a bit of a teenagers' De Vinci's Code-- I know, I know-- said already. The protagonist ends up on the streets of Prague searching for the Lumen Dei, the alchemists' machine that has the power to allow the user to see god.  She becomes a pawn of a powerful group who try to use the power for themselves and another who attempts to destroy it forever   Nothing is what it seems.  No one is whom they seem. The protagoinist kept falling in love with the wrong men.  Many of the wrong men.  Just how many wrong men can there be?  Maybe it is more realistic than I thought.  There are links to the past and to characters of the 15th century Europe.  It is an adventure and will be fun for most kid readers but though it was interesting right from the start, it did bog down and drown somewhat in the middle.

So we came down on the side of The Book of Blood and Shadows.  It is good enough to move on.  

Wendy Dawson
Kevin McBean
Laura Johnson
Renae Pappas

Peacock Over Wolves?

Smackdown in its fourth year has shown some patterns. Book pairings that make no sense, having to move on a book in a bracket where you're not keen on either and the granddaddy of them all...books that take on subjects so desperate and horrifying that you can't picture giving it to anyone who you consider a Young Adult. Here we are back in Granddaddy territory. Below please find our email conundrum:

Dia: For all the times people have bemoaned comparing apples to elephants in the Smackdown I really feel this comparison is a fair one. Children left by parents to face the horrors of the world is predominant in both books. I cheered for Leonard and the whole writing to your future self hooked the LA teacher in me. I also loathed his mother and loved how he wrapped his hair and left it in the fridge for his mother.

After the earlier post about Rapp's book, I found myself reluctant to plunge in. I am still horrified by the first year Smackdown entry Nothing and wasn't sure  Brad's reference to a Silkwood shower would help. Let's start with the easy part: this book can never be a part of a K to 9 library. It can never be part of a junior high library. After that, for me, it gets a lot more complicated. This book is beautifully written. The characters are brutal, their lives are brutal because of circumstance and brain make up. In the end the only two spots of light are a poet's house and the fires of people who have given up on society. That is horrifying commentary but this is a window/mirror book for me. I've learned to look more carefully at our society ala David Lynch and I can't unsee what I've seen - that's brutal. This book is living in my head now...I can't dismiss it and I don't want to. 

Christina: Oh my.  My my my.  I am so glad I have this opportunity to "talk" about these books (well, mostly The Children and the Wolves...)  I had already read Forgive Me, Leonard Peacock this past summer, and at the time, I thought that book was pushing the boundaries of YA.  Who knew that I would reread it in the depths of January to cleanse my palate from a novel that did not push the boundaries- it absolutely decimated them.  
I agree with Dia- I was actually scared to read The Children and the Wolves and cannot now stop thinking about it.  But I don't want to.  But I have to.  Yikes.  
As much as I want to bury myself under my covers and pretend that the Bogeyman, or Bounce, isn't waiting right there, this is not a book that can be ignored.  Would I ever recommend this to my students?  Never ever.  I don't even think my colleagues would want to have the option of handling this one.  What killed me about both of these books is the lack of responsible parenting or even any hint of parenting at all.  I think it's a fairly strong statement that I didn't even really feel relief over the Frog's release and Wiggin's escape into the woods.  All I could think of was what Bounce would orchestrate next, and who that helpless victim would be.
But back to Leonard.  There is hope there.  We know that Leonard is not magically cured, but that he will rise above the insanity that has been his life.  If he does not find a literal lighthouse in the future, he will create one for himself and the ones he finds to love.  For these reasons, this is the book that should move forward.

Trisitin: What to say...these books were both similar in their ability to ruin my appetite.  The characters in Children and the Wolves, except the poet, were revolting.  I realize Rapp was making a social commentary, but they characters were so extreme that they were almost unbelievable.  I literally had to put the book down when a certain scene would become too grotesque then circle the book because I was obsessed with knowing what happened with Frog.  I also had an unrealistic thought that Wiggins would turn “normal”, but life isn’t full of Hollywood endings.   

Having read Children and the Wolves first made Forgive Me, Leonard Peacock seem like a kids book.  Both stories explored various types of bad parenting and the rare results of such relationships. I found it interesting that Wiggins and Leonard had similar mothers where neither mother wanted to acknowledge the darkness in their son.  The signs were there that their sons needed serious help, but neither or them would give up their social/work schedules to do anything about it.  Bounce’s parents are commonly found in schools these days, where they just aren't around.  The kid is smart enough to care for themselves, but there are no checks or balances to keep them on the right path. Although she was a parenting wouldn't have mattered anyways.

With that said, I didn't find that I had much empathy for any of the characters   I don't agree that bad parenting  results in delinquent behavior like these characters.   I realize that the characters in each book have many obstacles to overcome due to their upbringing, but that doesn't mean that taking a gun to school to shoot someone, kidnapping a three year old or attacking a social worker are appropriate reactions.  At least Leonard Peacock is willing to do the work to "fix" himself, which makes Forgive Me, Leonard Peacock my pick. The author leaves us with a sense of hope that Leonard will be alright, whereas Children of the Wolves left me looking into my students eyes wondering where Bounce is... 

Brent: I agree with Dia that these books are at least in the same realm of the broad YA universe. Although on that note, other than the fact that there are young people in Rapp's book I'm not sure I'd classify it as a YA novel had it not been included in our smackdown. You've all raised several excellent points. These are both novels that, while I can't truthfully say I enjoyed reading, I nevertheless enjoyed thinking about, at times. 

I had some high hopes for Forgive Me, Leonard Peacock as I worked through the first part of the novel. There were certainly moments where I saw a little bit of Holden Caulfield (I know, sacrilege) in Mr. Peacock, but ultimately, I couldn't buy what Quick was selling. I enjoyed some of Peacock's musings as he gave a shot at touching on a the full teen range of existential angst, but ultimately I had difficulty reconciling how someone so thoughtful, articulate and willing to engage with so many big questions and ideas, is simultaneously so shallow and lacking in self-awareness. I found him tedious. I don't need to like or empathize, or even sympathize, with a character in order to enjoy a novel, but I do expect a novel that has aspirations of, you know, saying something, to invite me into a dialogue rather than a rant or a ramble. You know those moments when you are watching an Aaron Sorkin show and you realize that he has decided in a characteristic moment of hubris to cast aside his fine cast and obvious skills as a writer and pull up a chair and lecture you about stuff he thinks is common sense? That's kind of how I felt at times in this novel.

And this, I think is the reason why I'm going to go with The Children and the Wolves on this one. I don't think disturbing really covers it in describing the book, but suffice to say I would think long and hard about recommending this book to a child and it may, as Dia suggested, not even find a place in most middle school libraries. It's brutal. Raw. And , I think there are times when, although it is a slim book, Rapp could have toned things down - particularly in regard to Bounce's sociopathic mastermind- like qualities - and still achieved the same ends. Ultimately, though, the big difference between these two books for me is this: Peacock (and Quick , his creator) tells us exactly what is on his mind at every turn. Rapp's book, as awful and brutal as it is, forced us to enter into the space between certainties and try to make some sense of some truly horrifying, but nonetheless important things.

Dia: To play Jeff Probst, thats one vote Children and the Wolves and two votes Leonard Peacock with Donna and myself still thinking.

Donna: I started out with FMLP....On the first page I laughed out loud so knew it would be funny throughout and those that know me understand I like to laugh. Leonard is a character that we have heard about but usually only after a school shooting and psycho-analysis by the media and every 'expert' around the world. Unfortunately we don't hear about teen boy struggles and challenges near enough to understand or help them deal before it is too late. For me the entire book was humorous, happy and sad to the point I felt bad for laughing at other things. My questions would Leonard believable? Was his character too adult like? He wanted to die but be saved at the same time.... A few previous reviews online stated they didn't feel sorry for Leonard and the author was reaching for his sensitive side which ended up being nothing more than a "string of adjectives." Not sure I agree, but, makes you think. My favorite parts were the letters from the future and, of course, Mr. Silverman. If only more existed! 

I decided to listen to the Children and the Wolves....WT#%^&? I found it difficult to listen and process everything at the same time. I restarted twice just to make sure I had remembered correctly. A grade 8 girl with that much power? I've seen evidence of the powerful "Queen Bees" but not to this level (that I know about!). Racist and economically poor grade 7 boys with family issues, grief and abuse unfortunately are more predominant than we would like to admit. Sadly I've come across a few who I believe will turn into sociopaths one day....makes me wonder about the 2 boys next door!! The drawback for me by the end is there were no answers. Why did they do it really? I need some rationalization! They need consequences!! I know there is no happy ending but...Which moves on? I would give both to the correct HS student that is mature enough to handle the topics and not on the edge of anything emotional or psychological. But, would they understand either at a deeper level? Which would they choose as more enjoyable to read (even though enjoyment may not be the correct descriptive word). Which is better written? Which disturbed me less in the end? In the name of youth fiction...

Forgive Me Leonard Peacock. Final Answer.

Dia: No tie vote for me....but I'll throw in Children and the Wolves for a split 3 to 2 win for Forgive Me Leonard Peacock.

Not so fast, Verity!

When I was in the second grade, My Little Ponies and Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles were the height of popularity. My classmates spent their recesses either prancing about, or spinning invisible nunchucks. I, however, was involved in something much more sober and important. I was, after all, the head of the CIA club, which consisted of myself and my friend Clinton, the only other person weird  inventive enough in my class to “get it.” Equipped with scotch-tape laminated badges and secret codes, we lurked behind snowbanks, carefully observing the mundane activities of the assembled ponies and turtles, waiting for something big to break.

So obviously, Code Name Verity must be the easy winner, right? I mean, it has everything young me would have been looking for: tricksy lady-spies, intrigue, interrogations, top-secret midnight missions, and more! And yet… I found myself skimming whole sections where Maddie would yet again wax eloquent about aviation.

Maybe against another book this decision would be easier, but then Counting by Sevens came along and gave me all the feelings. I loved the protagonist and her unique way of seeing the world, and the way the assembled characters invent their own new kind of family and community. It was inspirational without being cheesy, showing readers how to overcome obstacles and strive to better oneself. I’ve had a couple of students give this one rave reviews already.

So what do you think, Shelley? Should we halfheartedly agree with the previous Smackers, who so presumptuously titled their post? ;) Or should we make this interesting and split the vote?

Sunday, January 26, 2014

More Than This vs 13 Hangman

Well, we never heard from Jyoti or Brad so Sandra and I are making the decision on this one.

Vanessa:  This one was actually pretty easy for me.  I read More Than This and although I spent the first part of the book thinking “wtf?”, I really liked how it played out.  It was a nice combination of weird and a little scary.  I’m still trying to figure out who (spolier alert) the helmet-head who kept hunting them was.  13 Hangman had a cover I had trouble getting past.  I am not a baseball fan so I had to force myself to pick it up.  In the end, I enjoyed it and there was a lot less baseball than promised on the cover....but I thought it was a little light.  The historical connections were interesting but never really dug deep enough to be interesting. And the story itself never once made me say “wtf” (which I enjoy in a book).  So...I vote for More Than This.  Convince me otherwise....

Sandy: I, too, vote for More Than This to move on to the next round. Even though I enjoyed 13 Hangman, I did not feel it had the same level of complexity or intrigue of More Than This. Patrick Ness is consistently so good!

Smack away friends...

Round 2: Aristotle and Dante vs. Boxers and Saints

Time for the man of Vimy to step up in this years Smackdown and let my deep, soothing, baritone be heard.

Our selections for round two of the Smackdown were Aristotle and Dante Discover the Universe and Boxers and Saints. Two very different books aimed at two very different audiences. But an interesting challenge between them.

As is tradition, I won't go much into the plots of the two novels, you can find those in the earlier posts about these two books. I'll just mention a few things that I liked or didn't, and then give my infallible opinion on which one should advance.

Aristotle and Dante:

  • The style reads like an artsy movie with soft lighting and a soundtrack of bands that you aren't cool enough to really know about, that doesn't focus much on plot, but that coming-of-age story that you can't help but like, and it has that actor that you may have seen before but aren't really sure who it is, but he'll probably end up in a superhero movie at some point, and you can be all pretentious and say that you liked him in his earlier, more honest work. If that movie were a book, this is it.
  • Found Ari to be a fairly annoying character. He is angry with life, I get it. Not everything has gone his way. Sometimes I just wanted to yell at him to suck it up and move on.
  • The dialogue isn't very natural, and this goes more towards the writing style than the story itself, but for me, it created a disconnect with the characters, as I found them to be less real. I even found another online reviewer that agrees with me on this one. If it is on the Internet, it must be true. 
  • Does Ari really discover who he is? Or is he told who he is by those around him? Not to spoil the plot, but I had to wonder if it can be considered a coming-of-age story, or journey of self-discovery if you don't really discover who you actually are told by someone else what you are. 
  • It is nice to see a story with gay characters where they aren't forced to suffer, or even die. I can't remember if it was Dia or Vanessa that spoke to this at a book club meeting (it was definitely someone far wiser than me), but so many gay characters in YA books seem to be doomed to a horrible fate. Nice to see that it is now okay to be a gay character in a YA novel and it doesn't mean that you are going to perish at the end. 
  • A strong point is the relationship the boys have with their parents. I found this to be far more complex and interesting than the relationship between Ari and Dante themselves. 
Boxers & Saints

  • I did some true power reading on this graphic novel, as the deadline approached far too quickly (as usual...maybe I need to organize my life better).
  • I liked the stories of two characters focused around one event, to offer different perspectives on something of major significance in the lives of so many.
  • I guess I learned something about Chinese history. Of which I knew very little prior. There was a Boxer Rebellion. So I know that now. 
  • Not sure where the hook is for kids. Sure, it is a graphic novel, but it is significant in size (500 pages or so), and I don't know that kids are lining up to learn more about turn-of-the-century China. Also, there is a definite religious tinge to both volumes, as differing religious views are a significant divide between the characters. I know that there is an audience for this, but I don't know that it is the average junior high school kid. 
  • Sometimes the books felt a little too religious for me. Not my thing. 
  • Due to the pace at which I devoured these books, I am certain to have missed some of the subtlety of the characters and their morality. It was there, I realize, but I don't know how taken in by it I was. 
So overall, two pretty decent reads. Nothing spectacular. Reading back over the Smackdown blogs, it seems that the first rounders to move Boxers & Saints along weren't married to it either. Same goes for Aristotle and Dante. So we at Vimy will move along Aristotle and Dante Discover the Universe, in hopes that there is someone along the way that truly falls in love with the book. There is potential for that with it, which is a strong point of the book. I liked it, but didn't love it. But for me, it beats out some historical fiction that never truly grasped my like it could have. 

Friday, January 24, 2014

1,2,3,4,5,6,'re out. Verity wins!

In Counting by 7s, the main character, Willow Chance, is a twelve year old genius with social issues similar to television’s Sheldon Cooper; the simplest of those is an obsession with the number 7. Being adopted and different, her world is stabilized because of her supportive parents, but when a tragic accident occurs, she must reach out beyond her comfort bubble to find a new network of family.  It’s a sweet story, often predictable, but the character of Willow is so likeable that it’s easy to overlook plot simplicities. It seems like an excellent read for Gr.6 or 7, but older readers who enjoy historical fiction will prefer Code Name: Verity.

This book, specifically the two female protagonists, continued to roam through our minds for weeks after putting the novel aside.  It’s actually difficult to give an appropriate summary without giving away the plot twists. Ultimately, it’s a gorgeously written story of two teen girls during WWII, one from working class folk and the other aristocracy, who together become active in the war effort, one as a pilot and the other a wireless operator. 

The author writes effortlessly about friendship, deception, and incredibly feats of heroism.  It’s beautifully researched even if we weren’t terribly interested in the history of specific airplanes (and perhaps skimmed through those sections), and this well-written world and characters are so riveting that we picked up the companion book, Rose Under Fire.

Having just finished teaching The Book Thief, Code Name: Verity has been the go-to book for our strong readers, male and female, so in our minds, it easily wins this battle.


Thursday, January 23, 2014

When going to battle, it is best to arrive late. - ERs Tzu

Total disclosure: it was plain that my last posting had all the nuance of a flying mallet (hmm, do I have a latent tendency toward violence?), so "as brevity is the soul of wit..." (my tendency toward irony, obvious.)

While I am rarely accused of being perceptive, indictments for my total lack of understanding when it comes to women are many, and it is with this caveat that I approach The Thing About Luck, by Cynthia Kadohata.  I can accept that the period of early adolescence must be a tumultuous one for young women, as evidenced in the hoards of novels I read on the subject, of which The Thing About Luck is one.  It would stand to reason then, that successful authors the likes of Sarah Dressen and Betty Smith would be well received by their audiences -- even at a prematurely-decrepit 36, I can find merit in their work.  But let's be frank (forgive the pun), Kadohata's latest may have received a National Book Award, it's no tree in Brooklyn.  My cohort agreed that, aside from the protagonist's strangely comical preoccupation with mosquitoes, most of this material was old hat.

Bomb, by Steve Sheinkin, on the other hand, was a revelation.  As one who does not often 'go-in' for non-fiction, I found Sheinkin's account of the desperation and subterfuge that underpinned the race for the ultimate weapon riveting.  I would imagine that it might be difficult to craft an account of the advancements of quantum physics, pre-Cold War politics and military strategy in a way that is accessible to teens -- I remember struggling through a biography of Oppenheimer when I was in junior high -- but, I genuinely appreciated the tone taken throughout, as it wasn't the least bit condescending.  My comrades and I (bad pun) often found ourselves reveling in the fantastic odds against which the Allies fought, and frequently shared our favourable impressions of the book with others; a testament to it's ascendancy.

Notwithstanding the fact that these were wildly disparate books, and would naturally appeal to different subsets of our clientele, we unanimously agreed that Bomb was, by far, the more compelling read, and thus deserving of a place in the next round of the Smackdown.

Readers of the Illustrious DDM

Tuesday, January 7, 2014

          Aristotle and Dante Discover the Universe

Opening Salvo

I am feeling somewhat smug as I initiate the conversation for our little group, seeing as how we were so behind on things in round one.  And knowing how things go at the end of a semester, I better appreciate the feeling now before I am emailing Dia and Arlene at 9:00 the night the final postings are due!

Two thumbs up to Aristotle and Dante.  Was it the best book I have read?  Nope.  But it provided a few hours of gentle escape from the rigours of endless shovelling over the holidays.  What you have here is a coming of age love story for our heroes, Aristotle and Dante.  At 15, while Dante is starting to have a pretty good handle on his sexual identity, Aristotle is unable to understand that the feelings he has for his friend go beyond being just "good friends".   Add to that his anger toward his parents for refusing to speak about a brother who is in jail, coping with grief when a beloved aunt dies, and desperately wanting the attention and approval of a remote dad, I felt a great sympathy for this young man. This really is Ari's journey to discover who he is, and what he believes in.

I think young readers will enjoy this novel; the themes of identity, family relationships, sexuality, friendship lend themselves well to the 13-18 age group. 

I will weigh back in again after reading book two.  Until then, I turn things over to the rest of my group!