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

Thursday, April 17, 2014

It’s The Final Smackdown..doodle-loo-doo…doodle-loo-doo-doo...(bad 80s reference…)

Well, this is a first.  First one to post.  Odd. 

So here’s my thinking:  Bomb is a no-go for me (and, sidebar, I was really kind of shocked that More Than This didn’t move on from the last round—I’m not sure it would have out-zombied my Zombie Pick though).  Dia just said it best in the blog post immediately below:  Bomb is just fine, but Trinity was better:  more involving, more clever, more affecting.  Bomb, while hardly a bomb (and let that be the last of the terrible word play involving the title of the book this year), fell to earth with a thud (OK—that is the last one) at times.  It lacked the explosive (alright—now I’m serious) affect of a Trinity, which I think more students would want to read.  Bomb?  Pretty good, but no Smackdown winner.

Now, I really enjoyed the other two, and I think I would put them in the hands of all sorts of students.  But if it came down to which of the two I would rather teach, which of the two has more going on in terms of structure and voice and figurative language, all those things we teach in order for our students to become active, reflective, lifelong readers, I would have to go with Ivan.  That’s right--the book ostensibly for much younger readers than our usual YA consideration.  I urge anyone who is going to re-read it for this final round to read it with an eye for teaching:  themes that would catalyze classroom conversation; sentences that are so well considered that they make my arm hairs stand up; characters that all of our students would invest in whole-heartedly.  Read it with a pencil in hand.  I really do see it as a book that can be read and loved by Division II students, but appreciated and loved by Div. III and IV students.

But what do I know?  I still teach Charlotte’s Web to IB classes.

The One and Only Ivan.  My choice of the three.

Wednesday, April 16, 2014

You Know What I Like - Disappointment...

Sounds bizarre, I know,but what Arlene and I have noticed in this last round is people are mad at each other. How could you pick Counting by 7s? How could Bomb go on? How can you not see the ending of More Than This is stupid? Or profound? How can you dump Wonder? How can you later champion another chance for it? How can you change your mind? The answer, dear readers, to all these questions is at the essence of Smackdown...reading is deeply personal and you have to do it to get your students to do it. When you are passionate about what moves on, what doesn't and what didn't really move you you are proving you have a reading life - and you have a shot at getting your students to build their own.

As always, I encourage the Booktator in all of you - fight with your words for what you loved or hated - go ahead comment. What I would say? I'm glad Counting by 7s is in the final it moved me and I encourage all of you to read Brent's comments because he is able to articulate my thoughts far beyond: book good. I did like Leonard Peacock - don't hate the angst just because so many of us work waist deep in it. I loved Bomb so I'm not sorry it's there but I do hear Trinity, a graphic novel, by Jonathan Fetter-Vorm may be the book many of you wanted Bomb to be. Try it let me know. I haven't read More Than This but it seems like Ness always incites a debate over beauty vs. accessibility and that's not a bad way to spend some time.

Where does this leave us? Counting by 7s vs Bomb vs our zombie pick: let me stop you here.  Remember that certain social teacher who always told you how important your vote was? This is never more true than for this vote...I had three people who didn't vote and a time line that stretched and stretched. Here's what I was left with:

More Than This: 4 votes. Wonder: 6 votes. Eleanor and Park: 6 votes. One and Only Ivan: 7 votes. Aristotle and Dante: 5 votes. My vote hanging out goes to...One and Only Ivan because I just can't face one more tie vote.

Counting By Sevens vs. Leonard Peacock

Yet again, we at Vimy struggled to post in a timely fashion.  Sigh.  I think it was the rejection of Leonard Peacock for Counting by Sevens that threw us into great moroseness.  It's difficult to recover from news like that.

Therefore we can only offer up our humble Zombie pick:  Patrick Ness' More Than This. It's well written, skillfully developed, and Amanda is still gob-smacked by the ending.  If a book does that for a reader, it's a keeper.  I don't remember many of the books we read this year - they had a sameness to them.  More Than This was distinct and deserves another pass around the book table.

Andrew, Amanda and Tracy

BOMB vs More Than This - Better Late Than Never

After a number of attempts to figure out how to get Sandy set up, we just gave up! (Plus who schedules a Smackdown deadline the same week as passport are due!?!)  As we agreed with other who read BOMB and More Than This, this post is support for the overall decision:

Enjoyed “More Than This” and had even moved it along earlier in Smackdown; however, after reading “Bomb” that is my choice to move to the next round. "Harry Gold was right: This is a big story." Based on true events, Sheinkin has written a story of discovery, espionage, and revolutionary changes in both physics and the modern world. He skillfully combines accessible, informative snapshots of the science behind the atomic bomb with a fast-paced narrative of the people who made it possible and attempted to steal it. The book is filled with archival photos and primary-source documents and makes accessible how the bomb was envisioned and brought to fruition. While the historical information and hard facts presented here will likely be new to the intended audience, they in no way overwhelm readers or detract from the thoroughly researched, well-documented account. It reads like a thriller and that's part of its appeal.

Zombie Pick Sandra: Eleanor and Park 
Zombie Pick Vanessa: Eleanor and Park (Vanessa didn't love it like so many others but she does think it deserves another chance)

Tuesday, April 15, 2014

More than This vs. Bomb

Wait, what!? It's Tuesday? Where has the time gone. Team Spruce Avenue has decided by a 2-1 vote that Bomb will advance to the finals. Ultimately our decision is more about disliking More than This than it was about loving Bomb. 

I thought this decision would easily go to More than This (I also thought this about Leonard Peacock) but Ness' novel failed to live up to the hype. While the novel is very well written, in the end, our group really disliked the ending. It felt a little like Ness couldn't find a way to wrap up the narrative, despite attempting several time in the final one hundred pages to do so, so he tells the reader how to do so. More than This does many things very well: It's suspenseful, dramatic, and creates great visuals for the reader but in the end there are too many elements that are unnecessary or that we did not care for: the sci-fi Matrix angle, the Driver being so ruthless but deciding not to capture all three when given the opportunity, killing and then mysteriously saving Seth, the whole premise that the world Seth lives in may or may not be real. I constantly thought that there was going to be some big plot twist, I actually hoped for aliens at one point, but the novel failed to deliver. In the end, I don't know what I'd do with More than This and I believed it had one too many warts.

We, like many other people, enjoyed Bomb. We liked the non-fiction telling of an event that we knew little about. Having a stronger connection to the social curriculum, we knew we could use the novel as a complimentary text.

Both Bomb and More than This we felt had a limited audience and purpose but in the end we chose Bomb to move forward.

Team Spruce Avenue, having never read Wonder, are nominating The One and Only Ivan as the Zombie pick. I still feel very strongly for the novel and its ability to be taught at many different levels and with varying degrees of difficulty. I think that it could actually still take this thing. 

Bring Back Something Good!

I agree with everything Laura posted earlier. Wonder is cute. It's heartwarming. Kids like it. I like it. I didn't want to toss it aside and never pick it up again because it was so boring (Like School of Good and Evil). It deserves to be read by more people.

BUT... Forgive Me, Leonard Peacock completely captured me. I had to keep reading. I talked about it to a lot of people. It was different and interesting and exciting. I don't know if I'm ready to see it leave the competition yet. Of course, I'm not sure that it will be able to best Counting by 7s which I suspect will make it to the finals.

Either way - I recommend that people read these books.

Well, even though Counting by 7s is already a clear winner in this bracket, Shelley and I would like to add our votes to its praise and progress! Leonard Peacock was a compelling story, and I personally liked the inclusion of the footnotes, but 7s was still the better read.  I mean, I feel for Leonard, but I think we've seen plenty of characters like him before. (I'm thinking Rotters from last year's Smackdown, Twisted by Laurie Halse Anderson, among others.) These are characters that the reader knows are brilliant, capable, empathetic individuals, but somehow or other, almost no one in their own lives understands this. Certainly, angsty, misunderstood teens have their place in the YA canon, but there is also a need for examples of other ways to deal with the hurdles life throws us.

Counting by 7s provides a welcome counterpoint to all that angst. We agreed that the optimism and resilience that Willow exhibits is refreshing and even necessary in YA lit. There have been comments that it might not be as suitable for older readers, but has anyone tested this hypothesis yet? Willow might be young, but older readers might have a lot to connect with in Mai and Quang-ha? I dunno, I'm a "grown-up" and I loved it!

Shelly and I both vote for Eleanor and Park to rise again as the zombie pick... But having read Laura's impassioned entreaty, if there's some sort of tie situation, I'm willing to defect to Wonder.
Posted on behalf of Barb Fouts-Melnychuk

Dr. Donald Massey was at a standstill with our votes between Forgive Me, Leonard Peacock by Matthew Quick and Counting by Two’s by Holly Goldberg. Luckily I had read Forgive Me, Leonard Peacock so long ago that I had to pick it up and peruse the pages again.  It hit me like a tidal wave as I remembered that Forgive Me, Leonard Peacock disturbed and angried me.  As soon as the main characters states he wants to do “something that matters” my Spidey senses went haywire. The voice in the novel is so real that I wanted to smack Leonard upside the head while hugging him at the same time and telling him just to breathe while he sobbed.  Counting by Two’s on the other hand took me a while to warm up to. Once I was hooked I delighted in this novel and cheered for the protagonist as she weaves her way through life. Her struggles were rifled with injustice, despair and yet hope found a way to shine through.  My heart ached for both characters but the deciding factor is the ending to Forgive Me, Leonard Peacock.  I actually threw the book down and then picked it up to reread the final moments. I kept insisting this can’t be it, but it was. The novels actually seemed written for different ages, Quick’s was so raw that I am unsure how some younger junior high students would handle the content, while Goldberg is something our teens could read and relate to easier. Dr. Donald Massey will leave this round with 2 votes for Forgive Me, Leonard Peacock and 2 votes for Counting by Two’s.

Monday, April 14, 2014

7's vs Leonard

These two books were my favorite of all the novels this year.  Whichever one doesn't make it, is my Zombie pick. 

7's was a lovely story with rich dynamic characters that are both realistic and relatable.  No one in this novel is glorified, and yet everyone comes out looking good in the end.  These characters are quirky and flawed, but they are also resilient and resourceful.  It is easy to find yourself genuinely wanting each of the characters to be successful.  I think this novel will have wide audience appeal.  If you were an orphan or a 'foster' kid, if you were from an immigrant family, or an inter-racial family, if you are gifted or feel a bit 'odd', this novel is for you. 

Forgive Me, on the hand is a gritty, angry view of the world and every day events.  The feelings expressed by the narrator are raw and yet perceptive in many instances.  The author, Mathew Quick, is successful in capturing teenage angst and putting it smack in the middle of a contemporary issue. However, while I felt that 7's would have a wide audience, Forgive Me would not appeal to as many readers.  The topic is a tough one for a lot of people, and the footnotes would confuse many readers and turn off many others.  Also, the shift to and from the future may be difficult for at-risk readers who likely would be the kind most attracted to the topic. 

Therefore, my vote goes to Counting by 7's. 

Counting By Sevens vs. Forgive Me. Leonard Peacock

As I read through the opening chapters of Counting By Sevens, I began to assume that I would soon hit a moment where the quirkiness factor of Willow would move from mildly interesting to mildly annoying, thus starting a downward spiral that would lead me to lay some smack on a book that many kids would really like. To my surprise, that didn’t happen. That’s not to say I loved this book, which I didn’t, but there was something about it that kept me going and I’ve been struggling these past few days to articulate what it is. Here’s what I’ve come up with: if I just told you the plot of the book, it wouldn’t be hard to picture some of the emotional range of the text. If I further told you that we spend much of the book looking through Willow’s eyes you might go ahead and buy that extra box of Kleenex, but the power of this book doesn’t come from its ability to hit emotional chords, though it does do that. While we do get a roving third person narrative that allows us to access the rest of the cast of characters, it is through Willow’s generally affectless voice that we experience much of the book. What I wasn’t prepared for was how powerfully the author wields this narrative technique. While Willow is unfailingly (and often hilariously) honest with us, there are clearly gaps in her perceptions of the world around her. These gaps allow us to enter into the narrative in a unique way: I never truly felt I was experiencing what Willow was experiencing, but I felt like I was trying to fill in some of those gaps for her and thus was more fully engaged with the narrative than I had anticipated. I’ll be curious to see if that sentence actually makes sense to the rest of you who have read the book, because ultimately, it is my primary rationale for why I’m going with Counting By Sevens over Forgive Me, Leonard Peacock. I know I was a little rough on old Leonard earlier in the smackdown, but I don’t think it is a bad book. I stand by my earlier contention that it is a little too heavy-handed at times and tends to paint with broad strokes where a little nuance is required. Counting By Sevens is not immune to this tendency either, but on balance, I think the narrative is asking more of us as readers and there are some underlying themes about the profoundly human struggle of connecting with others that I think could be appreciated by readers of varying ages.

Zombie Pick: Well, if Bomb scatters little bits of More Than This around the Smackdown yard (as appears to be a strong possibility at this late writing) my vote would go to More Than This which I thought offered more than (get it?) all the other books. If it gets through, though, then I’ll vote to bring back an early casualty: Code Name Verity. I think it deserved a better – or at least more drawn out – fate.

More Than a Bomb?

On behalf of Team Suburbs (that would be Jyoti and I), we both agree that Patrick Ness’ More Than This should move ahead over Bomb.  Bomb is certainly enjoyable, and more than a bit of a surprise:  a non-fiction YA book that reads like fiction:  Noweigian saboteurs, dastardly Soviet spies, scientists working through the night…great stuff, and, at times, wildly engrossing.  And at other times…not so much.  Sometimes the juxtaposing threadlines were whip smart, catalyzing the same sort of excitement that the last minute of a great episodic television show inspires, to have an immediate payoff by flipping the page.  But then, other times, we felt that the intent was there in the intricate structure of the threadlines, but there was no payoff.  Ultimately inconsistent, and more than a bit plodding, eventually.   But we both learned a lot, and when Bomb is good, it is very, very good.

We wrote about More Than This earlier in the Smackdown—we both stand by our convictions.  And both agree that some of the situations and imagery has stuck with us.  So, as far as we are concerned, Mr. Ness makes it to the Finals for the second year in a row!

Speaking of “sticking with you.”  Zombie Pick.  Well, we certainly discussed  (and not just for a moment, but a good, long while) resurrecting The Children and the Wolves.  Unsettling.  Terrifying.  And, pound for pound, the best written book of the Smackdown this year.  And there is some weird, perhaps masochistic, streak in both of us that wants others to read it so they, too, can experience the horrors (but also the sublime pleasures of reading something this good) of this slender novel.  But…this isn’t a book for our students.

So…in a complete 180, we both agreed that our Zombie Pick is…The One and Only Ivan.  It sort of got the rap of being perhaps too juvenile for YA readers, but both Jyoti and agree that it is so well-written, and so clever, and so affecting that we would teach it in High School.  No joke.  In an IB class.  It is a real treat to read something ostensibly for younger students that, upon closer scrutiny, reveals a real craft:  masterful characterization, syntactical prowess, and deceptively simplistic (but actually ridiculously clever) structure and form.  Also, a bit of a masterclass in voice.  Everyone should read it.  And we defy you not to have at least one heaving sob while doing so.

Counting by 7s vs. Leonard Peacock


As the chosen blogger for ABM this time around (more like the voluntold!), I'm reporting that we almost came to a consensus with the exception of...surprisingly not Andrew...HOLLY!! She was the lone stray vote for Leonard Peacock. Although she loved Counting by 7's she wanted to vote for the edgier read and display her support for the love of the teacher. Still, she has been outvoted! Andrew's exact words - "I HATED Leonard Peacock!" 

As Travis mentioned in his previous post, I too was worried about Willow and her school endeavors...I didn't see it going well for her at all! I have seen a few of these students in my career and always hope those around will be kind and accepting. Thankfully, unlike many others in similar situations, Willow found her group and I as a reader would have taken her home if I could. I loved her thoughts and 'matter of fact' statements that so many of us think but she was able to just say (Ok sometimes I say them but really shouldn't!) It did make me laugh out loud even though part of the initial story was tragic. Not the typical tragedy story, but more a story of how tragedy leads to an outsider being forced to find a place, resulting in the overall kindness and caring of strangers...One of my favorite books of this year's Smackdown! 

On a side note - I still can't believe Bomb has moved on!!
DO for ABM

Not With a Bang But a Whimper

I have been procrastinating on this post as the two books are good, but neither are amazing.  While I wanted to love Patrick Ness's More Than This based on his previous work, the book just did not have what it takes to keep me engrossed.  It was okay.  I was honestly surprised to see it make it this far.  I knew going in that Bomb must have something magical to keep it moving forward, and it did have some glimmers of greatness.  Again,  not a book that I MUST recommend to my students the day after finishing it, which is the benchmark I use for books-that-must-be-read.  It was certainly interesting, and while Sheinkin's narrative style and my ignorance on the topic kept the plot going, I still finished this book thinking, "Wow.  We live in a crazy world.  Now what can I read that does not involve the splitting of uranium atoms?"

I guess that's why I reluctantly vote for Bomb to move forward.  It is the better of two slightly-more-than-lukewarm choices.  And while my zombie pick might be wasted as this book was eliminated early and very few others probably read it, I would love to see Eleanor & Park resurrected.  It deserves a second chance.

Sunday, April 13, 2014

Bomb vs. More Than This

On behalf of Wendy, Kevin, Laura, and myself, we unanimously vote through Bomb to the final round without any debate. We all agreed that Bomb would be a great choice for students who prefer reading non-fiction, as it was accessible, fun to read, and made history interesting.

We found More Than This to be a little too far out there and at times repetitive and overly long. After 500 pages of Seth trying to figure out what the heck was going on, having the book end without ever finding out if he made it back to his old (or real?...) life was disappointing. It would have been nice to see some more resolution for the various issues he struggled with throughout the story. I don't see many junior high students sticking with this book until the end, but perhaps it would fare better with an older audience.

Also, is it just me, or have there been a lot of books this round where the parents in the story are either absent (mentally or physically), too heavily medicated/high to know what's going on, or too absorbed in their own careers/problems/appearances to properly look after their children? I don't know about the other books, but this has been the case so far in More Than This, Leonard Peacock, Ask the Passengers, and The Book of Blood and Shadow. I don't know what to make of it or if it even matters, but I just thought I'd mention it!

Will Bomb explode More Than This out of this competition or will the writing prowess of Patrick Ness smother the interesting historical book by Steve Sheinkin?  I am struggling to choose a winner myself and was not organized enough to talk to other members of the group to get their opinion before writing this blog.

There is no doubt that Patrick Ness has an amazing command of written language and readers are kept off-balance throughout this story but not so off-balance that the momentum of the book is lost.  However, in the end, I was not completely satisfied and if you asked me why I am not sure I could put it into words.  Perhaps ambiguity is what Ness was hoping for and if that was the case then he was very successful.

I was fully prepared to not like Bomb.  I generally do not love this style of book but I was pleasantly surprised.  I found the research insightful and the story moved quickly - no ambiguity in the story line but still a sense of suspense and curiosity.  I can envision this being used in a classroom but will students pick it up as an enjoyment read?  With this question in mind, I have reached my decision and cast my vote for More Than This.  

My Zombie pick is Wonder.

Friday, April 11, 2014

Picking your Zombie

I have some guilt leftover from round one of this year's Smackdown.  Kevin and I read More Than This and Wonder.  After our conversations, we felt compelled to move on More Than This to hear other people's opinions about the book.  Turns out, most of you have liked it and it has moved all the way at least to this second-last round.  (We'll see what happens now).  However, Wonder is a really good read.  It's a sweet book.  Fun characters.  Kids like it.  In fact, I have a few girls who have read both Counting By 7's (also a current choice) and Wonder.  They really liked both.  Under immense pressure from me to make a choice, they finally said they liked Wonder a bit more.  But so few of you got to read it because we cut it so early.

My plea is this:  if you don't have a strong feeling about another pick for your zombie choice, consider picking Wonder so you will have an excuse to read it, too.  Dia, it's my pick.

Unless something happens and Leoanard Peacock doesn't make it into the finals.  In that case, ignore everything I just said and make that my zombie, Dia!