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 17, 2014

In my years of taking part in The Mighty Smackdown, I think I’ve typically found the first round the most daunting. Perhaps it’s the sheer mathematics of it all, but the odds of getting a very eclectic pairing seems high, and this can make it difficult to find that elusive basis for comparison. I’ve had occasion where I’ve read books that were both excellent in their own unique ways and have found myself cringing away from the burden of eliminating a worthy contender at this early stage of the game. (Fortunately, our crafty puppeteers, Arlene and Dia, have devised an answer to that with the always popular zombie picks later in the Smackdown). This is a burden, however, that didn't weigh too heavily on me this time through: I’m not too sad to be casting Charm and Strange to the scrap heap.  That’s not to say that there wasn’t any discussion or debate. Two of our Callingwood/Hillcrest contingent found it a not terribly compelling read, while another consumed it in virtually one sitting and while I’m firmly in the former camp, I do think this is a book that was not without its strange charms. (I’m sorry; I couldn't stop myself)

One of the things that we discussed is how the cover – with its Rivers Edge vibe (Turns to nod at Brad Smilanich for acknowledgment of well executed 80s film reference) and somewhat hyperbolic sound bites – maybe does a disservice to the novel itself. The novel I read was not necessarily what I was expecting, and while that can be a delight in other circumstances, in this case I think its testament to a novel that wasn’t too sure what it wanted to grow up to be. Win, our tormented protagonist, is definitely channeling his inner Edward Cullen, which some young readers may appreciate, but while the author works hard to build the intrigue as we delve deeper into Win’s past, I’m not sure that I ever cared as much as I should about Win. This could be just my cold, cold heart, but I don’t really think so. (My heart is actually warm like the inside of a poptart) While I could appreciate, intellectually, Win’s turmoil, I felt an emotional dissonance that I’m going to chalk up to some clunky writing. This is a novel that I wouldn’t hesitate to call ambitious, but the author’s technical prowess isn’t a match for a fairly complex concept. There are gaps in the narrative structure and, most tellingly for me, the tone that effectively pulled me out of the story when I should have been eagerly sinking deeper into it. That being said, I’d rather see a writer try to do something great and not quite pull it off than write a neat, tidy little novel and I think we all felt that this was a book written by someone who has not only an understanding of, but also a profound empathy for, young people who have suffered trauma. We could see this book offering something of substance to a young person who had both the reading chops to read beyond the surface level and, perhaps most importantly, an equally thoughtful adult with whom to discuss such weighty matters.

If that disconnect between the cover and what was inside worked against Charm and Strange, there seemed to be the reverse flow happening with Midwinterblood. I mean who puts this on the cover of a book? “What would you sacrifice for someone you’ve loved forever?” (I think I felt Nicholas Sparks rolling his eyes, while he counts his money on a beach somewhere) And what’s with the creepy rabbits and the mardi gras ornament borders? Awful cover. Really cool book. It took me weeks to even open this book and then when I did, what do I see on the opening page? June, 2073. Oh no. Does another trip to disaffected teen dystopia await? Uhm, actually no. You see all this judging books by covers stuff is just not working out at all. So, what can I tell you about Midwinterblood without spoiling anything? Well, it is built around seven discrete but connected stories that transport us through time, while leaving us fairly firmly rooted in place. Not compelling enough? How about this? I would bet you my first born son that any teen you gave this to will find at least one of these stories very interesting and when they realize that they are all connected, they will find increasing nuance and depth in all of the others. It is a book that, in many ways, speaks to why we read in the first place. Just the other day, I sat in a room with 150 elementary kids listening to a librarian go on about the latest batch of YRCA books. They were literally cheering and some were shaking with excitement and I think this book is very much the kind of book that would kindle or rekindle that excitement in some of our junior high and high school readers. Is it a perfect book? No. And in fact, one of the things we discussed is that we actually wished this book was longer – you can’t build Game of Thrones in 250 pages –for those with adultish attention spans, but it probably is a very near perfect length for our younger charges who still crave a more ambitious read. And, if I still haven’t convinced you here’s the ultimate English teacher trump card: while we were discussing the book, we came up with a cool lesson idea. It’s really a book that would engage readers in and out of the classroom and we are glad to see it moving on into the next round. And its journey begins. (That will make sense when you read it)

Ketchup Clouds vs. Yaqui Delgado Wants to Kick Your Ass

Ketchup Clouds is written in a series of letters that British schoolgirl Zoe Collins (a pseudonym of her own creation) sends to Stuart, an American convict on death row for the murder of his wife and neighbor. Why? Because she wants to confess her “dark and terrible secret” to someone.  Who better than an anonymous man an ocean away who understands the guilt, remorse, and need for redemption that she does?

We won’t give away what that dark and terrible secret is, but it involves a love triangle, because of course it does, it’s YA fiction. There are other dark secrets in Zoe’s family that also kept things interesting.  We sometimes felt frustrated with Zoe and some of the stupid choices she makes, which isn’t a knock against the book. How many of us can’t relate to the trajectory life can take us on after a few bad decisions, after all?

Yaqui Delgado Wants to Kick Your Ass is told by Piedad (Piddy) Sanchez, a capable high school student and the daughter of a Cuban-American single mother.  In an attempt to make a better home for the two of them, Piddy’s mother moves them to a new building, which means a new school for Piddy. Shortly after arriving, a girl she doesn’t even know runs up to her in the hall with the news that someone named Yaqui Delgado does indeed, as the title so clearly indicates, want to kick Piddy’s ass.  It seems Piddy’s crime is possessing curves that have drawn the attention of some of the boys, including Yaqui’s boyfriend.

It seems that tales of bullying are popular in this year’s Smackdown, and this is a story about bullying… But it’s a lot more complex than that simple label.  Piddy is objectified and labelled because of her body, and “slut-shamed” on social media in a way that is far too reminiscent of  what is sometimes seen in the headlines.  There’s a telling parallel drawn between Piddy’s victimization at school and the domestic abuse suffered by a tenant in her old building. Yaqui Delagado, awful as she is, isn’t demonized; instead, we get a glimpse as to what might contribute to a victim becoming a victimizer. And, when the “right” thing is done and the proper authorities involved, the answers and solutions given are neither as sufficient nor effective as they should be in a just world.

In the midst of the trauma, though, there’s also joy and strength, particularly seen in Piddy’s friendship with aunt-figure Lila, and within their community. It was not surprising to read that the author, Meg Medina, based this book around some of her own high school experiences. Yaqui Delgado Wants to Kick Your Ass has an authenticity that helped us to connect to and empathize with Piddy in a way that we didn’t with Zoe in Ketchup Clouds.

Side note - If not Yaqui Delgado Wants to Kick Your Ass in particular, a book like this should be required reading for every teacher.  Yes, it can get frustrating when students don’t show up, do their homework, or hang on our every lectured word. Even if we know they’re have issues at home or with peers, it’s so much simpler to write off their truancy and lack of engagement as laziness or lack of effort. This book (or another like it) might give us a glimpse of what it might actually feel like for one of those students, and help us see the fear and the pain and the loneliness that are often at the root of “bad” behaviour.

Long story short, Yaqui Delgado Wants to Kick Your Ass kicks ass, and wins this round!

-Chandra & Shelley

Aviary Wonders vs. Falling into Place

Democracy is overrated. Don't get me wrong, there are some strong points about the democratic system, but when the results from a one person one vote system are not right, the entire system needs an overhaul.
Take for instance the decision between Aviary Wonders and Falling into Place.  The choice to move Aviary Wonders was not the correct choice.  I do understand the irony in voting into extinction a book that is based on the premise that we need to look after our environment or else birds will become something that we have to order from a catalog. I will also concede that Aviary Wonders is a smart and beautiful book. My issue lies in the fact that I think that readers won't get it.  Unless the book is carefully read from cover to cover and time is invested onto thinking about the issues, I fear that this book will be a 10 minutes flip through and toss aside. (unless you are a science teacher and examining adaption of a species).

Falling into Place is a much more accessible book for the young adult audience. They are used to this story as they have read it before in other novels, creating a sense of familiarity.  Now to be fair, I would say that this story has been told better in other novels and that Falling into Place could use a good editor to firm up the story.  That said, I believe that this is the better book for young adult reader - stress on the adult part as there is teenage pregnancy, drug and alcohol abuse and teen suicide.

Living in a democratic civilization as we do, I will abide by the decision of my reading groups and let Aviary Wonders fly up to round two.
Well, I went with Glory O'Brien's History of the Future by A.S. King.  Annabel is right to say that it was edgy and thoughtful.  I have to say, although I know many would stake me for this, I have never been fond of A.S. King.  Maybe I'm not intellectual enough to understand the metaphors or allusions?  (Don't answer that)  But Everyone Sees the Ants...too weird/smart for me.  Glory, well it had just enough weird in it for me.  It's not as if I absolutely loved the book though.  Neither had me on the edge of my couch.  
Brown Girl Dreaming just didn't get into enough detail for me.  It was beautifully written, don’t get me wrong, but I couldn't connect to the characters.  In my opinion, when a novel is written in poetic format the beauty of the word choice is something to admire, but the development of the character seems choppy.  In this case, I felt like there was a barrier between Jacqueline and me.  Not because I can’t connect with her upbringing, but because there wasn't that detail I needed to attach myself to her as a character.   

Whereas in Glory, I found myself sticky noting several pages for their profound statements about life.  “Free yourself.  Have the courage”.  “Are you tortured too?  Are you?”  I especially loved, “We form.  We shine.  We burn.  Kapow”.  These constant statements or questions about life kept me intrigued throughout.  But it’s not as if this book didn't make me want to chuck it across the room either.  The part about what she sees in the future is absolute lunacy to me.  In a country where people will not give up their right to arm themselves, I find it highly unlikely that women would just sit back and allow all of their rights to be taken from them. ..just saying.  In the end, it came down to who I connected more with, as it always does, and the answer to that, ironically, was Glory O’Brien.  I wonder what that says about me…(that was rhetorical)

Tristin Pawluk

Round 1 Will & Whit OR Sister Mine

While we wouldn't recommend either novel to a young reader, Sister Mine is the one we have chosen to move forward.  It is the better written novel and could have an appeal to a mature reader.  

Sister Mine
A fantastic journey through an imaginative world created by Hopkinson in this strange and cautionary novel.
Have you ever woken up from a dream and thought that it would make a great book if only you'd written everything down the minute you awoke? The plot emerges in twists and turns with no limitations and crosses boundaries that at times made me want to stop reading but remains absolutely mystifying in the realm at which Hopkinson develops Makeda and Abby's story. An interesting read but if you're looking for a story with a tidy ending that answers all of your questions, you'll be sadly disappointed.
About half way through the novel, I desperately wanted to stop reading as the novel describes an incestuous relationship between the sisters themselves and an ongoing booty call with their uncles. This immediately made me want to put the book down as it was more descriptive than required and dealt with the taboo subject much too non-nonchalantly. Upon reading other reviews of the book, I really must quote Ginny from the following review

...a number of folks seem weirded out by the casual treatment of incest in the story, but for my money it makes perfect sense in a story about gods. In many many mythological traditions, gods don't have any taboo agaisnt incest at all and have rather libertine attitudes toward sex generally, which is accurately depicted here. And if you think this feature is particular to African mythological traditions, take a look at the Greeks some time.

Overall, it's a quick and easy read. The main characters are likable but simple and perhaps a tad immature for their age; perhaps without a motherly figure to guide them and a demigod for a father, whose 'mojo' is lost, their behaviors are better understood. They have a lovable and familiar sibling rivalry going on throughout the novel that brings their struggles to life in dealing with not only a sibling but one you were attached to at birth.
Their relationships with other characters are puzzling but again likable and it is neat to learn about the characterizations of the demigods referenced in the plot.
Although a somewhat slow read to begin with, the novel was exciting with a few twists but somewhat predictable.
Not one I'd recommend to students but worth the read!

Will & Whit
I often find graphic novels hard to read as I am a big fan of creating my own movie and not relying on the authors rendition of characters and setting. The protagonist is likable but underdeveloped. her struggles are understandable but not fully developed. Overall there seemed to be too much going on within the plot and subplot but very little room for development.
The author is an artist first and the graphics are lovely, especially the use of shadow to illustrated the protagonists fears. Yet with a focus on illustrations, the plot suffers.
Not a novel I will refer to students or anyone else for that matter!

Krystal & Shelley
Reviewed by Dianne Tebby and Deborah Pennyfeather

Rump - The True Story of Rumplestiltskin 
by Liesl Shurtliff

Rump did not pass in our opinion because it took too many side trips and left us yawning on the roadside.  It was a great concept telling the story from the 'other' point of view just as Jon Scieszka did with 'The True Story of the 3 Little Pigs' as told by the wolf but it dragged and dragged until three quarters of the way through.  In our opinion the family history of Rump's mom did very little to move the story forward.

by David Carroll
"Ultra" was a fairly quick read.  The book is fairly realistic as how a race is run and could appeal to the runners and track folks but could equally apply to kids dealing with relationships, especially loss. One wonders where his dad is in all this until about halfway through.  Then you start putting the clues together.  The big crisis at the end of the race does what it is supposed to and clues the reader and the main character in to what needs to be accepted. The figurative language used was very good especially for the middle school level where students are experimenting more with this element in their writing. "He folded the nanaimo bar into his mouth." This is one example of the writing that creates visual pictures in the reader's mind. We found the book fairly predictable for its genre but an okay read.

Round 2

Click on image below to enlarge.

Tuesday, December 16, 2014

This One Summer is my pick.  Summer takes me back, beautifully to that time where reality interfered with my innocence—the time in every girls' life just before the emotional demands of womanhood beset and upset them.  This is a graphic novel and the superb drawings evoke the long summer days and the pre-teen exploration of the world, the slight understanding of sex and the desire to know more in some lazy summer way.

Two young friends are the observers of the life around them- a life that seems very hostile to women.  The mother is depressed; the teenager manning the corner store denies culpability in another teenager's pregnancy and is the object of the tween’s faint lust.  Not too much happens in this observation- though the mother breaks through her depression when saving another's life.  The tween’s are watching the summer unfold and then it is over.  Summer’s end.  Thinly disguised , this is a fairly typical Wasaga Beach (called Awago in the book) summer narrative, where young girls watch horror movies, discuss sex and commit small betrayals as they grow up.  

The Impossible Knife of Memory is my partner's original choice..  It is a somewhat heartbreaking story of a high school senior, Hayley. Her blocked memories of her past, both good and bad, unfold.  Along with her edgy character and anger, she has built her own protective shield as she looks after her father, a veteran of Afghanistan.  Both suffer forms of PTSD.  Neither experience magic answers but as painful memories creep forward, Hayley slowly builds skills to face her past and future, and learns to trust in meaningful relationships.  She is real and tough and Anderson builds character expertly.

I found Impossible Knife a formulaic teenager’s novel with the new twist of PTSD though it works as an narrative in a way that Summer did not.  The character build in This One Summer was left mainly to the drawings and not the dialogue and the plot was weak. They were both journeys through childhood— the Impossible Knife a little less overt discussion about sex but there was just a bit more magic in This One Summer.

I won.  I am bigger and Nancy didn't dislike This One Summer.  So this we choose.

Round 1

Two books battle in Round 1...This Song Will Save Your Life and Belzhar.  

Both books focus on teenage angst...both are easy reads....both produce happy endings....both have likable characters.  So how do you decide on a winner to move forward?     This Song Will Save Your Life is a book that many teens can identify with.  Themes of believing in yourself and knowing that we all have a path to take in life are prominent in this book; however we are not sure the book is really that memorable. We believe that readers will identify with the characters in Belzhar and likely will remember reading it.  With the plot twist, as well as the additional element of the "magical literary world" we think this book is more likely to be recommended to others.  So, the book moving on to round 2 is Belzhar.  

Maureen + Donna

We Were Liars vs. The Wrap-Up List

The Wrap-Up List is a futuristic (sort of) book about a society where fish-like creatures called "Deaths" stalk the earth and claim people after they have been given a letter notifying them of when they will die. Usually, this occurs within one week. The main character receives such a letter early in the novel and proceeds to write her "wrap-up list," which consists of all of the things she wants to accomplish before she dies. After talking to a priest, she decides the best approach is to try and help others through her list, and ends up writing down all of her friends that she would like to see have their first kiss before she dies. Laura and I both ended up liking this book more than we expected to, but felt that making a list of first kisses was a bit weak for someone's dying wish. It did unfold in somewhat of an intriguing way and some interesting plot twists were introduced as more information was revealed about the Deaths themselves. For example, they each have names, and personalities, and spouses, and have a morbid sense of humor. However, the premise of the book was never fully explained. When did these Deaths come about, and why? What year are we in here anyway? If there was a strong message meant to be given about how to life your life, or how to be selfless, it wasn't very well-executed. Overall, it was an ok read, but not spectacular.

We Were Liars tells the story of a wealthy American family who vacations on their private island each summer. They are superficial and materialistic, and do everything possible to hide their true emotions and preserve the family image. The three sisters, who are the mothers of the teenage main character and her cousins, are only concerned with who will inherit the grandfather's money and possessions when he dies. Most are living off of their trust funds and have done nothing to better themselves or generate income personally. They argue all the time and use their children to try and persuade the grandfather to award them with the most desirable inheritance. Super likeable people. At some point, the main character Cady suffers an injury and spends the rest of the novel trying to piece together the summer she can no longer remember after the trauma and memory loss she experienced. She fears something terrible has happened but does not know what.

Despite the fact that we were not really very sympathetic to any of the characters, this book was mysterious and kept us guessing. Both of us made a prediction about what the big secret was, and neither of us were right in the end. The writing was unexpected and deserved a second read in some places as the author uses many gory, hyperbolic descriptions for how Cady is feeling. It was an enjoyable read and we both liked being surprised in the end. I think this would be a good pick for many of our students as it has the teen romance aspect to it in addition to the suspense and twist ending.

We Were Liars is our pick to move forward!

Grasshopper Jungle vs. Jumped In

I'll start with Jumped In. I found this book so incredibly boring. The premise of a life changing friendship being formed around a relatively minor poetry assignment seemed completely contrived and unlikely to resonate with students. The un-ironic Nirvana references made the book feel like a product of 1994 (I checked the publication date a few times!) The gang-related plot line was never fully realized. The interspersed poetry pieces were weak and uninspiring. The teacher character seemed to suffer from that all-too-common YA novel condition - not the one where they're absent or disinterested (see Falling into Place), but the one where they are just too over-the-top, too unrealistically knowing of exactly what kind of remedy (always a literary remedy - see Belzhar) their students need to heal every hurt that exists in their life. The protagonist of the novel summed up the total banality of the story in his explanation of his mission: "two people that barely know each other looking for someone they barely know." Then, just when you know the novel is going nowhere interesting, it gets the John Green kids-with-cancer treatment. Even dying teenagers were not enough to resuscitate this book. Am I being too harsh? Maybe. See Barb's blog post for what I believe from our e-mails will be a more favorable review.

Grasshopper Jungle is certainly a book that warrants discussion and I suspect will evoke many mixed feelings. I actually started reading the book before it was assigned to me. I had read Dia's post that no one had wanted it at the first Smackdown meeting ( I was absent). So I had to see what all the fuss was about. I admit, I still don't know entirely if I like the novel. I do know, however, that I was kept intrigued enough to return to the book as frequently as I could until I finished it. I should also say that Grasshopper Jungle is not the kind of book I normally read. In fact, I'm still trying to think of what kind of read might normally read a book like this. I would be hesitant recommending it to a lot of students. Chris, the narrator, talks often and openly about his horniness and masturbatory habits. Similarily, the giant praying mantises that hatch from the infected bodies of residents of his small Iowa town are interested (as we read many, many times) in only two things: "eating and f--cking." And while the frank talk about sexuality is believable for a teenage boy, I could see it being uncomfortable or inappropriate for many students. The whole bug-invasion plot was surprisingly interesting, if not entirely weird. At first I thought it should be read as a metaphor for Chris' discomfort with his sexuality (he's dating a girl and is also in love with his male best friend). And maybe there is some metaphor there, somewhere, buried under the strangeness. I found myself consistently annoyed with Chris' discussion of his sexual "confusion." (and annoyed that author Smith never fully allowed the character to come to terms with his bisexuality in any kind of positive way). Instead, his "confusion" takes the form of a series of increasingly awful actions that are unfair to his girlfriend and his best friend. In short, he's completely selfish and never really has to overcome that (living instead in some kind of fantasy world with two lovers who both want monogamy. Again, I'm skeptical about the treatment of bisexuals here.)  As for Smith's writing style, I found myself enjoying the repetition of lines and the poetic way that he incorporated Chris' ancestral history, along with very recent events of the past, along with the contemporary narrative - often unfolding at the same time in different places. Is this the best book of the year, as some enthusiastic reviews have claimed? No. Best book of Smackdown? I don't think so.  (In fact, I am throwing very early support behind I'll Give you the Sun which I absolutely LOVED). BUT if you're looking for something completely different, and aren't put off by horny teenage boys and giant insects that eat and copulate and kill everything in sight, then you might want to check out Grasshopper Jungle. If only because I'm dying to hear some more opinions! This is my vote to move forward to round two.

N.B. I should add that Barb knew I would like the book because I'm "Hip, Young, and Cool" - Thanks Barb!

The Horrors of War

Pretty dramatic title, eh?  But when you are dealing with two books that explore aspects of WWII, you can claim that tone.  The first read for Amanda and me was The Nazi Hunters by Neal Bascomb. The story takes readers into the hunt for Adolf Eichmann, who oversaw Hitler's Final Solution.

For young readers who are interested in WWII history, this book will satisfy.  It provides a descriptive narrative tracking the actions of the major players involved in hunting Eichmann, with photographs, maps and other documents to not only reinforce the research, but give faces to names and events.

Because the book does not swarm in academic minutiae (ie. you are not footnoted to death), it is a quick read that is both engaging an informative.  Amanda and I both easily voted this book as our gift to round two.

That means that we both rejected Graffiti Night by Karen Bass. Amanda and I mentioned when chatting how much we wanted to like the book, because it was written by an Albertan author.  However, the plot was too contrived and melodramatic to ultimately make it a great read.  We have read too many stories of rash nobility, and the main character in Graffiti just doesn't evoke compassion or interest.

Tracy and Amanda

Monday, December 15, 2014

Brown Girl Dreaming by Jacqueline Woodson is the story of the author’s early childhood growing up in Ohio, South Carolina and New York.  Set against the backdrop of the civil rights movement and written as beautiful poems this book is as important for what it says as for what it does not say.  In this book there is no major ‘action’ but underneath each poem a life is shared along with the struggles, joys, relationships and realizations.  To me, this was literature.  I feel that if one of my junior high students was to read it they would miss some of the lessons about civil rights and race as they do not have the background knowledge to grasp those messages, however a patient and sympathetic reader would enjoy this quiet tale of a young life lived and enjoyed.  As an adult it provoked me to think, especially in light of the current events in the US today.  Reading this in a US classroom would be a different experience completely, and one in which I imagine many more students would have background knowledge.  If I were alone in my decision I would send this book on.

Glory O’Brien’s History of the Future by A. S. King is edgy, creative, thoughtful, abrasive and interesting.  It hooked me but it also turned me away!  I had no trouble finishing it and it sticks in my mind.  It is the story of Glory; her mother committed suicide by putting her head in her oven, left nude pictures of her photography subjects for Glory in a journal along with pictures of Headless Bill.  Her best friend lives on a commune and needs Glory to get her access to the modern necessities in life, STI medication, the mall, a car and so on.  Once they both drink bat juice they gain amazing powers.  From there on the book is written as Glory’s present day life as she graduates high school and her ‘memory’ of the future in the second civil war.  This is the part that made me think and what I imagine might grab the creative reader along with the underlying discussion of feminism.  I would not feel comfortable passing this on to a junior high reader but will leave the older reader audience decision up to those with more experience with high school readers.  

So, two different books, very different books, two great books, two books with strengths and specific audiences.  My pick was a tough decision and we will have to see what my colleagues Holli and Tristin say and what our final decision is for moving on to the next round!   
And...Another Post on I'll Give You the Sun versus Through the Woods

I know that Tracy has posted a brief synopsis for both of the books, so I’ll get right to the discussion.  Thankfully, we were totally in agreement.  And, having just read her post, we share most of the same thoughts about the two books.

I’ll Give You the Sun in three words?  Poetic and moving.

You know those books where your heart is breaking for the characters, and most of what is catalyzing your reading WAY past the time when you should be asleep is the fact that the protagonists have become so indelibly real to you that you have to get to the end of the book to know if they are going to be okay?  Yep.  This is one of those books.  Also:  the room will get dusty.  More than once.  But you will also snort laugh.  Frequently.

I sort of expect this one to go pretty far in the Smackdown this year.

There is so much to like, maybe even love, about this book:  the extremely clever structure, temporally oscillating between Noah and Jude at very different periods in their lives, echoes and resonances and motifs bolstering how very similar they are even when they feel that the gulf between them is insurmountable:  “A painting is both exactly the same and entirely different every single time you look at it.  That’s the way it is between Jude and me now.” The structure opens up more than a few mysteries throughout the novel, ultimately resolved when seemingly insignificant details converge together with John Irving-like precision. Also kind of remarkable?  The authentic clarity of the two voices of the two protagonists, particularly the poetry of Noah’s inside voice:  “hanging out with her is like sitting in an empty church.  That’s why I like her.  She’s quiet and serious and a thousand years old and seems like she can talk to the wind.”  By the midpoint of the book, you will feel like you have known these people for years.

There’s quite a bit of S-E-X talk (and action) in this book, and this is one for the more mature readers in your classroom—unlikely to be a whole-class novel in the near future.  But, OMFCG, the wistful heartbreak of teen longing and individuality and courage is palpable in this one.

Through the Woods in three words?  Disquieting, not scary.

I was really looking forward to this one.  Really a lot.  And it was fine.  But I wish there was more.

It could very well find a place in your classroom, particularly while teaching visual literacy. Carrol does such incredibly interesting things with text and font and borders and gutters and colour and layout—all ABSOLUTELY made for the Junior High/High School classroom.  The illustrations are staggeringly effective, creepy and disquieting.  But the stories themselves?  Not so much.

With the exception of the last story, “The Nesting Place,” the stories are more ambiguously odd and perplexing than scary, which I think would frustrate most of our younger readers.  Very few resolutions, and lots of question marks hanging in the air; I had more than a bit of “huh?-face” myself for a few of the stories.

Anyway, it would behoove you to check out the book.  Or, at the very least, Carrol’s website (, which has a few of the stories collected in Through the Woods and a whole lot more. Teachable.  Occasionally creepy.  Put one up on the SmartBoard.  See what your kids think.  I liked it; I just didn’t love it.

Certainly not enough to knock off the unfettered joy to be found in I’ll Give You the Sun.

Aviary Wonders Inc. Spring Catalog and Instruction Manual

Even before The Smack began this year, as the books arrived and the piles in Dia`s office grew, I was intrigued by this book in particular. In its picture book format, it did not fit the typical Smackdown novel or graphic novel or even literary nonfiction format that we have seen in the last four years. At least not that I could remember. Dia, feel free to correct me. This book might possibly be a first for The Mighty Smackdown.

On the bottom of the front of the dust jacket, `Renewing the World`s Bird Supply Since 2031` had me very curious. What was this author up to? What they were up to is to cleverly point out what we have lost and what we could potentially lose if we don`t take care of what we have.

As this review at the Washington Post points out, and publisher trailer on YouTube embedded below brings to life, this book could easily become an interactive app, However, I fear its message would probably be lost in such a transformation to another form. And it is because of its sophisticated message that, while its images could be enjoyed by a younger student its message would probably be lost as well.

I think this book could lead to lots of interesting inquiry questions for students as they explore then discover other bird books as well as resources online.

I can`t wait to share it with my grade nines to see what they think!

p.s. If it wasn`t for Mr. Shu`s post and vine, I would have forgotten to remove the dust jacket. What a surprise!

Update: This post sat as a draft until now. Since then I have tested out Aviary Wonders on a couple of students and finished Falling into Place. But first: Falling into Place.

 When I started Falling into Place, the voice in my head said, "Oh, this is one of those books." The mean girl with the Mercedes. I won't summarize as Dia has already done that for us. I did find it had momentum and I wanted to find out what happened. It did lead Dia and I, and later Andrew, to have much discussion. Can high school really be this bad? Yes, yes it can.

In the end, though, I much prefer Aviary Wonders. And, when I tried it out on a couple of my students, as Dia mentioned, the student that had more guidance (although, in this case, it was simply a "you might want to read it for a second time now that you are finished...) was the one to hit the nail on the head and understand the message. The student that did not have guidance, while intrigued that his peer was reading "a picture book" was not able to glean the message.

This reminds me of one of the many messages from Kelly Gallagher about the importance of re-reading for different purposes. The first time, you're just getting the lay of the land. The second, third, fourth...each repeated reading brings a different surprise.