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 21, 2015

Noggin gets no Glory

If you haven't had the chance to read Noggin yet, let's just say that Matthew Quick's review on the cover probably gets it right:  probably, it is "the absolute best head transplant surgery love story I've ever read."  I'm not sure how much of an endorsement that really is, though.  Once you suspend your disbelief and buy into having a cryogenically frozen head attached to someone else's body within five years, the idea of the kind of complications that suggests could be interesting.  Many of us reading in this round were disappointed that it got bogged down in a love story of Travis (the head kid) trying to get back his old girlfriend, who is now 21 instead of 16, and engaged.  A few interesting plot twists kept some of us reading, but were not enough to inspire us to move it on.  Renae did point out that there were likely lots of kids who would eat it up, so we'll likely add it to our library collection.  Keep it in mind if you see multiple copies lying around the ABM library at our wrap up meeting and you have a few extra dollars to spend.
Glory O'Brien's History of the Future was a more engaging read.  I was skeptical -- She drinks a bat? What? -- but then I found I could buy into the way it all happened.  Once again, suspend disbelief and believe that she now has the power to see a person's infinite past and future for generations.  Most of us found ourselves interested to find out how the future turns out, even if we questioned how realistic the visions might be.  As a story, it is engaging.  Some political discussions could be possible if you have a group reading it together.  Check out previous blog entries on the book to see some of the ideas and concerns, and then enjoy reading it in the next round!  

We Were Liars vs. Something about the summer that I've already forgotten

The title says it all, really. When I first read Wendy's blog post on This One Summer, I was actually pretty excited to read it. Maybe it's just because Wendy is a poet, and she wrote so convincingly about the time "before womanhood upset and beset" and all that. It sounded beautiful. It turned out to be boring. Maybe I didn't appreciate it because I was never a girl on the cusp of puberty. Or maybe it was the almost entire absence of any real plot. Or the fact that the girl (I've already forgotten her name - that memorable) spent her summer in love with the biggest loser working at the video store. Barb agreed with that point last night - surely this girl could find a better object for her affections. In any case, a few nice pictures aside, this would be a big "skip" for me.

I read We Were Liars prior to the start of Smackdown, and while it definitely wasn't my favorite read, it did keep me coming back. The mystery surrounding the island and the pack of snobbish, self-destructive people that inhabit it, make for interesting reading. I wouldn't say that this book is anything revelatory. In fact, it's really just so-so in my mind. But it's not hard to be better than This One Summer, so We Were Liars has my vote to move forward.

PS - How did so many people actually enjoy Belzhar?

Sister Mine vs. Grasshopper Jungle

Good morning everyone. Sorry about the late post; however, since I was the negligent blogger from round one, I am way ahead of the timeframe of last rounds blog.

Without further ado, Team Spruce Avenue was tasked with reading Sister Mine and Grasshopper Jungle. In the end we chose to promote Sister Mine to move forward in the tournament.

I've included a vlog below if you'd like to hear my ramblings. Otherwise, here are our thoughts:

Grasshopper Jungle
The novel we found a little confused and at times difficult to engaging with the text. The development of characters was not as rounded out as we would have prefered. For my teamster at Spruce, the novels was not an enjoyable experience. She likened the read to driving past a car crash and having to look. Ultimately we weren't sure about how much readability the novel would have in Junior High and chose to strike it down.

Sister Mine
The second book, Sister Mine, while also a little weird but we found it to be much more enjoyable.  We found the writing to be more interesting and a pleasure to read.  There was a certain flow to the writing, and the language was less complex and easier to follow the narrative.  Even with the premise of God and demi-God relatives and such, there was something far more relatable about the familial relationships for the most part.   

We are moving Sister Mine forward. 

This One Summer We Were Liars

Can't say there were any epic battles over library tables at our school when discussing the two books were just read. Although we enjoyed both books, it was easy for us to pick. We love a good twist.

We did agree that we often recommend graphic novels to students but we don't always read them ourselves. Both of us were pleasantly surprised with how much we enjoyed both the story and the graphics of This One Summer. While reading the story it evoked long lost memories of being a young girl on the verge of becoming a teenager - having our first crush (sigh), watching older teens grapple with issues that were beyond our world at the time, and not having the maturity to understand or deal with parental issues. The graphics interplayed beautifully with the story. However, a quick read, memorable message and great graphics weren't enough to stand up against our other book.

We Were Liars was a suspenseful read and one that could be recommended to our students and other adults as well. We, and our students, love a book with a good twist at the end. Neither one of us saw the ending coming but when it did, we wanted to go back and read parts again. Don’t want to say too much about the twist that catches you off guard. You need to read it for yourself.

We enthusiastically vote for We Were Liars to move onto the next round.

Suanne and Katrina

Tuesday, January 20, 2015

Ummmmm...What Just Happened? or Grasshopper Jungle versus Sister Mine

I’m not sure how the stars aligned to put two of the oddest, most unclassifiable, and contentious books in the history of The Mighty Smackdown into the same round, but it has happened.  I feel a little spent.

Andrew Smith’s Grasshopper Jungle:

Hoo boy.  I don’t even know where to start with this one.  I’m not really sure for whom this book is written.  I can’t think of one person that I would actually recommend it to.  Heck—I’m not even sure what I just read.

How about this:  if you’ve been breathlessly waiting for a book where the perpetually horny protagonist (and who gives explicit voice to said horniness on a near page-to-page basis) fights terrifying man-sized praying mantises, then, ladies and gentlemen, we might as well declare Grasshopper Jungle the winner of this year’s Smackdown, and call it a day.

Did I like it?  This is the best I can come up with.  I was about the same age as the protagonist in the mid-80s, and at the time the teen movie industry was burgeoning, catalyzed by a teen audience that had more money in their pocket than any group of teens before them, and by the VHS market, which ensured that there was no end to slight teen movies with plenty of nudity (tame by today’s HBO standards, but not by those days’ standards), lots of talk about sex, and an eventual “message” about friendship or kindness or identity that made, I’m sure, the filmmaker feel like he had created a piece of art.  No genre was off limits to this, including thriller/horror movies aimed squarely at a teen audience.  Like Night of the Creeps.  Or Return of the Living Dead.  Or Night of the Comet.  Apocalyptic horror/comedies with plenty of young ladies taking their tops off, and the repeated use of the word “horny” (you might see now where I’m heading with this).  Movies that you snuck into at the Cineplex after paying for a ticket to something more family-friendly.

If anyone who had never seen one of these movies in their formative years watched one of these movies now, they would hate it.  Exploitative.  Cloying.  Repetitive.  Vaguely (maybe explicitly?) misogynistic. Sure--agreed.  But, when I watch these movies now, I see all of these problems, but I still watch it a bit wistfully, remembering the days of the illicit thrill of the profanity and the endless talk of sex and repetitive fart jokes.

So…Grasshopper Jungle is that.  With all its blemishes and all its puerile glory.

Better than that, of course.  Smith does lots of things with voice and character that no 80s film (never mind 80s YA novel) would have ever dared to do.  And I agree with Mr. McBean that some of the best moments of the novel are those where Smith sort of cinematically cross-cuts between various characters of the novel to note where they are at a precise moment, but then adds another level of complexity by cross-cutting through time and space (caveat:  but, like almost everything else in this book, I’m sad to say that Smith employs this device, ultimately, too many times, which drains the [at first] novel stylistic device of all its impact and vitality).  But then we get the sublime “Four Photographs” chapter about a third of the way through the novel that is so poetic and moving and smart that I can’t believe it even exists within this book. Sigh.

There are COUNTLESS things wrong with the novel:  the plot takes much too long to get going, and even when it does, it does so in awkward fits and starts.  The use of the word “horny” loses its charm on about page 30, but the author continues to use it as liberally as Scorsese does the f-bomb (attempted comedic effect? a misguided notion of teen boy verisimilitude? I don’t know.  It kind of wore me down).  Quirks of character, strange details, and plot devices that are set up for a clever pay off, only to be ignored.  Everything that is great about the novel is endlessly repeated to the point of irritation.  After pages and pages of buildup, the novel sort of sputters to an inconclusive halt.  BUT, not before, in the last seven lines, tying up one of the key motifs in the novel in an undeniably beautiful and profound way.  You can’t write about this book without a lot of sentences that start with “But.”

Sheesh.  Talk about the sublime and the profane.

Nalo Hopkinson’s Sister Mine

Here’s where I have to admit to one of my greatest deficiencies as a reader.  I don’t understand Fantasy as a genre.  At all.  I have tried and tried and tried, but my “suspension of disbelief” chip was lost somewhere in the womb.  I am the only person I know who can’t watch Game of Thrones.  Not because it is too gory or too intense, but because I can watch entire episodes without understanding who anyone is or why anyone is doing anything that they are doing.  And I have tried.  Really hard.  But, suddenly, a character has dragon eggs, and my brain short circuits, and I am done.  Done.
So, Sister Mine never really had a chance with me.  I was lost LONG before we meet the character who is a shapeshifter (I’m not even sure if I am using the right vernacular here—probably not) that used to be Jimi Hendrix’s guitar.

It is beautifully written.  To be sure.  And I am sure that this is SOMEONE’s cup o’ tea, but it isn’t mine.  Honestly, I really had to push myself to keep reading.  And, at the end, I just had a big old shoulder shrug.  I’m with Tracy here.  M’eh.  But I acknowledge this is may be entirely my deficiency.  So I’m not sure what to do here.

The Verdict

Here it is.  I know some of you are going to hate it/already hate it.  But I can’t deny that it has made me think about it a lot more than anything that transpires in Sister Mine.  So, Grasshopper Jungle goes to the next round.  It has my vote, anyway.  It is entirely in the hands of Team 6.

The Day the Library Was Too Loud


The Smackdown thus far has been pretty quiet. You can tell by the name that that is not what Arlene and I were looking for when we started this project 5 years ago. We get busy, we read a post, we mean to comment but it just disappears in a disgusted, out loud comment at our desks.

It was, then, fantastic to get 5 ABM teachers (Team One) together to “discuss” whether Nazi Hunters or Midwinterblood should move on. A quiet library was shattered by teachers hurling insults like:

You have weird opinions,
I’m going to come across the table
Just enjoy it…you don’t need to understand it.
Dial it back!
Dial it up!
Have some tea Granny!

This continued with teachers grabbing students and the books and demanding they say which book they would read and howling with joy or frustration depending on the answer. Now this is the Smackdown we envisioned!

What was all the fuss about? Same thing it always is. Neither of these books seemed to fall under definitions of YA. For Midwinterblood there were hardly any YA characters and the non-fiction Nazi Hunters picks the capture of Eichmann which also doesn’t focus on young adults. YALSA wrote an article Brad Smilanich linked by twitter to the blog that mentioned this quasi definition:

Currently, young adult literature is defined most often as being written for teenagers from 12-18 years of age. These are often coming-of-age stories, where characters come to an understanding about not only themselves, but their place in the world. 

It was argued that non-fiction easier breaks these bonds by providing explanations for the world around them and sometimes that world doesn’t have a young adult in it. It was also argued that the folk-tale/eternal love story of Midwinterblood is more accessible. This argument led to saying maybe we should be talking about the educational value, at which point many heads exploded.

I hope people read these books – they’re good but as Andrew opened our meeting with neither are outstanding. I would agree, as would Holly. Lisa would tell you Nazi Hunters should absolutely be read, Arlene would tell you Midwinterblood is a book she intends to do as a bookclub and she can picture how ecstatic the participants would be (very, it turns out). I would tell you the best thing happened today…teachers sat around a table and argued with passion about what, why and how students read.

In the end…Annabel vote pushed any possibility of a tie off the table. Nazi Hunters moves on. 

Monday, January 19, 2015

We Give You I'll Give You The Sun

The Smackdown Nickel Edition - Round 2, Team 5
Vanessa, Sandra, Brent, Chandra and Shelley


OK, well this has been quite a round. These are both really interesting books and if there is a unifying thread to our group’s collective review it is a sense that these two fine novels might be meeting a tad too early. Lucky for us though, in that we had a chance to read to books we all really liked and we also ended up in happy harmony as we unanimously saw I’ll Give You The Sun as the better of the two. Below, you’ll find some of our thoughts about the two as we each grappled (well, not that much) with our choice.

Vanessa’s vote to move on: I’ll Give You the Sun

Vanessa’s thoughts: I first read IGYTS this summer and I thought it was good but I was reading a lot over the summer and it really didn’t stand out for me when I first read it.  I know it had a lot of hype, it was hard to get at the library etc... so I jumped at the chance to read it again. It has made me want to re-read a few books (NOT Grasshopper Jungle) because the second time, I already knew what had happened and I focused more on the subtle nuances of the book...and I loved it.  I thought the moving back and forth between brother and sister and the time jumps made the story richer and allowed the plot to develop without everything coming out all at once.   How did I miss this the first time?
And then I read Belzhar.  I won’t re-hash the plot as the posts from the first round describe the content.  I had read a number of Meg Wolitzer’s adult books and enjoyed them, so I was anxious to see what she had to offer in YA - sometimes the leap to another audience doesn’t work very well.   I had also read The Bell Jar in high school so I had some context.  I really enjoyed Belzhar, I admit, I was surprised at the final reason Jam ended up at the Wooden Barn.  It held my attention to the end.  It is unfortunate that these two came up against each other as I believe they both could have moved further but for me IGYTS was a clear winner.  Side note:  Is Bell Jar still being read in jr high/high school English?  Would kids relate to the story even without the background?

Shelley’s Vote: I’ll Give You the Sun

Shelley’s Thoughts:  I agree with Vanessa’s comment about how I wish these two books were not up against each other. Belzhar was the first one I read, and I thoroughly enjoyed.  The ending was a surprise but there were sufficient details that hinted at that outcome.  I also loved that it was centered around an English teacher, an author and the power of words.  It made me want to read The Bell Jar and find out more about Sylvia Plath as well.  I think there is sufficient information about the author that students would still understand the novel, but I also think that it would pique the curiosity of those advanced readers.

I really enjoyed I’ll Give You the Sun.  A simple theme but written in a powerful way.  The artistic temperament also was an interesting addition to the story.  I loved the references to art and there was powerful imagery.  Once again, a few surprises, but they made sense.

Sandra’s Vote: I’ll Give You the Sun

Like Vanessa, I have read a lot of Meg Wolitzer’s adult fiction, so I was very excited to read her novel for young adults. I liked it very much and have recommended it to many of our students. After finishing it, I really thought it was the book I was going to vote to move on, but then I read I’ll Give You the Sun… What a beautifully and intricately constructed/crafted novel. I appreciated the story being told through both the eyes of the brother and sister, but at different times in the narrative of their lives. Everything had a purpose or a reason for being in the story. I agree with both Vanessa and Shelley that it is too bad these two novels had to meet so early in the Smackdown; however, I feel I’ll Give You the Sun had more depth and development in all aspects.  

Chandra’s Vote: I’ll Give You the Sun

Well, apparently I’m not unique in saying I enjoyed both of these books.  The Bell Jar has been on my “I really should get around to reading these books sometime” list for years, and I’m glad Belzhar finally gave me the excuse to do it.  Meg Wolitzer did a great job, though, at including enough about Sylvia Plath and her works throughout Belzhar, so that even students with no knowledge of her can still fully understand and hopefully appreciate the novel.  

I loved the community that the students in the class created for themselves, and the ideas around the power of literature, poetry, and writing.  After awhile, though,  I found I began to lose compassion for Jam’s “lost love.”  Maybe I’m a bit too cynical, but either way, teenage readers likely wouldn’t be as impatient with her as I was.  

As much as I enjoyed Belzhar overall, however, I’ll Give You the Sun was even better.  I loved the way the dual narrative was presented, with Noah’s perspective when the twins are 13 & 14, and Jude’s when they’re 16.  I found that I “missed” the perspective of the other in each instance, perhaps much in the way that the twins were missing each other as a result of the mistakes they had both made.  The ending was perfect (maybe a bit *too* perfect?), but dang it, it made me happy.  Plus, the whole book was just so beautifully written. I found myself marking a number of passages. Bear with me as I share just one: “‘Maybe a person is just made up of a lot of people… Maybe we’re accumulating these new selves all the time.’ Hauling them in as we make choices, good and bad, as we screw up, step up, lose our minds, find our minds, fall apart, fall in love, as we grieve, grow, retreat from the world, dive into the world, as we make things, as we break things” (p. 354).

Brent’s Vote: I’ll Give You The Sun

I was surprised by how much I liked both of these books. I’m not sure that laying out the plot and character map of either novel would really do them justice. They are both tightly woven narratives in which the authors deftly knock around some pretty weighty ideas and emotions. In a lot of the YA fiction I read it’s often the dialogue that is the deal breaker for me, but both of these authors demonstrate a fine ear for not only teenage voices, but, particularly in I’ll Give You The Sun, adult voices as well. Yes, as is so often the case in YA, we meet more than our fair share of quirky/brilliant/uber-articulate young people, but as is not always the case, the vast majority of the characters in these books felt real to me rather than just narrative constructs. These are both skilled writers with interesting and important things to say.

But . . . in Smackdown time there always needs to be a winner and a loser, so here’s my beef with Belzhar. I’m not familiar with any of Wolitzer’s other works (although I’m intrigued enough by this novel to start changing that) and maybe adding some kind of supernatural element is her “thing,” but did anyone else get the sense that the premise of a book set at The Wooden Barn with an eclectic cast of misfits studying Sylvia Plath was enough without having the kids start writing in magical journals? I mean, I know the whole thing is an easy sell for us English teacher types, but do kids need that little mystical oomph to buy in? I don’t think so. For me, these little jaunts to Belzhar started to grate and feel like a bit of a cheap trope to get at some really difficult ideas and emotions. I don’t want to be too hard on the book, because I did still like it, but I know that a writer with Wolitzer’s ability could have pulled off a really poignant Plathian Breakfast Club here and written something that would have made this a much tougher Smackdown battle. One other thing that bugged me was a bit of cognitive dissonance regarding Jam. Throughout my career I’ve come face to face with many a fragile teenage girl, but I’m not sure I completely bought that  the Jam we see here is going to have her psyche destroyed by this British dreamboat. It reminded me of what I hated about Twilight (Don’t judge me; a student basically forced me to read it): a really intelligent and competent young woman becoming a complete mess because of inordinate levels of sullen hotness. I mean this guy wasn’t even a vampire!

I think even Holden Caulfield would be yelling “Digression!” at me by now. So why I’ll Give You The Sun beyond the somewhat slight critiques of Belzhar above? Nelson has taken on a lot in this novel. It is not a terribly complex plot, and on its face, the narrative structure is pretty straightforward, but it also really places a heavy burden on the author to create consistent characters even though we see these characters at two distinctly different periods of their physical and emotional lives. She has a lot of balls up in the air and I don’t think she drops any. In the older, damaged versions of Noah and Jude, you see those younger damaged selves peaking through. The other characters - Mom, Dad, Oscar, Guillermo, even some of the nasty beach brutes - are painted with nuance and depth. I think what really took this book from good to great, though, was the way that art was infused in myriad ways throughout the novel. That sounds like it would be really pretentious, with the art critic mom and the burgeoning artistic genius children, but it’s really not. Art is not just a part of their lives, it is both their moral frame and their world viewing lens. It takes a very talented and very sensitive writer to pull this off. There were moments that reminded me of My Name is Asher Lev, but it is also very much a novel for our time. I think a lot of young people will see themselves in these characters.