Smackdown Books 2018

Wolf Hollow
Salt to the Sea
The Serpent King
Optimists Die First
The Hate U Give
Orphan Island
Dan vs. Nature
The Female of the Species
Upside Down in the Middle of Nowhere
Paper Girls, Vol. 1
The Passion of Dolssa
The Distance Between Us
When We Collided
Louis parmi les spectres
Girl in the Blue Coat
Defy the Stars

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.


  1. Well, well, well. So, basically, add _Belzhar_ to the list of books to read before I make well-considered Zombie Pick. Done.

    1. I am so Facebook trained. I was looking for the "like" button below your comment. :)