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

Monday, November 30, 2015

The Voice Inside My Head Vs. The Tyrant's Daughter

I know that we are anxiously waiting the arrival of the round 2 novels. In trying to bridge the gap between the two rounds, here is a late post on the two novels we had from round 1. This compelling post should fill the hours between now and the arrival of your new novels as you hotly debate the choice that we made. 

Our two novels were The Voice Inside my Head and The Tyrant's Daughter.

The Voice Inside my Head was fun to read because of the tropical setting and mystery. We found ourselves enjoying the interesting premise of the brother "hearing" his sister's voice in his head and following her "leads".  As with most novels in the tournament there is a lot of great reviews about the novel, however, we found the story to be a little predictable. We could recommend this novel to students to read and enjoy but ultimately it fails in comparison to The Tyrant's Daughter. 

In J.C. Carleson's novel, we loved the perspective of the main character as she starts to discover things about the life she lived before her father's assassination and the life she finds herself in in the US. Her journey through self discovery as she tried to fit into her new existence in America and a more broad base of experiences is believable, as is her confusion and bitter acceptance of the truths she discovers about her family and previous existence.

For us, The Tyrant's Daughter is the superior text and deserves to move on to a second read. 

Thursday, November 26, 2015

And We Stay or Gabi – A Girl in Pieces

Our two competitors were:
And We Stay by Jenny Hubbard (although we could never accurately remember the title; often saying If I Stay).
Gabi – A Girl in Pieces by Isabel Quintero.

Both books dealt with the fairly heavy subjects of life and death, and emphasized the healing power of poetry.

The main character in And We Stay came from what we might call a “normalish” or perhaps a more familiar family setting, so dealt with her trauma in a way we might identify with. However, we got sort of annoyed at the frequent references to the poems of Emily Dickinson as a coping device. We felt it really slowed down the pace of the book. (No offence to you Emily Dickinson fans.)

 We found Gabi- A Girl in Pieces to be timely and very frank as the 17 year old character shared a year of her life through diary entries. Although this book had a lot of  'off' language we found that this actually helped to illustrate Gabi’s character and emphasize the severity of the issues. Gabi, the main character was a lot braver in confronting life’s challenges. She faced things more head on and finally in the end took control to fix the endless problems that came her way. Some of the realistic and timely issues included body image, sexual orientation, family dynamics and friendships.

Our lack of background knowledge of the Mexican culture and Spanish was a minor challenge. However, we felt that Isabel Quintero did an excellent job in including translations as needed. The inclusion of some dialogue in Spanish actually added to the authenticity of the work.

References to some very great poets and authors will also entice the reader to do some extra interesting research.
All in all a powerful read!

Deb and Dianne 

Everything, Everything vs. The Nest


Alright, I’m guilty. I judged a book by its cover.  I saw Everything, Everything and right away had it picked to be our winner (though The Nest has a beautiful cover design as well.)  Everything, Everything also seemed to have some buzz around it already, and has a compelling premise.  It tells the story of a brilliant and beautiful young woman who is confined to her house due to a rare illness that prevents her from having any contact with the outside world, or with any person other than her mother and nurse. BUT surprise, surprise, there’s a HOT BOY who moves in across the street, and... you can see where this is going already.

Well, at least we could see where it was going already.  We could see where the whole tale was going to end up, early on.  Too early. Dramatic irony, when done well, is delicious and delightful, but in this case, knowing the “twist” long before our protagonist was mostly just frustrating.

The Nest, however, kept us guessing right until the end. It tells the story of Steve, his sister Nicole, their parents, and the new baby. A sick baby. When a strange being comes to Steve in a dream promising to “fix” the baby if he cooperates with them, he agrees. But then what had seemed like a wish come true takes a sinister turn. As Shelley said, it’s a lovely, horrifying surprise. Peeking through the horror and gripping climax, however, is also the message that our pain, brokenness, and neuroses are what make us human, and that “there’s no such thing as normal anyway.”

The Nest moves on!  
The Most Dangerous Revolution….EVER!!!!

Team Bellerose, checking in!:

Jenny writes:  First, I have to admit that I did not finish reading Most Dangerous.  In fact, I had problems getting through the first thirty pages.  I hated the “look” of the text.  To me, it was a text that I would give one of my students who was doing a research paper on Daniel Ellsberg; it reminded me very much of a textbook.  I’m an adult, an English teacher; I should have buckled down and read it . . . but I just couldn’t do it.

I did read Revolution.  Although this novel is also about an important period in American history, I found it interesting.  I loved the visuals:   the quotations, the song lyrics, the actual photos of people who were involved in Freedom Day and the Freedom Movement.  I also liked the characters in the text.  I loved the juxtaposition in character perspective; I really liked Sunny and Gillette.  I appreciated the fact that they are living in a blended family in Mississippi in 1964.  I found the conversations between Sunny, Polly, and Mary Margaret to be quite funny at times; parts of the novel made me laugh out loud.   Conversely, I was afraid when Sunny was caught in the theatre alone, and I was sickened by the incident at the hospital.

However, I did feel that the novel went on a little too long.  When I came to the extended essay on Cassius Clay, I cringed a little; it was interesting, but almost too much that late in the novel.  I also found it a little contrived that the family just happens to be driving by when several pivotal moments happen in the text.

Overall, I did like the book.  It was an interesting mix of fact and fiction.   It was about equality and civil rights; however, I also enjoyed the personal narrative.

Score:  Danger:  0       Revolution:  1

Graham writes:  It’s with some reservation and reticence I begin the process of responding to these books. I suppose it’s simply because I am unsure of what an appropriate response should look like (EDITOR’S NOTE:  literally, I printed off responses from old Smackdowns, and I put them in Graham’s hands to read for his edification.  And I printed them IN COLOUR.  Ingrate.—end of EDITOR’S NOTE). So, (holding my breath) operating with my general lack of good judgment, I offer my thoughts. I must say I am frankly unmoved by either book (exhale…). 

Revolution:  The story carried a deeply valuable message and spoke to a unique family dynamic, especially for the time. I found Sunny’s character well developed, age appropriate and forgettable.  I enjoyed the retelling of the social injustices of the time in a way that was meaningful and interesting. The voices of many who experienced the same event offer many wonderful entry points to discuss the importance of perspective, truths and the value of story. The use of imagery was interesting and captured harsh edge of injustice and deep complexity of being caught in hard choices. I found the story difficult to read, not because of the writing, but more so due to the distasteful treatment of the “Other” during the struggle for freedom in 1960s Mississippi. Notwithstanding, I found the book a long read, and, towards the end, it felt like work. I suppose as I write this, my feelings about the book are softening, but I just didn’t feel a mojo that would cause me to endorse this book.

Most Dangerous: This book also followed a history that I found, personally, both troubling and interesting. The story carried more revelations (for me) regarding the historic events of the Vietnam Conflict than the human equality and rights issues highlighted in Revolution. I found the story took liberties that at many times read to me more like a convincingly fabricated historical fiction rather than an embellished retelling of events. I found the read more along the lines of the Scandal TV series.

The pictures were again able to capture what text could not (including terrible fashions of the 60s and 70s). I found the linear progression and telling of one perspective easier to follow, perhaps with less depth. I ended up reading the book in one sitting and afterwards was somewhat enlightened and disappointed. I am not exactly sure what I was hoping for; perhaps I was expecting Daniel Ellsberg to be less “Snowdenesque.” Yet, in the end, I would support this book to move forward…

Score:  Whistleblowers:  1    Social Injustice: 1

Kelly writes:  I did not know what to expect when I flipped through Deborah Wiles’s book Revolution and saw a large portion of the book was pictures.  The first 40 pages were real-life quotations, images, posters, pictures of identifiable people and news articles of a time specifically known as the Freedom Summer.  I came to appreciate how it created a context that I could identify with.  I could the feel the chaos, uncertainty, change and threat of the time, all with the Beatles playing in the background.  Before the fictional story even began, you had a powerful context for the characters to exist.  Using the visuals throughout the fictional story kept the characters grounded to the facts of the time period.  As the characters experienced the events of the time they became likable and relevant.    I was pleasantly surprised how much I enjoyed the characters and the story.  I fully appreciated the creative use of visuals and feel that I have a better understanding and appreciation of the sixties.

I don’t really have anything to say about Most Dangerous.  I found it ponderous, and a chore to get through.  It just wasn’t for me
Score:  Vietnam: 1    Slightly-earlier-than-Vietnam: 2

Brad writes:  I, with every fibre of my being, want to make this a Survivor-like tie, where we would implore Deborah Wiles and Steve Sheinkin to, I don’t know, build a fire, or bind a book, or eat a paperback, in front of all us to see which text will move forward.  But alas…

Most Dangerous, it should come as no surprise, just didn’t do it for me, despite my fascination with: a) everything from the Vietnam era, b)conspiracies, and c) that thin edge between whistle-blower and perceived traitor.  I’ve written about my wariness of non-fiction that reads like fiction (no matter how well-researched) a lot between Bomb and The Nazi Hunters over the past couple of years.  I find it troubling—I really do.  But I’m not going to rehash it.  I did like it better than those other two.  But not more than the other book, which manages to interweave a fictional story with non-fictive elements without sacrificing, you know, any sense of veracity.

Deborah Wiles’ Revolution does all sorts of great things with form, interspersing a collage of primary texts (song lyrics, quotations, photographs, biblical passages, headlines) with a fictional narrative to address the countless types of revolution that occur in a Mississippi town during the Freedom Summer of 1964:  musical, cultural, philosophical, and racial.  There is a lot to unpack here.  A LOT.  And that’s what makes Revolution such an engaging and thought-provoking read:  images of volunteers teaching at a Freedom School alongside lyrics to Martha and the Vandellas “Dancing in the Streets.” A quotation from J.F.K announcing his intention with a civil rights bill juxtaposed with an excerpt from “Why You Should Join the Ku Klux Klan.”  Extended essays that interrupt the flow of the fictional narrative.  There is so much to teach—one could pretty much flip open to any of the “documentary” pages, and discuss authorial intent for a whole class:  the font, the layout, the placement of the primary source in relation to the fictional narrative, the interplay between text and word…super-duper interesting stuff.  The “documentary” sections do more than just establish verisimilitude and context:  they metonymically embody the revolution of the book’s title and dialectics clash in word and lyric and image and tone.

I agree with Jenny that the plot of the fictional narrative sometimes is a bit circumstantial, but I ended up really liking it anyway—I certainly wasn’t bored, despite the book’s length.  My biggest concern is that I doubt there are many young readers who would be able to negotiate this text on their own—the thoughtful and patient hand of a teacher could really unlock a new world of visual literacy to a student, but I’m pretty sure a student on his or her own could become frustrated without some assistance (it is 40 pages in before we even realize there is going to be a traditional narrative).  That, coupled with the length (and sheer heft!) of this book might scare off some of our kids.  But it shouldn’t.  With a little guidance with visual literacy, and the ways that text and image can sometimes catalyze necessary cognitive dissonance, this could be a really rich text for our students.  I didn’t love it with unfettered fervour, but I really liked it.


Wednesday, November 25, 2015

Shadow Hero ~ Only Ever Yours   (Nancy Adamson vs Tammy Wildemann)

As a team we are in total disagreement.  I want to smackdown Only Ever Yours (Louise O’Neill).   Tammy wants to smack that Green Turtle (The Shadow Hero) flat on its ass.  Both books came in as strong contenders and both are national book award winners.

Nancy:  Let’s being with the Shadow Hero.  This graphic novel pays homage to the 1940’s comic book format, in particular to the five issues of The Green Turtle created by Chu Hing.  The author creates a narrative that explains how the Green Turtle became a superhero.  I am not a graphic novel aficionado, however I did enjoy this story.  The story is set in San Incendio (read San Francisco).  The superhero is self-made, striving to overcome the evil and graft in his Chinatown community.  He fights the stereotypes that exist in that time; both by being a Chinese superhero and the white attitudes, and gains the respect of his community.  The author instills humour and pathos in the character.  Uncle Wun Too teaches him how to fight (gives him the old one – two...) and break through the clutches of the two Tongs… (which are the Sticks and Stones…).  There are lots of plays on words.  This is a classic good against evil Marvel style comic book, and is enhanced by the shifting attitudes where the local police force regret their prejudice, accept that their attitudes are wrong and need change.  The hero is accepted and the strong.  My partner Steve read this book and rather uncharacteristically, could not put it down.  He loved it.  I think it will find a strong audience in the young adult male reader. The capping of the book:  an awesome afterword that explains the context and includes an original 1940’s Green Turtle comic.

I (Tammy), on the other hand, loathed The Shadow Hero.  The ‘capping of the book’ came far too late. The humor used by the author comes in the form of an overbearing mother who stuffs her bra with pork buns, the characters are referred to as ‘Ching Chong’s and Chinks’. If that is not funny enough, the villains have an underground casino on ‘Coolie Hat Island’ that the wealthy and of course, corrupt, city officials frequent.  A preface, rather than an ‘afterword’, would have gone a long way in explaining the racist commentary throughout the book. The reader is not likely to read or care about the ‘facts and rumors’ dispelled at the end of the novel.  The only redeeming quality of this story is that it is a fast read and requires little thought. This book contributes very little towards quality literature or historical/cultural understanding.    

Tammy continues:  Only Ever Yours was a good read.  O’Neill takes popular culture and stretches it to the absolute limits. She creates a dystopian world in which power, wealth and morality are solely controlled by the male citizens. Females enter ‘society’ only once they are of age to be useful to men. Females are indoctrinated from an early age to see their value only in relation to their appearance. They are ranked according to their daily ‘selfies’ and receive feedback via social media. Unsettling and cruel. When they are of age they are judged by a male panel and assigned to one of three roles: companion, concubine or chastity. The women that hold no sexual value (the chastities) must shave their heads and submit to periods of silence.  The characters in this book engage in self-destructive behaviors. It’s tough to read. It challenges the audience to question the messages that our young women receive.  The author consciously refuses to save or redeem any of the women in this book.  It’s up to the reader to make the connections and to stop the obsession with appearance, media and public shaming before we, too, cannot be saved.      

Back to Nancy:  The misogynistic society O’Neill creates in Only Ever Yours is extremely disturbing.  The girls’ lives revolve around near worship of the worst elements of our teen society.  From ‘vomitoriums’, constant public selfies, weigh-in and prescribed use of oil of ipecac, a page doesn’t go by without a focus on how the girls keep their ‘perfect’ weight. The young females are all constant bullies, and meanness is the complete norm.  Page after page, the behaviour of the characters is relentlessly unacceptable.  The girls’ unapologetic language (bitch, slut,) and two faced treatment of their friends is a model that I abhor.  There is no redemption, no lessons learned, and the ending makes this a cautionary tale about the fate our society could move toward.  I would not want vulnerable young girls to buy into the hopelessness of this narrative.  The deep conversations that could be sparked by comparisons to our world are mitigated in my mind by the pervasive negative modeling of the characters. 

So that leaves us with a difficult decision; we yearn for a tie breaker vote but that is not to be.  In the spirit of collaboration, I, Nancy, concede to Tammy and will allow Only Ever Yours to move on to the next stage… I am very anxious to read other Smackdowners’ opinions on this book!  (And now Tammy owes me one…)

(And meanwhile, I encourage you to read The Shadow Hero!)

Diamond Boy Versus The Heartlight Saga

So I liked both of these books, but I generally do like all the books we choose.  Diamond Boy is based in Zimbabwe and revolves around the immoral diamond mines of Africa, in particular the Marange mines. I use lots of realistic fiction in  my grade 9 Language Arts classes and this book title will be added to my list of novels for sure.  The narrator, Patson who is high school, leaves his town to follow a promise of riches in the diamond mines run by his step-mothers brother.  Right from the start it becomes evident that the world Patson and his father, sister and step-mother are entering is not what they had been told awaited them.  I connected with the struggles and injustices of the characters worlds, and the unlikely hero's that turn up in hideous times of humanity.  When the use of land mines enters the story I was not expecting it.  I loved this book and it is simply written in terms of vocabulary so I could see many reluctant junior high boys loving this book.

The Heartlight Saga, is the first novella in a series of 3.  It is fantasy, based in science and not the usual novel I love to read.  Yet I had trouble putting it down.  The idea of a famous astrophysicist spending his whole life learning how to seperate our "PCL" or "Pure Condensed Light' from our bodies to allow for time travel was intriguing.  Then to know that travelling into a different dimensions leaves a portal open for spirit beings from another plane gets frightening.  Tie it all together with the importance of butterfly's to transport our "PCL" and I was hooked.  The writing and vocabulary was more sophisticated than Diamond Boy, and I believe only my strong readers would enjoy the novel.  But I really, really did love it and kept wanting to read to see how could this world be plausible.

The winner for this round is The Heartlight Saga by T.A. Barron.  I am still buying a copy of Diamond Boy for my classroom asap!


I promised my group to adhere to two things in my post:
1) That I wouldn't be too mean to Lisa
2) That I would be appropriate

I seriously question what my group thinks of me when these are the ground rules for my post.  They take the fun OUT OF EVERYTHING. Humpf.

Lets get the blaming out of the way right off the top.  We had all the books to choose from and I mistakenly allowed Lisa to pick.  "I love Gary Schmidt," she said in her usual Lisa voice.  My eyes hovered over The Crossover, When I Was the Greatest, and Family Romanov.  SIGH.  Compromise. I am capable of compromise. We took Orbiting Jupiter and Pointe.  This text message conversation sums up our experience perfectly:

What the what.  Where do I even start... Our meeting on Tuesday was one of the tamest meetings in the history of ABM Smackdown meetings.  There was little yelling and no pointing of fingers.  The phrase "I don't know" was thrown around a lot.

Here's the break down of the books:

Orbiting Jupiter is a short text narrated by a young boy Jack, whose family fosters a troubled grade eight boy.  Joseph's story takes awhile to come to fruition, and you are left wondering about what terrible thing has happened to this boy that makes him act this way. The family lives on a farm and there is a lot about milking cows.  I kept waiting for the significance to play out on this, but nothing.  I was really holding out hope that the friendly old cow Rosie was going to save the day somehow, but no. There was repeated mention of the frozen river, and well...I'll just leave that part hanging in case you want to read it for yourself.

Pointe is a fascinating book because somehow between sex, drugs, and eating disorders (and you thought I was going to say rock 'n' roll!) the main character, who only practices a few times a week, is on her way to becoming a high level ballerina.  Her childhood friend who was abducted returns to town and it brings back a lot of bad memories. If you have a teenage daughter you may want to refrain from reading this book, because as Annabel stated she's about to start home schooling her kid if that's what high school is like.

Both of these books have major flaws.  Like Swiss cheese problems. Holes. Gaps.

Things that make your whole group say HOW CAN WE EVEN PUT ONE OF THESE BOOKS THROUGH?

We feel like none of our kids would read either of these books because they would struggle to make connection to the characters' experiences.  If there was some sort of super secret rule to banish both of these books we would. But there isn't.  So, we decided to put through Pointe because, if anything, it deserves to win some sort of V.C Andrews Flowers in the Attic award for screwed uppedness.  Yes, I made that up.  I also made up this new category for book awards.  I can imagine the medallion on the front of the book already.  There would be some sort of weird cobweb covered flower on it.  Pointe is more likely to cause waves or controversy, so we decided that another group should be so lucky to have to read it.

It kills me that Pointe is going through when fabulous books with crochet covered guns on the cover are being kicked out.  There is no justice in this literary world, I swear.

Wait, if there is justice, the group who kicked out When I Was the Greatest should be made to read this book.  See? Who needs to comment when you can just smack directly in your own post? (insert sneaky grin emoji here)

The Family Romanov: Murder, Rebellion, and the Fall of Imperial Russia

The Family Romanov is a wonderful nonfiction that reads like a story. We found the writing to be extremely engaging. We all agreed that it is a well written story about the life and lifestyles of not just the Russian elite but the everyday people. The use of letters and diaries from the commoners contrasted greatly with the extravagant and ill informed outlook of the Romanovs. Having read the adult version of this book, The Romanovs: The Final Chapter, this version is a great read for young adults as an introduction to the social and political history of communist Russia. On the other hand we found that Cartwheeling in Thunderstorms was a difficult read. It was choppy, jumped all over the place and we had a hard time relating to the main character.  Visitors to Africa would be able to relate to the imagery better then those that have never been. This was a book we would not recommend to students. 

Suanne, Katrina and Judy (aka Sunita)

Where Have All My Teammates Gone?

Freshly back from the NCTE/ALAN conferences and a two hour commute I tried to get together with my colleagues today. Lunch wouldn't work - neither did after school but two isolated conversations have led to a decision. I will let Arlene and Andrew comment on this tomorrow...but as I have learned at my conference if you want your kids to write you need to write. If I want you to blog on time, I must blog on time. 

I won’t call it cheating, but the way things worked out I had a substantial head starts in round one. A smack and school colleague gave me Popular to read during the last school year. It definitely had a catchy idea...child discovers a book from the 50s written for teens who want to be popular. Child is precocious as is her family (picture Stargirl with a couple of cups of media savvy thrown in) at least that was the way I read it. Child precedes to follow the advice then write this nonfiction account.

I have to say the my reading lens of Stargirl sell-out soured the whole thing for me...but my colleague loved it….would the other readers in my group?

Dumplin’ I listened to on audio and found it an enjoyable listen. Willowdean is mourning her aunt's death and preparing to deal with her mother who runs the town's yearly beauty pageant. Willowdean does not fit the stereotype beauty queen image but that doesn't mean she's not going to enter. Much has been made about this heroine being comfortable in her own body and I wonder if people were reading a different book. I don’t think any of us are comfortable in our own bodies but, if we are lucky, we don’t let it get in the way of our life. This is the message I took away from this book. Willowdean learns not to limit herself as the book goes along. The voice is strong and the character feels more realistic for the times she does think about her weight, does make assumptions about others and what their body types and personalities should limit them to and when she does sometimes not take a risk. Because Johnson does that Willowdean's determination to stay in the pageant is a stand up and cheer moment. 3-0 Dumplin' moves on.

Arlene? Andrew?

The Thing About Jellyfish vs. The Art of Secrets

I moderately enjoyed both of the books. For the most part they were able to peak my interest and keep me engaged until the conflict was resolved. I found both novels to be inaccessible for Div I and II, but for different reasons. How are readers supposed to see themselves in either of these texts? They are forced to be either; depressed, a passive-aggressive follower, a jerky/womanizing-jock, a conniving/scheming do-gooder, a foreign exchange student with little English, a student from an “immigrant family”, or someone wracked with guilt and depression (and who possibly sits on the spectrum - not that there is an issue. If you’re going to write a character who is on the spectrum, at least make them someone who will make someone in their shoes proud. But, I guess, if this character is to be on the spectrum - this could be a perspective completely foreign to me. And then who am I to judge how authentic the character is…?? Sorry, I tend to ramble once I get started…  Other than the odd boy and the science teacher in TTAJF, there aren’t any really likeable characters in either book.
The Thing About Jellyfish
Compared to The Art of Secrets, I think The Thing About Jellyfish is better written and flows better. I think it is slightly more accessible (language and skill wise) than The Art of Secrets. The Thing About Jellyfish seems to be targeted towards a more mature audience; an audience that has some experience being the isolated or “weird” student. (In my humble opinion - with limited experience with tragedy in my teen years) I found her fixation on the jellyfish to be a rather strange coping mechanism for a teenager. I don’t think I would recommend this novel for anyone below grade seven (or the very advanced and mature grade five or six student). I do not think this book would resonate with male readers in Div II or III.
The Art of Secrets
Overall, I think I enjoyed The Art of Secrets a little more this go-round. I enjoyed the mystery element over the confessional style of The Thing About Jellyfish. My only real complaint is that for a novel about a family who has immigrated to the United States, it is rather difficult to follow along. I was hoping for a first hand account from the “new” student. I was hoping this novel might provide a voice for an “immigrant” student. The perspectives/ interviews are very disjointed and at times confusing… I think a student with limited English would have difficulty staying engaged long enough to finish the whole story.
Theme/ story wise I would recommend the novel to a strong Div II reader. Skill/language wise, I would recommend this novel to a Div III student. I think the content of the novel would resonate equally with male or female readers - as it portrays both genders in a positive and negative light. I also don’t particularly appreciate how the art teacher is homosexual… it is too expected and stereotypical.  I appreciate how the sexuality of this particular character is not a big deal or abnormal... But to be honest, I’m not sure why it was included at all. It seemed a little contrived for the art teacher to be homosexual… and to only be introduced to serve as someone’s alibi and nothing more. At least have a character’s sexuality have an impact on the story if you’re going to include any mention of it. 

The Thing About Jellyfish
The interesting… readable, and in places even moderately engaging.  The irritating... so much female adolescent grade 7 drama.  First the interesting.  TTAJF is organized around the seven steps of the scientific process ...that was interesting.  The facts about jellyfish had me researching … that was interesting.  Even Zu’s wild hair (analogous to the tentacles of JF?) is interesting.  Her fascination with JF resulting in a nickname of Medusa was interesting and even amusing.  These qualities made the pages turn.  The irritating?...   in a word, forced and tedious drama (ok, four words).   Loss of a friend, divorced parents, gay siblings, childhood pacts, best friends, worst enemies, conciliatory and begrudging acknowledgements, sitting alone in the cafeteria, spitting, frozen urine frizbees in lockers (yes, you read right), …. puhleeeeese.   Then the coup de grace (can you believe that more could happen to our woebegone herione?)… “Zu”  steals her father’s credit card and purchases a plane ticket to Australia, to speak to an expert who does not return phone calls.  Thankfully some adult was conscious enough to recognize and thwart the mastermind scheme. Let me end on the positive.  Isn’t the science teacher, a delight!!

The Art of Secrets has a different voice or writing style than I am used to.  I kept hoping that the unique writing style of memos, newspaper clippings, interviews and soliloquies, all written in the second person, would eventually captivate me.  It did not work, at least not for me.  I did not really get the feel of development, depth of personality, subtle character traits, or interesting challenge.  Rather, it felt very static and one dimensional.  Not sure if that makes sense.  It might be better to just say it felt “flat”.  I did enjoy the “who dun it” aspect of the plot, and my predictions were proven wrong in the end.  That was fun.  I was also intrigued by the reference to a little known artist, Henry Darger, and a little Google research verified the troubling nature of his “outsider art”.  Much of this art is quite disturbing and I wonder how appropriate it is for young readers.  Finally, the book plays with the reader’s perceptions of characters, and at times challenges stereotypes.  As I read my own meandering review, I realize that the book has me perplexed and a little off balance.  For that reason, it gets my vote as the better of the two.  I hope the next round has me more enthusiastic. 

I was interested enough in both books to want to finish them.  They both had enough “mystery” for me to want to find out in The Thing About Jellyfish what the terrible thing was that she had done to Franny before she died. The way the girls grew apart in their friendship was believable as that is the age that some girls start to want to “grow up and be more mature” and are more interested in boys, physical appearance, and some aren’t interested at all.    As an adult  teacher reading this book, I can infer that there was possibly some traits of aApergers in the main character, but that there was also the question of puberty and changing and growing away from childhood friends.  I don't know if this would be apparent to a younger reader or if the character would just seem weird.  But.  it was a nice ending that she found some new friendships with kids she had things in common with.

In the Art of Secrets, I was intrigued enough to want to find out who set the fire, and was unable to predict that ending at all, so the red herrings that were thrown out had me guessing to the end….the brother, the principal...everyone had motives for stealing the artwork too!   There were more engaging elements of mystery apparent in the Art of Secrets.  I also like the different narrators telling the story from their perspectives.  As an adult, I enjoy reading Jodi Picoult novels for that is always good to hear another perspective.  Yes, the characters were formulaic - dumb jock, immigrant Muslim, blonde hair blue eyed “all american” family, crazy principal, gay teacher, but it was easier to understand their motives with the stereotypes. 
Overall, we didn't love either of the books, but are voting for The Art of Secrets to go through.



Monday, November 23, 2015

Mighty Smackdown: That was one Crazy Pigeon...

Mighty Smackdown: That was one Crazy Pigeon...: Our novels were Pigeon English by Stephen Kellman and Crazy by Linda Vigen Phillips.   You would think that a novel about an 11-year-o...

That was one Crazy Pigeon...

Our novels were Pigeon English by Stephen Kellman and Crazy by Linda Vigen Phillips.  

You would think that a novel about an 11-year-old Ghanaian immigrant caught up in the gang warfare of a south London ghetto would have a strong appeal.  Especially if it a tale that includes gang violence, a family divided, and the women forced into moral compromises in order to overcome the family’s daily struggle.  All of this is the backdrop for a story that includes Harri, the protagonist, and his best friend Dean.  It is in this gritty context that they, armed with camouflaged binoculars and all the detective knowledge one can glean from network television, decide to solve the murder of an older boy who lived in their neighbourhood.  It certainly sounds like a contender.  Unfortunately, you have to read it, and their in lies the problem.  It is a difficult, often slow, and sometimes pretentious narrative that leaves the reader more inclined to put it down than slog their way through it. The story is one worthy of telling, and this novel has a solid, consistent, and an unapologetic voice.  It is just not for the faint of heart, or an inexperienced reader.  

Crazy, has a much stronger hook, but a much weaker voice.  It seems like the tale of a typical teen growing up in the 1960’s.  Laura, the protagonist, negotiates all the classic teen woes; school, friends, romance, and the firm belief that her parents are crazy.  Unfortunately, in Laura’s case, her parents really are crazy.  She is so remarkably talented you want to hate her, but you can’t because your compassion goes out to her as she battles those struggles she so desperately to hide from the world.  Your relationship with the protagonist will run the course of liking her, feeling sorry for her, and wanting to beg her to stop complaining.  

Our vote went to Crazy because it deals with a contemporary, hot topic for young readers. It is also a step toward breaking down the stigma of mental illness and bringing forth an understanding of how mental illness affects not just one person, but the whole family.  It is not a more worthy topic than Pigeon, it just has the added advantage of being readable as well as relevant.

The Rest of Us Just Live Here by Patrick Ness vs The Living by Matt de la Pena


Long story short - The LIVING is moving on.

Long story, on!

Van’s thoughts...
Wow, it continues in great Smackdown tradition to see many unlike books paired, especially in round 1. For me, this remained true.  I read The Living in two sittings and could not put it down - action, action, action.  I am always looking for a book with “boy” appeal and this definitely qualifies.  I know there were a lot of bad things happening one after another but I didn’t feel like “What!?!”  Was it the best piece of literary fiction? No, but kids would read this book and sell it to other kids.
I was really looking forward to The Rest of Us as I am always intrigued by what weirdness Patrick Ness will bring to his next book.  I was not let down.  I read this over a week mostly because I needed to digest the story a little at a time. I liked it but I felt that Ness tried to put too many characters with personal challenges in one book. And then jazz them up a little by adding Gods, vampires and immortals. At my school, there are kids who would like it but I don’t think they would LOVE it.  I did think he did an excellent job at providing insight into OCD and I really felt for Mikey but I didn’t really get to know the other characters.  I’m leaning toward The Living, convince me otherwise!

Haley:  I wasn’t really blown away by either of them, but I did enjoy moments. The Living and The Rest of Us will definitely appeal to very different audiences.
The Living by Matt De La Pena, an action-packed story about the end of the world, reads like High-Low fiction. There is nothing complicated about the story or the writing itself. This is textbook YA apocalypse fiction: there’s a weird disease, a drug company conspiracy, the worst earthquakes and tsunamis in recorded history, and for some reason the story is set on a cruise ship. It’s straightforward action, minor disaster after minor disaster, with a sub-plot of teenage unrequited love. I wasn’t really drawn into the plot of Living, but I did find the main character, Shy, to be relatable. His internal monologue during his interactions with his crush, Carmen, is dorky and funny and his reactions to the disasters that befall him and the rest of the characters are realistic. Shy isn’t a hero, he’s just a kid, and I liked that about him; he feels like a real person. Overall, not an earth-shaking novel (pun intended), but it comes with teenage angst in spades and I know plenty of kids who would gobble this book up. Plus, it’s part of a series, which is one of my favourite ways to ‘trick’ reluctant readers into a love affair with reading.
The Rest of Us Just Live Here, by Patrick Ness, is unlike anything I’ve read. In the world of a typical teen fantasy or sci-fi novel, the main character is the hero of her universe, has a ridiculous name and weird hobbies, and is beset with fantastical other-worldly challenges within the context of a seemingly normal teenage life in a seemingly normal American town. The Rest of Us is set in that same town. That “normal” town where the typical main characters date vampires and battle with the dark side of the universe. Ness takes that world and turns his magnifying glass on the extras, the characters that aren’t special and aren’t cool and just live normal lives in the normal town while all the cool kids live extraordinary lives in a universe that always seems to revolve around them.

Really, it’s more literary experiment than novel. Each chapter begins with a 5 sentence summary of the typical teen novel plotline - what are all the cool kids doing? They’re saving the world, obviously. In this novel, however, the cool kids are the subplot. The main plot begins after this summary, from the point of view of Mikey, one of the extras, a normal boy with normal problems who just wants to be the hero of his own story. Mikey and his friends are instantly loveable characters with real problems like eating disorders, dead siblings, shitty parents, and OCD. Ness’ experiment goes awry, though, because neither subplot nor plot is detailed or compelling enough to hold the reader’s interest. And the cool kids, “Indie kids” as Ness calls them, are constantly popping up and interrupting the plot with their problems and then racing off to solve them, but not before reminding Mikey and his crew that they shouldn’t get involved because they’re probably not supposed to help. This isn’t their storyline, after all. These interactions between subplot and plot, which should be hilarious or at least interesting, end up working against Ness, though, because every time Mikey’s story starts to stand on its own two feet it is interrupted by the ridiculous subplot and I am reminded that I am participating in a bizarre literary experiment, not just reading a book.
That being said, the novel isn’t a complete failure, though, because Ness manages to spend enough time on Mikey’s story to get us to really care about him. And, his portrayal of Mikey and his sister’s mental illnesses is accurate, heartbreaking, and tender. Ness doesn’t solve their problems for them, either. In the final moments of the novel, in a contrived twist of fate, Mikey’s should-be-”Indie” friend, Jared, reveals that he has the power to cure Mikey’s OCD and Mikey turns him down, saying that he doesn’t want to spend the rest of his life not knowing if he could have figured it out on his own. For me, that is the ultimate victory of this book - that Ness is able to portray characters with mental illness honestly and accurately and that he doesn’t tie things up neatly for them. Unfortunately, that’s not what Ness’ book is about. Really, by the end of it, it was hard to tell what Ness wanted the book to be about. I’m not sure Ness knew, either. As an experiment, this novel is, without question, unsuccessful, and I found myself wishing Mikey had his own book. But maybe that’s what Ness wants us to take away from this experience? A clamboring for something more than typical teen novels? Whatever Ness’ intentions were, they fall flat because this novel would probably not hold the attention of the average teen reader much past the first chapter. Which is too bad, really, because in its redeeming moments there is a bit of genius here.
So, even though I liked the character of Mikey enough to vote for The Rest of Us despite its failings, because it’s not particularly readable as a whole I can’t in good conscience force anyone else to read it. Even in the spirit of literary experimentation. And that leaves us with The Living as my pick - a fast-paced book with a flimsy plot. A snack of a novel that you can read in one sitting and that will not leave you completely unsatisfied.

Brent’s Thoughts:
I’ve been in The Mighty Smackdown for a few years now and the two times we’ve had a Patrick Ness selection I came out thinking that his book was the best of the bunch. With A Monster Calls we all pretty much agreed and with More Than This, everyone just kind of looked at me awkwardly through the internet. I’m pretty much over that, though. When I saw The Rest of Us Just Live Here up against The Living, which has a pretty schlocky cover and a bit of a too cool for school air about it, I figured this would not be much of a battle. I was right, but not the way I thought.
So, The Rest of Us Just Live Here is pretty cool at times. Some intriguing characters. Mysterious plot. And a vague, but thought-provoking, alternative universe with vampires, Gods, weird deers and whatever the hell Indie kids are. All wrapped in near bursting bubble of teen angst.
If you found those last five sentences (or not) a bit tough to digest, consider it a microcosm of the novel. As usual, Ness shows himself to be thought-provoking and thoughtful. He has an ear for cadences in speech that suggest magnitudes lurking below the surface, but he also creates characters who seem just a little too self-satisfied even while they are welling in sometimes outrageous misery. But that’s a small thing. The issue here is there is just flat out too much going on. This does not read like a novel, so much as a pilot episode of a television series; and probably a series that would build off a mediocre pilot (or maybe first six episodes, more accurately) to turn into something special. I very much liked the way that we are plunked into the middle of this world where all this weird stuff is just part of the lay of the land and Ness does not feel compelled to launch us into massive expository digressions. This restraint (or maybe it’s just part of a larger plan where these things are revealed in subsequent books) is not in evidence in other areas of the book, however. Consider, Mikey. He has OCD. His sister has struggled with an eating disorder. He’s deeply in love with Henna, who we are reminded many times, is very beautiful. As is the new kid, Nathan, who Mikey hates, but Henna seems intrigued by. Oh and his dad is an alcoholic. And his mom is a selfish (mostly) grasping politician. And I haven’t even mentioned the plot yet.
I’m all for ambitious novels with complexity, but for me, this novel is not so much complex as it is overburdened. I’d be game for getting to know these characters a bit better and I’d be up for digging into the mythological context Ness has built around them, but these two things seem to be working at cross purposes in a 300 page novel that simply can’t give each devil its due. I liked a lot of things in the book, but it was not a book that I found myself reading compulsively.

I’m prepared for indignant cries of “hypocrite” given my primary criticism that Ness has too many balls in the air, given that Matt De La Pena’s The Living also gives his protagonist, Shy, a lot to deal with, but I’m going to give him credit for having a clear sense of what he has created. This is the first book in a series. Shy is a young male protagonist that has enough swagger that he might resonate with some of our young guys who may be more comfortable with video games and action flicks, but he also has some depth and nuance to his character. Yes, he ogles the beauties (he is, to be fair, on a cruise ship) in his life relentlessly, but he is reflective about some of the conflicts this creates for him. As the blurb on the cover notes, the novel is “plot-driven” in the sense that there is a lot of things happening, but it is continually moving and I found it an enjoyable read. I don’t want to oversell the book, but in a book layered with many human and global catastrophes, De La Pena showed a real skill for creating space for considering some profound issues. Bottom line for me: I was intrigued enough by the book that I think I would buy the next in the series and I can think of no small number of students that I would feel comfortable recommending the book to.

When I Was the Greatest vs. The Truth About Alice

When I Was the Greatest vs. The Truth About Alice

Laura and I had the pleasure of reading two pretty decent books this round, which made for a tricky decision in the end. When I Was the Greatest is a novel that features young male characters that are easy to like because of the way they generally made good decisions despite being faced with tough situations and difficult life circumstances. It has some humor, a strong voice, and a feel-good ending...but maybe a little too feel-good. Everything wrapped up so neatly that we thought it was a bit hard to believe. There was a lot of build up to a climax that was a bit anticlimactic. However, I did give this book a try in my grade 8 class as a lit circle option, and my students who are reading it are liking it so far. Laura and I both liked it too, but not as much as our other book.

The Truth About Alice is our pick to go through to the next round. This book centres around the topic of bullying and the effects of rumors and lies on a person in a small-town high school. Each chapter is from a different character's perspective, making for a truly "gossipy" feeling throughout. There are a few twists that I didn't expect towards the end and Laura and I both liked that the ending was hopeful but not perfect.The book got better and better as it went on. It was more realistic than When I Was the Greatest and would definitely appeal to young female readers, primarily. 

That's all...we're hoping for more good reads after an enjoyable first round!