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, January 11, 2016

    Please click on image to view larger version. 

Thursday, January 7, 2016

ROUND TWO FINISH - When do We Get to the Good Stuff?

I promise you folks...we did not keep the award winners in the closet!! Every book you read won a reward or was given high praise by people who claim to know better. What does it tell you?

It tells you if you are not reading books for the students in your class you can't depend on award winners to provide.

It tells you opinions and attitudes around books vary greatly...just like your kids do.

It tells you that you should maybe read some of the early Smackdown exiters to find the book you might cherish for the zombie pick.

Not all blogs are in but all results are and the quarter-finals have the following matchups in Jeopardy question form:

1. What is a Crossover Gabi?
2. What is a Crazy Nest?
3.  What are Only Family?
4. What are Living Secrets?

Check the updated draw if you can't figure it out from there.  Teams for the quarter-final draws will be emailed to participants today.  Now get out there and Smack!

The Living vs. Dumplin'


amiskwaciy Team (aka Chandra): One lonely vote for Dumplin’.

I generally liked both of these books! I didn’t fall in love with either!  Matt de la Pena did great job in The Living at keeping me around for “just one more chapter” (and then one more… and then okay, just one more) with all those cliffhangers and exciting action.  I also appreciate that he didn’t shy away from a George R.R. Martin-esque killing off of characters.  But, okay, do we think that even the most love/lust-struck of teens would spend that much time in the midst of massive storms, tidal waves, shark attacks, starvation,fleeing from evil scientists with guns and flamethrowers, etc., etc.,  worrying about a hot girl?   And does every senior-high geared YA novel need a love triangle?

Speaking of, Dumplin’.  I started this one thinking I would HATE it.  A book about a beauty pageant in small-town Texas?  Nuh-uh.  I’d rather read my car’s instruction manual.  But this one surprised me.  I found myself rooting for Willowdean and her accidental gang of misfits, and feeling invested in her fraught relationship with her mother.  Oh, and I appreciated that solving her love-triangle dilemma was a bit messy, and that feelings had to be hurt.  Too often authors & filmmakers seem to find a way to solve them where the protagonist escapes responsibility and blame.  Anyway, perhaps because of the surprise factor, my vote (by the slimmest of margins) goes to Dumplin’.  It looks like I’m in definitely in the minority this time, though, and I’m totally okay with that!

Westmin Team: The Living by default!

Wendy- I am voting for The Living-- reluctantly.  Found that Dumplin’ didn't deliver.  It takes a good writer to carve out a hero with an unattractive character flaw -- like Dexter-- and I think 'fat' is a character flaw that evokes very little empathy in our weight obsessed society. (Hey- it is new years and I have just started my yearly diet!)  Don't think that Murphy does it well though I wish she had.  Found myself unattracted to and uninterested in the main character.

Krystal-I eagerly began Dumplin' with the anticipation of connecting to a character on a ‘personal struggle’ basis as so many of us also deal with weight insecurities. The protagonist Willowdean seems to have so much promise in the beginning as an inspirational and strong character, but soon becomes petty, pig headed,  and quite mean in her struggles for self identity. I believe students will want to read this book but soon be disappointed with the character flaws found in Willowdean’s behaviour. The story is slow to start, makes a few good connections for anyone familiar with Dolly Parton, but does not follow through with the character’s development that one hopes for.

Wendy- The Living on the other hand is just a better version of the Hardy boys' adventure.  It is indeed action packed and leaves off with no apology in a cliffhanger, 'wait for the next book' chapter. I found it fun, easy to read and a book that young boys in Junior High would enjoy.  Enough said.

Ellerslie Team:  We are voting for The Living to move on.

Dumplin’ is the story of Willowdean Dickson, a self-proclaimed “fat girl”.  She’s always been very comfortable with her size until she starts working at a local fast food restaurant and garners the attention of the ”hot jock”.  Willowdean then starts to lose her self-confidence and doubts whether or not she deserves the attention of a good looking boy.  In an attempt to regain some of her previous confidence she decides to enter the local beauty pageant which her mother, a former winner, is in charge of. Along the way she fights with her best friend, gets embroiled in a love triangle, and becomes friends with some fellow outcasts.

I wanted to like Willowdean and at the beginning I sort of did, but as the book went on she became insecure, petty, and at times downright annoying.  I was expecting a sassy, confident, take no prisoners kind of attitude from her that she just never delivered.  The pace of the book was slow and although there were some funny parts I just wasn’t interested in finding out what happens to her or the pageant.

The Living was a slow starter.  I found myself growing annoyed with Carmen and hoped the story wasn’t going to be just another teen-angst-crush-on-the-unattainable-but-maybe-interested-in-me-hot-girl story.  Thankfully, after the initial suicide and wallowing in Carmen-dom, the action picked up and from there, the interest picked up, too.  This still wasn’t the best apocalyptic telling I’ve read, but by the end I found myself curious enough to look up the sequel.

Wednesday, January 6, 2016

The Beauty of the Broken vs Crazy

The Beauty of the Broken vs Crazy

Long story short: Crazy is moving on.  Long story long, keep reading.....

Dia:Every once in awhile I find the Smackdown tiring...these were supposed to be the "good" books and I find myself debating between meh and blech! As always it is a cautionary lesson to not let the Junior Library Guild or the International Literacy Association or even independent bookstores tell you what they (or more likely 3 overworked, volunteer committee members) think you should read.
Let's start with The Beauty of the Broken which shares a cover with last year's Smackdown fave We Were Liars. The beauty comes in some of the language Waters' uses and the idea of the story this book could have been. Unfortunately the broken part is that this book is a checklist of teen  problems for would-be YA writers, each of which, on their own could have made a satisfying novel. Together I find them a soupy mess that quickly had me wanting to throw up my hands and book and reach for something else. Fundamentalist religion - check. LGBTQ - check. Rape - check. First Nations - check. Drunk mother - check. Abusive father - check. Mental breakdown - check.
The next book was Crazy by Phillips. A novel in verse is another gateway reading opportunity I like to offer to my students and it certainly is a fast read. Unfortunately, I didn't find much of it poetic - the line breaks just seemed to be anywhere and the words not really carefully chosen. Based in the 60s we follow the breakdown of a mother who most certainly is bipolar in a time when not much was understood about this disorder. I found this an interesting premise but many threads are just left dangling - the mother's rape, the boyfriend's reputation, the relationship with the father, the future of her painting.
So between dangling threads or every YA trope...I'm going threads and voting for Crazy.

I agree with Dia, which is a rare occurrence at the best of times.
I was actually disappointed with The Beauty of the Broken as so much tragedy was happening in such a way that  I could not think of a single student that I currently or have taught in the past that I would give this book to and say "You have to read this!" I would have much preferred a more focused story on a single issue. 
As for Crazy - I waited for the story to develop deeper and capture me. Unfortunately it didn't. 
Overall, I have to vote for Crazy to move forward but not with enthusiasm or excitement.

Vanessa and Rhonda:
Ugh, the last thing you want over Christmas holidays is to read 2 really depressing novels (especially when your other book club has your reading about a kid with ALS - geez!)
Beauty of the Broken: well written but as the last team said, it should pretty much titled, “Broken”. One sad thing after another happens to Mara and I felt at times, like I was so mired in despair, it was hard to be happy when something went her way. Couldn’t think of a kid I would recommend this to.
Crazy: Sadly, this will be my vote.  Sadly because I’ve already read some of the books in round 1 that didn’t make the cut and some of those books should be moving on instead of this one. (damn draw!) Talented kid who gives it all up because she fears she will develop the mental illness her mother has?Yup.  Did I grow to like her in the end, nope.

Agree with all above. First, let me say I LOVE sad books, so I was actually excited about Beauty of the Broken. Sad? Yes. Over the top? Absolutely. But the most disappointing thing about the book for me was that there is not a single student in my class that I could share this book with. As a matter of fact, I could say that about all of the books I have read in Smackdown so far; this is a major disappointment. (sigh) 4 books read - no shares.
Crazy will be my choice for this round, but I vote for it reluctantly. I enjoyed it. I am a child of the 60s after all, but could I share it with any of my students? Nope. I just don't see them relating to it... at all.
So, a vote for Crazy, and not the last post!! :)

I'm going Crazy as well. Interpret that as you will. I have a semi completed blog that I'll post at some point in teh next two days.

Here's the truth...

The following is a brief additional note re: The Truth About Alice and Only Ever Yours

In the The Truth About Alice by Jennifer Mathieu it was very clear that the author wrote using her background knowledge of working in a high school. It seemed authentic and suitable for grade 9 and up.The characters in the book are very well developed and the major and timeless issue of bullying was accurately portrayed. We found this book to be a quick and easy read with the creative format of hearing a particular character’s voice in each chapter. This book at least leaves the reader with some hope.

Choose a girl… Only Ever Yours… To Own Forever  by Louise O’Neil has got to be one of the most depressing books ever. As stated by our other team members it seems like a cross between The Robber Bride, The Giver and yes Uglies.  Girls have limited choices but the main character doesn't even have that in the end. There is no hope, no change and no exceptions to the rules in this story. Thank goodness this is not the world we live in for it was very disappointing to persevere through trying to understand this dysfunctional society where men rule and the psychopathic sister leader wins in the end. Couldn’t there be some small message of hope for our future? Sigh.....
Dianne and Deb

The LumberJanes vs Family Romonov

The LumberJanes vs Family Romanov

Image result for family romanov bookImage result for lumberjanes

Two very different family pictures!!!

As non-fiction, the Family Romanov is quite interesting and engaging.  It had lots of interesting facts and perspective.  It was interesting to see the juxtaposition between the upper class and the peasants.  I enjoyed the vignettes of the life the peasants had.  As soon as I started to feel sympathetic towards the Tsar and Tsarist, the book would remind me about the terrible job they were doing governing the country.  This a good book not really a great one.  I am voting for it to move forward.

I liked the Lumberjanes, a quick, funny, no real point kind of read.  There wasn't a lot of substance and didn't really stay with me.  However, my daughter loved this book and read it several times while we were on vacation.  I asked her what she liked and she said the characters and the ideas.  It needed more plot (that means things that happen, Mom).  She really wants to read the next one.  It reminded me that my taste is sometimes very different from my daughter.  I have to keep that in mind when I read books I am choosing for the kids.

My pick to move forward is the Romanov's.


Only Ever Yours vs The Truth About Alice - A Close Call!

While reading what we have to say about these two books please remember that we really did enjoying reading them both.  We found they had food for thought and touched on difficult but relevant issues facing older teens today.  However, given that I teach grade 7 and Holly teaches grade 6 we did not feel we would recommend either of these books to any students in our classes.  As with the previous two books we read for this Smackdown edition, we don’t feel the students we teach are the intended audience.  

This time we waded into a) body image/shaming b) social media (albeit futuristic but founded in today) c) eating disorders d) gender roles/equality e) ‘prescription’ drug use/abuse f) online bullying g) face to face bullying/slut shaming h) alcohol i) teenage sex j) texting and driving/drinking and driving k) abortion l) rape.  Neither of these books helped me fall asleep at night!  

Only Ever Yours is a futuristic novel in which women have been reduced to one of three roles; high ranked companion; concubine; chastity.  Ongoing anonymous rankings based on frequent ‘selfies’ posted online, ‘who wore it better’ competitions and other humiliating comparison activities leads to a society of girls who are trapped in the reality that their appearance is all that matters and others must be ‘taken down’ in an attempt to boost your own ranking.  This was a page turner and was deeply disturbing to me, especially once Holly pointed out how Instagram and the like is sometimes used by teens today.  Edgy, dark, daring and scary this book rips down deep into your soul and makes you think about social media and body shaming in particular and the messages being sent to our young people today.  

The Truth About Alice explores what happens when a rumor goes wild and no one does anything to stop it.  Told from multiple alternating perspectives to help the reader understand what those in the town of Healy don’t, what really happened to Brandon Fitzsimmons, Alice Franklin and their peers before Brandon’s death in a car crash.  I found Alice to be an engaging and at times stoic figure and also had particular sympathy for Kurt Morelli as a beautifully developed character.  Holly pointed out to me her dissatisfaction in the final ‘explanation’ in this book and I have to say that I agreed.  

We struggled to meet as a whole group to discuss these two books but there were many hallway discussions which were brought into this final decision which was done via email.  In summary, our two colleagues at Ottewell felt that Alice should move forward while the three of us at ABM wanted to send on Only Ever Yours.  As Arlene succinctly put it, although Only Ever Yours is too long, it is the one she might recommend over Alice as it reminds her of Uglies (which is currently being requested frequently in my grade 7 classes) and vaguely of The Giver.  

We send on Only Ever Yours because it touches on issues we think are relevant today and warrants our attention and discussion.     

Written by Annabel and Holly on behalf of our group.

Revolution Vs. Crossover

Revolution by Deborah Wiles

What a well written book!  I had a hard time setting into Revolution, mostly due to how intimidated I was when I received it. Once I was able to dedicate some time to it and engage with the text, it was more than able to hold my attention and interest and found the book engaging and enlightening. It took a while to get into the characters, but once I had a handle on who was speaking in each chapter,The characters are dynamic and realistic, and are thus able to offer insight into an unimaginable period in time.  There are so many things we take for granted as females, it is hard to believe the racial tension, prejudice, segregation and inequalities that existed only a few years before I was born.   Although this is more  American history than Canadian, and perhaps our students would have less background knowledge of the racial tension that existed in America during the 60’s, the author does a remarkable job teaching the historical facts through the non-fiction sections scattered through the fictional narrative of Sunny, Gillette and Raymond.  

My only hesitation with Revolution is how complex the issues it presents really are. We think it would be better suited for an strong/ advanced/ mature reader in Div 3 (I don’t think even the strong readers in Div 2 would be able to fully comprehend this text). To do a book like this justice it would have to be central to a novel study where a teacher could go more in-depth and provide some structure to delve deeper into the history/truth behind the text. Many of the intricacies, complexities, and significance of these events would be lost on many students. We had trouble at times keeping facts and characters straight, so we can only assume it would be far more difficult for the average adolescent reader. We would gladly have Revolution in my classroom library and would highly recommend it to our students!

Crossover by Kwame Alexander
We all like Crossover. It was a little odd at the start - sometimes difficult to keep track of the minor details - until you get a feel for the two brothers and truly come to appreciate their passion. I think this style of writing is highly captivating for many readers - not to mention, way less daunting for the average reader (compared to Revolution). We were all captivated by the unique style of this novel. We think this book would be a huge hit with reluctant readers, especially those same readers who prefer sports to reading!

As adults, our preference is for Revoution, but for our students we are voting for Crossover.

The Art of Secrets vs. the Heartlight Saga

The clear cut winner for this round is The Art of Secrets.  While most of our group would consider themselves a fan of fantasy and science fiction, it was generally felt that the Heartlight Saga was dated and very exposition heavy.  One member of our group felt that she needed to "push [herself], yelling and screaming, through the Heartlight Saga." The Heartlight Saga lacked artistry and felt generic when compared with The Art of Secrets.

Without a doubt, The Art of Secrets is by far the better read.  It was simply more interesting in it's presentation of different perspectives, with different voices telling the same story, and of course, the final twist.  While the characters were more interesting than the mystery itself, there was a lot of meat to the story.  It was nice to have a story centered around a Muslim family; and, of course, issues of racism arose.  While the vocabulary and general structure is accessible for the average junior high student, the themes of friendship, family, race, poverty, romantic relationships, charity, and deception give a lot of depth and create potential for sophisticated class discussion.

Posted by Amanda B. on behalf of Shelley K., Shelley P., Christine W., and Travis D.

Tuesday, January 5, 2016

Feisty Girls in the Woods vs. The Mad Monk

Brad:  Well, I think I can see where this match-up is going to go, but we’ll chat about it anyway.  Let’s start off with Lumberjanes, because, well, it seems to have invoked the ire of more than a few Smackdown participants.  Thoughts?

Jenny:  Ah, Lumberjanes . . .  I was disappointed.  I thought the concept of the book was interesting: a summer camp where girls battle the strange and supernatural, but it went nowhere.  I didn’t like any of the characters, and every time a character said “What the junk?,” I cringed.  I got to the end and was shocked.  That’s it?!?!

Brad:  But...we only read Part I of a two-part story (get Lumberjanes Vol.II for the rest!!)?!?!  How is that the fault of poor Lumberjanes Vol. I?  I liked it a whole lot more than I expected to.  Look--it’s no Nimona (which, sidebar, Dear Arlene and Dia, should be in next year’s Smackdown):  it lacks the clever allegory and whip-smart social commentary of that Noelle Stevenson work.  But...this is just...FUN.  Like The Goonies. I’m not sure I laughed out loud a lot, but I smiled and snickered the entire time.  And I can’t deride a text that would send kids scurrying to their computers to look up “anagrams” and the “fibonacci sequence.”

Jenny:  I didn’t find it fun; I found it annoying.  As I was reading it, I wondered if kids would find it fun and/or funny.  To me, there was a lot of jumping around from one adventure to the next with really no time to get to know the characters. In all fairness, I should probably read the next book in the series, but I just didn’t care about the girls.

Kelly:  What the junk….was that book all about?  I was excited to start Lumberjanes and was hooked at the first paragraph when it it described how “curiosity and courage are especially important to the Lumberjanes,” but it was nothing but disappointment after that.  I felt the story was scattered,  no development of the characters, and not sure where courage was shown.

Brad:  Huh.  I thought the characters and character development were pretty clear; these are archetypal characters, for sure, and remain fairly static, but, by the end of this four-issue compilation, I had a pretty good feel for all of ‘em.  Look--I’m not saying I loved it or anything, but I thought this was good, clean fun.  All around.
Kelly:  I just never connected with any of the characters.  I just felt it was noisy….how do you like that?

Brad:  Fair enough!  And I can totally see it.  I guess I just sort of embraced the boisterousness of it all.  Again, like The Goonies.  Loud, doesn’t make much sense, but winsomely funny, and, at times, kind of fun.

Graham:  I actually had a ton of fun with Lumberjanes. I felt this book is appealing to a lot of young readers, including me. I understood the characters were somewhat flat and, yes, noisy Kelly. And it was pleasing to me, right from the start. I was prepared for fun and whimsy. I also felt the book played on a fun story with the art adding to the experience.

Brad:  The art was ridiculously fantastic--tons of classroom potential in teaching the sequential image.

Jenny:  I think that it’s funny that the men liked Lumberjanes more than us WOMEN.

Graham: Perhaps it was the comic layout that was somewhat reminiscent to my cartoon-watching days. But I was prepared to enjoy the book from the getgo. I am also pretty good with disobedient children and adventure.

Brad:  Should we move on to The Family Romanov?

Jenny:  In contrast to Lumberjanes, I really liked The Family Romanov.  I thought it was informative and interesting at the same time and a much better way to learn about Russia than using a boring textbook.

Kelly :  I agree with you Jenny.  I loved how I was learning about the Romanov family and about the unrest in Russia.  It was easy to read and I felt connected to the characters.  I actually didn’t want to put it down.

Graham: As I had mentioned in the previous round, I also enjoy history captured in a meaningful and personal experience. The book adds a depth of understanding to Imperialist Russia and the contrast to the haves and have nots.

Brad:  This is going to shock you all, but I, too, really liked The Family Romanov, despite some pretty big flaws, in my opinion.  See, HERE’S what an immaculately-researched non-fiction text can be:  engaging, heartfelt, and moving, without ever sacrificing the “truth” of the real story or real people.  I love how quotations are excerpted from real texts in order to flesh out the story, rather than “fictionalizing” moments in real-life events.  Look--it’s a great story.  Stranger than fiction.

Jenny:  I loved seeing the personal side of the Tsar and Tsarist - flaws, fears, and all.  More “mortal” than perhaps anyone thought.  I also found the chapters about Rasputin fascinating.
Brad:  Me too.  He really was a cat that really was gone. What I didn’t love?  I got a little tired of all those juxtapositional interstitial chapters where the opulence of the royal family was contrasted with the impoverished drudgery of the Russian commonfolk. Necessary, I suppose, but SO SO MUCH.  I got it.  Really.  The first ten times.

Jenny:  I agree--I thought that the other perspectives were great at first but then became tired of them.  But, even so, I actually got a little emotional  - I know--hard to believe - when the family was being brought to their execution...  

Kelly : ...and how fast the execution happened!  (Editor's NoteSpoiler alert!?!?!  Necessary?   Unnecessary?  Whatever. END Editor's Note)  I can’t imagine the fear when they realized what was going to happen.  Interesting--I actually enjoyed the constant contrast of peasant/common folk and the privileged lives of the Romanovs.  I felt that it kept you thinking about what was really happening in Russia.  It kept you from only focusing on what was specifically happening with the Romanovs. 

Brad:  So...which moves on?  Everyone?

Jenny:  Gotta love those Russians!

Kelly:  Hands down, no question, the Russians.  It will be the only time I cheer for the Russians...Don Cherry would not be impressed.

Graham: I have to go with my good friend Rasputin.

Brad:  Me too.  Those zany, zany Russians.

Kelly:  I love it that we all agree!!