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, February 22, 2016

The Summary and the Semi-Finals: The Title for Your New Favourite Telenovela

People started disagreeing! Books people thought were just meh became other’s favourites. The age old battle between easy/appropriate for my kids vs. fantastic writing but not for my school's backyard reared its head.

No one could agree unless you were the team reading Only Ever Yours vs. The Family Romanov. Meanwhile The Living by the new Newbery Award Winner Matt de la Pena won handily over Art of Secrets but not everyone agreed about that. I thought The Nest would win over Crazy but was shocked when it wasn’t unanimous and Crazy found its champion in Tristin. Being shocked has tended to be the very best thing about the reading, thinking, blogging that goes on in Smackdown - but that’s just my opinion. Sadly Gabi, A Girl in Pieces bowed out to Kwame Alexander’s Crossover making it seem like the curse of the Newbery in Smackdown may be over.

Gabi was the best thing I have read in Smackdown this year but to be fair I haven’t read it all. I am hearing rumblings of The Thing About Jellyfish coming back in the zombie pick...Gabi vs. Jellyfish or maybe another secret gem missed in the smaller pool of readers in the first round? Who knows - but maybe as we head into the semi-finals you may want to consider reading books you missed out on so your zombie pick could be brainy….I know terrible!

Thursday, February 18, 2016

The Nest or Crazy

The main characters in both The Nest and Crazy had defective family members that they sort of didn't want around. Crazy was written in a more down to earth manner so we could identify with both the mom and the daughter. The end was inconclusive but at least the main character had some tools and more understanding to deal with her situation.
Nest was written in a Patrick Ness sort of way where you were drawn to the story not quite knowing how and what was happening. The queen bee almost seemed to be like the main character’s subconscious thoughts until things got nasty. Then morals took over and the little brother was saved from an actual bee swarm. This was quite a different style for Oppel.
This was a difficult decision to make. After much discussion Dianne and I agreed that Nest should move on. Then after a final weekend of deliberation I backed out and decided that Crazy should move on. Sorry Dianne!
I feel that Crazy lends itself to bringing the important topic of mental illness out in the open and in a way that teens could relate to, thus allowing for open discussion among students. Sometimes we can deal with our problems by reading a good fantasy and getting lost for a while, but wouldn’t it be better to understand the issues and perhaps find the possibility of long term help and support, instead of a band-aid solution?
Final outcome is one vote for Nest and one for Crazy!

Deb, blogging for Ottewell (part of Team 2).

You Go Gabi, but You Ain't Crossing Over

So, I spent the bulk of my last post whining about the plague of verse novels and YA novelists that can’t say “enough” as they pile on the problems plaguing their protagonists. Naturally, these next two novels, The Crossover and Gabi: A Girl in Pieces, represent each of these pet peeves, respectively, but somehow I emerged without finding myself too irritated. I liked them both, and I’ve actually really been struggling with which one to put forward (Spoiler Alert: It doesn’t really matter as my group has already kicked Gabi to the curb and went with The Crossover.) as I could see myself recommending each very strongly to very different kids.

I found the The Crossover a little underwhelming at first and that was possibly due to my antipathy for the novel in verse form, which I find very limiting unless in the hands of a really exceptional poet. What the form does offer, in this case, is an opportunity for Alexander to establish some character touchstones and really ground the culture of the book fairly quickly, and I think for some kids that will create some early reading momentum. I don’t think Alexander is a great poet and I’m still not convinced that the ultimate ends of the novel couldn’t have been rendered more effectively and, even more poetically, through prose, but the guy does get basketball and there is a cadence to the novel that does remind one of a basketball game. The story comes at you in quick bursts, often with unique turns of phrase and a pop-culture sensitivity that is going to really resonate with some readers. I don’t think you need to be a guy, or a basketball fan, to appreciate the novel, but there is certainly something to be said for a novel that you may be able to put into the hands of a reluctant and, perhaps, athletic young reader. I think the novel falls down a bit in regard to character development. We’re left to infer a lot about the characters and that is alternately exciting and frustrating. For me, the frustrating part was that we have a writer who is really asking us to peer inside some complex - and all too common -emotions that young people, and perhaps particularly young men, have difficulty dealing with, but I feel like we had the chance to watch those emotions play out, without really exploring them in any depth and nuance. This is where the form he’s chosen really lets Alexander down as those quick explosions of dialogue and fleeting images do not always create a truly coherent narrative. It’s a good book and I think some kids would really like it, but I think it had the potential to be something really special and you can feel it kind of slipping away in the final quarter of the novel.

I was prepared to find Gabi: A Girl in Pieces a little bit much right from my first glance at the cover and while it does all get laid on a little thick sometimes, particularly with the meth-head dad scenes, I was frankly charmed by Gabi herself. She was unflinchingly honest and principled and funny and smart and  . . . well you kind of get the picture. Despite her frequent protestations to the contrary, she is really someone who is comfortable in her own skin and, of course, it warms my little English teacher soul to see the role that language and literature plays in making her who she is. The novel veers a little close to being a two note after-school special (Don’t be homophobic! No means no!) at times, but again, Gabi saves it. If there is a message in this book, it isn’t about any particular idea or theme, so much as it is about recognizing the complexities in other human beings. Maybe even more important, it’s about voice. Gabi’s is unique and spirited, but I think what you see throughout the book, are characters, particularly Gabi, that realize that they have a right to a voice, even if there are very strong social influences trying to tell you what you are allowed to say (and when, and how). There is certainly some mature content in the book, but I think there is real power in a book that shows characters struggling with some of the big issues that all teens face in honest and often eloquent ways. My daughter is only nine right now, but a few years down the road I’d feel confident giving her this book not because it provides any kind of roadmap about how to navigate those tough teen years, but because it conveys that your “you” doesn’t have to fit with some preconceived norm. I think any young reader could read this book and use Gabi’s voice to find a window into their own. That’s pretty powerful stuff and it’s also a moving and often, very funny read. I think both books are worthy contenders at this late stage of The Smackdown, but if I had to choose one, I’d go with Gabi: A Girl in Pieces.

The Nest vs Crazy

Uggghh, I am TORN.  The Nest is certainly the book that I think students would like more - it's creepy, suspenseful, and ... unexpected.  BUT I think, personally, that Crazy was the better book.  I mean, I really don't like the whole free-verse narrative poetry novel concept, but I end up liking every one I actually read.  I know, I know.  Anyway, I loved the characters in Crazy,  because Phillips did such a wonderful job portraying the beauty and ugliness and complexity in so many of them.  The hope and humanity portrayed made this little cold heart of mine quite warm.  But, while I enjoyed the inter-denominational Christian drama, I think it might lose a lot of contemporary students.  

So, if my vote is a proxy, what-I-think-students-will-like vote, it's for The Nest.  If it's a selfish "me" vote, it's for Crazy.  Do with that what you will, Dia! :)

Nest Vs Crazy - Ellerslie

The Nest by Kenneth Oppel
Ellerslie is voting for the Nest
Scary stories work best when they can be grounded in real fears. Although many writers may try to create fear with T. Rexes rising from reconstituted DNA, or evil wizards intent on destroying Muggle lives, no adolescent really obsesses over these imaginary horrors.  But, generate fear from the massive anxieties that kids carry around with them daily, and you have horror in its larval stage (heh heh) that will keep young readers up at night.  Wasps as villains, kids who worry if they are really crazy, a psychiatrist who diagnoses OCD, a sibling who is critically ill, and the fear of a family in stress... all the makings of adolescent imagination explosion.  Consider that the protagonist, Steve, in a dream, in a shimmering cave, is greeted by "angels", offering to heal, the ailing baby, but the angels, become wasps, the cave, becomes a large nest, the baby, becomes wasp carrion, the flawless baby, an intentional re-creation, of a part of Steve, a boy, suffering, (according to the adults),  from OCD, etc. etc.  (Grammar intended).  I loved the description of the larval Theo as "Slimy, with two black dots sunk into the front of its soggy body.  Underneath the eyes it had a kind of hole, and it was eating.  All around it, stuck to the nest ceiling, were insects - a dead spider, headless bees, and other things that I couldn't quite recognize, but there was a bit of something that looked like it had hair on it."   I loved this book.  I felt tension, claustrophobia, a continual confusion around what was real and what was imagined, who were the protagonists / antagonists, whether the predicament is real or imagined.


We feel that it is “crazy” that Crazy made it this far. None of us really enjoyed the book at all, and couldn’t think of any student that we would recommend this book to. Some of us found it pretentious, some of us found it depressing. Some of us would commend the author for the style of prose, but not high on a high interest book for our readers.

Gabi and Crossover - Two Beautiful Books

For the first time this Smackdown I loved both these books.  To me, Gabi came alive.  The skill of the author in creating this loveable and so, so realistic character was the highlight of this novel.  As Lisa commented, this book was again a checklist of teen issues but each was so beautifully dealt with and incorporated into the story that it felt almost musical.  I’ll admit that I wept, agonized and argued along with Gabi throughout this book.  Thankfully, Gabi did give me that dose of hope I was missing in the other books I’ve read this Smackdown, but didn’t taste so sugary sweet that my taste buds were left wincing.  

Crossover got my vote and will move on from our bracket.  So many of my students have read and loved this book since I first came across it last year.  The writing is, well, poetic and the agony wrapped around love in this book can be felt in each word.  I loved the struggles the brothers had between them and the complete freedom they felt on the court.  This is a book that basketball players as well as many other teens will pick up and enjoy.  I will also be using excerpts as a mentor text in my writing mini lessons.    

Wednesday, February 17, 2016

The Art of Secrets vs. The Living

Without a doubt, The Living is by far the better read.  

We enjoyed The Art of Secrets and its 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.

Shelley and I chose The Living as the clear winner because it moved into a fast paced story that started out as an interesting mystery but evolved into a survival tale.  There were many high tension moments sprinkled throughout the novel which would keep reluctant readers engaged.  The ending came to a satisfactory end, but was still open enough to allow for a sequel (which we also enjoyed.) The one drawback to this novel was a rather predictable romance, but it wasn't enough to take the shine off of this exciting read.

Submitted by Shelley Kunicki and Amanda Barrett

The Family Romanov vs. Only Ever yours- Westminster's Views

So we approached The Family Romanov with some trepidation.  None of us are real non fiction aficionados and almost none of us had much interest in the Romanovs—that is until we read the book. I believed rumours about the evil genius Rasputin and have succumbed many a time to the idea of Anastasia surfacing in Paris a beauty with amnesia.  But this is better than fiction.  The characters could not be invented, the tragedy more Shakspearian, the setting more dramatic and Ms. Fleming tells it simply and without embellishment.  The only thing that did not work for us was the contrast-- the peasants' point of view was conveniently  in grey squares and so unremittingly ugly that we all soon just skipped them.  The point had been made.   Pictures helped with the visualizing and did the same job.   We loved the book.  The rumours are now dispelled or reinforced.

On the other hand, we were looking forward to Only Ever Yours as a possible sell during our Dystopian literature unit.  The premise was interesting but the book, sadly, really wasn't.  I got bogged down in hating everyone and growing tired of the constant referrals to appearance.  Yes, that was the point, I know, but I wished I'd been more intrigued by the mystery of what happened to isabel or made to care about the fate of any of these girls.  In the end, I still found so few redeeming qualities in the characters and the explanation of the dystopia unsatisfying.  It was all just so bleak, I couldn't enjoy it.  Still, I'll test run it on a few kids to see if they like it better than I do, but for now, I am happy to let Only Ever Yours die in Smackdown.  

That's Westmin's four votes for Romanov's!  

The Family Romanov vs. Only Ever Yours

After reading Only Ever Yours there is not one student that we could recommend this book to.  Yes, the comparisons to Ugly are there but on a surface level only.  The book is too depressing, too crass, and basically pointless.  As we read the book no one on our team could bring themselves to like, let alone care about this character.  

We had voted for Family Romanov to move on in an earlier round and we stick with our vote.  This book is a far superior read.  
The Family Romanov vs. Only Ever Yours

I echo what my reading mates posted about both of these books. I appreciated Fleming's choice to only include small details that were actually substantiated by historical evidence, rather than going the route of the overly-speculative, fictionalized history that seems to be really popular in YA (and poorly researched) non-fiction. I also appreciated the inclusion of primary sources throughout, although as Brad noted in an earlier round, they got a little old and I found myself skipping over yet another narrative of poor peasant life. It was a quick read, and while I don't feel like it presented a ton of new information or a totally different perspective, I think some students might like it.

I actually stopped reading Only Ever Yours. 100 pages in and I still felt like all I had read about were the same routines of body-shaming. I get it, dystopian society, you're judgy and awful and women have no rights (they don't even have capital letters!) The characters felt flat and the narrative didn't seem to be going anywhere fast. I could envision a certain kind of student enjoying it - one who had made their way through the entire Uglies series (and every other series in the genre) - but I can't envision a student thinking that this was the best book they'd read in ages.

My vote goes to The Family Romanov.

PS - I heard on CBC that there is a special marathon confession happening today at St. Joseph's Basilica. In honor of the event, I will confess my sin here: I shouldn't have voted against Symphony for the City of the Dead! And certainly not in favor of The Lumberjanes. I think it's actually - in retrospect - one of the better books this Smackdown. Mea Culpa.

Crossover vs. Gabi

I have to say that I really enjoyed both books, however, Crossover was the one that I just couldn't put down. In saying that, I realize that it played right into my love of basketball, but I can easily picture the connection that our students will make to the characters and the poetic style.

Gabi was real, honest and a bit raw at times... I enjoyed it, but didn't feel the same need to keep reading, and struggle to envision it as part of our library collection. My vote is for Crossover to move on.

Tuesday, February 16, 2016

Our vote to move onto the next round is The Crossover by Alexander Kwame.

The two contending books were Gabi: A Girl In Pieces by Isabelle Quintero and The Crossover by Alexander Kwame .

We chose The Crossover for several reasons. For one, it evoked a much stronger emotional response from the reader than Gabi: A Girl In Pieces did.  The use of prose was a unique way to represent the voice of the main character in the book.  You don't read many teen poetry books about a young basketball player whose father dies rather suddenly. The Crossover's characters were easy to relate to and, as we were reading, we were slowly drawn more and more into the book. At a certain point in the book, we didn't want to stop reading. With all factors considered, The Crossover was simply a more interesting read.

Gabi: A Girl In Pieces had it's high points too. It too was very interesting. We liked the characters and the addition of the drawings and poetry. However, Gabi: A Girl In Pieces didn't make us feel as deeply as The Crossover, and that is why it is not moving on.

Submitted by Cara (teen reader) and Maureen
First, know this: I have no idea if this whole blog thing is actually going to work. It is true, I have never actually blogged before. There. I said it...out loud. But this time, I am moved. I am moved to say this: What is the purpose of this whole Smackdown thing anyway? Is it for us to read and enjoy these books all the while keeping our students in mind so hopefully we can pass some gem of a book onto them? Or is to find those books which we feel will most appeal to our kids and throw the rest out - no matter how freaking good the book is?
SOMEBODY PLEASE TELL ME! I need direction... I don't do well with ambiguity...
So I turn to our fearless leader. I ask her why? Why are we reading these books? Give me some criteria for choosing one book over the other? Sure it is easy when you have a snoozer up against something great. But what about when you have Gabi, A Girl in Pieces against The Crossover? What then??
Nothing. She gives me nothing but a small grin and a you-figure-it-out kind of talk. What kind of answer is that? sigh
So, I am trying to figure it out. I loved Gabi; I read it in one sitting. I found the characters to be authentic and honest. It is the kind of book that deals with issue after issue, but does so in a way that makes it all sound so real rather then checking off the standard issue list that seems to be so very popular this year. How can I not vote for a book that I love? Well...there are very few students I can give this book to in my class right now. I couldn't even book talk it to my whole class after spending a Saturday on the couch reading it. And then, there's The Crossover and Paranych breathing down my neck - threatening to turn my class full of basketball players against me if I vote against it. For me The Crossover was fine, but that's it - it was just fine. It was certainly not a sit-on-my-couch-and-read it-all-day kind of book. is a book I can give to my students right away. As a matter of fact, when I read it a few months ago, I did just that, and all of my kids loved it. But, alas, I did not. Which of course brings me back to purpose. What is the purpose of this whole Smackdown thing?! Argh!!
Ultimately, of course, my vote didn't matter anyway because my group voted for The Crossover to move on because it is a book we can all give to our students. And yup, that's right. I voted for Gabi, A Girl in Pieces because it is just that freaking good. If you haven't yet read it, you probably should - even if you don't have a student you can give it to.

Family Romanov vs Only Ever Yours -

Another round of Smackdown and it's time to choose a winner. The opponents in this round are Louise O'Neill author of Only Ever Yours versus Candace Fleming, author of The Family Romanov .
The problem , yet again, is I am not in love with either book. Why? Well, when I discuss literature with my students, I tell them that the really good books are those that make us feel deeply. I sermonize that the great novels become friends to us as we travel through the lives of the characters , as we experience and learn what is it to be human .  
And there the problem lies; neither book evoked any journey I want to be on. Only Ever Yours , was a good book but in the end the characters lived in a dystopian society where no woman could escape or be redeemed. Women were doomed and the main character had to choose between death or eternal servitude to men. Interesting but too depressing and by the way - can we have a novel without a lead character with an eating disorder?
The Family Romanov was semi -interesting and well written for a high school text on government systems. I teach history and enjoyed the use of primary source information and the introduction of our youth to Rasputin but let`s face it, it wasn't interesting enough to captivate my interest or to recommend as a must read book. The Smackdown victor, I believe should be a MUST READ.
Thus, reluctantly, I will choose Candace Fleming as the winner but PLEASE send me a book that I think my students absolutely will love!

I reluctantly supported Only Ever Yours way back in another round (was it really round one?) but could not engage with the characters even remotely.. yet another dystopian novel that highlights the worst of the worst of high school girls, and never redeems itself. Upon receiving this round of books, I predicted that it would not be difficult for Family Romanoff to win this round, even though I'm not a big non  fiction reader.

Romanoffs was well written and engaging as it enlightened the reader on the lives, backgrounds and social circumstances around the ill-fated dynasty.  It purveyed background knowledge clearly and with a fluid writing style and I did find myself enjoying the read.  I personally would have enjoyed a more story format as it does read a bit like a well written text, however I was hooked.  As a young reader looking for historical information, I imagine I would prefer a more concise format; as a reader for pleasure and information, it may just hit the right mark.  It is my choice as well  to proceed on in the Smackdown!  And Tammy, I agree... give me a whopper of a book!

Just One Gal's Opinion....

Gabi vs Crossover

This is just one girl's opinion and as it turns out, she is not in the majority on this one (aka why doesn't anyone listen to me?).  I really liked Crossover, it was an interesting combo of sports and verse.  It had lots to offer (see my other teammates posts) AND I could recommend it to kids AND it's in my library but.......

There was something about Gabi, about the self-deprecrating chubby gal who was still popular in a way, still got the guy (or two) and lived with a somewhat normal/crazy/normal family.  As I read it I felt like it so accurately represented how teenagers talk to each other and how they rationalized with themselves. It just felt really honest and darn it, she used the word "crack-a-lackin"!! That being said, it cannot go in my K-9 library. Spoiler alert: I am actually OK with Crossover moving on as both books were well worth the read.

Wednesday, February 10, 2016

Crazy Nest

Between Crazy, by Linda Phillips and The Nest, by Kenneth Opel, I have to choose Crazy.  Dia immediately sent me an email asking for me to explain myself when I sent in my vote…so I’ll try.
18136729 If you know me, other than The Crossover, I have a serious dislike for novels in verse.  When I read the majority of novels in prose, I feel disconnected from the protagonist or I feel like nothing is fully explained.  But with Crazy, I got Laura.  Coming from a family with mental illness sprinkled here and there, I understood her deep rooted issues with her mother.  The raw emotions in this book were felt deeply by me.  When Laura’s mother went back to the hospital for shock treatments, I hated her mother with her, but I also felt a sense of compassion.  I, like Laura was conflicted.  Should her mother come home?  Should Laura open herself up to be hurt again by her mother…by the world?  I just found it so moving and somewhere in Laura’s dark world I could see myself.  Laura’s fear of becoming her mother and hiding her passion for painting in hopes that she could hide from mental illness too is something I can relate to.  My grandmother passed this year after struggling with Alzheimer’s for over a decade.  The fear that I too may spend my last year’s struggling to find myself in a lonely abyss sends a prickling fear through me that I quickly package away to deal with when I’m ready.   Linda Phillips just dug into the core of me and gave words to my fears, which is something Kenneth Oppel was not able to do.

23271637The Nest…what?  Disturbing.  Confusing.  Those are only a few things I felt while quickly making my way through The Nest.  Now, I have nothing bad to say about the book.  In fact, I gave both novels a 4 out of 5 on Goodreads, but I sure didn’t connect with The Nest.  Yes, normally I would love a book that makes me question if what the character is seeing is real.  But this…this was just plain strange and not a charming strange.  Can anyone tell me if there was actually a cunning bee queen intent on feasting on the carcass of a dead baby?  I’m still completely confused…  But somewhere in this deeply disturbing world, Steve learned a beautiful lesson.  I do wonder though, if the wasp Queen had promised his real baby brother would be taken care of, if Steve would have allowed for the exchange to happen.  Surprisingly, I felt that The Nest paralleled the theme of Monster’s Call.  Both boys were facing difficult family situations and were visited by an ominous character that taught each boy a life lesson.  Monster’s Call ended with an ugly cry, whereas The Nest ended with a stunned silence.  I’ll keep The Nest in mind for the zombie pick, but for now I place my vote with Crazy.  
Tristin Pawluk