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

Friday, April 8, 2016

The Finals or How Did it Get to be April Already?

It is that time of year! Snow is on the ground, off the ground. Pale men strut the streets in tank tops. Children hawk their lemonade wares and zombies are born...or reanimated anyway. Yes folks you have made a decision and here's how it shakes out:

Family Romanov:  12 votes to The Living's 9.
Crossover: 12 votes to The Nest's 5
The Thing About Jellyfish: 12 votes, Gabi a Girl in Pieces 4 votes, Tyrant's Daughter 2 votes and one vote each for The Nest, The Living, Secrets, Crazy, Symphony for the Dead.

Gnash, weep, rejoice, dance in the streets (but maybe not in the tanktop). Now that that is out of your system - Smack and read, read and smack. The deadline for your opinions is MAY 4th!!

Wednesday, April 6, 2016

The Living vs Family Romanov

Henry's eloquent response: Yikes.  I can tell that I am already going to spend too much time writing my thoughts.  But… here goes.  First, “The Living”... an interesting title considering that the VAST majority of people in the book die, even those who, against all odds survived three apocalyptic tsunamis.  The protagonist is Shy.    Shy is the kind of kid who buys cookbooks for friends, pays his nephew’s medical expenses with money won in a basketball shoot out and is making summer money to further his educatoin.   He also  has a fixation with a curvaceous ship mate who is engaged to be married, has a victim complex because of his Mexican American heritage, and believes that “you can tell if a girl is right for you by holding her hand”.   Huh?   At first, Shy is portrayed as a sensitive and, wait for it…  shy… character whose personality is revealed in detached and fragmentary sentences and easy going patter.  Shy works on a cruise ship and by chance meets a rich American Pharmaceutical Executive who claims to be the embodiment of corruption.  Despite Shy’s efforts to save him, the man plunges to his suicidal death in the ocean.  Shy, heroically clutching the man’s suit sleeve, gloomily reflects that the ship would not even slow down had it been a Mexican American worker that had gone overboard.  And now the plot thickens.  

In comes the villain appropriately dressed in a black suit and  reflective sunglass, stalking our hero only to be thwarted in his conquest by catastrophic earthquakes, tsunamis, fights for survival in life boats, machine gun death squads, and a pharmaceutically generated death virus… I kept waiting for the man eating sharks… and I wasn’t disappointed!!  All that was missing was the fair maiden attacked by dragons and the chandelier falling on the bad guy.  Pity that those could not be woven in.  I felt like I was reading a cross between Titanic, Jaws, and Full Metal Jacket.  

There is the obligatory racial and class bigotry personified in a stereotyped stuck up blond teen. There is the predictable romance with the voluptuous Carmen (shades of Bizet’s Operatic Carmen?).  And who could have foreseen (rhetorical question to be read with sarcasm)  the selfless acts of heroism as Shy saves first, the very dark suited villain (who later tries to kill Shy… such ingratitude), and second, the very same stuck up American blond Cassie, who referred to the hero as “her pool boy”.  

 Here are a couple of my favorite sentences.  “It went quiet between them for a few long seconds.  A shared feeling of loss hanging in the air like gas.”   Hanging in the air like gas?  Another gem: Describing the approaching storm, Shy “watched it all in awe for several minutes, the world lining up exactly with his insides.”  His insides?  OK.  I did not like the book.  I do however understand that I am not the intended audience.  But honestly, do adolescents (young adults) really fall for this predictable, stereotyped drivel?
None of our team could really get into the Living...there is potential that it would resonate well with a younger audience - especially as it belongs to a series!

The Family Romanov however, was a stunning book.  It is intimately written, and cleverly weaves politics, family dynamics, and historical context into an engaging narrative non-fiction that captivated both my intellect and my imagination.  The story goes beyond the Romanov family to include the revolutionary leaders of the time, and the common people of Russia.  I found myself sympathetic to all the divergent groups that shaped the history of a time plagued with entitlement, social unrest, loyalty and both cowardice and courage.  The book is supported with authentic excerpts from diaries, letters, memoirs, and fascinating photographs.  Each member of the Romanov family comes to life fully realized and their stories are balanced with the vignettes of common peasants and workers, giving the book a bracing insight missing from other historical accounts of the Romanov family.  This book weaves scholarly research, primary sources, historical speculation, limited but appropriate literary license, and personal / intimate insights into a family ill equipped to handle the political unrest of the time.   There is a juxtaposition of the glittering lives of the aristocracy with the impoverished lives of the common people that builds in tension to a horrifying climax, made all the more stunning in its truth.  I found this book endlessly fascinating, as absorbing as any fiction novel (perhaps moreso) with the added benefit of understanding the political and historical context that changed the face of Eastern Europe to this day.  Perhaps the acid test of this book was my own 12 year old daughter’s delighted reaction to non-fiction historical narrative and her reluctance for the book to end.  This is a brilliant book!

Our team's unanimous vote is for Family Romanov this round. A book such as this has great potential for getting kids excited about non-fiction. It is really well put together and offers an easy to read introduction to an incredibly interesting family and insight into an interesting country's history.
We studied Russian History in junior high school and all of us found the whole topic to be fascinating then, and do now. It was easy to read, engaging and full of insight. We think many of our students would enjoy it as well.

If You Do One Thing Today...

Watch the official book trailer here:

Shameless Zombie Plug

We are waiting to tally all the zombie votes until the end of the day....what fell and should come back? I have my own thoughts......JELLYFISH!! but the votes are coming in all over the place. This is not surprising as the wild swings in  a book being loved or tossed has never been more spread out than this year. Stay tuned for the final book choices of SMACKDOWN  SIX!

Tuesday, April 5, 2016

The Nest vs Crossover

In truth, I also dreaded Crossover.  I hate sports stories and I usually don't enjoy novels in poetic form.  The saving grace to let me get started?  At least it'd be quick.

In fact, our team ended up agreeing that it wasn't THAT bad.  And for sure there a few kids (non-reader basketball player boys) that we expect we can get to read the book (mostly sold on the same reason I first accepted it).  And I am grateful to have a book to recommend to them.

The Nest has been in our library and used in a few lit circles since Renae and I read it earlier this year.  Kids are enjoying it.  We liked the creepiness of it ourselves.  I think I must agree with Wendy, who called it "crafted" in comparison to Crossover.  For that reason, we choose The Nest to move on.

But this seems a weak final.  Can someone please write a passionate argument about what I should pick as my zombie?  I don't have one, and I hope there's something out there that I didn't read earlier that I will really love.  Which book is that, people?

-Laura on behalf of Westmin

Beam Me Up Lisa, I Mean Scotty

Scrolling through everyone’s decisions in the Romanov vs. The Living bracket I begin to wonder if those of us at A. Blair McPherson are indeed in a far off dimension. We are not feeling either book is the clear winner here.  We voted sure, but we weren’t feeling that either was deserving to appear in the finals.  This was BY FAR THE MOST BORING lunch time meeting yet.  There was no yelling, no finger pointing, and no name calling.  Your meetings are like this too, right? Maybe we just really get into things over here.  We can pretend to call it “passion”.  Here are our general thoughts:

The Family Romanov: Any junior high student who could read the WHOLE book must be a true historical fiction lover.  I was pretty sure I was crying blood tears at one point because it was just so dry.  As someone on our team said, it was exactly like watching the movie and it did not develop them in any different way (I cannot actually say the same, as the movie was made quite some time before I was born. ZING!).

We also felt like the author did nothing to make these people seem endearing. Yes, we know, it is like watching the Titanic...we all know how it ends.  But it wasn’t until the snow slide scene or when they were in exile  that we felt like they were human beings that we could empathize with. Watching their family fall from its throne offered an almost sad satisfaction.  We couldn’t help but compare it to other non-fiction books we’ve read like Bomb or Nazi Hunters where we felt a personal connection was being developed to the people in the story. This book is not in the same category as those, in our opinion. We are also people of the old social curriculum; we learned about Russia and have the background knowledge.  For a student today in junior high I could see navigating all the terms, groups, and ideologies to be hard work. Some of us admitted to skim reading during the book.  And then, BANG BANG they were dead and the book ended abruptly. BANG BANG I am done talking about this book.

The Living: How much is too much? No, like for real.  Lets run down the checklist:
Youth living in poverty
Gets job to help family
No father
Grandma dies from strange disease
Loves girl he can't have
Weird shady shoeshine guy
Mistreated by pretty blonde girl on cruise ship
Finds out nephew has strange disease
Catastrophic event on the west coast
Ship sinks
People die
Has to survive on a raft
Large diamond ring acquired
Has sucky fishing skills
More people die
Begins to fall in love with pretty blonde girl while stranded on raft
Reunited with girl he loves but cannot have
Love triangle ensues
Germ warfare
Pharmaceutical conspiracy
Even more people die
Strange shoeshine guy saves day...temporarily?!

We were all in agreement that the plot had WAY TOO MUCH GOING ON. I myself couldn’t stop turning the pages once the ship started to sink, but then came the island.  For some of us, the germ warfare was kind of the last straw. Was this book written in mind to be a movie? It sure read like some cheesy Hollywood action movie starring Nicholas Cage.  
Be still my adolescent heart!

It was just too far out there for us.  Yes kids would read it and probably love it, but we were just not buying into it.  Which leads me to an interesting hallway conversation I had with Lisa.  We were talking about the book and I asked her if she has read any other Matt de la Pena books and she had not.  She mentioned that after reading this book she isn’t sure she would search out any other of his titles. I have read both Ball Don’t Lie (it was so good the copy went missing from my classroom library) and Mexican Whiteboy.  I feel like this book is a completely different style for de la Pena, and if this was the first book I read of his I might not be looking to pick up his other titles either.  If you want a true authentic look at his work, I suggest you read any of his other titles. I have mad respect for Matt de la Pena, and he is an author that is able to reach many minorities and groups of young adults that do not feel they have voices.  He gave a great interview with NPR that I HIGHLY recommend you take the time to read:  

To wrap things up, we felt MEH about both books.  Both had its merits, both had its downsides.  We are not just feeling the hype like everyone else.   Sorry, not sorry.  So, with muted enthusiasm we are voting for Family Romanov.

May the Force be With You,
To Infinity and Beyond,
Live Long and Prosper,

Holly (on behalf of ABM)

The Family Romanov vs the Living

Everyone had posted the details so...
Long story short: The Living gets our vote.

Rhonda & Van

The Nest versus Crossover

As I never read blogs, except for this group, I must say it is fun to read others well written opinions.  #blogginginmyfuture?  After I read a fellow Smackdown bloggers brilliantly written piece about The Nest by Kenneth Oppel versus The Crossover by Kwame Alexander my mind was sent racing. I was not sure we had read the same books because my reaction was perpendicular to his.  #TheCrossover landslide.  

I could hardly finish The Nest as I was creeped out yet confused through the whole novel.  The young hero, that was captured inside of a wasps nest, and the constant threat of wasps ‘fixing the baby’ did terrify me.  The feeling-of-spiders-crawling-all-over-my-skin sensation that  was created through vivid setting description and the anger that bubbled due to unanticipated conflicts caused me to get sucked in and then hooked. Then a twist would spring from the pages.  These twists removed the spiders and anger because I was left a  “whatttttttt?” Feeling rambling through my head.  Continually I would start to get excited as momentum was building and then I would be hit by another anti-climactic episode and be back to “whattttttt?”  I hung in until the ending and then again - WHAM!!!!!!!!! and “whattttttttt??????” simultaneously.  The Nest just felt like maybe the exterminator had already starting removing layers of the nest and I was only getting to read the erratic scribbles left on the walls.

The Crossover was so refreshing.  Now that could be because I am not a literary genius with a voluptuous vocabulary that would have me winning SLAM poetry contests.  Yet the young man in The Crossover’s narrative kept taking me back to my classroom.  I could see myself sitting while I listened to one of my grade 9 boys tell me their story of resilience and feeling like a proud momma because of the courage so many of the teens in my class show when writing.  Due to the decades of teaching Language Arts, with so many of those classrooms being filled with boys who hate fiction, I read The Crossover and my teaching heart grew 3 times in size.  The young male voice was refreshing and the portrayal of grief, as told from a man’s experience, seemed so accurate. The connections that kept building for me could be because all I have is boys that play sports in my house, but the narrative resonated with truths the young men share in our classroom.  Most of the boys I have taught don’t use flowery and descriptive words yet their truths are captivating when they decided to risk and share them, just as the narrator did in The Crossover.  I believe this is a YA novel that would hook many teens and introduce them to poetry in a way that might entice the kids to give poetry a try.

The Crossover was hands down our winner for this round.

The Family Romanov vs The Living

Team Spruce Avenue was tasked with choosing between these two novels. Ultimately we've chosen to advance The Living.

I'm sure this post will be lacking all the jazziness of earlier posts as we're generally in agreement with the rest of you. Neither novel is without problems and in the end Living might have greater draw to reluctant readers and the mass of story-lines comes together well in the end. We didn't love that The Living seemed to have been written with the obligation of a sequel and that the plot was often predictable.

The Family Romanov continues down the line of historical novels. This time focusing on Communist Russia. The story was interesting but most students would be unaware for this history and unlikely to grab this novel off the shelf. 

Sunday, April 3, 2016

The Family Romanov No Longer Among The Living (Maybe)

True Story: Eschewing my usual preference for finishing reading my books and writing my post in the wee hours of deadline day, I actually finished my reading in early March and was apparently so self-satisfied that I completely forgot to write anything. So, here I am on  Sunday night at the end of spring break staring down a shamefully neglected to-do-list that just had one more thing added to it. Yeah.

On the bright side, however, I think a little distance from both of these books (Matt De La Pena’s The Living and Candace Fleming’s The Family Romanov) was probably a good thing. I enjoyed them both and don’t really have much in the way of critique for either of them. I think they are both as advertised (respectively): a high-concept, action packed adventure ready made for sequels and, probably, a movie and a tightly woven piece of non-fiction built around one of the most compelling - and world changing - series of events in the 20th century. I can envision kids who would love both of them and I can imagine other kids who wouldn’t get past the first few chapters of one while consuming the other.

One thing I’ve grappled with a bit was the degree to which students would be engaged by the historical context of The Family Romanov. It is something I was interested in and I seem to recall having a bit of a working knowledge of this historical period even in junior high, but then, as a child of the cold war era, I would wouldn’t I? The impending destruction of all mankind (The Day After? Rocky III?) was kind of a big thing back in the day. That great global pissing match between the Soviets and the Americans made Russian history a little more relevant in my teen world, perhaps. Fleming’s prose is certainly evocative, however, and I think that while we might not see kids just naturally gravitating to this book, once it was gently thrust into their hands, they would potentially be drawn into the story. I presume that what makes this “a children’s book” is the fact that the author made her prose more accessible, both in diction and length, than a typical doorstop style “adult” history, but she really does do a  remarkable job of walking that line between big H history and book that reads like a novel.

All that being said, however, I think I’d still have to go with The Living as my vote to move on. Not a perfect novel by any stretch, and it’s prone to some of the cliches and over simplifications that almost necessarily occur when you write a book for a generic teen audience (when no such thing as the “generic teen” exists) but it is, by any estimation a page turner, that also offers opportunities for thought and, even, introspection. I think kids would enjoy reading it and I think there are some big ideas that you could explore in a classroom discussion, or even, over a soda or coffee or whatever literate teens are drinking these days.

The Family Romanov vs. The Living

Dianne and Deb agree to disagree about The Family Romanov and The Living!

I found both books very well written. I am not really into historical non-fiction so it took a while to get through The Family Romanov. I was always a bit fuzzy on the time lines and connections but it is all much clearer now because of this book.  I found myself alternately siding with royalty and then smacking myself as I realized how ignorant and mean the parents were.  It was too bad the kids had to get caught up in this.
I got through The Living in one go as I got so thoroughly caught up in the plot. The concept of inventing a disease to make a profit is not entirely new, but the way the book was written made me keep turning the pages.  I would definitely get The Living for the library as it should encourage reluctant readers and boys. 
I vote for The Living.

Two great reads over spring break! I could not have asked for better timing. Unfortunately now I have to make a decision. I wish I could pass both books on, but alas I must choose. It comes down to the simple fact that The Family Romanov is a historical work of art. I especially like how the author presents three stories in one. I believe that it is important to know about our past so that we can better map out our future. We need to know the true stories that brought us to where we are today. Have we progressed or have we remained stagnant in time.
A work of fiction may often provide the necessary release from reality so that we retain some sense of sanity, but we should never forget. I may have been on the edge of my seat while reading The Living as well, but at the end I could easily put it aside and move on.
It is never too late to learn the histories of the world so that we will remember. Perhaps one day we will actually learn from the negative impacts of the past and map out a better future.
My vote is for The Family Romanov.

Family Romanov vs The Living

In this round, we were saddled with The Family Romanov by Candace Fleming and The Living by Matt De La Pena. Both books were decent - but neither was excellent. 

When a book starts with an ominous warning from a mysterious stranger, you know it will be exciting. The Living certainly delivered on that aspect. With its fast-paced plot, The Living leaves you unable to put the book down for fear of leaving its protagonist, Shy, barely gripping the edge of life. I think the best way to describe it is action packed. However, it has its share of clichés, and there are a few plot holes here and there that make the story difficult to believe. Also, in some cases, it lacks important description and some character depth which could have improved the story.

The Family Romanov was an intriguing true story about Russia's last royal family. It was a good way of relaying information about the Romanovs and it made the historic piece fun to learn. However, it was less exciting than The Living, and therefore is less entertaining from a teen's perspective.  The Family Romanov will have a place in the classroom but once again we are not convinced many teens will pick this up by themselves.  

Although not an amazing book, we chose The Living to move on to the next round.

Submitted by Maureen and Cara (teen reader)