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, February 24, 2017

Challenger Deep vs. The War that Saved My Life

Our vote and blog is too late to matter, but we at DDM also liked War better than Challenger Deep. We had some trouble getting into Challenger Deep ourselves and thought our students would find it difficult to engage with as well. It was confusing sometimes and other times slow moving.

The War that Saved My Life is a book I am looking forward to recommending for students or putting into a literature circle, probably for grade 7. I am happy to see it moved on to the next round!

Now there are two Smackdown books I need to read the sequals to...War and Wolf by Wolf!
Wolf by Wolf, vs. Echo

I read Echo to my grade 8 daughter Rhea, and she did not want to stop reading despite the late hours!  My Wife:   "Rhea has to go to bed!!!"   Rhea:   "Just one more chapter dad.   I promise to get up early tomorrow."  When it came to Wolves, Rhea had no where near the same reaction.  Now I know... this is n=1 research, but at least anecdotally / qualitatively I can call out the research card.  ☺

Wolves started so well.   It was interesting, engaging, and a bit creepy...   a whole new twist on the WW II holocaust genre.  Admittedly it was a bit of a far fetched scenario scientifically, but I could overlook that for the sake of a good story.   Well, almost overlook it.  We have a girl that can change skin color, hair thickness, tallness, her facial bone structure, but can't deal with road rash.  And if a person can skin shift, why does she need tatoos??   And why cover the newly created tatoos (cut in to your skin just prior to a road race???) and then cover them with filthy gauze, and risk infection, possibly failing at the sole reason you are in the race at all???   Everything really deteriorated for me when, within paragraphs,  cruelty in concentration camps was followed by "a hot guy's abs".   Admittedly, that went beyond eye rolling to irritation.   Then came the protracted, drawn out , endless, stupefying motorcycle race, (skim skim skim)  with bits of reprieve during flashbacks to concentration camp torture... I was bored, then repulsed, then bored, then....    talk about a negative spiral of emotions.  The author is skilled at describing the horror of the concentration camps, and the very opening sentence is gripping.   Why trivialize this powerful historical truth, with trite and shallow fiction, (Hitler flirting, hot guys, endless road races, etc. etc. etc.) 

Echo was a joy from beginning to end.  I could hear the music, and admittedly, enjoying music as I do, I listened to many of the pieces.  The variety of  musical genre, the accurate research behind the humble harmonica, the thread of courage and strength resulting from music and the mysterious traveling woodwind.... the images and prose...   it was all positive and powerful.  Three stories that all end in seeming tragedy come together with a wrote,  "I was equal parts relieved and angry when the story resolved itself and the characters' stories all intertwined at the end.  It was a simple ending, but being that it is playing within the fable/fairy tale genre, it is fitting that the story should resolve so neatly with such a clear message about the power of music and the struggles that we all endure."     

I was won over by the themes of strength, tolerance, bravery, kindness and love.   OK.  I know that I am a sap, but is that not the character traits in which we want our children immersed?  I believe this book sings!!!

Love, love, love Echo.  

Now, I will get on my motorcycle and head home.  
The Truth Overshadows The Memory
A Fraction of the Team 3 Members

I actually strongly disliked the protagonists in both of the books this round. I feel like both novels would be vastly improved without a drooling teenage boy either a) falling in love with a complete stranger or b) getting angsty that his lesbian friend just won't be with him. On the other hand, the other characters redeem the novels. In Memory, I love Kyle's uncle and the way Kyle views him as a role model and supports him in his recovery. I also like Porcupine's Aisha and I felt for her when she stood up for herself and reminded Carson that she's not his sidekick. Overall though, while both books have their flaws, I think that Porcupine's story shares a part of LGBTQ history that needs to be told and, for that, my vote goes to The Porcupine of Truth. 

I had some mixed feelings choosing a best from these two. Both are quite readable, yet I found both protagonists weak. I struggled with the free verse in Memory and enjoyed the plot better when I skipped over it. The string that the verse provided to the girls memory was tenuous. For upper elementary, this book was ultimately more readable. Although set against the 9.11 backdrop, I felt it was more about teenage angst and family. 

Porcupine seems more appropriate for students a bit more mature than my grade 6 kids, but I just didn't like Kyle. Even Aisha seems contrived to me. The story has more depth and there are some really big issues to think about, but the characters are too unbelievable.  I just could not buy into a mom who is so laissez faire, Kyle who I learned to not really like nor Aisha who seems too stereotypical. 

I guess I vote for Memory but only weakly.  To redeem myself, both books were certainly quite readable but there are better reads out there!   

Alisha, Deb, Dianne and Renee:

"We're going into the semi-finals with one of these two?" remarked one of our Ottewell reviewers. I guess we must choose! The Porcupine of Truth is moving on.

The Porcupine of Truth
It is fast paced and cleverly done. The set up is not atypical - it's a road trip with a search for some version of the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow. Throw in some realistic life stressors and the resulting outcome sends the message that what you want and how you expect to achieve that want is not always played out in your master plan. However along the way relationships are explored and insight gained. Truth comes in different forms.

In this ordinary context, Porcupine touches on all sorts of topics, making readers aware of multiple controversial subjects. It also identifies that just because you are part of a group it doesn't mean that defines you. Every group is made up of individual variations.
Spirituality is a major theme in this book and although there are lots of conversations about God, faith and religion, it is not preachy. It will definitely lend itself to opening up discussion since it breaks the boundaries of religion as an institution. This book is not for everyone (but what book is).

The Memory of Things
Only one fourth of us preferred The Memory of Things, but that’s probably because half couldn't make it through the book. This story is narrated by Kyle and interrupted occasionally by the free verse point of view of a confused survivor/bird girl. In the opinion of some esteemed reviewers, the feathery stuff (free verse) breaks the flow! Kyle's point of view is realistic and an interesting take on the events of 9-11; however, there was a feeling that the story could have happened during any disaster. Some found it shallow. "Are we ready for 9-11 as fiction? Shouldn't it be the harsh reality?" questioned some. You see we get a glossed over sense of the horrors of the tragedy. Everything turns out pretty well for our characters. Perhaps though, we should try to see the underlying theme: the choice to focus on hope.

The Porcupine of Truth is also about hope, despite topics like homophobia and AIDS, and it's funny and engaging in a way that The Memory of Things didn't pull off.

Our vote is three for Porcupine and one for Memory.

Thursday, February 23, 2017

One is the One

While I’ve ranted and raved about the limitations of these novels in verse in the past, I’ll begrudgingly admit that the form worked well for both One and The Gospel Truth. This was a surprisingly difficult decision for our little Callingwood crew, but ultimately, we all ended up in agreement that One was the book to move on.

To be honest, I’m still a little surprised by this. From a fairly young age, ( I think I read Alex Haley’s Roots for the first time when I was eleven or twelve) I’ve been intrigued by the horrible period in American history that is featured in The Gospel Truth. This was part of the challenge of this choice for me, I think, as this book seems to me to be a pretty powerful way to start an important conversation with division two and three students, in a way that doesn’t minimize the horrors of the slavery era, but also doesn’t provide more trauma than a younger child might be equipped to deal with. The story line was compelling and the characters were crafted with subtlety and, true to the novel’s form (and testament to the author's research), their voices rang true, even if the relative slimness of the volume maybe limited the depth and nuance with which the author explored some complex issues relating to history and identity. There was a sense in our group that the drama of the escape sequence was perhaps a little short-lived, but that was a minor critique of a generally very well-crafted novel. We also did speak about the whole issue of, for lack of a better term, cultural appropriation, and I was really pleased to see that issue explored head-on in a thoughtful interview with the author at the end of the novel. That was a wise publishing decision and one that really enhanced my sense that this is a book that would function equally as well in the hands of a strong independent reader as it would in the hands of a teacher looking for a powerful educational experience for his/her students.

If I was a bit surprised that a novel set in an era where I’ve done a fair amount of reading wasn’t my automatic pick, you could knock me over with the proverbial feather that I’m here recommending a teen drama (with all the tropes in full effect) centered on conjoined twins. I’m not entirely sure why it works so well, but it does. I would also have bet my last dollar that a verse novel focused on conjoined twins would feature dueling narratives, but the author defies that expectation, and perhaps counter-intuitively this turned out to be the absolute right choice. It took me awhile to figure out why, because, initially, I kept wanting that flip to see what the other twin’s take on things was, but as the narrative progressed, I realized that our narrator was crafting her sister with an intimacy that could only come about through their unique brand of closeness. The single narrative ended up being a powerful affirmation of the multitude of ways that concept of “one” functions in this novel. That narrative is also essential to the sense of unity of the novel as the narrative arc (particularly the ending) couldn’t function in any meaningful way within a dual narrative. So, that’s my technical take on why it works, but ultimately, I think we all just found the book emotionally gripping, and as with all great literature, it was both unique and universal. It’s been a little while since I’ve hung around with teenagers on a daily basis , but I think this author gets kids at a core level and there are moments in this novel, despite its unique premise, that are going to resonate with any reader. It’s a moving and often nuanced exploration of identity, but it has entry points for readers at many different intellectual and emotional levels and I think a lot of us will be looking to get this into kids hands sooner rather than later. We were all really happy to read two fine books in this round and while we struggled a bit, we feel confident in moving One on to the next round.

Sweep, Sweep...Goodbye Challenger Deep!

Image result for my little pony

This picture is for you Andrew!

Lock up your children...end days are near! Everyone agreed to move The War That Saved My Life forward. Below are brief comments from all of our participants:

Andrew: War had a story thread I could follow and I like ponies.  Oh Andrew.
Lisa: I loved Challenger Deep but have no one I could give it to...sigh of futility.
DIa: I loved Challenger Deep too but feel it is really a book for parents. I didn’t love the ending of War - it felt rushed.
Annabel: War appeals to boys and girls in my class and is constantly being passed from reader to reader.
Arlene: The audio for War is amazing. This book is accessible. Challenger is not for our kids.
Andrea: The War has great flawed characters that can be read and understood.

Holly: I would give War The Worst Mother Ever Award. Wolf Hollow and this book are the only books you can read and hate a character so much!

One VS Gospel Truth "Prose" and Cons

One VS Gospel Truth:

 "Prose" and Cons

This is the toughest decision I've had to make in this Smackdown.  I thoroughly enjoyed reading both books, and the free-verse prose format made them such quick reads that, when I got to the end, I was hoping for more.

Both books were well-written (I thought) in the first person.  I really got to know the characters and fell in love with both protagonists.  I found Grace (One) to be more relatable with realistic flaws.

In the end, I've got to choose One.  Though Gospel Truth is a beautiful story of doing what is right and leads great into Social Studies, it's a story that's been written many times before.  I've never come across a book with a premise like One. While it deals with more 'mature' subject matter (drinking, smoking) the underlying themes of courage and family is really well done.  I teach Grade 5 so wouldn't use it in my class, but would definitely keep it in my classroom library in higher divisions.

One for the win!

Image result for gospel truth book   Image result for One book sarah crossan

Submitted by: Chelsea Robinson

Is this the finals?

Wolf by Wolf vs. Echo

This must be the final round because these two books are incredible.  But I'm feeling a Zombie Pick coming on.  

The difficult part of this round was that both books spoke to my love of historical fiction.  I was worried when I picked up Wolf by Wolf though.  I just didn't know if Ryan Graudin was capable of capturing the reality of a concentration camp and it's horrific scientific experiments when the lead character, who is in the camp, is being transformed into a skinshifter.  Surprisingly, Graudin pulled it off.  I absolutely loved how Ryan Graudin wove history and fiction together in this novel.  It is action packed and has a strength in its heroine that some adventure stories lack.  I found it quite compelling to think of a world where the Third Reich and Japan rule and a human resistance has formed agains the evil ideals of the Nazis empire.  Graudin kept me on the edge of my seat throughout, because not only was Yael on an epic motorbike race, but the fate of the resistance was in the success of Yael's skills as a motorcyclist and an actress.  There was this push and pull in my throughout the novel, because I wanted Yael to love Luka, but I had to remember she wasn't Adele and that she had the resistance counting on her success; she had to stay focused.   I won't ruin the ending, but the final scene messed with my mind, talk about cliff hanger.  When Blood for Blood came out, I picked it up and trust me, it didn't disappoint.

You'd think from my review of Wolf by Wolf that it would get my vote, but you'd be wrong.  I gave my illustrious vote to Echo.  Why?  In the sea of young adult fiction, themes are repetitive, like the road trip of porcupines...insert eye roll.  It's only a select few that take a classic theme of destiny and write it in such a way that it feels like you've never come across it before.  Echo is one of those few books and it's audio guide is incredible.  The book opens as a fairy tale, which was spellbinding.  Then Otto enters, where a prophecy is told.  From there the novel goes through three amazing stories each involving the same harmonica.  Friedrich, Mike and Ivy each have to fight against fate and the cruelties of the world they live in order to find hope and a life they deserve.  Each time the novel moved to a different character's point of view, I was disappointed.  This is because Pam Ryan left me on a cliff, not knowing what the fate of the character was.  But the conclusion of the story was beautiful.  It gave a ladder to each of the cliffs I had been left on.  There are so many quotable lines from the book too.  The classic theme that you own your own destiny is incredibly woven into each tale, All I can say is, "your fate is not yet sealed even in the darkest night, a star will shine, a bell will chime, a path will be revealed."  What can I say?  Inspiration.  
The Porcupine of Truth The Memory of Things

The Porcupine of Truth, Bill Konigsberg

A book about a life changing, epic road trip, who wouldn’t want to read this book. Or, so we thought.  This book was okay, nothing epic or life changing about it. Carson was a bit creepy and clueless and he just didn’t seem to get it that even if Aisha wasn’t gay she might not be into him. There was a lot of whining on Carson’s part about his relationship with his mom and dad and Aisha, it got pretty old fast.  He was definitely not a likeable character and it was hard to root for him. The one stand out of the book was towards the ending and we get to know a bit more the history of why his grandfather left. We wish it would have focused more on that part than sad, whiny Carson. In the end, our overall comment is “meh” and we are not choosing it to move on.
The Memory of Things, Gae Polisner:
This book was marginally better.  Some people who have read it felt that it was life changing, no one in our group felt that way.  It did deal quite well with the initial aftermath of 9/11, the chaos that surrounded the fall of the towers and the terror the city went through.  Kyle was a much more likable character and the author did a decent job showing how he dealt with everything.  Hannah’s inner monologue was very choppy and hard to follow. The buildup of her character’s memory loss was a letdown when she recovered her memory and her big secret was revealed. Unlike The Porcupine of Truth where the ending made up for the rest of the book, here the ending felt forced and rushed.  Neither book was a fantastic read but we could see some kids enjoying these books. However, as we have to pick one, we are voting for the The Memory of Things to move on.

Wednesday, February 22, 2017

Challenger Deep vs The War That Saved My Life


I can see why both books have made it so far in the draw - they are both well-told stories but they are sooo different.  Challenger Deep is a high school, if not adult book about mental illness and how the world can appear when you are battling internal demons.  As a scientist, I loved the comparison to travelling to the Marianas Trench and maybe because I have a background connection to this, I could begin to understand what was happening to Caden. But man, I had to work to get everything out of this book.  It was not an easy read, and for a while, I found myself re-reading to make sure I hadn’t missed anything.  But in the end, I appreciated the story and openness from Neil Shusterman.  We always debate how we choose the books and we are not always in agreement.  Some choose the book most likely to go out in their library, some just choose the book they like best.  I am not even consistent round to round but this time, I am going to have to let Challenger Deep go because I don’t know a kid I could give this to right now. (But I am keeping a copy for myself!)  

The War that Saved My Life was an easy read, I read it in a couple of hours, I skimmed some parts because I was in a rush to get it to Debbie but it was such a nice story, I couldn’t help but be so thankful that Ada and Jamie escaped the monster of a mother and even though I knew in the end they would end up with Susan, at least there was a little tension when mom came to get them.  It was a bit idealistic and Susan seemed to be too good to be true but honestly, with all the bad news out there right now, a hopeful book was just what the doctor ordered!!

Love the gals at Strem... (aka Deb and V)

One vs. The Gospel Truth


Hands down, the TD Baker crew chooses One over The Gospel Truth. There were many positive aspects to Caroline Pignat's The Gospel Truth. We liked the intelligent and courageous Phoebe and reading about Virginia during a dark time in American history was fascinating. However, the story was just a little to pat and the ending doesn't ring true to the lived experience of millions of slaves.

We ended up choosing One by Sarah Crossan because the main characters, Tippy and Grace were original and charming. Their story, as conjoined twins, was captivating and the supporting characters brought an unexpected depth to the story. As we were reading the story we wondered how Crossan was going to handle the ending, and she did not disappoint. The conclusion was handled tastefully and brought the novel to an end in a poignant manner.

Submitted by: Shelley Kunicki, Stephen Ekstrom, and Amanda Barrett