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

Tuesday, April 18, 2017

War vs. Porcupine

Image result for the blitz children evacuation

I'm a bit torn on this one! I really enjoyed The War that Saved My Life.  This was augmented by the fact that I read it, coincidentally, right between two very good "grown up" books about The Blitz - Life After Life and Everyone Brave is Forgiven.  I felt strongly for Ada, and the author did a great job of revealing her inner turmoil and fears. I did, however, sometimes find her tenacity and cleverness a bit a bit unbelievable. ("I have no concept of grass or trees! But I also just taught myself how to ride a horse in no time at all!")  I also really loved the subtle references to Susan's back story, and wanted to know more about her.  I agree with other reviewers, however, that the mother was just a bit *too* evil and irredeemable, and the ending was a bit too tidy. (But I was happy! And that's good, too!)

There were many things I liked about The Porcupine of Truth, as well. I appreciated how the author dealt with the realities faced by too many LGBTQ+ youth today, and connected the characters to the historical oppression and struggles of that community.  I also appreciated how Konisberg addressed white privilege (and how it's often "invisible" to white people) through Carson's realizations as he travels with Aisha. But... there is a LOT going on, and maybe this is my bias as an adult reader, but I get a bit perturbed at YA where the teens are infinitely more self-aware and wise than most of the adults in their lives.  Plus, there's a bit too much of the John Green-esque implausible teen banter.

So, as I'm a bit on the fence as always, I will happily defer to the crowd and vote for The War That Saved My Life. No smacking this time, sorry!  My zombie pick goes to Wolf by Wolf. 

Thursday, April 6, 2017

Nellie Carlson Votes for "The War That Saved My Life"

Porcupine is simply unrealistic in every way.  The protagonist Carson knows he is in for a dull summer.  His mother gives the 16 year old the task of caring for his dying alcoholic father whom Carson has essentially never met.  (Does any adult really do this to their son?  Oh, and mom is also a therapist.)  So, go from Manhatten to Montana where Carson meets Aisha, a drop dead gorgeous African American teen, for whom Carson immediately gets the hots (and the hards according to the author... Sheesh).  Too bad she is also a lesbian who has been shunned by her ultra conservative religious father, and is couch surfing every night.   Now embark on a cross America road trip to find the secrets of Carson's father's past, with $100, an old dilapidated Dodge Neon, and wisdom that always seems to escape the more experienced and world wise adults of the planet in this genre of YA literature.   (Why do my YA students never display this kind of innate acumen?)   And on it goes.  As Kym Francis wrote:  "My dislike for Porcupine is matched only by my love of The War That Saved My Life."  

Kym goes on to describe her reaction to "The War That Saved My Life":
"I am planning to marry this book later this year. You are all invited.
I am sure my bias was heavily influenced by my childhood on the back of many an obstinate pony (and I appreciated the accuracy of all equine details) but I also fell in love with the story, the villains, and the heroes.
But I keep thinking about a grade 7 student I was talking books with. She's one of those students that you fall into a discussion with and you feel like you are speaking with a peer. She says the most profound things - most recently she said, "You know those books where you fall in love with the characters more than the plot?"  I do!!  And this is one of those books. I miss Ada.
I hope for a showdown between The War and Echo, but I am scared to see these two beautiful stories fight. Can't they both win?"
"The War That Saved My Life" is the Nellie Carlson winner.   No contest really.   

Wednesday, April 5, 2017

Echo, Echo, Echo, Echo…

Echo by Pam Munoz Ryan beats One by Sarah Crossan

Arghh…this was a hard one for me.  Both books were pretty good. Echo was broader in scope and had a lot of story to do with bits of history. It was linked by a bit of magic which cleverly wound everything up in the end; maybe too tidily.  Echo reminded me of other books like the Red Violin and the Accordion Crimes which also used an instrument as a way of portraying a long range story.

One was more modern, dealing with dilemmas of separating twins.  Kind of sad but unless you are a twin in that conjoined position, it was hard for me to identify with that kind of emotional closeness.  It is a case of unless you have been there you really cannot identify (like being a mom I guess.)  I am starting to get used to the free verse form so it has been a bit of an education for me.  The references to other conjoined twins were also kind of interesting.

Although both books were really good, I think for the sheer broadness of appeal I would pick Echo.

One is powerfully written and emotionally impacting. The insights into the realities of conjoined twins were fascinating. It's a bit like getting to read the articles in The National Enquirer without having the embarrassment of holding the Enquirer. 

Echo was better. I loved how the stories intertwined. I thought it was an effective choice to begin the first tale ahead of the front matter of the book. It immediately signaled that this book was different and got my curiosity up. It could have easily been labeled a prologue but I preferred this unique approach. 

I found Friedrich, Mike and Ivy to be believable. Their stories were compelling and the way they were told created quite a bit of tension. Although the reader in me hated how we were left hanging with each 'ending', it certainly contributed to my need to keep reading. 

Yes, the ending was tidy, but this is children's literature. At least the author didn't have them discover their shared history. And one final note, reading Echo made me want to find the harmonica hidden somewhere in the house and give the songs a try.

I read One first and was overwhelmed with the emotion that overcame me with the ending. I was, however, confused by the use of verse in this book. I was unsure as to whether or not the author used it for effect or to make it a less intimidating novel for young readers. Nevertheless, I found the book to be very captivating. Opening up a whole new world to me, I had never thought of the life of conjoined twins before, and if I had, I pitied them. I found this story to be extremely well written changing the way I see conjoined twins.  I could feel the torrents of raw emotion from the narrator and found myself sobbing at the end.

When I began to read Echo, I didn’t think that I would be overcome with the same emotion. I'd be lying though if I said I didn’t know what I was getting into before I started reading Echo. Knowing how many emotions you will be bombarded with doesn’t really prepare you for them! Nothing does until you’re sitting there yelling at the book for giving you too many feels, *yep, this actually happened*.  My one downside of this book, if you could call it that, would be some students might be afraid of its size. However, I would encourage them to look at it as 4 books within one...woven with a common thread...or a common sound. This was a tough decision for me. My vote is for Echo.
What a challenging decision!
It was very difficult for me to put both these books down. Actually, it was the most captivating and fastest reading I did this season. Both books really deserve to be at this point in the Mighty Smackdown competition. So thank you to the members of this club who pushed these two forward.

I learned so much from One and I felt that using verse was an excellent way of representing the emotions in a more everyday way of speaking. I know when I’m speaking emotionally I am a lot less formal because it just comes out raw and from the heart and soul.

But I did not vote for One! I echo my colleagues here at Ottewell and cast my vote for Echo. I found this book to be very creatively written. I could not wait to find out what happened in the end and when I did I wanted to start all over again.

What an excellent way to bring history alive!

Submitted by the Ottewell members

the Porcupine of Truth vs The War That Saved My Life

Soooooo I was torn. I loved both these books for different reasons.  The War That Saved My Life had such a historical slant that I was hooked immediately, after touring Europe visiting World War II museums and monuments.  I loved Ada, a teenager who had been abused and traumatized, but was resilient because of the love of her younger brother, Jamie.  I was amazed at the honesty of the chance for Ada to find a home with real love and her inability to believe it could be real.  The author, Kimberly Brubaker Bradley, wrote brilliantly capturing the effects of trauma and the kind of compassion needed from caregivers when adopting children who have lived through trauma.  There was no fluff or everything is wonderful, the struggles and level of fear Ada experienced reminded me so much of many of my students that I have encountered. I will definitely get the second one to read but my vote actually goes to the Porcupine of Truth.

Carson and Aisha are teenage voices that are very unconventional.  Again this novel hit a heart chord with the narrative showing how many layers of hurt families splitting up can have.  I felt there would be many teenagers who could relate to Carson and Aisha's journey to find the truth while disregarding their parent's requests.  I did at times wonder how realistic the journey was, but then thought to all the stories from students over the years who don't have traditionally calm or stable homes.  The power of secrets throughout Carson's life was so accurately stated, and the struggle of being gay in our society was woven into the story in such a realistic manner.  I again heard many of my student's voices in Aisha's narrative and choices.  The crux of relationships in the novel won me over and that is why the Porcupine of Truth got my vote, but alas it was the only member of my team that felt that way.

Congrats The War That Saved My Life.  #loveyoutoo

Porcupine of Truth vs. The War that Saved My Life

The War that Saved my Life
We all loved this book! It is beautifully and skillfully told.  Our hearts broke and sang at the same time between the cruelty and the kindness and resiliency of others. This is an accessible way for younger readers to experience the atrocities of war and the need to find our own place in the world and value who we are. The author manages to tell a story with horrific elements, without being gratuitous.  The art of nuance and the implied over intentional shock-value is lost in so much ‘popular’ fiction.  There are depths of themes that would work with division three, but content and readability that could also work for division two.  Life is so full of things that could bring us to despair; it is a precious thing to have a story that reminds us of redemption and hope in the end.

The Porcupine of Truth
Initially, we all enjoyed The Porcupine of Truth, especially Carson’s inner voice and tangents that he went on. A lot of readers can identify with this sort of self-talk. While his thoughts aren’t always “proper” or “appropriate”, it’s an authentic voice of a girl-crazy teenage boy. He is entirely selfish and self-centered. He takes risks that we wouldn’t want to encourage our students to take… but at least he’s out exploring the world! I think this is an interesting way to approach issues such as broken families, alcoholism, religion, closed-mindedness in regards to sexuality, and youth homelessness. I thought parts of the book encourage independence, creativity, and a relentless desire to find one’s place in the world…. All that being said - I still find myself quite angry with some of Carson said about Ayisha. While PoT tries to challenge close-mindedness about LGBTQ issues, Carson creates a lot more problems than the book solves. One of our group wasn't really drawn into the mystery of finding out about his lost grandfather.

United as One (except one) against One

I'm ready to vote
I'm just going to throw my opinion in the ring

One is a hot commodity with my grade eights,
Such a different story.
It is incredibly accessible, well-written, and truly engaging for my students.
They are really authentic voices
Going through regular teen-age troubles.
I'd not be comfortable giving it to my 7's.
I did not really like One when I read it last round.
I did like One when it was going up against other books

I LOVED and was captivated by the three stories and how they came together at the end.
I appreciated the craft of the book,
But I haven't had anyone pick it up off the shelf yet.
I cared about the characters more than in One.
I did wonder about the fairy tale in Echo,
I am a sucker for a fairy tale!
But I loved the characters so much!
Echo is more likely a story that will stand the test of time.

Geez, there seems to be an Echo in the room.

In honor of it being poetry writing season in my classes I used our email trail to create a poem for our post!  

Our vote is for Echo here at ABM on Team 2.    

One vs Echo

At Westmin, we enjoyed both books.  Most of this has already been said, but we concur that One was enjoyable, but perhaps limited in the depth of development by the poetic form.  I, personally, wanted more after the surgery, too.  This book is an easy sell to our female readers.
Echo was lovely, for all of the reasons already discussed by other bloggers.  There was some reluctance from Wendy about the book being, perhaps, a little too American for a large chunk, but mostly we felt it was universal in many ways.
We add our votes to Echo moving forward in the finals.

Echo vs. One

Our group at DDM was divided. Here's what we thought:

Brandy Lee: I preferred One.

I'm not really a big fiction reader, and I watch way more documentaries than movies or fictional TV shows, so it wasn't a big surprise to me that I wouldn't like Echo as much.

I liked the poetry idea that One used. Actually, I wish I would have copied a few of the pages of the book to use for our poetry unit. At first I thought I wouldn't like it, but once I got into the rhythm of the book I found that it flowed really well. It didn't seem contrived or artificial, which is what I was worried about when I started reading it. It was more like a "Dear Diary"-style, so I could go from one poem to the next if I kept that in my mind.

The story line of Echo was drawn out far longer than it needed to be.

Alana: I much preferred Echo.  The narrative wove through 4 different historical events and locations with a common theme of recognizing the wonder and worth of each human being.  The conclusion culminated in a single point that brought all 4 stories together.  There was an element of serendipitous magic that popped in and out of the historical events.  

One had a fascinating story line focusing on the idea of self but didn't leave the same sense of depth as Echo did for me.

Renae: I read One and wished there was more to it, specifically after the surgery. It reminded me of Crossover from last year in that it was an engaging story but lacked the extra detail and characterization that you don't get from the poetic format. I only had time to read half of Echo and am liking it so far, but since I didn't finish, I don't think I can vote!

So for DDM, it's one for One, and one for Echo. 

Two girls take on a magical harmonica

Echo is an enchanting book - it intertwines three stories with a harmonica. might think "not opening the cover" but reconsider that thought.  This book draws the reader into the characters and their stories.  Not all teen readers will like the appreciate the format of the three distinct stories (initially the reader is left to wonder will there ever be a happy ending); however if the reader persists hope will be found.

One is a story of conjoined twins.  Again the reader might question whether this is a worthy read: is this a reality TV show in book form? Written in prose this story allows the reader to connect with both sisters through the voice of one. The bond felt between the sisters is more than most of us can imagine.  Poignant and delicately crafted I think readers will dive in and will struggle to put the book down until finished.

Both books are worthy to move on but my vote is for One.


Tuesday, April 4, 2017

Callingwood Goes For The War . . .

Well, over at Callingwood, our conversation looked initially to be surprisingly short for this late stage of the competition. No suspense here, really: we loved The War that Saved My Life and we were just generally pretty irritated by The Porcupine of Truth. Once we got rolling we actually spent a disconcerting amount of time revelling in what annoyed us the most about Porcupine, but we’ve endeavoured to see some good in the novel, as well. It started out as a reasonably engaging story with a mystery in the middle, but as is sometimes the case with an ambitious author there was a real sense of jamming ideas (and puns, oh the puns!) in a novel that could have used a little restraint, rather than continual excess. That said, the author clearly is writing a novel that could be a way into some tough discussions (the hypocrisy of faith, sexual identity, the effects of trauma, substance abuse etc.) for some young people and there are entertaining and sobering moments that occur throughout the novel. There, that was somewhat diplomatic right? As for what got on our nerves (in no particular order): 1) Why does Aisha need to be supermodel hot? An interesting and potentially nuanced character seems continually diminished by Carson’s leering, which seems to signal a subtle misogyny that runs through other aspects of the novel. 2) The whiny petulance on display from Carson throughout may accurately portray the occasional teen boy, but it doesn't make great reading company. 3) The scene where they earned $500 telling lame mom jokes and making up plays on the spot drove us nuts. 4)
The overly pedantic look at the hypocrisy of faith (throughout) and the AIDS epidemic (at the end) also grated. Both interesting things to discuss, but I don't think any of us need our novels to devolve into thinly veiled lectures. We could (and did) go on, but that should suffice here.

The War that Saved My Life on the other hand, charmed us. I cringed a bit writing that because it seems like faint praise, but the more I think of our discussion, it is the right word. The War that Saved My Life reminded us all of some of those really important books that we read when we were young that seemed note perfect and really kindled our love of reading. The book starts out with an almost Dickensian tone as we are immersed in both physical and emotional squalor. Of course, this novel does immerse us in the past (although some hundred years removed from Dickens), but its insights into such things as trauma, relationships and, ultimately, the mysteries and foundations of human communication are profound and timeless. The characters in this novel are achingly damaged, but Bradley, unlike Konisberg, opts to show in carefully drawn characterizations rather than tell through too often invasive dialogue. There is considerable restraint in what is revealed about each character and this allows us to draw closer to these characters. We see this in Susan’s profound, but understated mourning; in Ada and Jamie’s halting recovery from trauma and even in the decision to cast their mother in such a shockingly mean and unsympathetic light. There is no doubt that she too has been traumatized, but she is so far gone the narrative cannot allow us any window of hope, which helps to form an essential narrative contrast to our other characters. One of the challenges of The Smackdown is coming across books that may be perfect for one particular audience, but disastrous for another, and I often think of these books in terms of kids I’ve known and ask myself, “Would I give them a particular book?”. With this book it kind of went the other way, in that we were all hard pressed to think of a person, young or old, that we would not eagerly want to read The War That Saved My Life.

And . .  .Wolf By Wolf is our Zombie Pick!

The War vs. The Truth

I didn't hide my strong dislike for Porcupine of Truth in my last post.  Thus, I will stick to why I believe War that Saved my Life should win this battle.  This book reminded me of Echo with kids that are caught up in World War II and the battles the fought that didn't always include guns and bombs.  I may even like this book better than Echo, I'd really have to think about it.  I was emotionally invested in Ada's battle to break free from the limitations her mother put on her as well as her own.  The relationship that forms between Ada and Susan Smith doesn't seem convenient to me, it seems real.  Some days Ada moves closer to Susan, while others she pulls away in fear of getting too close.  Seeing Ada develop throughout the story was believable and I was definitely rooting for her.  I was quite put off when Ada didn't stand up to her mother at Susan's but I had to remind myself that this girl had been abused her whole life and despite the abuse, she still wanted her mother's love.  The ending had me all caught up and hoping that somehow Susan would come for the kids and I wasn't disappointed.  Overall, I loved it and I think lots of my students would too.  I hope it wins the war!


The War that Saved my Life vs. The Porcupine of Truth


The War that Saved my Life vs. The Porcupine of Truth

There was a lot of discussion about which novel to choose as the TD Baker crew liked both books.

Things We Like About The War:
- the historical fiction
- the aunt's subtle queer subplot
- flawed but likeable characters
- story and symbolism of the horse
- the hopeful nature of the story

Things We Liked About Porcupine:
- Aisha's feisty personality
- Aisha's May/December friendship with Carson's grandfather's friend
- the road trip (the uncertainty and the adventure)
- many different interesting supporting characters

Things We Weren't Sure That We liked about The War:
- the ending seemed a little too convenient
- the mother was a little bit of a caricature
- at times, Jamie was a little bit annoying

Things We Weren't Sure That We liked about Porcupine:
- 2/3 of us had difficulty getting into the book
- all of the gay characters seemed to be excessively defined by their queer identity to the exclusion of other qualities
- again, a convenient ending
- a fair about of conversation about Carson's erections
- Carson's mother was unbelievably permissive
- there was a bit too much happening in this book

After looking at this list, we still are pretty stumped as both books were strong and both books were flawed.  In the end, all three of us voted for The War that Saved my Life.

For the zombie round, we all choose Echo (if it is eliminated this round) and our second choice is The Hour of the Bees.

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

I hear an echo......

Echo vs One

We’ll keep this short as there are already a lot of posts about the merits and challenges of these two books (since we are nearing the final pairing).  One, written in prose, was not only an easy read but really explored the love between 2 sisters.  We liked that the book gave you a look at what it was like to be conjoined (because, honestly, who wouldn’t be curious about that?) but the focus was on the relationships between the girls, their friends and family.  That being said, it would have been hard for it to take down Echo.  We actually read Echo in the second round and moved it forward because it was such a beautifully written book, music in our heads, hopefulness in our hearts and an inability to put it down.  We’ve given Echo to a number of our colleagues and students and they concur.  So for us, the clear winner is ...Echo.