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

Thursday, November 30, 2017

The Hate U Give comes out ahead

I agree with my reading partner - this was a brutally tough choice.  salt to the sea revealed a part of our World War II history that I have never known.  I have studied the Holocaust, met Holocaust survivors, been to the concentration camp museums in Europe and this book added a new level of war sorrow.  I started talking with my eleven year old, while and after reading the book, about Stalin and together we looked for more information about the evil that he embodied.

salt to the sea started the race as a favorite because of my love of history because I naively hoped that I could be part of the solution before another atrocities.  Naïve yes, but information is power.  This story increased my understanding of the complexities for everyone involved.  The use of multiple narrators was captivating and very engaging and created characters I hated, Alfred, yet I could see Alfred reflected in our world today. The themes of courage and risk, love and integrity gripped me.  When I found out that the boats did actually exist and so many thousands lost their lives I was devastated.  I was outraged that governments use their power to hurt so many!  Again I was hit in the face with the reality that things may not changed in the last 70 years as much I had hoped.  I loved this novel and even hugged it when I cried at the end.

The Hate U Give was equally enticing and gripping.  I replayed the recent news in my head after finishing each chapter.  I heard the voices of African American colleagues from the US that talk about this world I have only experienced once.  As part of The Freedom Writer Teachers there are many ethnic groups represented at our conferences. At one conference we had just finished the museum at the Library of Congress in Washington, D.C.  relishing in the section dedicated to the same Freedom Writers I was now with.

Upon leaving the museum, Melvin an African American Freedom Writer was searched for an extended period of time, even though he was wearing identification that identified him as an original Freedom Writer.  I was standing behind him and was aghast at how thoroughly he was searched and then horrified when I was next and they did not search me at all.  I did not have to open my bag, as Melvin had, I did not have to spread my legs to be body searched, as Melvin had. The greatest irony was that I had forgotten to pay for a T-shirt in the gift shop and was walking out with unpaid merchandise.  I had paid for the other 7 items but had been in such a rush I forgot about the t-shirt under my arm.

The Hate U Give is beautifully crafted and told from the teenager point of view that always touches my heart. This novel is so relevant so it is the one I have chosen to move forward.

Wednesday, November 29, 2017

Female of the Species vs Upside Down in the Middle of Nowhere

Female of the Species
I don’t know if I love this book or hate this book.  It is dark and raw, yet somehow empowering - I love a good vigilante story!  There are moments when the promiscuity and underage drinking overwhelm the reader, yet the author does a good job of offering a window into small town teenage parties and highlighting some of the darker undercurrents of society.  It is a mature read, and as we are in a K-9 school, I am not sure that the content is appropriate for a junior high reader, so for that strong reason I am not voting for this book to go through this round.  

As an adult, I was interested in the storyline, but I was not a fan of the content. I think that the sexual content and the coarse language is unnecessary and serves to normalize this sort of behaviour in teenage children. I would not want my 15 year old to read the book for that reason. In fact, if she was 16 or 17, in high school at all for that matter, I would not want her reading that content. Good writing is well crafted and has captivating characters. I did not find the protagonist or the supporting characters captivating; at times, they hardly seemed plausible. I definitely pass on this novel for school aged children.

Upside Down in The Middle of Nowhere
A beautiful story of survival set when Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans told by a 10 year old girl.  I appreciated the authentic voice of the character, and her stubborn personality that is a strength and a weakness.  Few of our students in div 2 or 3 will remember the devastation that Hurricane Katrina caused, but the author does a good job of describing an ordinary family’s struggle to survive after the storm, but the resilience and goodness of people in times of crisis.
This book can be enjoyed by students in Division 2 or 3.  

VERDICT: Upside Down in the Middle of Nowhere is the winner!

Dan vs. Nature is up against Paper Girls.

OK.  Some people think graphic novels are books.   I get the argument, but really, it is a comic.  It is a series of pictures (well drawn), with minimal text.   The reader does not have the joy of creating their own mind's images.  Actual reading is limited to afew sentences (at most) on each page.  That alone bodes ill for this book in the smackdown competition.  Couple that with word choice that has too much f*&king swearing (did I offend anyone?  I am trying to make a point.) and again, Paper Girls did not impress our reading team.

Paper Girls came in a close second to "Dan vs. Nature".   Get it?  Choosing Dan vs. Nature, is like choosing liver over kidney.   If you like scatological humor, and extended fart jokes, read on.  The legal definition of torture has been much debated in recent media, and I take "Dan vs. Nature" to be a useful contribution to the debate.

The winner:   Dan vs. Nature.    Like liver over kidney.

Refugee Bests UnBecoming (But please read both!)

In my years taking part in The Mighty Smackdown I’ve always found this first round to be the most problematic. Part of the challenge is that you often have very disparate reading experiences, but this is also complicated by the fact that the stakes are pretty high here in the first round. Zombie picks notwithstanding, when we jettison a book at this early stage it means that there is much less a chance of that book finding its way into your students’ hands. It’s this latter piece that really gave us pause in coming to our decision and while we fell pretty good about our decision to send Refugee forward, we wanted to recognize that there is something special about Unbecoming and give a real push for you to find some time for it in your reading lives.

Unbecoming is about three generations of women within one complex (aren’t they all?) family: Katie is 17 and, arguably, the spiritual centre of the novel, who lives with her mom, Caroline (and her brother, Chris). Their lives are turned on end by the reappearance of Mary, Caroline’s long estranged mother, into their lives. Mary is also grappling with Alzheimers (and the recent death of her partner, Jack). Katie is struggling with her identity (and who isn’t?), including her sexuality. Caroline is also struggling in many ways with what we could loosely (and probably, overly simplistically) term as abandonment issues. So, there is a lot going on here and I’m afraid that in listing these plot elements one after another like this I’ve probably made them sound trite, but while I’m the first to criticize a book that has so much going on plot-wise that it sacrifices depth of character for exposition or, worse, subtlety and nuance in style in favor of moving the plot forward, this is not that book. There are moments of grace and beauty that emerge frequently and I found myself, perhaps unexpectedly, moved by small moments and turns of phrase throughout the novel. It has elements of a mystery, as the dynamic Katie sets about getting to the heart of her grandmother’s potentially glamorous life and unlocking the source of her mother’s undisguised antipathy towards Mary. In the sections focused on Mary, Downham brings us into Mary’s past and into her illness, and the result is initially unsettling, even jarring at times, but ultimately moving and insightful. It is Katie who is at the heart of this story, however, and it is through her that we not only explore the complexities of her own becoming, but we are also presented with a window into her mother and her grandmother’s complex, and maybe tragic, lives. We were impressed with both the sophistication of the narrative structure and the eloquence with which Downham gives voice to such internal and external complexities. As beautiful as it is at times, we saw it as a read for a pretty sophisticated reader, and while there are kids I can think of that I’d want to get this book to right away, there are also many who may not have the maturity or the reading stamina to work through such a complex, if carefully woven narrative. I will note that in our Callingwood/SBS group of six, it was actually the two former high school teaching men who were the strongest champions of the book, which perhaps suggests that the book may find a wider audience than anticipated. This is a great book.

Ok, and all that was actually about the loser of the round!. One thing that we were all in agreement about, was that Refugee was a book that we could put in the hands of everyone from our upper elementary students to, say six university educated professionals, and expect that person to learn something substantial and connect with the reading experience in meaningful ways. Refugee is a book that is, in some ways, as straightforward as it is timely and important. It holds three narratives all featuring stories of refugees, beginning in, respectively, the late 1930s Germany, 1990s Cuba and present day Syria. Grantz has us moving rapidly back and forth between each narrative in short, and often dramatic, chapters and I suspect the effect of this will be hit or miss for readers. Within our group we had readers who ultimately flipped ahead and back to read the chapters of each narrative as a cohesive story, while others noted how interspersing the chapters allowed us to see the strong parallels in each narrative. While the writing and the narrative do not have the nuance and depth of Unbecoming it struck us all as a carefully crafted novel and a big part of that craft was ensuring that it could be accessible to students who are still developing readers. We could all see a place for this book in our classrooms, but we wouldn’t hesitate to get it in the hands of our kids - and within our group we already have our own children and a number of students reading it - for an independent read. The insights the author offers into these three distinct periods in time will likely be eye-opening for some of our younger students, but even for those of us with broader historical backgrounds juxtaposing the refugee experience over some eighty years cannot help but force us to reflect on the political forces twittering away the futures of vulnerable people throughout the world. This is an enjoyable reading experience, with action and drama that will appeal to even reluctant readers and it is a valuable text that teaches without being didactic. There is a lot going on in the book, and while it might lack some of the rhetorical flourishes that we’ll see in what looks like another very strong Smackdown field, it was ultimately Refugee’s accessibility and and deep-seated plea for empathy that pushes it onto the next round for us.

Tuesday, November 28, 2017

"This is one of the saddest books available," Dia told me as she placed the book in my hand about two years ago." Perfect, I thought. If I'm not sad while I'm reading, I 'm not happy. To top it all off, Salt to the Sea is also historical fiction from WWII. I simply could not have asked for a better fit book. Put this book up against any other one that we are reading, and it is unlikely that I would vote against it. But The Hate U Give? How am I possibly supposed to choose between these two? When I am faced with the choice of eliminating a great book, I always try and remember my purpose for joining Mighty Smackdown: finding great books for the kids I teach. This is never actually stated anywhere in "the rules", but sometimes a tie-breaker is required. So...two great books - one undesirable choice. I needed something, and this is my go-to method. My vote is for The Hate U Give. This hate is happening right now. To quote Holly, give this book to the "Tiki Torch carrying white men".  


“The Girl Who Drank the Moon” vs. “Serpent King”

Our group unanimously put forward “The Girl Who Drank the Moon” by Kelly Barnhill.  No arguments were had, not smacking was needed.  Reading these two was like watching a one-sided boxing match:  one threw all the punches and the other just stood there.  No contest.  No discussion.  Clear victory.

Here are a few thoughts from the group:


I thought the  "Serpent King" started out with some interesting characters but the whole storyline was fairly weak and I thought the ending was a little predictable and sappy. The characters could have been more developed and the writing style didn't was not super engaging.

In comparison, I normally do not like fantasy but the multiple storylines made the book much more intriguing than the first one (The Serpent King). Perhaps a little on the complex side for younger teens but the appeal of the characters and the desire to find out how their stories are all connected, makes you want to read on.  


I found Serpent King to be incredibly disappointing.  I felt like Zentner really struggled to let his characters each have their own voice, and I found his enthusiastic use of a thesaurus to be distracting at best and confusing at its worst.

The main conflict, if you can call it that, seems to be whether Dill will leave town when he graduates. But it's hard to tell initially if that's the central plot at all because Dill doesn't want to leave town and the stakes for this choice are so low that his bestie is the only person who cares about it for 3/4 of the novel.

I was sorely disappointed by the only female main character in the novel, Lydia. Overall I think my biggest frustration - besides the manic pixie dream girl stereotype - is that Lydia's loopy curiosity is used to deliver a lot of exposition about Dill in a way that makes her seem to not know him at all, despite being his self-professed best friend for all of highschool. In her interior monologue she is the best possible friend for Dill, but in reality she's shallow and deeply unlikeable because her existence as a character seems not to be thought out beyond 'she's cool and Dill will like her'.

On the other hand, I really enjoyed the characters of Travis and Dillard. I found Dill's religious interior monologue to be fascinating and authentic feeling, and I loved Travis' gentleness and willingness to walk his own path. I think that if the book had centered around these boys, rather than Lydia's distractions, even with the tragedy that twists the story near the end Dill's character change would have been far more believable and heartbreaking.

Lots of potential in these characters' lives, but I didn't find it a particularly well-told story.

I really loved a lot about “The Girl Who Drank the Moon”, which is surprising considering I typically dislike Fantasy books. I found the structure of the book very engaging - I enjoyed the switch in narration from chapter to chapter and particularly liked the intermittent chapters written from the voice of a parent/grandparent telling tales of the swamp to a child.   I loved that The Girl Who Drank the Moon was written with tongue-in-cheek humor and was very aware of its own existence as a fairytale story. One of the most successful elements of this book, I think, was the dramatic irony that held readers in tension throughout the rising action of the story.   Something else that really touched me was the character of Glerk - I loved the existential idea that he was a Swamp Monster and the poet and the bog all at once. The closing vignette with Xan and Glerk in the bog had me in tears!

In fact, there were so many great characters in this book, with lots of opportunities to discuss and evaluate character choices and motives with students. I think it would be really cool to read aloud to a class and definitely want a copy for my classroom library.

Tristin & Lindsay

The beauty of “The Girl Who Drank the Moon” was in the whimsical storytelling.  The cover and age were a bit off-putting, but when the first few lines, we were spellbound.  
“Yes. There is a witch in the woods. There has always been a witch. Will you stop your fidgeting for once? My stars! I have never seen such a fidgety child. No, sweetheart, I have not seen her. No one has. Not for ages. We've taken steps so that we will never see her. Terrible steps. Don't make me say it.”  

The book reminded Tristin of “Stardust” by Neil Gaiman.  There were many characters all on their own journeys that would eventually converge.  Kelly Barnhill unravelled slowly; giving enough to entertain and leaving out enough to keep you flipping pages.

“Serpent King” seemed like a cliche teen angst story.  You have the classic three misfits who are on the verge of graduating, which will take them away from each other.  There's a little love story, some family turmoil and questions of faith.  We wouldn't say it was a difficult read to get through, but it was not engaging.  Maybe it's from inhaling way too many teen fiction novels, but “Serpent King” seemed like a poor attempt at a John Green novel.  The only unique aspect of the novel was the idea of faith.  Serpents proving your belief and readiness to take the Lord into your hear?  It was an interesting twist but lacked development to the point that it seemed ridiculous.  There were glimmers of hope in the book.  Many lines were swiped for sentence studies with our students, but the book came up short.  Would we recommend either book to our high school students?  Of course!  But we don’t see either book being in the finale, smacking it out for the win.

"Take a Knee" Salt to the Sea

Image result for the hate you giveImage result for salt to the sea
While both books in our opinion were fantastic, taking into context our current societal struggles Andrea and I vote for The Hate U Give. We both felt that either could go through, but considering student engagement The Hate U Give would appeal to a wider audience.

Both books have a valuable lesson about how we treat marginalized groups in society, BUT The Hate U Give is giving youth and adults the opportunity to still turn this narrative around.

We are going on record saying that this is a MUST READ book in the world of Drumpf and Tiki Torch carrying white men.

Authors such as Angie Thomas, Jason Reynolds, and Kwame Alexander need to be a part of every classroom library. These books open opportunities for conversations that will change the landscape of this sometimes ugly world.

If you haven't yet heard Alexander's spoken word poem, please take a listen.

Kwame Alexander: Take a Knee

*disclaimer: Ruta Sepetys is the most wonderful author Andrea and I have ever met (okay maybe a close second behind Laurie Halse Anderson and Kwame Alexander). She writes the most amazing historical fiction books and we highly encourage you to check out her other titles Between Shades of Gray and Holly's personal favourite Out of the Easy. Her craft of being able to write historical narratives is like none other. We may or may not be considering this or Wolf Hollow as our zombie picks already.

Andrea & Holly

Team 10 Votes...

The winner….When We Collided:

Kerri - Mental illness is always challenging to write about in a way that doesn't feel cliche. I think the author, Emery Lord, did a good job of discussing really difficult topics in a way that would be relatable to teens but also didn't gloss over the struggles faced by people struggling with mental illness. I found the characters likeable and believable (for the most part) and their relationship seemed genuine. I don't remember the last time I finished a book in a day, but I did with this one.

Linda-I thoroughly enjoyed the contrasts and comparisons between the two main characters featured in this novel.  Emery Lord has an insightful and descriptive way of writing about the thoughts, feelings, and actions of Jonah and Vivi.  I started to “sticky” different thoughts that rang true with me, and found that I was highlighting something for myself every few pages.  I showed my students what I was doing and encouraged them to do the same with their books.  A couple of girls saw my copy of When We Collided on my desk and wanted to read it immediately.  The situations of mental illness, and the loss of a loved one which also results in mental illness are all very “real” and prevalent in this day and age. I found that this novel presented these difficult situations in a very genuine way, with overtones of lighthearted joy and compassionate understanding that will help the readers think and connect more deeply about these struggles in everyday life.

Krystal- I really enjoyed the simplicity of the writing and the straight forward nature of each of the characters. I liked, but was not sold on the plausibility of Vivi, however my experience with bipolar disorder within my family and the reality of the ups and downs were explicitly drawn out in the novel creating an excellent example of how the illness can affect not only the patient but those around him/ her as well.
Jonah, however, was likable and believable. I felt more drawn to him and his loss than to Vivi and her disorder. I think the novel offers readers an opportunity to connect with either of the characters, making it an enjoyable read.   
Although I wasn’t sold on the ‘perfect girl’ representation of Vivi, the main character’s love interest, there was something simplistic and sweet about the two falling in love. Emery Lord has a way of capturing those ‘first love’ moments that we’ve all felt at some point and it really made me, as a single girl, wish I could find my perfect collision.
I think an older audience would enjoy and relish in the story and the incorporation of falling in love and realizing that everyone has their own demons, this will create a connection for teens and draw them in. If you’re looking for a book to focus on character development, I think this book would be excellent!

Midnight Without a Moon:

Bernadette- I started to read this one, but in all honesty… I didn’t like it at all. I didn’t even finish it. That is not typical for me, I’ll usually tough it out until the end, even if I find the book mediocre. This one I just couldn’t finish. So obviously I would not recommend this book. I found it predictable and lacked details. It just never “caught” me.

Rachel - Although I enjoy historical fiction, I found this book did not grab my attention. I forced myself to continue and by about the halfway mark I wanted to keep reading to see it through. I believe that younger readers may struggle with the Southern dialect and it may take away from their full engagement. I also found myself disappointed with the ending for Rose’s character.

(I only got as far as Chapter 7)
Linda--JH students would enjoy reading this book as they are horrified by the injustices that were a constant reality in the past, when they compare it to the rights and freedoms that we have here in Canada today.  The main character Rose Lee is spunky and full of righteous indignation about the living conditions of “colored folks” like herself and her family. With that attitude, she goes forward in life with the hope and intent of making a difference.  The only drawback to this book is that the reader will need to take some time to get used to the old southern voice that it is written in.  Some younger students who don’t have any experiences with this particular voice--the dialect of the cultural social group--will have some difficulties with certain phrases and may find it difficult to decipher the overall meaning of various passages, although it is necessary for the authenticity of the novel.

Kerri - I also really liked the main character in this one, but something about her rang false to me. Many times throughout the story I felt myself thinking "this seems like it has been done before" and I found the end kind of predictable. It was a really cute story with an inspiring message, but I don't think it was as gripping and relatable as When We Collided.

Vincent and Theo: The Van Gogh Brothers vs. Goodbye Days


First of all, I'd like to state that Shelley K., Stephen, and I didn't love either book and would happily sacrifice our "winner" for another book that was loved by another group but not chosen for various reasons.

That being said, we did reluctantly choose Vincent and TheoVincent and Theo is different kind of story told from an objective point of view. It is a fleshed out account of Vincent Van Gogh's life and his number one fan and supporter, his brother Theo. Although it is a little dry at times, it was an interesting account - art, religion, sex, booze, friendships, society's expectations -  and told in an interesting manner - framed as a series of gallery exhibits and written to reflect Vincent’s work.  However, we don't think many students would find it interesting - especially considering there were parts that we adults had to push our way through. Stephen and I voted for this one, with Shelley K. leaning (slightly) towards Goodbye Days.

As for Goodbye Days, our initial reaction was not a positive one, but it eventually grew on Shelley K (and got better for Stephen and I). It is reminiscent of a typical YA genre where some tragic event occurs, usually dealing with a death, and the survivors struggle to pick up the aftermath of their lives without feeling guilty or responsible for said tragic event - with a little falling in love with a deceased friend's girlfriend thrown in the mix. Are we sounding a little negative? It was a fine read that many kids would enjoy (and perhaps learn the important lesson of the dangers of texting) but it was too annoying and trite to truly capture our hearts.

So, unless we can convince the group to choose another book to move forward, we select Vincent and Theo as our champion.

Amanda Barrett, Shelley Kunicki, and Stephen Ekstrom

The Secret Life of Lincoln Jones vs. Burn Baby Burn

DDM votes for Burn Baby Burn to move on to the next round.

Brandy Lee: I like true crime and mystery genres, so I much preferred Burn Baby Burn. Regardless, I didn't like the other book that much. I wasn't drawn in by the main character - I wasn't sure how to feel towards him. He seemed like an earnest kid trying to make friends, but his relationship with the girls was confusing. I didn't know if she was his friend or his enemy. And I wish they would have put more time into developing his relationship with the shut in neighbour. I feel like that was a pivotal event in his life and I don't know much about her.

Renae: I didn't know anything about New York in the 1970s, so reading Burn Baby Burn enlightened me about a moment in history that provided an interesting backdrop to the story. I think this book would work well for grade 9 or high school students. I liked that the main character rose above her circumstances rather than being dragged down by them. It wasn't done in a cheesy way, either. The Secret Life of Lincoln Jones dragged too much for me. I thought the protagonist, at 11 years old, came to some pretty deep realizations about life for such a young person. There were too many aspects of the book that weren't developed well enough to be interesting. 

We March on to Defy the Stars

Image result for march graphic novelImage result for defy the stars

“My dear children, read. Read everything.”

March is an invigorating and empowering memoir to have the reader think, reflect, and empathize with Carl Lewis and his Civil Rights journey. Before reading this text, I knew about the Civil Rights Movement, or so I thought. I realize now that I knew the basics of this movement and not the specific details. Through Carl Lewis’ perspective, the reader experiences his journey from his beginnings in the church to his involvement with Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. in the March. Having Lewis in a reflective moment where he is at Obama’s 2008 inauguration where it causes him to look back at how he got to that moment. It was inspiring to me as a reader to see how he was unsure of his role, but chose to do what was right for not only himself, but for his country.  The series shows the hope Lewis had for himself and his vision for a better future.

The graphic novel - communicating this memoir via graphic novel was at times the best mode of storytelling. Having said that, at times the illustrations were difficult and hard to read. This always brings me back to conversations I’ve had with my students and own children about the level of difficulty a graphic novel contains. This graphic novel makes it easy for the reader to infer and personally connect to the characters and details.

The ideas expressed in March seem to be on the forefront of the world we live in today and makes it relevant to our readers. Reading this memoir provides our readers with hope that they can change their circumstances and stand up for what they believe.

Defy the Stars was a novel that on the surface was not engaging, but once delved in, presented some ideas that makes a reader think. This novel explores the idea of opposite forces having to co-exist or work together.  Defy the Stars has the plot structure to entice all sorts of readers in junior and senior high - intergalactic fighting, environmental issues, life on other planets, political and moral philosophy, the advances of robotic technology, and a romance between two characters from different worlds.

On our team, Judy, chose Defy the Stars as she felt how the narrative was presented is engaging to all readers and the ideas brought about were what students should be talking about. The rest of our group chose March for its relevance to the time the word we live in today.
                                       Image result for girl in the blue coat              Image result for louis undercover
Winner: Girl in the blue coat

 Louis undercover:

This graphic novel dealt with a couple of important themes in a child's life, an alcoholic parent and his parents separation, but some of our team found the book too superficial for the subject matter.  It was beautifully illustrated but at times hard to follow the story line as there were jumps in the time line and we had a hard time knowing which character was speaking for these reasons we are moving Girl with the blue coat forward.

Girl in the blue coat:

Is a deeply moving story about a young woman living in Amsterdam during WWII.  She deals in black market goods to help her family survive.  She carries a heavy burden of sorrow and guilt as she cannot stop thinking about the death of her boyfriend and how she had convinced him to enlist.  She gets caught up in a mystery at the beginning of the book which has her confronting people from her past and encountering the German resistance. There are many YA books about WWII but this is the first one we have read that has dealt with the German invasion into Holland. 

Monday, November 27, 2017

Salt to the Sea vs The Hate U Give

I must admit that I've been reading Salt to the Sea since my gracious colleague attended a conference, bought the book, met the author, got it signed, and loaned it to me in the summer of 2016! As someone who loves historical fiction and spends much time book talking it to my students, it shocked my supportive, yet increasingly perplexed book loaning colleague, that I was stalling on this book.  And stalling mid way through.  Then restarting.  Stopping.  Leaving weeks, at times months long, aching gaps in my reading.  When I did finish the last one hundred pages or so, it was in a three hour tear soaked session during which I was lost to everything and everyone around me.  This book wrenched my heart apart over fifteen months.  Each chapter required me to steel myself and stock up on Kleenex.  It asked me to open my heart, to understand, to think, and to wrestle with what we have done to each other in the past. This story shook me to my core.  It is essential reading.

In contrast, The Hate U Give I consumed in less than 48 hours.  And then spent at least a few more hours researching 2pac and Thug Life.  As someone already deeply moved by events in our world over the past few years, this book gave even more faces to its cause and wrenched my heart apart.  This book inspired deep conversations with my (adult) extended family.  It asked me to open my heart, to understand, to think, and to wrestle with what we are doing to each other now.  This story shook me to my core.  It is essential reading.

Being asked to choose between these two books is to literally rip my soul, which I consider the seat of my compassion, apart.  Both these books are required reading.  One to help us understand where we have been and the other to shock us into realizing where we are now.

I intentionally did not speak much with my colleagues before making my decision and have not made my voting decision as I type these words.  I feel the arguments for both are equally strong and each is inspirational and achingly sad at the same time.  I will regret my choice as soon as I hit 'publish' and will change my mind over and over again after this goes on the blog.  Please, read them both regardless of which moves on.

Do I feel either is targeted at my grade 7's.  No.  But there will come a time in their future when they must read these stories.  You cannot fail to be moved by the powerful characters and the ways in which their lives are torn apart.  Yet still, I hear each of the female protagonists call, in the words of Maya Angelou, "But still, like dust, I'll rise." ("Still I Rise"  Maya Angelou)  And rise they do.

My vote is The Hate U Give.  I only give this book my vote over Salt to the Sea because we are living the issues in this novel now.   In everything else, especially societal importance, they are equal.    

Round 1: Calvin v. The Smell of Other People’s Houses

Yikes. This whole Smackdown thing is going to be tricky; I’m going to disagree with Adrienne. And I hope that this doesn’t end up in fisticuffs, because, as we all know, Adrienne would wipe the floor with me.

The Smell of Other People’s Houses has the better title. More useful. More devastating. That olfactory imagery was the best damn part — I, consistently and viscerally, smelled the setting: the Salvation Army, the flood, the Cedar house. I almost garbaged all of the Cedar soap in my bathroom at one point (but Marianne still likes it, so it remains). The book also did a damn good job of making me feel cold and isolated, which is a triumph in itself since I read Calvin first. But, too often, the book kept me that way — cold and isolated — and I didn’t feel that way about Calvin.

I agree that Calvin is gimmicky — don’t get me wrong. Hell, the book breaks every piece of advice that I give to creative writers: respect the conventions of your form; never start writing a letter and then move into narrative; write dialogue like a novelist, not like a playwright; avoid cliches and heavy handed allusions; utilize deus ex machina only when it is absolutely and totally unavoidable and necessary. By that list, I should hate Calvin. But I don’t. I found the whimsical nature of the form to be a refreshing framework for the serious implications of schizophrenia. The whole thing may be too Vonnegutian, but Slaughterhouse-Five and Calvin and Hobbes were my childhood. Our Calvin may be little more than a thinly veiled Billy Pilgrim, but I will wholeheartedly admit that Calvin hit me firmly in the nostalgia bone.

Since I already claimed that Calvin is guilty of many of the egregious errors that I volley at poorly written Personal Responses (“A letter that turns into a play? Come on!”), I will suggest the same for The Smell of Other People’s Houses; they both employ techniques that are, potentially, irksome. I just think that those techniques pay off in Calvin. In The Smell of Other People’s Houses, I appreciated the multiple narrative perspectives, but the temporality confused me and I was a little irritated by inter-narrative serendipity and gestures (you know, Jack’s “two months old” newspaper clipping with the anonymous “sixteen-year-old native girl” winning the “Ice Classic”). At one point, I threw the book, and not in the good way: when Chapter Six started with “It reminded me of a poem we read in English class,” that sentence brought up too much emotional baggage from marking superficial student writing and, I’m sorry, I just couldn’t keep it in my hands.

So Calvin is my winner. I found it simultaneously childish and profound—and the book, the characters, the aesthetic has lingered. It still follows me around like (dare I say it?) some ethereal children’s toy. (Let the booing commence.)

Image result for passion of dolssaImage result for the distance between us

The Distance Between Us by Reyna Grande, 1 vote

The Passion of Dolssa by Julie Berry, 4 votes

Neither of these novels is great for a YA audience.

Dolssa is moving on, but we’re not sure it’s a YA novel. It’s a much higher quality book. It’s more interesting, but it is a lot of work. You really should read the glossary and the dramatis personae first. There’s also a historical note and additional reading. Will most YA readers work hard enough? Will they persist to the point where the many characters stay straight and the Provencal dialect becomes a bit familiar? A history lesson would have helped - this region seems to have had a very unique Crusade against perceived heresy. Some knowledge of Christianity helps too. Dolssa is passionately in love with Christ and shares her beloved’s teachings. We didn’t quite feel that the author sold this passion enough to convince a teen reader, especially as this will be so outside of their realm of experience.

There was a sense that our students might be more inclined to read The Distance Between Us.The taboo issues like child abuse may appeal to young readers. The illegal migrant experience is timely. For a kid who never sees their lived experience reflected in a book, this might be powerful. It was interesting, but we didn’t necessarily connect with the narrator. Maybe it’s the difference between fiction and autobiography, but we’ve read autobiography in which we connected emotionally. There wasn’t a lot of character development. Reyna, the main character, was not empowered. There are interesting pieces there but they weren’t effectively developed.  It’s an adult perspective on the experiences she had as a child and adolescent. Her five year old is full of worldly wisdom. She also skimped on the psychological issues behind what went on. Characters are pretty one dimensional. The end felt a bit like a cop out - “I forgive my abuser. The end.” Did it normalize the experience of abuse? We questioned recommending it to kids. Some of us are curious to know how this middle grades adaptation compares to her autobiographical novel for adults. Some of us definitely are not interested enough to bother reading it for comparison.

The Universe continues to expand...

Perhaps our colleague suffers from a disease where she doesn’t recognize faces (sounds familiar) when she said she couldn’t meet with other people from her school. Walk towards our voice Arlene! Or maybe she was stuck in a tree and couldn’t see us behind the bear. We don’t judge, well, maybe we do.

Dia and I thought we agreed with Arlene but came to the opposite conclusion. We can give Bottle Creek to lots of reluctant readers but it doesn’t make it the better book! For years I’ve told young writers to have their characters solve their own problems realistically. Turns out that is not advice Cort ever got. Once you are swimming in a hurricane away from a boar vs. snake epic battle realism is out the window.

However, I liked that all characters in Holding Up the Universe had flaws. Libby who has the most visible flaw seemed to be able to confront it more easily than Jack who believed hiding his flaw was the better alternative. Dia has used parts of this book in her class for quick writes and found the discussion they brought up (thinking fat girl rodeo and Jack’s brother’s purse) to be strong and thoughtful. She ranks this as a 5/5 read.  For these reasons we both vote Universe. That means with a vote of 3 to 1 and Tammy letting us know she couldn’t even finish Bottle Creek. The Universe moves on!

Scythe vs Wolf Hollow

Team 15: Chelsea, Cristina, Anna, Vanessa and Deb

Scythe by Neal Shusterman Wolf Hollow by Lauren Wolk

Vanessa: Well, I really hate when I get a pairing of two great books because it means that there is likely a pairing of 2 not so great books and one of those is going to move forward instead of both of these.  So...Wolf Hollow - gotta admit, it started a little slow for me but when Betty the Terrible appeared, it got real interesting.  I had a visceral reaction to her, not a single redeeming quality and no back story to make me feel bad for her, she was just mean.  And mean as a snake!  I was hoping you would get what was coming to her and I wasn’t even all that upset when it did.  Toby was what I thought he would be, self-sufficient, suffer-in-silence, surprising.  I guessed his ending right away but was still sad when it came.  It was a great book.  Scythe is a book I had listened to this summer while working out in the garden and I ended up listening to all 8 hours in one shot.  I wouldn’t want a peek into Neal Shusterman’s brain because he takes such macabre topics (he also wrote UnWind) and then makes you think, “well, that could totally happen”. Without giving to much away, I am totally voting for Scythe.  The scientist in me just gravitates to idea of Scythe and how it could all go terribly wrong.  I suspect I’ll be in the minority and I am prepared to take my bring it!

Debbie: First of all….I want to apologize preemptively, for possibly not finishing all of the books assigned to us. I am taking two courses right now and am currently swamped with homework...and ‘work’ work...but I know everyone is busy!!!
Having said that, I finished Wolf Hollow and absolutely loved it, even though it broke my heart. I think it would be a wonderful read aloud for grades four and up because of the rich discussions to be had about hope, kindness, the tough choices we have to make in life and character development...and speaking of about that Betty??? She reminded me so much of Nellie Olsen from Little House on the Prairie...except Betty was WAY more villainous….would the word ‘psychopath’ be too much?

I am half way through Scythe and I am loving it too. Well written and a real page turner...I’ve already recommended it to some of our junior high students, some of whom have already read it and loved it. I promise to finish it this weekend and get back to this next week so we can make our decision. This is going to be a tough one for sure...I smell a zombie book in our future….

Okay….just finished Scythe. What...the heck? How did we get two such wonderfully written books in the first round??? I mean…..I’m just not sure which one to choose. We have two votes for Scythe...Chelsea??? What are you thinking? I would be happy with either one moving forward...and whichever one we choose...I will vote for the other to be a zombie pick at the end. (How’s that for noncommittal...but committal?)

Cristina: So I began with Scythe, while Anna started off with Wolf Hollow. I was drawn to this book immediately because of the cover art, which I liken to many books I have been reading lately including Ryan Graudin’s Wolf by Wolf series, and her newer book, The Walled City. I tell my students I like them “dark and stark”. And DARK is accurate for this book. There was little reprieve from the heavy subject matter and tone of this story, and let me tell you, I loved it so much. This book left me with a weight on my shoulders, but I think that it is an important one to bear. It highlighted the many sides of humanity and compassion, and Shusterman crafted a very poignant juxtaposition against these ideals.

Wolf Hollow - what a tragic, heartbreaking story. It is beautifully crafted, and I appreciated the clarity in the author’s voice on complex issues and situations - my students would too. Toby’s character just broke my heart. The scene where he reveals his stories of World War I, and how Annabelle left him to sleep in his tears moved me so deeply.

At the end of the day, the criteria I am using for myself to judge these books comes down to which books I can sell to my audience and inspire them to devour a story if given the opportunity. And my kids would LOVE Scythe. Scythe is officially my pick for this round.

Chelsea: I LOVED Wolf Hollow and can’t wait to read it to my students.  The last little bit literally took my breathe away - I really appreciated the ‘realness’ of it.  From the believable characters to the not-so-rosy ending.  I am so with you, Debbie.  

I haven’t gotten through Scythe yet… but I think Wolf Hollow is going to be my winner. I’ll add my thoughts on Scythe when I get all the way through it.

Okay,okay.  I changed my mind.  Scythe pulled me in! A major reason I’m in Smackdown is to find books my Grade 6 classroom library - which Wolf Hollow is perfect for.  But MAN , Scythe is written so well!  I am so invested in the characters, I love the little lessons that Scythe Faraday has for Rowan and Citra.  This book is about much darker themes than I normally read but it has my vote for this round.

We choose SCYTHE!!!!!!!