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, March 8, 2018

Let's Make This Clear - 4 Books Battle for 2 Spots!

With only two rounds left there has been some very interesting plot and character twists.

 Henry has developed into quite the antagonist. Plenty of people want to know what book Henry would like - remains to be seen! If I recall a previous Smackdown winner The Thing About Jellyfish  was booted out by his vote in the first round.

A beloved favourite of many (not Henry) is out in the closest vote of round three.  Holding Up the Universe moves on while Hate U Give is gone but maybe not zombie forgotten. Please search earlier posts for "I Have What is Likely a Stupid Idea" to start registering your ideas for zombie picks.

Scythe handily beat out Refugee as did Girl in the Blue Coat win over OCDaniel.

In the division with much less raving Smell of Other People's Houses stayed standing while Burn Baby Burn...burned. (This the book that took out March...hmmm).

The plot thickens...participants will now flip sides of the draw and let the fun continue!

Wednesday, March 7, 2018

Not a Lotta Love for The Hate U Give

When our little SBS cohort got together to duke it out over which of our two books was going to move forward, I expected some spirited debate and maybe some agonizing reversals before we finally made our decision. But alas, there would be no duking or teeth gnashing. We all just flat out enjoyed Holding up the Universe better and there are certainly lots of things to like about it, but I think we all seemed a little befuddled that we weren’t more taken with The Hate U Give. I mean, it is timely as all get out. It speaks directly to the sorrow and anger that many of us feel when we look to our neighbours to the South and see the deep divisions in class and race -and the intensifying violence in word and deed - overseen by the tweeter in chief. I was really expecting to love this book and I am feeling a bit confused (and maybe a bit guilty) about why I didn’t. It certainly wasn’t for want of an interesting central character; I loved Starr and thought she was a fully realized character who was asked to deal with both the mundane and the tragic throughout the course of the novel. The other characters, and there are many, are perhaps not so well-developed, although they are all given distinct voices and each serve a discernible purpose and I guess that while those two things are areas of strength, they may also be its downfall. This is an exceptionally dialogue heavy book, so we hear a lot from these characters, but Starr, as the narrator, is ultimately the only one who has a truly resonant voice and I was left wondering if the structure of the novel maybe let’s us down a bit. Thomas handles the dialogue very well and there is a consistency in dialect that really helps ground the novel in place and time and is key to showing how Starr needs to navigate a host of different realities within her teenage world. The effect, however, of Starr serving as the centre of the universe with these other characters (each with powerful and complex stories of their own) orbiting her is that the book feels a bit didactic at times. I can’t believe I’m writing this -as I’ve often railed against those prose poem, multi-voice YA novels -but I think that if there were more opportunities in this book for other voices -and the nuances of the stories behind those voices -to come to the fore, we might have been able to appreciate the complexities of Starr’s life just as much, but also felt a little more like we were meeting unique characters rather than learning an, admittedly, important lesson in sociology. It’s still a book I’d recommend reading, both for the aforementioned lesson and for some genuinely poignant moments, but I don’t think it offered any of us the same level of reading engagement as Holding Up the Universe.

The premise of Holding Up The Universe, while unique, didn’t seem to hold a lot of promise for me at the outset, but I was taken in by these characters, particularly Libby, right from the start. Jack’s voice emerges, perhaps more slowly, but this is in keeping with a character who seems to be continually in the midst of a pause, which makes complete sense as we learn about Jack’s condition which stops him from an immediate level of connection - recognizing faces - that most of us take for granted. (Hold Up:  Is it really possible that 1/50 people have this affliction? If so, wouldn’t all of us educators with thousands and thousands of kids taught come across it more? Or is that a reflection of the insidious nature of the disorder, in that most people simple cope and keep it hidden, knowingly or unknowingly? Please discuss and get back to me). One of the things our group discussed was that this book had a more of that compulsively readable factor than The Hate U Give and here I think this too had to do with the structure of the novel. The alternating narrative structure is pretty common in the YA universe from what I can discern and it is predictably hit or miss, but here I think it allows for some mounting tension and a progression of the narrative. As we get to know each character better we start to fill in some blanks about them, but they also fill in some blanks about each other, in sometimes surprising ways. Jack has a literal connection and level of understanding of Libby that she only fully appreciates at the end, and while Libby learns of Jack’s condition fairly early on, she reveals a profound understanding of him that lets her reveal her empathetic nature. Does her highly recognizable life allow her some insight into the struggles he faces through his failure to recognize even those closest to him? It seems so.  There are ebbs and flows in their burgeoning relationship, but there is a very real sense of these characters moving both together and towards something bigger than themselves. As one of our group noted, we were “rooting for them” and it wasn’t just that we were rooting for them to fall in love (although we were), but I think we were rooting for them because as they battled through indignities both small and heartbreakingly large they symbolized a struggle that every kid we know goes through in one way or another, and (spoiler alert) they were able to find their way through with kindness and love. One last plug for Starr in The Hate U Give: everything I just wrote applies to her as well. Both books offered us a glimpse of young people grappling with issues that required real personal sacrifice, but for our group Holding Up the Universe is the book we’d like to see move forward.

Holding Up the Universe vs. The Hate U Give

From DDM, all three of us read The Hate U Give and loved it. We all agreed that the main character had a strong, authentic voice. The issues raised may have been hard for us to fully understand because we don't live in that world, but the message was strong and we felt it was an important book to read and share with others.

Only one of us had a chance to read Holding Up the Universe. It was generally an entertaining read but after a while it sort of felt like reading a script for your average teen movie. Yes, the prosopagnosia may be a unique feature, but all of the usual suspects were there (the outcast, the cool guy, the immature jocks, the popular girls, etc). It went on a little too long and had a few too many sub-conflicts that dragged the story down in some places.

Our votes go to The Hate U Give for this round.

OCDaniel vs The Girl in the Blue Coat

OCDaniel Vs. The Girl in the Blue Coat
The Girl in the Blue Coat:
To me, the clear winner is Girl in the Blue Coat. Initially, I was a little reluctant to read another historical fiction on WWII as we’ve had quite a few titles in this genre over the years in Smackdown. In the end, I was pleasantly surprised. The narrative was intriguing and the pace of the novel kept the pages turning for me. I enjoyed watching Hanneke evolve into a brave, determined, and a more active participant in her study/supper group. I think mature Div II and most Div III readers would enjoy tackling this text to uncover a different perspective of WWII.

Other thoughts on Blue Coat
  • Hanneke and Elsbeth comparison is interesting and worthwhile to look at how people react to the atrocities of war.
  • Hanneke’s reluctance to be brave and really join the resistance feels believable and authentic - how can anyone today really understand what it means to risk one’s life by joining resistance movements? Can anyone say with true certainty that they would do more?
  • All of the plot twists and the momentum of the novel kept me interested and stuck to my couch for two days
    • I felt like once the story finally picked up, parts of the plot were abandoned (Hanneke’s job, her parents, Elsbeth, to name a few). Maybe this was intentional… I can only assume that once you get wrapped up in a resistance movement, all other parts of your life kind of fade into the background. Maybe I’m reading into this too much and trying to let Hesse off the hook.
  • The conclusion/ resolution of the story feels kind of “happily ever after” (even as I type this, I realize how offensive that comes across…). I appreciate that Hesse didn’t force the narrative or neatly tie up all of the loose ends - that would have ruined everything. Perhaps I’m selfishly looking for more, I want to know a little more about how and where our friends ended up. Were Mina and Judith found? Whatever happens to Willem, Ollie, Hanneke, et al?
  • I really appreciate the writing style of Hesse. I don’t always read the acknowledgements and notes, but this time I did. - I enjoyed her journalistic eye and how this comes across in her writing.

I have a few issues with OCDaniel. Overall, I would recommend this book as a gateway for discussions of mental health in the classroom. This might also serve as a stepping stone for some research into Mental Health. The story would likely be exciting and interesting for a Div II and III student - basketball, girls, nerves around girls, a potential murder mystery, aliens, etc…  However, in my humble experiences with OCD, I do not appreciate how neatly Daniel’s issues are addressed by his new girlfriend: i.e. “text me when you feel the zaps…”.

I agree that all individuals who struggle with mental illnesses need a lifeline, but this person will not necessarily solve the problem. Finally understanding what is happening to him is a great first step for Daniel, but I think it needs to be clearly stated (perhaps I missed this if I happened to skip the notes following Daniel’s story) that he needs to inform an adult about what is going on. It is so important to seek support from trusted adults and trained professionals. I only worry this story encourages silence - the idea that once we confide in a trusted friend, it’s okay to keep this information from parents and families until we feel better about it.

Refugee vs. Scythe


My vote is without a doubt Scythe by Neal Schusterman. I read this book before Refugee. I was immediately drawn to this book and found myself sharing information about it (not all, of course) with students and staff. Several of my students took interest and about ten of them (grade 8 and grade 9 girls) had started reading it as well. They loved it and many of them have already finished the sequel, Thunderhead. 

This book is unlike any other book I have read. I loved how the scythes consistently referred back to the Age of Mortality and used this time period as a way to justify their actions. I found it particularly interesting that each scythe had a different method of gleaning. I would highly recommend this book to students who have a passion for reading or those you may consider more advanced readers. This would make for a great high level grade 8 or 9 book club, in my opinion. 

I believe Refugee is a very good book for grade 7 or grade 8 readers. It was by far an easier read than Scythe. Students should have at least some background knowledge regarding WWII and the Holocaust to really understand and empathize with Josef's story. For me personally, Scythe was a much more engaging and intriguing read but I do believe Refugee is an important read for our students to understand the challenges that come along with fleeing and moving to a new country.

Now, onto reading Thunderhead! 

Nellie Carlson votes for "Smell of Other People's House"

We all have secrets, helping us identify with the characters in the Smell of Other People's Houses. This book reminds us that all of our stories are connected and impact those we encounter along the way. The reader sees into the Inuit life of 4 young people and their families. There are many social issues touched upon, the reader is maybe left wishing there was more depth. This lacking depth is made up for by how well the reader gets to know the main characters. I felt myself looking for the connections between the characters before the author made it obvious.
Although 'The Smell of Other People's Houses' stunk, (according to Henry), the rest of the team feels it wins out over Burn Baby Burn, which, in Henry's opinion, was equally lacking and should burn baby burn! 

Refugee VS Scythe

Here are my thoughts regarding Refugee by Alan Gratz. 

Choosing a winner between Refugee and Scythe was definitely a struggle. We thought both books were fabulous. In the end I voted for Refugee and Nancy chose Scythe. Something that cannot be overlooked is that Scythe is the first book in a new series. We are both looking forward to reading subsequent novels.

The story of Refugee took on a new twist by transcending time and weaving three harrowing stories together. I personally loved the connections Gratz includes in the novel. This book explores the themes that unite us: family, love, and persistence. I believe students will relate to Josef, Isabel, and Mahmoud in a way that will provide readers a way to explore some of the issues refugees experience and endure.


Death Comes For Us All!

Dia: We are riding a wave of death...including threats from some outside of our bracket who want Scythe to move on.  I have been under the waves on a couple of brackets this year so why should this be different...I'm voting Refugee. Personally I very much enjoyed Scythe but in terms of student engagement I have to vote for Refugee. It was a read aloud that changed my class. As Beers and Probst say reading should change who you are. Refugee did that for my kids, Scythe didn'

Arlene: Scythe does oust Refugee for me. 

Scythe flies off my desk. Refugee doesn't. If I decide to do Refugee with my class, which I might still, my vote might be different. However, as of right now, students in my class have already spoken. And, while I did enjoy Refugee, I think I enjoyed Scythe even more. 

Lisa:  We are steeping our young people in violence through movies, TV, and video games. I want to believe that reading can be about more than writing the next movie about more killing. Refugee was a book about more than this. Much more.

Annabel: Shockingly Scythe gets my vote.  I couldn't put it down and it made me think deeply about values, technology and where we are going with our world.  It was not a book I expected to like at all and yet even though it was full of violence and death it was fabulous.  Refugee has brilliant and meaningful stories but I didn't hear the 'voice' in all three of the stories; only two of the stories really came to life for me.  

Angie: Surprisingly, Scythe gets my vote as well. I agree with Annabel! I read Refugee first and loved the way the three stories came together. I was in tears by the end and it really brought to life some of the experiences of refugees. I thought for sure that it would be getting my vote. I couldn't put Scythe down and I agree with Annabel's perspective on the book. If someone from our team is putting together the blog and you can add my name, that would be great!

Holly: Gee and here I wanted to come in and be the day wrecker (Lisa) and break the tie, but it seems to be a runaway for Scythe.

I will be sharing Refugee with my class, and appreciated how they tied the past and present struggles of people yearning for freedom. This book offers an opportunity for young readers to see the world through different eyes- I really appreciated hearing the stories of escaping the Castro regime, as well as how difficult it is to seek refuge even today. I think this will be a good dip into the lives of these people for our young readers. I did find the end a bit too convenient to have it all tie together though. I hate when it wraps up like a perfect present that seems made for Hollywood.  I do like that you could share them as separate narratives as well.  

Scythe made me miss reading dystopian YA. A few years ago I had over extended my welcome in that world and needed a break from the genre. This one had me turning pages totally engaged and regretting taking such a long break away from it. It would be in my top 3-4 picks from the genre for sure. It is a fascinating idea, and I do like the idea of a strong female character. I will be reading the second book and would expect many students would love this series. I have a few kids in my class now who I could totally see reading that book in a few years and loving it. I feel like I should make a list for them and seal it in an envelope with the instructions of DO NOT OPEN UNTIL X GRADE for some of my kids.  Ha! 

Sorry Lisa and Dia looks like you've gone and splatted yourself. Send yourself to the nearest revival center.

(BAHAHAHA I have been waiting to use that line...I couldn't resist)

If THuG in the other bracket does not go through I will be contemplating splatting myself as well.   ; ) 

Andrea: I also vote for Scythe. 
I loved Refugee and how all the stories come together at the end but I think Scythe has more of a student appeal.

Tammy: Rarely do I find myself without an opinion...but here I am. I am giving this rounds vote to 'the majority'. Both books are worthy of sending through ... of my gosh, I feel like Arie from the Bachelor ... so conflicted, so in need of clarity😱

There you have it as Jeff Probst would say: "That's two votes Refugee and six votes Scythe. The Tribe has spoken.  Good thing I brought sun screen.

Jan Reimer readers reluctantly vote Burn Baby Burn through!

Burn Baby Burn vs. The Smell of Other People’s Houses

I began this round with the audio version of The Smell of Other People’s Houses.
I anticipated an interesting read but was sadly disappointed with the contrast of characters. I often find that when a story switches perspectives, I am unable to connect with any character and as my previous blogs allude to, I read for the connection to the characters! I find that the believability of the protagonist will keep me reading and evoke sympathy for their struggle. This time I was sadly disappointed as the various stories entangled but did not feel complete for any of the characters. Perhaps when dealing with too many characters, authors neglect the opportunity to  fully develop any of them and hence my buy in suffers.
I also felt that the stories were somewhat too cliche and stereotypical of First Nations, Metis, and Inuit people - pregnant teen, alcoholic/ abusive father, run away teens. Perhaps I’m just tired of YA Novels that exploit these issues, albeit they are realistic and matter!  The Smell of Other People’s Houses wasn’t a favorite for team Jan Reimer!

I was excited to begin reading Burn Baby Burn and found myself engaged. As I read I wanted to see how Nora’s character would transform. How would she handle her family hardships? Nora’s struggle to overcome her circumstances certainly drives the narrative but the more I read, the more I became interested in the other characters. What would happen to Hector? Would Nora’s father actually step up and become a parent? Would Kathleen remain a trusted friend? How would the Son of Sam be intertwined into the story? These questions kept me reading (sometimes more out of obligation than enjoyment, though). I did like this book but not in the way that I’ve heard others talk about it.

Tuesday, March 6, 2018

United by the Hate U Give

The Hate U Give vs Holding Up the Universe

This is a battle of contemporary issues explored in medium of the Young Audience Novel. Jennifer Nevin tackles bullying, depression, fat-shaming, and peer pressure in her novel Holding Up the Universe. Angie Thomas takes on the weighty issue of the shooting of an unarmed, young, black man by a police officer in The Hate U Give. Within this context Thomas explores race, political activism, wealth disparity, the media's depiction of African-Americans. Both novels deal head-on with sexual situations, drug use, as well as uses strong, salty language in a way that is not gratuitous, but with the clear intention to address what is in the minds of teens today.  Both novels have a message of resilience, courage and identity.

Unfortunately, Holding Up the Universe may have taken on one too many issues to really resonate with reader. With so many moving parts, it was difficult to gain a strong sense of the characters’ voices. This creates a sense of separateness that does not allow the reader to connect with the story or the characters as strongly as the reader can with its rival. The Hate U Give explores many sides of one issue and leaves the reader with a strong sense of the dynamic, multi-faceted issues facing young, black youth. The dichotomous tension that faces the main character is explored in such a way that her voice rings clear. Not one clear voice, but the muddy confusion that comes from the many voices in her head. The many sides of this issue is exactly what leads it to be difficult understand even for the one who is at the center of it.  

Therefore, our votes Shelley K, Stephen, Amanda, and I (Shelley P.) all go to The Hate U Give

The Smell or the Burn?

When speaking to my colleagues about these novels - we all have the same reaction. Meh.

Burn Baby Burn did not appeal or catch our attention. Some of us found the characters and plot somewhat stereotypical and predictable. None of us were engaged and committed to this novel. In fact, I found myself skipping several pages just to get through the text.

As for The Smell of Other People’s Houses, we were a bit more engaged with the setting and the character development. In our conversations, we talked about wanting to travel to Alaska based on the description of the setting. We did discuss that there were too many perspectives that detracted from the message of the text. We believed that to focus on one or two perspectives would have lent to deeper storytelling.  For myself, I had a difficult time engaging with some characters, until the end of the novel and then wished that the author focused more on Ruth’s grandmother.

For our Hillcrest and Dan Knott group - we vote for The Smell of Other People’s Houses.
Image result for holding up the universe Libby reads Image result for the hate u give

A couple of us had a hard time deciding which book to vote for and came in willing to
go with themajority. It turned out there wasn’t a strong majority, we really enjoyed both
books. They both feature brave, empowered, flawed, female leads. They were both hard
to put down (Dianne protests that she could have put Hate down at many points in the

Holding up the Universe was especially compelling. The main characters, Libby and Jack,
have problems we’d never have - fattest teen in America and profound face blindness -
but we could relate to them. Most of us hide parts of ourselves and work to adapt to cover
our weaknesses. We felt their struggles and had empathy for them. Not only do we not
have prosopagnosia, we didn’t even know what it was. Curiosity about that was one of
things that kept us reading. The novel inspired us to want to learn more about
prosopagnosia and the book Libby was obsessed with. But let’s face it, we’re busy
teachers, none of us actually got around to doing the research. Still, we’d like to know
more (some day, when we have spare time - stop laughing!). We wonder about the title
and its reference. Can some LA teacher explain it to us?

The Hate U Give brought an issue that’s often in the news to life and personalized it. We
have a better appreciation for the realities this culture faces. On the other hand, the
situations were so far out of our realm of our experience, it was hard for most of us to
relate. A typical Canadian teen will not identify with the characters’ experiences. Some
will have experienced subtle forms of racism and may see this as an affirmation of their
struggles though. Angie Thomas also presents two strong, black, male role models at
different extremes - the rebel and the rule follower. This novel is important, it’s topical,
and timely, and shines a spotlight on a world we should learn more about it, but there
were slow spots. As a result, our scales tipped in favour of Holding Up the Universe.

Ottewell - Renee, Deb, Dianne and Alisha
Richard Secord - Jill
Shauna May Seneca - Linda and Bernadette

Scythe vs Refugee

For me this is an easy choice. I have been a Neil Shusterman fan for many years and this novel is just as engaging as his previous books have been.  I enjoy the complex worlds that are created and the way in which the characters are forced to face problems and issues that are not that far removed from our own issues.

I understand that Refugee is also a strong book that is also accessible to many students but when I read it I was not as drawn to the plot as I was with Scythe.  Therefore  my vote is for Scythe.

OCDaniel vs The Girl in the Blue Coat

Despite the fact that all of us thought “OCDaniel” was quite good and would likely appeal to young readers, “Girl in the Blue Coat” won out with all four of our votes! “OCDaniel” is a nice story, that also touches on a mental health issue that we don’t often hear as much about, in OCD. Being written by someone who has OCD, it adds veracity to the story, and an emotional hook for the book. Aside from that, it manages to stuff a whole ton of genre conventions into one novel, in a way that (mostly) doesn’t feel overwrought or overfull. You have a quirky love story, mystery plot, sports underdog story and Daniel coming to terms with his condition. It was a fast read, that as discussed by other groups, may also appeal to reluctant readers. However, despite all of this, it didn’t blow any of us away, and the promising mystery was a little too cleanly solved. It is not as though any of us want to be storm clouds on the happy ending here, but the resolution is so clean for all the story arcs, that we felt a little grey may have made for a stronger message. In addition, while I noted earlier that the multiple genre conventions weren’t necessarily overwhelming, in a short text, it made it hard to dig into any one aspect. With all of that (mostly) praise for what was the loser, let’s get onto the real thing!

I was more hesitant about “Girl in the Blue Coat”, despite strong reviews from previous groups, because I feel that WW2 fiction and “_____ Girl” or “The _____ Girl” novels have been somewhat done to death. In addition to this, I thought the cover art left much to be desired, and certainly didn’t look like anything I would pick up unprompted, (acknowledging, of course, what a sin it is that I judged a book by it’s cover). This, at least for me, then, left me surprised when I actually cracked it, and realized why the adage holds true. I am certainly glad I picked it up! It focused on telling unique small stories in a way that attempts to be historically accurate, while shrouding itself in an engaging larger mystery. It was powerful and poignant, with engaging characters and a fast-moving plot that drew us in. The writing overall, was a strong point, and we felt that the protagonist would be relatable for younger readers. One interesting point of discussion we had about the novel, was how accurate the teenage behaviour was for the time, as one of our group felt that they behaved too much like 2018 teenagers situated in that context. That being said, this could help young readers place themselves within the novel, and lead to more readership! Overall, it was a great story that we are happy to pass along!

posted by LauraJ on behalf of Ben S

Monday, March 5, 2018

Burn baby Burn VS The Smell of Other People's Houses

Well, after first reading The Smell of Other People's Houses, I assumed that it would have been the winner.  But you know what they say, you can't judge a book by its cover (or it's summary or a cursory flip through).  We got to know the MANY characters in The Smell of Other People's Houses and I found it interesting to learn about the time period, but Burn Baby Burn was a richer read.  It wrapped up a little to neat and tidy for me, but overall I felt that the writing was better and the characters seemed very realistic and representational of  kids that we have all met. 

Burn Baby Burn is my winner. 

Sunday, March 4, 2018

A challenge to choose....


I am continuing my theme of not engaging in an email dialogue with my team before I blog and provide my pick - sorry team.

SCYTHE: Humans have conquered hunger, disease, war, and death itself. Scythes are the only ones who are commanded to kill to keep the world at an ideal population. Citra and Rowan are chosen to apprentice to a scythe—a role that neither wants. Told through different points of view, the reader is drawn into the characters' world and may be forced to examine "what does it mean to be human if we cannot die?".

REFUGEE: A historical novel that shares three stories of families that are desperate to change their future. These stories tug at your heart and mind. The hopes and trauma of escaping your home country are poignantly and respectfully explored.

Choosing a book to continue is a challenge. I can see how both books could support much discussion and exploration of what it means to be human. However, a vote must be given - my vote is for Scythe.