Smackdown Books 2021

The Borden Murders: Lizzie Borden and the Trial of the Century
Like a Love Story
From the Desk of Zoe Washington
Fighting Words
They Went Left
When You Trap a Tiger
Everything Sad Is Untrue
The Lucky Ones
A Song Below Water
The Blackbird Girls
Clap When You Land
Frankly in Love
King and the Dragonflies
When the Ground Is Hard
Free Lunch
Stand on the Sky
Being Toffee

Tuesday, May 18, 2021

When the Ground is Hard Stomped the Competition

 As usual, I am in love with all the finalists for the 2020-21 COVID rid year.  As usual, everytime I read one of the final novels I was sure this was the winner.  As usual, there was one that literally made me hold my breath as I turned the pages.  From the moment I met Adele walking down the bus aisle I was set back in the small rural town I grew up in.  Her story brought up memories of watching, and experiencing, the depth of cruelty that a handful of vicious girls from my hometown used when they felt so inclined.  And as Lottie showed up in the same bedroom, I again felt transported to their small school in the middle of dry grasslands.  Then Jayne Eyre showed up and my decision was sealed.  When the Ground is Hard hit me over the head with a ferocity that kept me reading during COVID exhaustion.

fighting words was such a close runner up.  This novel reminded me of all the teens I have had the pleasure of teaching, and watching their battles over trauma. I bought a copy of this novel and gave it to one of my students who's life is mirrored in this novel. The realistic portrayal of resislence makes fighting words a novel I will use in my classroom book talks.

Finally, Clap When You Land provided more female characters that were strong and endearing.  Thanks Dia for pointing out this victory for female heroines.  I agree with some other Smackers that stated Clap When You Land fell between fighting words and When the Ground is Hard.

My vote is for When The Ground is Hard.

What a Journey it has been...When the Ground is Hard!

I'm going to carry the wounds of this Smackdown for a long time.  I don't know if I will ever recover.  From the very start, my favourites have been doomed.  I've learned lessons though - like not to get my hopes up.  

I spotted Dig, by A.S. King on the list at the beginning of our Smackdown, and my heart leaped into my throat.  Although I hadn't read it yet, A.S. King is the best thing since sliced bread.  I crossed my fingers and prayed to the book gods that it would be assigned to my group.  No.  It wasn't.  Not only did I not get to read it and help determine it's fate, it was eliminated.  Savagely.  FIRST ROUND.

Fear not, I recovered.  I read Frankly In Love, and it made me laugh.  During the terrors of teaching during a pandemic and trying to keep my parents alive when they don't understand the protocols, Frankly made me laugh.  And cry.  I could see it making it all the way to the end of Smackdown, champion belt wrapped around it and fists raised in celebration.  And then I was out numbered, and it got eliminated.  

Since then, I have been lost in this smackdown.  Every time I choose a book to win, it doesn't, and I lose a piece of my heart to each bracket of books we choose between.  I tried to rally Frankly in Love back into the mix as a Zombie Pick, and that failed as well.  The two finalists were two books that didn't belong in the finals, and my favourite was no where to be seen.  With this fatalistic mindset, I started reading When the Ground is Hard.  Is it as magical as an A.S. King book?  Not so much.  (And I've read Dig since then, and it isn't her best, in my opinion.  To truly find the magic of King, you need to read Still Life With Tornado, Everybody Sees the Ants, The Year We Fell From Space, or Dust of 100 Dogs.)  Is it as funny as Frankly in Love?  Not so much.  

But, it is sassy.  I wish I could find a better word, that made me sound more credible as the all-knowing chooser of best books.  Because I am.  Adele has a powerful voice, and I was pulled into the haunted room with her and Lottie.  I wanted to hoard condensed milk and biscuits under my bed, I wanted to put out fires with green branches, and I wanted to remain by their sides long after the book finished.  I found myself swept into the class system of Swaziland mixed race students, and I learned more with the turning of each page.  At the same time, there were so many parts of the story that we all can connect to - the pain of being demoted in our social circles, the sting of former friends turning against us, and the glimmer of hope when we spark a new friendship

I can only beg at this point, if there is any justice for the books we've lost along the way this smackdown, that When the Ground is Hard rises from the ashes and knocks those other two out in the final round.  A girl can hope, anyway.  

And the winner is.... Fighting Words.

For me, it really came down to Clap When You Land and Fighting Words. Although frustrating at times, not having a clearly defined criteria in Smackdown has allowed me to judge books based on what I find most important - picking books I think my students would want to read. I've read other books by both Bradley and Acevedo. I believe Fighting Words is Bradely's best and Acevedo's best is Poet X, which I highly recommend you read if you liked Clap When You Land (or listen to Acevedo read the audiobook version). So, really a simple decision... Fighting Words gets my vote.

Finding Fighting Words Made The Ground Feel Very Hard When We Landed (Slow Clap)


Ok, so here is how the last two rounds have gone for us over at SBS. We all read Fighting Words pretty much at the same time and we were having fist fights in the hallways about who would actually get to adopt these girls if they were standing here in front of us. So, yeah, that book got in our blood a little bit, and there was kind of a sense of that round being effectively over. And then one or two of us dipped our toe into When The Ground is Hard and the texting and whispers began: “Holy crap, this is really good. Is it actually better!!??!!” and, damn, if we didn’t end up thinking it was, so even when it didn’t make it through that round it was our no brainer for a Zombie pick. And then came the finale. The only book we had left to read was Clap When You Land. While we were mindful of the pedigree - I think we all loved Poet X and have been putting it in the hands of a number of kids these past few years - I don’t think any of us really thought that it was going to knock off these two books that we loved so much, but then it did. Kind of.

 Here’s where I think we ended up:

 Fighting Words is quite simply the book we thought we could and should get into the most hands. The prose was both eloquent and accessible and while the content matter is gut-wrenching, it opens up a topic that needs to come out of the shadows and I think it would flip the empathy switch on even the most hardened heart. As one of our team said “It’s been months since I’ve read it, but I still think about those two girls.” 

 I don’t think you are going to find a more perfectly crafted novel than When the Ground is Hard and it strikes some of the same chords as Fighting Words in terms of helping kids dig a bit deeper into their reserves of kindness and empathy. This would be a rich and powerful text to teach, but may be a bit daunting for some of our younger and/or struggling readers. That did not stop us, however, from saying this was the best book that we read in The Smackdown.

 And then, finally, came Clap When You Land and I think our sense was that it’s power maybe came in finding that greatness sweet spot between the other two books. It wasn’t quite as stomach-churning and ugly-cry inducing as Fighting Words, and while beautiful, poignant and lyrical, I’m not sure it was quite as carefully crafted as When The Ground is Hard, but it also, for all its complexity and poetry, would be accessible and even a relatively quick read for a wide range of kids. Like the narrator in Poet X, I felt like both knew these girls and wanted to meet them.

 One thing I know back from my days writing Exemplar and Reliability Review Rationales on the Diploma Exam marking floor (Shout out to you, Smilanich!) is that you sometimes don’t know what something is until you actually start writing about it. I think I’d have a long way to go until I really felt certain that any one of these three excellent books was demonstrably better than the others, but they should all unquestionably be in your school and classroom libraries. 

 My final vote is going to Elizabeth Acevedo’s Clap When You Land, but I think we’re all going to take a pause before we click send on our final vote and it wouldn’t surprise me if we have three different books coming forward from the four of us. 

The Final three were no contest!

 The final three was a no-contest for me... Fighting Words is my pick for the win! This was one of those books that I picked up one evening, and put down crusty-eyed early in the morning having devoured the whole book in one sitting. Bradley made me fall in love with her characters right from the first chapter - who doesn't love a swearing ten-year-old, or a moody 16 but acts 26 year old? The relationship between these sisters, and the relationships they have with other women in their life demonstrates the real-power and importance of these relationships like this. It made me think about my life, and the relationships I have (I definitely texted my sister after reading this book!) Fighting Words echoes the challenging experiences of trauma that many of our students have had, or knows someone who has experienced and I think that's important. I've read criticism that it might trigger some students, and that's true, but this book doesn't try to hide who it is, or what it's about - it tells you flat out from the beginning. It is a story of love, triumph, heartbreak, struggle. The highs brought me high and the lows broke me down. I read it and immediately thought of students I wanted to share this book with, and that is what it comes down to for me. 

Ashley from Ivor Dent

 Della's Words Win the Fight for Me!

The voice of Kimberly Brubaker Bradley's protagonist reached out and grabbed me. I was hooked from the first page and I could not get Della out of my mind. What a character! What a story! What powerful storytelling. 

It wasn't a knockout. The other two put up a good battle, especially When the Ground is Hard. Malla Nunn used my knowledge of school stories and my knowledge of mean girls to help me understand a world I'd previously known nothing about. She introduced so much new information without overwhelming the reader or being didactic; she made me connect. And it was good, it really was, but I love Della.

When the Ground is Hard for me!

 So I don't know how to blog BUT I do know how to read!  Being pushed through each book was great this year.  Some books I really was reading just because they were handed to me for each round.  A few stand out as books that I  would read again or pass on to others.  Memorable.

"Fighting Words" was a book I simply had to get through.  Not that I didn't find myself caring about the main characters; I did.  The problem I have with it, is that it is far too similar to the exact life of a student of mine. I pictured HER reading it....and rather than finding comfort in it, thought of her being triggered and reminded and catapulted back through some very tough experiences.  That was enough for me to NOT select it. 
"Clap When you Land" (after taking a few chapters to figure out that it was two girls speaking), was an interesting story.  I don't mind reading the story in verse form.  It caught my attention towards the end.  I found I was hoping the sisters would be able to begin a life somehow and offer support for one another going forward.  However, when I was done it, I though "ok good book" but not one I would put on the top of a pile of good books.  I could have it ON my shelf but it wouldn't be the one I'd keep passing around.

The winner for me of the books left standing is "When the Ground is Hard".  I love the relevance to so many issues and struggles today in our culture, American culture...and yet it was set in neither of those places.  Kind of reframes the pain of issues we face here as one that people face around the world...not just in North America.  I was cheering for Adele the whole way through as she battled gender, race, economic, religious, age, etc etc issues.  I love that she had deep stories, deep roots, deep connections to where she came from and that she was brave enough to make her own future.  THIS is a book I would pass on to students or even just friends looking for something different to read.  Piles of good quotes throughout the book too!  I need my own copy to reread so I can dogear the pages and underline quotes that I loved!

Melanie from Sweet Grass