Sunday, March 8, 2015

School Library Journal's 2015 Battle of the Books

I always love following School Library Journal's battle of the books, but this is the first year I got my act together in time to read all the books before the judging began.  I made it in just under the deadline with the first round posted tomorrow and my final 3 books finished this weekend.  To see the brackets yourself and follow along, check out the official Battle of the Books blog.  I haven't had time to write reviews of them all, but here's how I hope the battles will go down.  Be warned: in order to discuss why I chose each book I have to occasionally venture into spoiler territory.  

The Children of the KingBrown Girl Dreaming
Brown Girl Dreaming V. Children of the King
Both of these books are beautifully written and have wonderful examples of figurative language in particular.  When it comes down to it though, I read stories for the characters, and while I was completely absorbed by Jacqueline Woodson's story I didn't really care about the characters in Children of the King.  I found the plot of Children of the King rather meandering as well and I will confess to an anti-ghost bias.   This one is no contest for me: Brown Girl Dreaming.

The CrossoverEgg & Spoon

The Crossover V. Egg & Spoon
I don't think I have ever seen a full basketball game in my life and most of my memories of the sport involve getting smacked full in the face with the ball.  And yet I loved Crossover.  It had me laughing and crying and caught up in the movement of the words.  On the other hand Baba Yaga is one of my favorite folk characters so I thought I would love Egg & Spoon, but it felt more like an American story that just happened to take place in Russia than a truly Russian story (for one thing all the names made sense--and what's a Russian story without puzzling out the dozen names everyone seems to have?) I did not like the way Baba Yaga was portrayed at all.  Make her evil or make her a misunderstood grandma but don't make her a pathetic creature rattling off unfunny jokes full of references to everything but Russia.  Her knowledge of modern pop culture is never really explained and while we are probably supposed to assume that she has powers to see the future or even time travel it felt like she was just an excuse for Maguire to make jokes he otherwise wouldn't have been able to.  Besides if she did have all that power why should she have to go to the Tsar to solve a problem with magic?  He didn't help and I'm not sure why she thought he would except that Maguire needed a way to get Cat to St. Petersburg.  Nothing Baba Yaga did made any sense except as a way to move the plot along. There were some great lines in Egg & Spoon and I enjoyed aspects of it, but let's break the Newbery curse and move The Crossover to the next round.

The Family Romanov: Murder, Rebellion, and the Fall of Imperial RussiaEl Deafo
El Deafo V. The Family Romanov
This one is much harder than the previous two matches.  El Deafo is adored by my students and I can see why.  I love everything about this comic from the creative ways Bell depicts concepts like words fading away to the frank way she discusses her hopes and fears and pulls it all off with a light touch.  The Family Romanov  was also excellent and made sense of so much of the Russian history I had glimpsed through novels.  It read almost like a novel and I eagerly followed the characters along as I nervously awaited what I knew would be a bad ending.  I particularly appreciated the way Fleming sprinkled in portrayals of the lives of common Russian citizens during the era and her balanced way of pointing out everyone's flaws as well as their strengths.  I can find no fault with either of them, but for the way El Deafo made one of my students light up in a way that no other book has been able to, I need to pick it.  

The Key That Swallowed Joey Pigza (Joey Pigza, #5)Grasshopper Jungle
Grasshopper Jungle V. The Key That Swallowed Joey Pigza
My decision for this match will not come as a surprise to anyone in my book club who had to listen to me ranting about it at our January meeting.  I really wanted to like this book.  It's so rare to see bisexual characters in literature or any character struggling with their orientation.  But I could not stand Austin.  He's a complete jerk to everyone but especially his girlfriend and he still ends up with everything he wants without seeming to have learned any lesson. Of course we weren't made to feel much sympathy for the other characters because they were all so paper thin that they barely existed--especially the female characters whose main purpose was to make the male characters horny. The only thing that kept me from throwing the book across the room after the 100th time he pointed out he was horny was the fact that I was reading it on my Kobo.  Yes.  Austin is a horny teenager.  We get the point.  It was like a procrastinating student standing at a pencil sharpener grinding away for so long that eventually the pencil is worn to nothing but a point that is no longer even effective for its intended purpose.  I haven't read any of the other Joey Pigza books so I found The Key That Swallowed Joey Pigza a bit confusing but it still beats Grasshopper Jungle as easy as pizza pie.  

Poisoned Apples: Poems for You, My PrettyThe Madman of Piney Woods
The Madman of Piney Woods V. Poisoned Apples
I confess to being a bit confused at the start of this novel because I have a tendency to skip over chapter titles and headings when I get caught up in a story and Christopher Paul Curtis always hooks me in from the start.  As a result it took me a few chapters before I realized that the story was alternating between different perspectives.  That is my own fault though and I can hardly hold it against this excellent story.  Once again Curtis created fully realized characters in a fascinating historical stetting with a plot that has space for both humorous hi-jinks and touching life lessons.  Poisoned Apples has some excellent messages as well involving feminism and body image.  I am 100% behind the messages in her poems and the creative ways she uses fairy tales to describe the plight of modern teenage girls.  The pictures were haunting and lovely.  Still while I loved the ideas behind the poems I wasn't particularly impressed with her use of language.  There weren't any examples of that magical type of poem that says something so perfectly I can never think of that idea or feeling without its words springing to mind.  Perhaps that's a tall order and it's a highly subjective criteria but I have to decide this battle somehow and it's enough for me to give this match's victory to The Madman of Piney Woods.

The Port Chicago 50: Disaster, Mutiny, and the Fight for Civil RightsThe Story of Owen (Dragon Slayer of Trondheim, #1)
The Port Chicago 50 V. The Story of Owen
I had never heard of the Port Chicago 50 before despite it being local history for me.  I'm glad the contest gave me an excuse to read this book because it was a fascinating albeit upsetting read.  Sheinkin did a wonderful job pulling together first person accounts so the reader could get a sense of what it must have been like to go through what they did. The Story of Owen was just fantastic and I have nothing bad to say about it.  Troubadours, dragons, a boy/girl friendship that doesn't turn into a romance: what more could I ask for from a novel?  Plus I love the alternate history aspect of it and how dragon slaying was retrofitted into explanations for everything from major historical events to Lady Gaga and The Beatles.  I found Port Chicago fascinating but not gripping and it took me a few weeks to get through whereas I finished The Story of Owen in one sitting. I enjoyed both, but this round is going to Owen.

This One SummerA Volcano Beneath the Snow: John Brown's War Against Slavery
This One Summer V. A Volcano Beneath the Snow
I appreciate the honesty of This One Summer and I think it's an excellent slice-of-life story.  The artwork was well-drawn and I can see why so many people like it.  It's not my cup of tea though.  I prefer more creative uses of panels and artwork in my comics (like in El Deafo) and this one was pretty straight-forward realistic.  I understand that it's supposed to be a slice of life but in the end I just thought "was that all?"  The characters were well rounded and relatable and there were several touching moments but it didn't stay with me.  It took me several sittings to finish and considering how short it is that's saying something.  I finished A Volcano Beneath the Snow in one sitting but that's mostly because I was running out of time to finish all the contenders before the official judging began.  I enjoyed reading all the context provided and I feel like I got a far better understanding of the period from this book than I did from my AP US history class back in school.  I found the chapter explaining the history of the slave trade particularly illuminating and well-written.  I wish Marrin had delved deeper into John Brown's legacy on modern history though.  Still, if my worst complaint is that he left me wanting more then he certainly deserves to win this match.  

West of the MoonWe Were Liars
West of the Moon V. We Were Liars
I have a soft spot for fairy tales retold and I was glad to see a book that explored a less well-known source of folklore in West of the Moon.  I liked the way Preus wove fairy tales and history together with Astri making sense of her upturned life by using the stories she knows so well.  The story was unique and gripping although I'm not sure who I'd give it to.  The plot and characters feel like they'd appeal most to younger grades but the complex language and the 'goatman' make me think it's better suited to older grades.   I still haven't entirely forgiven We Were Liars for differing so wildly from my expectations.  I read it in one sitting and really enjoyed the experience, right up until the climax came out of nowhere to completely shatter me emotionally at a time when I desperately needed a pick-me-up.  Besides, as I previously stated I have a thing about ghosts--especially in otherwise realistic stories.  I think I would have liked it much better if I was prepared for a tear-jerker, but my vote is  still for West of the Moon.  

So that's how I hope round one will work out.  One of the great things about books though is how they're a completely different experience for every reader.  I'm sure other people will feel differently about the contenders and I look forward to seeing what everyone else thinks. For one last summary of my votes:
Brown Girl Dreaming
The Crossover
El Deafo
The Key That Swallowed Joey Pigza
The Madman of Piney Woods
The Story of Owen
A Volcano Beneath the Snow
West of the Moon