Battle of the Books

The School Library Journal Battle of the Books is nearly over! One of the things I enjoy about this tournament-style contest is that rather than being handed a winner by some group of more or less anonymous judges, we get to read their responses in detail, with some very individual and sometimes controversial reasoning behind the choices. It was much more interesting for me this time since I had actually managed to read more than half of the books.

Would I
do this again next year? I’m not sure, because it made me cram a lot of
“required” reading into a short time, crowding out other books I wanted or needed to read. But I’m
not sorry I made the effort this year. If you have read any of these, please let me know your thoughts in the comments.

Here are my play-by-play reactions:

Round One
Match 1: Brown Girl Dreaming vs. Children of the King
Winner: Brown Girl Dreaming
I’m in the middle of listening to the audiobook of Brown Girl Dreaming, and even though I’m not a huge fan of the free verse format, Woodson’s child’s-eye view of growing up during the civil rights movement is moving and eloquent. Hearing the author read her own book gives it an especially personal touch. Children of the King was a good and interesting read, but didn’t quite succeed in making history come alive in the same way.

Match 2: The Crossover vs. Egg and Spoon
Winner: Egg and Spoon
One of the few brackets in which I finished both contenders, and I would have chosen differently. For me, Egg and Spoon started well (with a particularly fun rendition of Baba Yaga) but faltered at the end. On the other hand, I was dubious about The Crossover but liked it more and more as I read — it was funny and inventive and emotionally engaging, and the characters became real for me. I hope it got votes in the Undead poll!

Match 3: El Deafo vs. The Family Romanov
Winner: El Deafo
I agree with the judge here. The Family Romanov is fine narrative non-fiction, but El Deafo is unique, an excellent use of the graphic-narrative form to express the protagonist’s experience of deafness (empty speech bubbles, fading words) as well as a universally relevant story of the trials and traumas of childhood.

Match 4: Grasshopper Jungle vs. The Key That Swallowed Joey Pigza
Winner: The Key That Swallowed Joey Pigza
I didn’t read either of these; I would get nightmares from reading a book about giant grasshoppers destroying the world, and I started Joey Pigza but found the middle-grade gross-out style of humor unappealing — not realizing that it’s actually a hard-hitting portrait of mental illness and child neglect. I might look into the series again some time but would probably not start with this one.

Match 5: The Madman of Piney Woods vs. Poisoned Apples
Winner: The Madman of Piney Woods
I didn’t read Poisoned Apples; a poem or two using fairy tale metaphors to explore issues of teen body image could be fine, but a whole book? The commentators confirmed my fear that this could get repetitive and boring. I enjoyed The Madman of Piney Woods, and like judge G. Neri I “grew fond of the characters and the place,” though something about the arc of the story didn’t quite work for me. It’s worthy to move on, but there are stronger books in the battle.

Match 6: The Port Chicago 50 vs. The Story of Owen
Winner: The Port Chicago 50
I adored the premise of The Story of Owen — teenagers fighting dragons in a modern-day Canadian town — but although the characters and setting were well-developed and believable, the plot was lacking in narrative tension and I lost interest before the end, which is why I have yet to finish it (though I would like to). The Port Chicago 50, on the other hand, I read straight through, finding it a lucid and compelling story that illuminated an important but overlooked historical incident, as well as how far we still have to go toward racial equality. The commentary by judge Rachel Hartman was especially thoughtful on this one.

Match 7: This One Summer vs. A Volcano Beneath the Snow
Winner: This One Summer
I don’t read many graphic novels, but This One Summer was an impressive example of storytelling through a visual medium. I wouldn’t consider it a children’s book, but I guess I’m in the minority with that opinion. My history education being quite spotty, I was grateful that A Volcano Beneath the Snow filled in many of the blanks in my knowledge around the abolitionist movement and the Civil War, but I can understand it not beating This One Summer; the latter is simply the more striking book. (Added points for the humorous style adopted by the judge here.)

Match 8: We Were Liars vs. West of the Moon
Winner: West of the Moon
We Were Liars sounded as though it had an extremely annoying writing style, and I’m also not enamored of books that depend on a twist no one is allowed to reveal, so I skipped it. West of the Moon had great potential — I love the idea of weaving Norse folklore into a real-life story. But the story was so frantically paced and packed with brief, melodramatic incidents that it made me feel tired before I got to the end. Still, I’m glad it won this round.

Winners in Round Two:
Brown Girl Dreaming, El Deafo, the Port Chicago 50, West of the Moon
These were pretty easy to predict. The first three were shoe-ins (I thought). The fourth was more iffy, and I was slightly surprised by the outcome. Although I didn’t much like either This One Summer or West of the Moon, I thought Summer was the more impressive book. Will it come back in the final round?

Winners in Round Three:
El Deafo, The Port Chicago 50
This is where things got really heart-breaking. Brown Girl Dreaming against El Deafo? Nooooo! Still, one book had to be the winner, and El Deafo continued its unstoppable march to the podium. The other round didn’t move me so much: worthy but conventional non-fiction vs. genre-bending but problematic fiction. Which to choose? I thought The Port Chicago 50 did a better job at what it set out to do, which is exactly how judge Marcus Sedgwick put it.

The winner of the “Undead Poll” will be revealed on Monday, and the final battle will take place the following day. May the best book win!

7 thoughts on “Battle of the Books

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