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Happy Dances! Battle Round 2, Matches 3 & 4 March 29, 2012

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“Beyond tales within tales, Drawing from Memory abounds with other “subplots” (a most inadequate word!) in which pictures speak, layering and extending theme.” –Jewell Parker Rhodes

These were the two battles where I got to be jumping up and down, squealing at the computer screen. Drawing from Memory was possibly my favorite non-fiction book I read last year, so I’m VERY excited that it is carrying the Non-Fiction banner into the third round of the battle. I just reread Allen Say’s fictionalized version of his adolescence, The Ink-Keeper’s Apprentince, which covers about the same time period as this memoir, but has no illustrations. Hopefully I will get around to writing something comparing the two soon. One other odd thing I noticed–the jacket copy for Drawing from Memory refers to the story taking place “As World War II rages” when Say clearly states that the war ended when he was 8–well before most of the events of the book. Absent-minded editor, perhaps?

“If I may echo the Clinton war room motto: It’s the writing, stupid.” –Chris Lynch

I love Brian Selznick. However, the fact remains that I always spend far more time looking at his pictures than I do rereading his words. Since Wonderstruck is a story told equally in words and pictures, it made sense to me that Life: An Exploded Diagram, which had some of the most precise, vivid language of any book I read this year, would knock it out of the battle. Life, for me at least, hit the perfect balance of having enough description that I could visualize the characters and setting without being overwritten. There are books with beautiful language that occasionally lose me in their long sentences of involved imagery.  Chime was a book like that for me and even, if I can bring myself to admit it, Daughter of Smoke and Bone. But Life just hit that sweet spot for me between outlining the picture and allowing me to fill in the colors myself. Will it’s precise words and cadences fall to Drawing from Memory’s precise pictures and interplay of text and image? We’ll find out soon…


No Real Surprises…Battle Round 2, Matches 1 & 2 March 28, 2012

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“I feel like a hapless kid in dance class, whose feet keep getting tangled up.”  –Marc Aronson

So many judges keep commenting on how difficult this whole judging thing is! Thank goodness they continue to take on the challenge, year after year. I’m starting to get a little nervous that someday all the YA and children’s authors will band together and refuse to do this whole comparing apples and oranges Battle of the Books craziness. And THEN what would we do for the whole month of March?

I can’t really say much about this match because I still haven’t read Between Shades of Grey. Aronson is one of my favorite non-fiction writers though, so now that he has chosen it to move on,  I really need to get on that.

“I like my men reasonably, but not terrifyingly handsome, funny and nurturing, rather than powerful and remote. I am not interested in danger as an aphrodisiac. It quite turns me off.” –E. Lockhart

Amen. Lockhart hit on my main issue with Daughter of Smoke and Bone –the fact that I just don’t like a romance that seems inevitable. This, despite the fact that when I started dating my boyfriend, most people reacted with “Duh. You’re both puppeteers.” Ok, in real life, maybe. But in fiction, I like a little more conflict between protagonists. I’m not terribly surprised that Chime is moving on. It had the most starred reviews of practically any book this year and the vast majority of commenters on the Battle website have been championing it. And yet….I just liked Taylor’s book better. What can you do?

Thrills and Rages…Battle Round 1, Matches 7 & 8 March 23, 2012

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There was no indifference in these two rounds. You were either over the moon and turning cartwheels, or banging your head on the wall, as one commenter wrote. Before turning to the Occupy movement for inspiration on how to handle her rage that a particular book had been eliminated. As an artist, I appreciate strong feelings. I much prefer that someone hates my work, rather than having no opinion at all. I hope that all these authors are glad that we care so much about their books!

“I was asked to pick a winner, in the imagined scenario of these two books putting on their boxing gloves and going at it, jabbing and circling, plotting and verbing, creating worlds and characters and spitting out adjectives from the mouth-guards of their covers.”  –Lauren Myracle

HAH. Take that, Printz committee! Life: An Exploded Diagram finally gets its due from someone. I appreciated the artistry of A Monster Calls but Life has the distinction of being a book that I wanted to tell everyone about, and yet I could never summarize it satisfactorily. ARGH. So really, all I needed was Lauren Myracle to just write something brilliant I could quote. Thanks, Ms. Myracle!

“Jane Eyre references: Okay for Now. From the Mixed Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler references: Wonderstruck. ” –Jeff Kinney

What? I have to choose between Jane Eyre and Mixed Up Files? How can this possibly be? I’m kidding. That comparison was clearly only part of Kinney’s deliberation as he chose between Wonderstruck and Okay for Now. And while I’m not quite as happy with this outcome, I still think Selznick’s achievement is impressive. Now I wish he would write something short for a change, that isn’t quite so heavy to carry around. Something like The Houdini Box. 

One round done, three to go! Will American adventurers or Soviet survivors prevail in this next match? Does Amelia get extra points for being in the news lately? We’ll find out soon!

Global Nods…Battle Round 1, Matches 5 & 6 March 23, 2012

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One of my favorite things about the Battle of the Kid’s Books is that the organizers usually do a pretty good job of picking books that are diverse. My one quibble with the list this year was that there was no book with a Latino protagonist or themes. Oh well, I guess you can’t have something like The Dreamer every year!

These two matches highlight the global picture of the Battle: a memoir by a Japanese illustrator, the story of an Indian-American girl exploring India, an epic look at African-American history and the experiences of a Vietnamese girl as she adjusts to America. So many opportunities for kids to see their lives reflected in fiction and non-fiction.

“I closed the book with the same feeling one has when a movie ends, the lights go up and, holding your empty popcorn box, you turn to your friend and say, “That was good,” before heading out into the squinty-eyed daylight of the real world.”

–Barbara O’Connor

YES. O’Connor perfectly described how I felt upon finishing The Grand Plan to Fix Everything. I enjoyed it, thought it was charming, with a great setting and kooky characters, but I didn’t go rushing out to tell everyone I knew about it. I’m thrilled that O’Connor chose Drawing from Memory to win this round. I very rarely buy children’s non-fiction unless it is for my classroom library, but this is one that I added to my personal collection. It’s that lovely.

“For instance, I happen to like jujubes more than chocolate. This doesn’t mean I don’t like chocolate, it just means that given a choice between the two I would prefer to eat a box of jujubes than a Kit Kat.” –Sarah Weeks

Thank you, Sarah Weeks, for giving us a shorthand for talking about our favorites in this contest (It’s my jujube!). She also picked the book that my students still talk about after reading for our Newbery Club back in the fall. Inside Out and Back Again has come up in comparison to picture books, non-fiction about wars and I fully expect it to come up again when we study poetry soon. I can definitely see that it has stuck with my third graders, even if some of them admitted to liking it at first only because “It’s short.” Heart and Soul never really stuck with me, so I am very pleased with the outcomes of these two matches!

Poor E. Lockhart…Battle Round 1, Matches 3 & 4 March 17, 2012

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“The books on my night-table right now include a scholarly report on keeping octopuses in captivity and a natural history of hedgehogs” –Sy Montgomery

In keeping with a near tradition of at least one judge choosing the book ENTIRELY unlike their own, Montgomery picked Chime to win this match (granted, she used a coin toss, but I’m conveniently ignoring that fact). I will admit to being a bit disappointed, mostly because I loved Cheshire Cheese Cat and I want it to get more attention. My mixed feelings about Chime have been well-documented already on this blog. But as a side note, wouldn’t it be beyond cute to have Montgomery write a Scientist in the Field book about hedgehogs? Come on, now, you have to agree with me!

“Seriously, I was ready to book my trip to Prague within the first 30 pages” –Sara Zarr

Weren’t we all? I defy anyone to read Daughter of Smoke & Bone and not fall in love with Taylor’s depiction of Prague. I attribute my correct guess on this one to the NEWBERY CURSE, which is holding steady–the Newbery winner of the year always gets knocked out in round 1. So although I will miss, Dead End in Norvelt, I am eager to read the Round 2 battle of Daughter of Smoke & Bone vs. Chime! I’m sure that E. Lockhart will be much more concise and interesting than I was in my earlier post comparing the two. And I’m certain that  no matter which book wins, there will be many heartbroken fans…although there is always the Undead to possibly bring the loser back!

And So It Begins….Battle Round 1, Matches 1 & 2 March 17, 2012

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Hooray for March Madness and the SLJ Battle of the Books! The official rounds started yesterday and the only reason I’m slightly disappointed is that I never worked out an official list of predictions. So I resort to closing my eyes just before clicking on the link each morning and briefly saying “I think….this one will win!”  So far, I’ve had one right, and one wrong. My goal is to post about the rounds every couple of days, focusing on my favorite quotes from each judge. So far we have…

“Nothing says punk rock research like microfilm” –Matt Phelan

I have a few memories of searching through newspapers on microfilm for school, but now I have no idea what kind of project I was doing, unless my teachers just wanted me to ruin my eyesight more. I loved the details in Anya’s Ghost but Amelia Lost was one of my favorite books of the year and I was crushed that I couldn’t get more of my students excited about it. I’m glad Phelan was so enthusiastic about it!

“Rule-breaking and hypocrisy? A glossary that includes term like blind pig? What’s not to love?” –Gayle Forman

This match was the only one where I hadn’t read one of the book. In the midst of school stress, scheduling rehearsals for various shows and looking ahead to summer plans, I just couldn’t get through Between Shades of Grey, no matter how powerful the story. Granted, it took me two tries to get through Bootleg too. I chose Bootleg in my head to win, because I thought it was interesting and well-written, but also because it was the book I had read!

News that Makes Me Excited March 12, 2012

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In my wanderings and readings around the internet last week, I came across a couple of book related items that made me go “Eeeeeeeeeeeeeeee!!!” I’ll spare you a sound file of the noise, but here are the news items that got me out of my chair and doing a happy dance.

100 Scope Notes blog:  Travis Jonker’s Morning News post last week had as its final item the finalists for the LA Times Book Prize. I don’t care about the nominees for the adult literature prizes, but the Young Adult nominees are FANTASTIC. I’ve read all of them and the only one that left me going “meh” was The Big Crunch by Pete Hautman. The slow pace just didn’t do a lot for me. But the rest? Oh my goodness! Pirates and monsters, nuclear war and killer fairy horses! I can’t wait to see who gets picked as the winner.

Educating AliceMonica Edinger over at Educating Alice posted a long list of books coming the fall that she is excited about. It is a very extensive list, and while there are many books that made me go “Yay!” (Princess Academy sequel and new Ned Vizzini, I’m looking at you!) there was one that truly got me up and applauding furiously. And that is a brand new book by Laura Amy Schlitz, who has NEVER disappointed me. Each of her previous books has been completely unique (biography, fairytale, monologues, early chapter book, historical mystery) and each has been completely compelling. So I cannot wait to get my hands on Splendor and Glooms, coming later this year. Even better, every reference online cites “Toys” and “Puppets” as descriptive words. AWESOME!!

Battle Judges March 9, 2012

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Probably my favorite part of the SLJ Battle of the Books is the way the judging works. In the lead-up to the ALA awards, there is no shortlist, no comments from committee members, absolutely NOTHING to give a sense of what is being considered, or why a book was eliminated. In the Battle of the Books, most of the fun comes from hearing what the judges think. Each judge writes a post on their bracket, saying why they chose that particular book to move on in the contest. Some of the posts are short, some are long, but they are all enlightening and entertaining. It’s a treat to hear from authors I love, such as Gary Schmidt or Megan Whalen Turner and understand a little better how they analyze and appreciate literature. It makes me love their books all the more!

When I saw the list of judges for this year’s battle, I felt a little ashamed.

Gayle Forman

Ron Koertge

E. Lockhart

Chris Lynch

Lauren Myracle

Matt Phelan

Sara Zarr

All of the above are authors that I’ve heard of (with the exception of Chris Lynch) and yet I have never read any of their books. How does this happen? My friends and family complain that I read more than is sane, and yet all of these are authors who have been lauded in reviews and blogs and I still haven’t read any of their work! So I’m even more interested to hear their commentary on this list of books. Maybe I will be so excited, I will immediately go and check out all their books.

Sarah Weeks

Jewell Parker Rhodes

Barbara O’Connor

Jonathan Stroud

This is the group where I have read just one book by each author. I was annoyed at Mr. Stroud for taking the grand prize in last years Battle away from A Conspiracy of Kings, but I did really enjoy The Ring of Solomon and I finally checked out the first Bartimaeus book today. The other three were books that I enjoyed, but didn’t love, so that I ran out and read all the rest of their work. That said, Pie by Sarah Weeks, was VERY cute.

Sy Montgomery

Marc Aronson

My two favorite non-fiction writers. Hands down. I ALWAYS learn a ton from any book written by these authors, so I can’t wait to hear their thoughts about the battle books.

Jeff Kinney

I really, REALLY, hope that he draws part of his post. REALLY.

Maggie Stiefvater

My current author crush (see earlier post on The Scorpio Races). Looking forward to reading more of her work!

In Memoriam: Jan Berenstain March 7, 2012

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This conversation played out via email between, Ana, me and our father a few days ago.  Since it’s between family members who argue, but still love each other, I figure it’s about the best remembrance we can put together for author Jan Berenstain.
DAD: Did you guys put a eulogy to Jan Berenstain on your blog? After aaaaaaaallllllllllllllll those books that we read to you when you were little (or … at least, we read them to Cecilia; maybe we were too sick of them to read them to Ana when she was old enough …)???
ANA: I hate to admit this, but I have no idea who Jan Berenstain is.
DAD: You don’t remember the Berenstain Bears books — sweet, wise Mama Bear, bumbling Papa Bear, mischievous Brother Bear and (I’ve run out of adjectives) Sister Bear?? Cliches and gender stereo-types every other paragraph? Oh … my … gosh! There are probably 3 dozen Berenstain Bears picture books out there and I bet they’re all (or most of them) still in print!
(Pause while he checks the internet)
DAD: Did I say three dozen titles? I should have said 300 titles — aiyiyi!
ANA: Ohhh, those books. I wasn’t sure. It’s not like I ever read the author’s name. And actually, no one in the family ever read those to me. Nobody actually liked them besides me. So I read them at Imagination Station with Melissa instead.
CECILIA: Never read the author’s name???!?! They’re called the BERENSTAIN bears!!!!!!
ANA: In my defense, I was eight at the time.
DAD: This is highly amusing! The reason nobody read those books to you, Ana, is that by the time you were 4 or 5, we were heartily tired of the Berenstain Bears and had sworn to never read them again! So you were stuck with sneaking into ImagineStationation and surreptitiously reading them with Melissa. Last night, your mother and I were having a discussion about how many B. Bears books we actually owned — I said it was at least 5 or 6; your mother was ADAMANT that we never owned more than two (because she hated the books so much)! Danny couldn’t remember if we actually owned copies. But he could remember (frighteningly well) the plotlines of several of the books!
CECILIA: I’m pretty sure we owned copies. At this point though, the only one I really remember is the Goes to School book because Melissa and Miebeth (friends from the bookstore) re-wrote it for me when I went to college. And the one about wanting treats when we went grocery shopping because you DID use that one to teach us a lesson!

Playing Catch Up: Dead End in Norvelt & The Returning March 5, 2012

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Overall, I thought I did pretty well with my preparations for the ALA Youth Media Awards this year: I had at least heard of every book that won a major award and most of the honor books too. But one of the fun parts of the ALA awards is that there is no shortlist; it’s entirely possible for winners to come out of thin air. There’s just so much out there. So now I’m playing catch up. Here are some thoughts on two of the books I hadn’t managed to read by January 23.

Dead End in Norvelt by Jack Gantos. Winner of the Newbery Medal.

Now, I had heard of this book before it won the Newbery. I had even started to read it. And now that I’ve finished it: WOW. It’s definitely not a perfect book, but I’m a lot happier than I was when I finished reading the award winner last year. Jack is a perfect protagonist: a basically good heart, a tendency to end up in less-than-perfect situations, a body that betrays his anxieties with gushing nosebleeds. He goes through a wonderful journey over the course of the book. Having never had any reason or inclination to think about his town and the people who live there, he gets a crash course in history, human nature, and storytelling through his new job typing obituaries for his neighbor Miss Volker. At times I wished Miss Volker were a little less verbose, as the story seemed to drag with perhaps one too many dead citizens to be memorialized. Aside from that, however, this was a book that kept the laughs coming and made me think about history, citizenship and (perhaps a little too often) our own mortality as human beings. I have at least two students who will be getting this book pushed in their faces as soon as I can get a copy. Bravo, Jack Gantos! And Bravo, Newbery Committee.

The Returning by Christine Hinwood. Winner of a Printz Honor.

After last year’s slight debacle on the Printz Award front (I correctly predicted the winner, but had heard of none of the honor books), I was happy that I had read both the winner and two of the four honor books this year. Printz books, be they winners or honors, usually make me think and The Returning was no exception.

The Returning centers around a boy named Cam Attley, the only man from his village to have made it through a war alive. Set in an unnamed place and time that feels medieval, the reader meets various characters who have some connection to Cam and who have all been touched in ways large and small by the conflict. The first half of the book is made up of vignettes of Cam’s village and a few flashbacks to his decisions in the midst of the war. The second half of the book focuses on just Cam as he travels to find the man who spared his life during the war, and why. His growing relationship with this man, now Lord of both Uplanders and Downlanders, provides the only real action or plot to the book, and in some ways, I wished that the vignettes had continued, as the action felt a little tacked on for show. I also wished we had heard from more of the people in the city of Dorn-Lannet, or the Lord’s palace where Cam eventually ends up. Except for a few main characters, we mostly see them through the eyes of others. While the terms ‘Uplander’ and ‘Downlander’ imply a North/South relationship, by the end of the book, I was detecting strong hints of Far East or Japanese culture in the Uplander customs, such as lacquerware, and floor matting. However, the use of the fantasy land made the themes of war, change, and choices ring all the more true. One more book to prove that Australians write some of the most inventive fiction out there for a Young Adult audience.