School Library Journal’s annual Battle of the Kids Books is one of my favorite March events. There are wacky book pairings, awesome judges (Yuyi Morales! Malinda Lo!), a zombie round (where one title voted off earlier in the battle gets to come back for a final shot at glory), a vocal peanut gallery, and #booklove in spades. It’s also a great excuse to catch up on some of the best books of the year that I might have missed. What’s not to love?
The real pleasure, though, is reading the judges’ decisions. I find that I’m often rather uninterested in which book won (though I did let out a “Noooo” when I saw that Far Far Away beat out Flora & Ulysses), but I’m intensely interested in the judges’ idiosyncratic perspectives on these books. While I do love having my own opinions and beliefs reflected back to me in the smart words of a writer I admire (the ever-awesome Yuyi Morales had to throw Boxers & Saints against the wall too! But don’t worry, that’s what a reader is supposed to do with this book!), what I love even more is reading a piece that reframes a book for me, that makes me think about something, see something, admire something, in a book that I hadn’t thought about or seen or admired before.
Tom Angleberger’s take on Jerry Spinelli’s Hokey Pokey is just such a piece of criticism for me. I have started Hokey Pokey a couple of times and set it down with a “Huh? I don’t get it. I don’t get it in a big way.” But Angleberger has found a way to get Hokey Pokey. First, there is the hilarious line that ought to be a book blurb: “Hokey Pokey is sort of Peter Pan times Pilgrim’s Progress times the Teletubbies.” And then comes the reframing:
I was ready to roll my eyes at the silly business and sound effects, but I was stopped in mid-eyeroll.
See, even though Hokey Pokey is total loop-de-loop fiction, it caught me with something real. Something I don’t think I’ve ever seen captured in any book before: the relationship between a kid and a bicycle.
I had a bike. I remember that bike, and I remember how significant it was for me. It symbolized friendship, freedom, independence, discovery, adventure.
So okay. I’m ready to give Hokey Pokey another shot.
And then there is Lauren Oliver’s take on Doll Bones vs Eleanor & Park. One of these books I love. One of these books I find at least 100 pages too long and occasionally overwrought (thank you, Kid Commentator, for agreeing with me that sometimes it’s “all a bit too much at times”!). But Oliver’s decision takes me back to both books and makes me think carefully about what it means for a book to transport and for a book to reveal. She helps me appreciate something in Eleanor & Park that I hadn’t quite appreciated before.
Judges’ decisions are often kind of a love fest (“both of these books are so wonderful, how can I possibly choose?”), so Mac Barnett’s cranky review of Midwinterblood comes as a surprise. But I think he is right in his criticism of this overrated novel. And I plan to borrow his elegant and pithy assessment next time someone asks me why I don’t like Midwinterblood: “fatally unspecific.”
Finally, a word about Malinda Lo’s difficult task of choosing between Rose Under Fire and The Thing About Luck, two of my favorite books in the competition. I liked Rose Under Fire very much, but there has been something bothering me about it that I haven’t been able to put my finger on. Lo does an admirable job identifying and explaining what didn’t work quite so well for me in Rose Under Fire.
Round 1 is now complete, so next week it’s on to Round 2:
M1: 3/21 The Animal Book vs Boxers & Saintsjudged by Tonya Bolden
M2: 3/24 Eleanor & Park vs Far Far Away judged by Rae Carson
M3: 3/25 Hokey Pokey vs The Thing About Luck judged by Joseph Bruchac
M4:3/26 TBA vs TBA judged by Katherine Marsh
Boxers & Saints
Far Far Away
The Thing About Luck (and now I have a reason to try to finish Hokey Pokey before 3/25)