Friday, April 17, 2009

SLJ's Battle of the Books: Round One Review

As with any tournament worth spectating, SLJ's Battle of the Books had an intense first round this week, with surprising victories and crushing defeats. There were some clear wins, some wins even the judges couldn't expect, and some amazing upsets. I hadn't predicted this many twists and turns so early on, but my, has this thrown my bracket for a loop (though, ultimately, possibly a good loop)!

See my quick takes on the Round One Match-ups below (winners in bold)

Match 1:
Ways to Live Forever by Sally Nichols v. The Astonishing Life of Octavian Nothing, Traitor to the Nation, Vol. II, Kingdom of the Waves by M.T. Anderson

Honestly, I haven't read either of these books, but when folks like John Green are obsessed with Octavian Nothing, declaring it "the greatest accomplishment in the history of children's literature," I figure we've got a blowout on our hands.

Match 2:
The Graveyard Book by Neil Gaiman v. The Trouble Begins at 8: A Life of Mark Twain in the Wild, Wild West by Sid Fleischman

Can you spell upset? Wowzers. This choice totally blew some people's brackets (though thankfully not mine!). Based on all of the smothering adoration Graveyard Book had received from kids, bloggers, award committee's, and Stephen Colbert, I thought this was an easy match-up. Leave it to Jon Sciescka to not like fantasy and have an apparent obsession with fun facts about Mark Twain.

Match 3:
Chains by Laurie Halse Anderson v. Washington at Valley Forge by Russell Freedman

Historical fiction novel Chains makes a revolutionary triumph over narrative non-fiction Washington at Valley Forge (pun intended). Now that's what I'm talkin' about! Freedman's great, and I love his writing style, which makes non-fiction really come to life - but, seriously, how can you not pick Laurie Halse Anderson to win every time? You can't. She's amazing. Her fictional characters are so real and solid that nary a descriptor or turn of phrase is ever out of place.

Match 4:
Here Lies Arthur by Phillip Reeve v. Tender Morsels by Margo Lanagan
Seeing as I hadn't read Here Lies Arthur and also hadn't heard too much about it, I picked Tender Morsels to win this one. And still, I was surprised to see Tender Morsels take this one! It's certainly NOT a book for everyone, given, you know, the incest, gang rape, bestiality, and overall bizarreness (?) of the tale. In fact, when I visited my new middle school on Monday and saw that it had been newly purchased for the collection I gave a quick recommendation to the current librarian that she read it and then pass it on to the upper school collection instead of shelving it.

Match 5:
The Disreputable History of Frankie Landau-Banks by E. Lockhart v. We Are the Ship: The Story of Negro Baseball League by Kadir Nelson

Another crushing upset! Frankie was one of my favorite books of 2008, and I was stoked that it received a Printz Honor. I had Frankie winning this one, but the loss actually does me more good than harm, since I feared that John Green would've knocked out Suzanne Collins' The Hunger Games in Round Two, to clear the path for Frankie. So, I see Frankie's graceful loss as (hopefully!) a future victory for my bracket. Now let's just hope that Nerdfighter chooses correctly in Round Two!

Match 6:
The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins v. The Porcupine Year by Louise Erdrich

Victory! Victory! Let's Repeat It! I've made it no secret that Hunger Games is my favorite. It's such an amazingly well-told story with action, suspense, and characters who you root for that really, I think, has such broad appeal. Young. Old. Boy. Girl. Fantasy. Adventure. You name it. I love this book.

Match 7:
Graceling by Kristin Cashore v. The Underneath by Kathi Appelt

Kaboom! Score another one for feminist fantasy. Having just finished my ARC of Kristin Cashore's upcoming Fire, (and loving every minute of that!) I was pumped for this match-up. I love Cashore's writing style, which judge Tamora Pierce aptly described as "pared to the bone." You learn everything you need to know about the characters while the story moves along, and characters grow and develop, struggle and triumph.

Match 8:
The Lincolns by Candace Fleming v. Nation by Terry Pratchett

I can't say I had a dog in this fight. I read only the first thirty-or-so pages of Nation (not because I didn't like it, but because I had a bunch of books checked out, and by the time I got around to Nation, it was time for it to go back to the library), and while I liked it, I can't say that I'd really gotten into the story. Obviously, it won a Printz Honor and I know many folks loved it, so it was my pick to make it to Round Two. Alas, those feisty Lincolns bested Nation.

In the end, five of my picks made it to Round Two, and my top choice remains in the running, so I'm feeling pretty good about my bracket. We'll see what happens next week though!

Oh, and might I add that I think my favorite part of this whole thing so far are the graphics that start off each post. There's something about books with arms and legs standing in their fight positions that I think is so comical and utterly enjoyable. You can almost hear the books growling at each other over the voice of the referee reminding the contestants about the rules against kidney punches.


  1. Keri also called Graceling feminist fantasy. What does that even mean?

    To me it sounds like it should be a book that has string feminist values. How does this book have stronger feminist values then Hunger Games or Mortal Engines or Sabriel?

    But this book seems pretty standard whenit comes to gender relations.

    The book is super "relationshipy" instead of plot focused (as the plot was kinda boring). In that way it could be feminist because it's written for women?

    feminist fantasy seems like the wrong title to use for book written for women. Don't you think?

  2. I got directed over here by the Peanut Gallery links, but as someone who would eager describe Graceling as feminist fantasy, I feel qualified to venture some reasons why I'd say as much. Mainly, I'd say: the main character is a girl. Her role within her uncle's court as magical enforcer is hardly a conventional female role, so Cashore's inversion of gender stereotypes there is feminist. Next, Katsa's struggle to redefine herself in the face of her monstrous work, and reclaim her strength from her uncle, who views her as a possession, albeit a dangerous one, is likewise feminist in its bent. The relationship between Katsa and Po inverts gender stereotypes-- they are equals in intellect and fighting ability, but if anything Katsa is strong than Po. While Katsa is private, closed-off, and confrontational, Po is intuitive to the point of mind reading, gentle, and open about his thoughts. And these are just some of the elements that lead me to think of Graceling as feminist-- I could certainly come up with more, if pressed.

    So, Stefan, I think it's hardly a case of graceling simply being feminist because it's "written for women."


    Cassandra: I think you're right on the money. Plus, Katsa is fiercely independent - even to the point that she continually refuses to accept Po's marriage proposal's for fear of losing her independence. As a child, she was controlled by her uncle, and now having struggled for her freedom, she isn't want to give up her independence to another man. But that doesn't mean she doesn't love Po or value their relationship. She's tough, she is clear on what she believes, and she's willing to stick to her guns. She's an empowered woman!

  4. Nice discussion here!

    Katsa is also the only YA heroine (that I know of) who's adamantly childfree - she doesn't plan to ever have children. I don't think the decision to have, or not have, children is particularly feminist or anti-feminist, but I think the idea that Katsa can (and does) make up her own mind about it is. (The same can be said of Po, in a different sense: he could easily fall back on the princely role that everyone expects of him, but instead he decides to make his own path.)

  5. I don't think any of your arguments are wrong but I still disagree.

    I agree the marriage stuff is in the direction of feminism. Sadly I did not get that far before I gave up.

    But the fact that the main character is a girl is a weak argument. Especially for a YA book. Sabriel, Hunger Games, seemly all of the tamora pierce books (though admittedly a little young), Un Lun Dun, Eathseed (okay that's super old but it was just reprinted). I mean when it comes to a 50/50 split it's no where close but I've never heard these other books described as feminist.

    Hunger Games especially because of the super strong female character. I like to throw Mortal Engines in (even though Hester was not the lead) just because it also had a super strong woman (also stronger then the male) who was feircly independent.

    And Jill, in Hunger Games and Un Lun Dun there are no kids either.

    Don't get me wrong. The book has feminist values. But so many do. even more could be listed if you did not require a female lead.

    I just don't see why these many other great books are not called feminist? I don't get the incosistancy.

    (P.S. read mortal engines :P)

  6. I've heard, regularly, all of those books called feminist, especially The Hunger Games and the Tamora Pierce books. And I certainly wouldn't say that only books with female protagonists can be considered feminist-- John Green's writing, for example, is quite feminist, even though all of his stories are told through the eyes of male protagonists.

    I think the key for whether a book is feminist or not is this: does the plot in some way center on the struggle of finding a balance between identity, and the expectations attached to gender? Tamora Pierce's books, for example, do an outstanding job of that. So does Graceling. Sabriel, on the other hand, while certainly commendable for its strong female protagonist, I wouldn't call strictly "feminist." Sabriel *could* have been a male character, and it would not have changed the book much. I don't think the same thing could be said for Graceling, or the Song of the Lioness Quartet, for example. So, while Sabriel certainly demonstrates strong, commendable feminist values, I wouldn't call it feminist fiction, while I would say just that about Graceling, Tamora Pierce, everything by E. Lockhart and John Green's books-- and that's just for starters.

    Or, at least, that's my rubric. Obviously other people might have different ones, yourself included. It's fun to take the time to unpack them, however, and I hope Alicia hasn't minded me using her blog as a platform for it. And I hope you, Stephan, will be gratified to know that you have convinced me to request Mortal Engines from my library. Any book with intergalactic steampunk Victoriana *and* a feminist bent is, assuredly, a must-read. Thanks for giving it a plug here!

  7. I have really loved having this conversation take place on my blog! I think it's great that I've been able to provide a forum for your thoughts and reflections about literature. Thanks everyone for your continued thoughtful comments. Keep 'em coming if you like!

  8. It's a little late to weigh in again, but: I thought about including Katniss and Gale as childfree protagonists, but I view their "we won't have children" statements as similar to their "we can't fight the Capitol" statements - intended to be recanted as the trilogy progresses. I view The Hunger Games as part-one-of-three, whereas I view Graceling as a complete story in itself.

    I like Cassandra's point that in a feminist book, the "plot in some way center[s] on the struggle of finding a balance between identity, and the expectations attached to gender." I also appreciate Stefan's willingness to take an alternative point of view. Having more than one point of view in the conversation forces everyone to articulate and question their arguments. which is a good thing!