Tournament of Books, Round 2: The Serpent King vs. Salt to the Sea

tournamentofbooks2017When I was told that the two books going head to head that I would have to judge were The Serpent King by Jeff Zentner and Salt to the Sea by Ruta Sepetys, my heart sank. These were both titles I had already read and absolutely loved. Both were in my top teen favorites of the year. And I’m far from alone in this opinion: both books made the top 10 YALSA Best Fiction for Young Adults list as well. So, before I get to the grueling decision of which book moves forward, I’m going to share a few really strong elements of these books (also, since this is round 2, I’m not going to spend much time rehashing the plot). Hopefully, I’ll convince you to read both titles if you haven’t already!

Setting: Being historical fiction, setting in Salt to the Sea is obviously a very important element. It takes place in WWII, but with a focus on a little-known (but very large) disaster. Sepetys does an amazing job at really building this world and throwing the reader into this time period, and she does it using such minimal text. The chapters are no more than a few pages and the pace is non-stop. Yet, the action only adds to the setting rather than distract from it. The Serpent King is a contemporary novel that takes place in rural Tennessee. Zentner brings this southern town to life, and it’s fascinating to see how much these characters are a product of where they are from. So speaking of characters…

Characters: Both books feature alternating chapters between several characters (although The Serpent King is in 3rd person while Salt to the Sea is in 1st). In both books, the reader quickly cares about all the main characters. Both authors excelled in creating sets of unique, well-developed characters. From Joana, the young, selfless nurse in Salt to the Sea, to Travis, the quiet, lovable guy who would rather live in his fantasy books than the real world in The Serpent King, both these stories are filled with unforgettable characters.

Rip-Your-Heart-Out Factor: These are both stories that require tissues. Grief finds its way into both tales, and yet they each also deliver hope.

Okay, I’ve stalled long enough. It’s time to choose. *DUN DUN DUN* I’m going to have to go with my gut and call The Serpent King the winner. While both books are excellent, the fact that The Serpent King is Zentner’s debut is extra impressive. This book firmly cemented him as an author to watch.


Jenna Friebel is a Materials Services Librarian at the Oak Park Public Library. She is currently serving on the 2018 YALSA Printz Award committee.

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Posted by on February 22, 2017 in Tournament of Books


Tournament of Books, Round 2: Still Life with Tornado vs. The Sun is Also a Star

tournamentofbooks2017Here’s a list of a few things I generally can’t stand in books, plays, movies, and other media: Magical realism; absurdism; lots of philosophizing; instalove; narrative gimmicks.  So I have to admit, I went in to both Still Life With Tornado by A.S. King and The Sun Is Also A Star by Nicola Yoon with a fair amount of skepticism.  While some of my dislikes were reinforced and I wasn’t a huge fan of either bok, in the end I was pleasantly surprised by both novels, and ended up enjoying both of them more than I expected after the first few chapters.

The Sun Is Also a Star is a contemporary realistic romance by the author of Everything, Everything.  I enjoyed most of Yoon’s debut novel, up until a large final twist, so I was unsurprised to find two well-developed, likeable but flawed, and very realistic teenage characters at the heart of The Sun Is Also A Star.  Natasha is a science-minded undocumented immigrant fighting to stay in the country on the day of her deportation when she meets Daniel, a romantic, idealistic poet struggling against his family’s expectations for his future.  The whole novel takes place over the course of a day as Daniel works to make Natasha fall in love with him (I swear this isn’t as creepy as it sounds,) Natasha fights her deportation and her feelings for Daniel, and The Universe pops in its own narration with details and stories about the people they encounter throughout the day.

When I read the first few Universe chapters, I was sure they would be everything I hated about narrative gimmicks – pointless, an attempt at being literary that is trying too hard, and ultimately a distraction from the main story.  But I grew to like them, and enjoy the feeling that although this story was Natasha and Daniel’s, everyone else in the book had their own stories too.  I also, as I mentioned, loved Natasha and Daniel both as characters.  While I found Daniel annoying sometimes, he was so realistic it made for a better story, and I loved almost everything about Natasha. I also really appreciated that the story didn’t shy away from the fact that, while both characters were struggling, Natasha’s experiences as an undocumented immigrant were on a different level of difficult and life-changing than Daniel’s decisions about his family and his future.  Unfortunately, I kept getting pulled out of the characters and the story by two big things.  First of all, the instalove. Daniel basically falls for Natasha as soon as he sees her, and they both apparently fall madly in love with each other over a span of approximately 12 hours. I remember how intense romance was as a teenager, and I still didn’t find this believable.  Also unbelievable?  The sheer amount of coincidences in this story.  From pointless coincidences in side-plots – like the fact that Natasha almost gets killed by the same drunk driver who crashes into her lawyer – to major coincidences like the identity Daniel’s interviewer and the big coincidence at the end, it just felt like too much.  In fact, as much as I usually shy away from magical realism, I think this story could have benefited from a full embrace of magical realism, since the level of coincidence, instalove, and plot twists made it impossible for me to buy into the story as contemporary realistic fiction.

Moving on, Still Life With Tornado is an actual magical realism novel with elements of absurdism featuring Sarah, age 16, who is having an existential crisis that she is trying to sort through with Sarah, age 10, Sarah, age 23, and Sarah, age 40.  I spent the first several chapters complaining to anyone who would listen about the book.  I was constantly annoyed with Sarah’s obsession with being “original” and her clear failure to see or understand – or even really care about – anything going on around her.  But the book did grow on me as Sarah started to grow and change.  As the story goes on, Sarah, who has been cutting school and experimenting with, among other things, not showering and following around a homeless man, starts to dive into the history of herself and her family.  Through her own endless and often repetitive thoughts, her conversations with her other selves, a reconciliation with her estranged brother, and occasional points of view from her mother, we start to see the events that have led up to Sarah’s current crisis and the shattering of her family.

The parts of this book that worked for me were the exploration of the family relationships.  In fact, my favorite parts were Sarah’s mother’s point of view, not the least because it got us out of Sarah’s very narrow, obnoxiously philosophical, and self-centered world view.  I also started disliking Sarah less as the story went on – I still found her pretentious, but her circular thinking and self-centeredness made more sense as I learned more about her family history.  But ultimately, I found the whole conceit of multiple Sarahs to be pointless and distracting.  The flashbacks employed in some chapters were a better way to see into Sarah’s past, and I didn’t find that the glimpses into her future added much.  Not only that, but the constant repetition of words and ideas, part of the tornado motif, annoyed me and made me feel that the story and character growth were constantly bogged down.

While I did grow to like Still Life With Tornado more than I expected to at the beginning, my winner is The Sun Is Also A Star – despite its faults, I found that the well-drawn characters, compelling immigration storyline, and well-paced plot were more than enough to draw me in and make me really enjoy the book.


Hannah is the Head of Reader’s Advisory and Teen Services at the Berwyn Public Library. She is a Chicago dweller in love with Lake Michigan, and an audiobook aficionado.

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Posted by on February 20, 2017 in Tournament of Books


Tournament of Books, Round 2: Lily and Dunkin vs. The Great American Whatever

tournamentofbooks2017Like most librarians, I read and enjoy all genres, but my heart will always belong to realistic fiction. Sometimes it’s my true love and sometimes it’s the bad boyfriend I keep going back to. I was very happy to be assigned these two titles, and even happier when they both turned out to be very good dates. Lily and Dunkin and The Great American Whatever introduced me to teen characters struggling with real life issues. They are all authentic, charming kids who rattled around my head for days after their stories ended.

When we meet Lily and Dunkin they are both a couple of days away from the first day of 8th grade. Dunkin is the new kid in town. It is unclear what trauma he has left behind, but it is clear that he is earnest and likeable and doing his best to make a fresh start. Understandably, he is nervous about starting at a new school in 8th grade. Bi-polar, tall, hairy, and wearing corduroy pants in the hot Florida sun might not lead to immediate popularity, but Dunkin is hopeful that a new school will mean new friends and a little bit of a social life.

Lily, well she also wants to have a new start this year and return to school embracing her true gender. Lily was born Timothy, but has always identified as a female. Lily is out to her immediate family and her best friend and would love to establish her new identity at the start of the school year. While Lily’s mom and best friend are one hundred percent on board, her dad’s support falls somewhere between zero and none. Lily bravely tries to navigate between doing what is best for her and what she knows others want of her. When Lily and Dunkin meet they bond immediately, but middle school dynamics get in the way of true friendship until they both realize how much the other one needs them.

The Great American Whatever begins six months after Quinn’s sister’s death. Six months after his sister died in a car accident immediately after replying to a text he sent her. Quinn has barely left his room since her death and can’t bring himself to look at his sister’s last text. When his best friend finally convinces him to leave the house to tag along to a party, Quinn meets a handsome college student named Amir. Quinn is enamored and Amir likes him back.  It’s not true love, but it’s enough to make Quinn realize that the possibility of romance can assuage grief. He begins to come back to life while still struggling with loss, coping with coming out to his family and friends, and learning almost everyone has secrets they keep. The Great American Whatever thrums with emotion and humor as we witness Quinn peel back the layers of relationships in order to discover his true self and process all that has happened to him.

Just yesterday, I was talking to a teen about The Great American Whatever and she started jumping up and down yelling, “I want to read it right now!” Immediately after finishing Lily and Dunkin, I handed it to my 6th grade daughter. Two days later, her friend popped up at the library looking for it. These are both wonderful books with characters that stick, and I’m certain that these are both titles that I will be recommending to teens for years to come. Picking a winner between these two books comes down to deciding which one of these realistic fiction titles feels more authentic.

Lily and Dunkin is a great way for young cis teens to understand the struggles their classmates and friends may be facing, but for those facing these issues themselves, it feels a bit too easy. It all wrapped up a bit too nicely and unfortunately, real life is a bit messier than Lily and Dunkin. The Great American Whatever includes an entire cast of well-rounded characters and a plot that, much like life, does not follow a pattern.

Winner: The Great American Whatever by Tim Federle

Joanie Sebastian is the Teen Services Librarian at the Des Plaines Public Library. She likes pretending to be an athlete and convincing her family to rescue dogs.

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Posted by on February 17, 2017 in Tournament of Books


Tournament of Books, Round 2: The Star Touched Queen vs. Ghosts

tournamentofbooks2017In The Star Touched Queen by Roshani Chokshi, we are introduced to Maya, a young woman of Middle Eastern descent, who grows up in her father’s harem until she is of marriageable age. Due to a cursed horoscope that speaks of death, her prospects are slim, and her father uses her as a pawn in a political maneuver. Thinking she will die on her wedding night, Maya is shocked when one of her suitors sweeps her away to the magical Night Bazaar. She agrees to marry Amar, who is the ruler of Akaran, and travels with him to his beautiful but empty kingdom. Endless secrets, hidden doors and a mystical tapestry await Maya as she adjusts to being the new queen.

Fantasy is intertwined with Indian folklore is this unique fairy tale-esque novel that had shades of the Greek myth Hades and Persephone in it. I welcomed the diversity, and the writing is lush and wraps around you like silk. While the lyrical descriptions are appreciated, the metaphors eventually began to overwhelm the writing. I felt as if I were drowning in a deep inky pool as I struggled mightily to wrest myself from the clutches of a cloying adjective heavy narrative (see what I did there?).

Unfortunately by the end, I was desperate for the book to be finished. While I was reading for my pleasure as an adult, I could not help to think of the intended YA audience, and I found fault with several plot threads. Never a fan of insta-love, Amar’s declarations of love and devotion went over the top. He took Maya away from all that she had known, and only offered himself as a companion. Matched with that, she did not have a single friend, and lived in isolation and secrecy. There was no community, only promises of power. Is this what young girls should be taught- that a man sweeping you off your feet and keeping you to himself is love? That all they need is each other, and no one else matters, is a dangerous myth that should not be wrapped up in a package and called destiny.

On the other hand, my other reviewed book, the graphic novel Ghosts by Raina Telgemeier, was all about community. This magical-realism tale begins with sisters Catrina and Maya (isn’t that crazy that there were two main characters named Maya in the books?) moving with their parents to northern California. Teen Catrina is devastated to move away from her friends, but her younger sister Maya’s cystic fibrosis symptoms can be alleviated in the cooler foggier environment, and as a loving sister she is willing to make the sacrifice.

The girls explore their new community, Bahía de la Luna, and find that the town has a huge yearly celebration of Día de los Muertos/Day of the Dead. This ties in with the girls exploring more of their culture, as their mother was the daughter of a Mexican immigrant, and regrets that she didn’t learn more about her heritage before her mother died. Carlos, a neighboring teen, introduces them to the ghosts of the community. That the ghosts are believed in and embraced as fact seemed a natural part of the narrative, for it matched the theme of Catrina needing to come to terms with Maya’s inevitable death.

This beautiful evocative tale brought me to tears. Don’t let the deceptively simple illustrations fool you into thinking that the storyline is basic, for this emotionally powerful story will stay with you. Family, community, and accepting death are respectfully tied together in this winning novel.

Winner: Ghosts because of all the FEELS!

Nancy McKay is the Teen Services Coordinator at Ella Johnson Memorial Library in Hampshire. Between motherhood, work and grad school at Dominican University, she finds time to co-write for the blog Graphic Novelty².

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Posted by on February 15, 2017 in Tournament of Books


Tournament of Books 2017, Round 2

Whew! That round flew by like a whirlwind. Our slate has been cut in half, with some books cut down in that first round. We now have 16 books still in contention for the final slot, with Round 2 taking off this week. And again, big thanks to all of the reviewers for rounds past, present, and future.


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Posted by on February 13, 2017 in Tournament of Books


Tournament of Books Round 1: Exit, Pursued by a Bear vs. My Lady Jane

tournamentofbooks2017When I received these two books, one alternate history (My Lady Jane), and the other realistic fiction (Exit, Pursued by a Bear), I thought my choice would be easy. Why you ask? Because as a former history major, I LOATHE alternate history. Instead, I found myself drawn into both stories and cheering for both of the strong as hell female protagonists. Let’s dive in…

My Lady Jane takes place in an alternate 16th century England about Lady Jane Grey, who ruled England for nine days after the death of King Edward VI, son of Henry VIII (the one with all the wives), then gets her head chopped off by Queen Mary aka Bloody Mary. This is Jane’s story, or as the authors put it, “how Jane’s story should have gone.” Take everything you think you know about the British succession of power and throw it out the window. I’m actually surprised the narrators didn’t add that in there, since they consistently break the fourth wall and narrate directly to the reader with asides about historical liberties, vampires, and more, which just adds to the humor and charm of the story.

Why vampires, you ask? Well, not to spoil too much, but let’s just say that there are shapeshifters involved in this version of British history (don’t worry, it’s super light on the vampires, though). But did you know Henry VIII could shapeshift into a lion? This was a wonderful, fantastical, comedic take on British history that made me laugh out loud and cheer for Jane and her two cohorts, her husband Gifford and cousin King Edward VII, who we also follow along on their adventures to reclaim the throne from Mary. Jane is a book nerd at heart and never wanted to be queen, but won’t let anyone take advantage of her- a true feminist ahead of her time.

Exit, Pursued by a Bear is a story that makes your heart ache. Popular Canadian teen Hermione Winters is drugged and raped at cheerleading camp. But she doesn’t let her rape and aftermath consume her entire life, even though new revelations keep coming back to haunt her. This book powerfully describes Hermione’s trauma and the reactions from the people around her as she lives her life post-rape while seeking answers about that night. Hermione doesn’t take any prisoners and she refuses to be anyone’s victim. This is a heart-wrenching read as Hermione struggles to overcome her rape, find justice, and become the person she was before.

What I found most enduring and intriguing about Exit Pursued By a Bear was the shattering of stereotypes. Hermione is a likable popular cheerleader who is attacked. As she notes in the book, that simply doesn’t happen: the cheerleader and the girl who gets knocked up are not the same person. There was compassion and empathy from so many supporting characters, including parents and church figures. Spoiler alert: She also chooses to have an abortion after becoming pregnant from her rapist, and isn’t ashamed or shamed by others. These are standout characteristics for me and I feel that the different ways that people overcome rape and trauma can never be highlighted enough in YA literature.

The juxtaposition of these two stories made it incredibly difficult for me to choose a winner. However, I was forced to choose and the winner to move on to the next round is My Lady Jane for originality of the plot, humor, and wit. My Lady Jane appeals to a wide variety of teen interests and genres- historical, paranormal, humor, romance, and more, with something for everyone. It made me want to read beyond the original text and research more information about Lady Jane’s rise to power and reign (minus the shapeshifting abilities), which is a hallmark of a great book for me. The combination of the three exceptional YA authors (Cynthia Hand, Brodi Ashton, and Jodi Meadows) makes this a huge draw for teens and their voices work together seamlessly in this alternate version of history.

Favorite quotes:

“Armies aren’t very good about carrying libraries with them. I can’t imagine why. We’d fight so much less if everyone would just sit down and read.” – My Lady Jane 

“I didn’t used to overthink my choices quite so much. Then someone made what I’ve always been told is a very important choice for me, and now I tend to overthink everything else.” – Exit, Pursued by a Bear

Katie LaMantia is a Teen Librarian at Schaumburg Township District Library. She is a pop culture and trivia nerd who also enjoys smashing the patriarchy and reading YA lit in her spare time.


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Posted by on February 10, 2017 in Tournament of Books


Tournament of Books Round 1: And I Darken vs. Learning to Swear in America

tournamentofbooks2017And I Darken by Kiersten White is an alternative history novel that dares to wonder what would happen if Vlad the Impaler, a figure who existed in the mid-15th century during the Ottoman Empire and was the inspiration for Dracula, was female. She’d be fierce, to say the least.

Like all siblings, Lada and Radu vie for their father’s attention especially with an emotionally, and then very literal, absent mother. A brute and a tyrant, Prince Vlad Dracul, raises his children with an iron fist and instills into Lada the notion that Wallachia, her home, is her mother. So when Lada and Radu are sent away as hostages to the Ottoman Empire in exchange for Vlad’s loyalty, Lada becomes more savage and brutal whereas sweet, gentle Radu finds himself isolated and ostracized. There they meet Prince Mehmed, Sultan Murad’s third and least favorite son, and squad up. Lada finds there are limited options at court for a feral creature like herself and Radu’s debilitating loneliness leads him to find solace in practicing Islam. As they grow up, Lada and Radu find themselves vying for the same man’s attention again, but this time it’s Mehmed. Talk about a complicated family dynamic.

In a surprising turn of events involving quite a bit of political intrigue, Mehmed becomes the sole heir to the throne and eventually crowned Sultan. As they age, Lada learns the various ways in which anyone, even a woman, can acquire and wield power. In the same ways that Lada struggles with her femininity throughout the whole story, Radu struggles with his loneliness. He finds strength in his faith and solace in his friendship with Mehmed.

And I Darken is very much a character-driven novel, but the historical references help to instill a deep sense of place and time that provide a level of world-building often seen in dystopian novels. And it feels just so: like an imperfect society. Having completely forgotten everything I ever learned about the Ottoman Empire in school, White did an excellent job of capturing the culture and brutality of the time through characters that were simultaneously unlikable and likable. Their flaws make them more real. (Oh wait, most of them were.)

Learning to Swear in America by Katie Kennedy is less about profanity and more about communication.

In seventeen days, an asteroid called BR1019 will destroy Los Angeles. In an effort to save the city, NASA has gathered the world’s top scientists, including 17-year-old Yuri Strelnikov, a Russian physicist whose work on antimatter is Nobel-worthy. Working amongst his colleagues, Yuri struggles through language barriers, security clearances, and generation gaps. While taking a much needed caffeine break, he runs into Dovie, the free-spirited daughter of one of the janitors, and like any awkward, sheltered 17-year-old boy he becomes instantly infatuated. Yuri believes that in order to make the older counterparts on his team take him more seriously, he insists that he must learn how to swear in English and tries to get Dovie to teach him but she refuses, telling him that  he isn’t ready because he needs to understand people better.

For an end-of-the-world novel, the tone is surprisingly light. Sure, there is A LOT pressure on Yuri. He’s trying to save the city he has just been brought to, that happens to also be the destination of this hurtling hunk of space rock, but there doesn’t seem to be much urgency. He has every confidence that they’ll finish the work, or at the very least he’ll finish his part of the project. He’s so confident, in fact, that he works on an alternate solution involving antimatter, which is the presumed reason he’s been brought in to to work on this task force, even though they aren’t considering using it because no one has officially published anything on the matter. Oh wait, his arch-nemesis back in Russia stole Yuri’s soon-to-be published findings on antimatter. So now there’s urgency, but it’s for Yuri to get back to Russia. Oh wait, he can’t because he snuck into the Director’s office and saw some confidential documents he wasn’t supposed to, so now his stay in the States beyond these seventeen days is indefinite.

Will Yuri help save Los Angeles from total destruction?  Can Yuri make it back to Russia to save his work from being published by another scientist?  Will Yuri ever be a normal kid?

Spoiler: Yes, Yuri gets to do some normal kid stuff. Like go to the mall, participate in a humiliating gym class, and in a spectacular act of teenage rebellion, he sneaks out to take Dovie to the Prom only to return back to NASA to receive some heavy news. And then the gravity of the situation becomes grave.

Of all the things that I was disappointed in, and there weren’t many, the biggest had to be that there were absolutely no references to the 1998 hit movie, Armageddon, but that might be because it was literally before Yuri’s time. But in all seriousness, Learning to Swear in America is a wonderful debut novel full of quirky characters who understand the true meaning of sacrifice and the underlying message: when language fails, sometimes actions speak louder than words.

Verdict:  How do you compare two books that share very little common ground?

Let your cat decide:


Not really. I read And I Darken first wanting to “get it out of the way” because it’s one brick of a book. But like so many others have said, this one has stuck with me. There is a vibrancy and richness to the story that shines despite it being so dark. And there’s been a bad taste in my mouth for the last month or so, and reading a story that celebrated the beauty and power of faith, Islam nonetheless, was refreshing. And the diversity!  Oh the diversity!

Also, Kiersten White is a seasoned YA novelist, with three other series under her belt, and tackles gender roles, religion, sexuality, politics, and feminism with aplomb. Poor Learning to Swear in America, never had a chance. That isn’t to say that, Learning to Swear in America, wasn’t great. It was but it fell flat against And I Darken.

I loved, And I Darken, as certain dark things are to be loved: in secret, between the shadow and the soul*. But since this was for a tournament, I guess it can’t be that secret.

Winner: And I Darken by Kiersten White

*Sonnet XVII by Pablo Neruda

Lauren Hilty is the Teen Services Librarian at the Grayslake Area Public Library. She takes her coffee black with sugar and is really good at turning garbage into art. She also has an unhealthy obsession with breakfast food.

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Posted by on February 9, 2017 in Tournament of Books