I confess that there were other books on each side of the tournament bracket that I enjoyed more than both of these. If I’ve learned anything from participating in this tournament, then it’s that the goal is to really to pick the one book that everyone can live with.
I don’t love I’ll Give You the Sun for a couple of reasons, but I do like it a lot. The story of twins Jude and Noah, told through their alternating POVs, grabbed me right away. I found both characters and the transformations they experience over the course of the book to be very compelling. I also think that their passion for art – their need to create – is written in a believable way. That’s why I was willing to chalk up the many, many instances of miraculously good or bad timing within the plot to magical realism. The last 50 pages – which wrapped almost everything up in an improbably, overwhelmingly happy way – nearly ruined it for me, though. Judgmental dad has turned into “everything’s cool” dad. He’s even cool with his 16-year old daughter dating a legal adult who’s also a recovering alcoholic. I’d love it if Nelson were to check in with Jude and Noah in another three years to reveal that some of the happiness they experienced was temporary, that they’ve transformed further, and that their lives go on in unexpected directions.
The Winner’s Curse took its sweet time in hooking me, as I never really connected with the main characters. I also had issues with Rutkowski’s fictional Valorian society. It’s supposedly inspired by the Roman Empire, which had a habit of enslaving the peoples it conquered; but with the picnics, balls and emphasis on manners, this society reminded me more of Jane Austen’s 19th century England. Many little plot holes bothered me, such as: if women are trained in combat and expected to join the military, why can’t they leave the house without an escort? The romance between Valorian aristocrat Kestral and Heranni slave Arin also made little sense to me. Could these two people possibly like each other if the plot did not demand it? Despite my issues, I did find it quick-paced and quite readable. I started to like it more once the Heranni revolution began. What I enjoyed most is the continuous game of bluffing and manipulation that Kestral engages in with everyone she meets. Forget her piano, forget Arin; what Kestral loves more than anything is gambling.
This contest was not a hard decision for me. With characters that attached themselves to me almost instantly and believable depictions of love and passion, I’ll Give You the Sun is the winner that I can live with.
Winner: I’ll Give You the Sun by Jandy Nelson
I have a few confessions to make pertaining to this round of the tournament. Confession #1: I absolutely, positively hated Jandy Nelson’s first title, The Sky is Everywhere. When I saw that this book had made it this far into the tournament, I balked. The writing style of that title was such that I panned it on more than one occasion during my YA Lit classes. I put it off until the end because I was pretty sure that I was going to hate it. Confession #2: I am a newly-minted gamer. I love my tabletop games like it’s nobody’s business. I’ve connected games into my life at every opportunity and got super GEEKED that I was going to be reading Guy in Real Life. My role in the tournament, though, is to take a look at these two titles and match them evenly…so, I did. As with pretty much every YA novel that I’ve come across in the past few years, I was surprised and pleasantly so.
I’ll Give You the Sun (IGYTS) is about twins Jude and Noah, art, pain, love, death and journeys. This title is full of colorful language, and I had a bit of trouble with it at first. It felt as though I was reading a magical realism title, and as a reader, I’m not the best at that whole suspend-your-questions-and-just-believe thing. As the book went on, it became enveloping. The style did its twisting and turning so I could see the real magic that was happening in the world of Lost Coves. The characters of Jude, Noah and their compatriots are fully developed. IGYTS describes the intertwined relationship between not only brother and sister, but twins. There is a kind of magic in that relationship that only those two people know; twins have been together since the first day. In this story, Jude and Noah move in different paths, but their stories seemingly cannot move forward one without the other. I love the perspective that Nelson shows when the two twins see their sibling’s relationship with their mother before and after a major incident. In the beginning of the book, Noah waxes on the fact that his mother and grandmother loved Jude best. However, as the story goes on, and time goes by, it becomes clear that Noah and his mother had a shared love through art. It is tough for siblings to have that kind of experience when they both want the same thing…love and acceptance.
Guy in Real Life similarly features love and journeys, but I’d add that this book focuses on acceptance, denial, stereotypes and relationships. But, this story’s relationships focus a bit less on family and a bit more on friends and the world of online gaming. Both Svetlana and Lesh fit into the “typical” tropes for teenagers today (I hate that idea of typical…we is who we is, dang it!). Lesh is a guy who meets a girl by kismet, and she happens to be a confident, smart and original girl gamer. He doesn’t start out the novel as a guy who is into games, but he very easily falls into online games when he is grounded. This leads him to create a character that looks a bit like (and reminds him of) the Svetlana he’s interested in in his real world. What I loved best about this book was Svetlana’s multifaceted character. I love that she embraced her own style and wasn’t worried about popularity or acceptance from anyone more than her friends and herself. She also wasn’t perfect to her family. She had an admirer in Fry, and she wasn’t afraid to punch him in the gut when he needed it. My biggest issue with this book was the ending and the stalker-from-MMORPG-thing. The end felt rushed, and it made me wonder how exactly all of that happened to come about. It was a bit disappointing to me, too, that the parents in this book seemed to be blundering and a bit out of scope. It’s sad that parents have to be an afterthought in YA sometimes.
So, without further ado, I would like to proclaim (and shock the heck out of everyone including myself) I’ll Give You the Sun by Jandy Nelson the winner of this round. Kudos, Nelson, on turning a doubter into a believer. And, of course, thank you for giving us Jude, Noah, Guillermo, Dianna, Brian and Oscar.
The Winner: I’ll Give You the Sun by Jandy Nelson
There has been quite a few interesting match-ups over the course of this tournament, but I think this one might be one of the most diverse. Here I am…trying to choose between The Winner’s Curse by Marie Rutkoski and Gabi, A Girl in Pieces by Isobel Quintero. I thought for quite some time about some kind of link between both of these stories and while one is a realistic fiction book written in journal form and the other is a fantasy thriller. I finally found a common ground. If there’s one thing that a majority of teens can always commiserate about, it’s parents. Gabi and Kestrel could sit down and grab some coffee and talk for hours about how Gabi’s mom is constantly telling her she’s too American and will never get a man while Kestrel could unload the whole situation involving her father’s dream that she follow in his footsteps and choose a life in the military. It was this realization that helped me organize my thoughts a bit.
I’m not going to take the time to fully summarize the plot of either of these books. If you have been following the tournament, I’m sure you have an idea what the stories are about. In short, Gabi, A Girl in Pieces is the journal of a Mexican-American high school senior who is dealing with a plethora of monumental issues in the lives of her loved ones including teen pregnancy, coming out to your family, and meth addiction. Gabi uses her journal to organize her thoughts and emotions while uncovering her own identity through poetry. The Winner’s Curse is a thriller set in a world where the Valorians have successfully the Herrani people who are now employed as slaves. Kestrel, daughter of a high-ranking Valorian general, makes a spontaneous purchase at a slave auction which furthers her empathy for the Herrani people. With an uprising looming, Kestrel’s new relationship with Arin may sway on which side she plants her loyalty.
This is not an easy decision for me as I did not truly love either of these books. I enjoyed them both and will definitely recommend them to others, but neither left me wishing the book just a bit longer. I feel most people have already decided that Gabi, A Girl is Pieces will move on to the next round, but I’m not quite ready to set The Winner’s Curse on the back burner. Gabi started out slow for me. At first I thought it was an average book about a teen girl dealing with the same problems in every book. While that’s true, Quintero managed to grab me when I least expected it. Soon I could not stop reading the book. I read close to 3/4 of the book in one sitting. The connection was there and tears were flowing. The Winner’s Curse is a much different book. Gabi depends on its readers making the emotional connection and falling into Gabi’s life story. The Winner’s Curse depends on the drama of the story to catch the reader. While Gabi took a while for me to latch to her story, Kestrel grabbed me immediately. Her character was more likeable from the get go. Unfortunately I found some problems in The Winner’s Curse as well. The whole story depends on Kestrel purchasing Arin. Even after finishing the book, I still don’t know why Kestrel would get sucked into the auction and bid on Arin. It’s so out of her character. While I enjoyed the story, I kept going back to that fact the entire time.
I waited until the last minute to decide on a winner for this battle. I thought that maybe the answer would just appear to me in a dream sequence. Unfortunately I was not that lucky. I finally landed on a deciding factor. Gabi and Kestrel both have interesting stories. Out of the two, whose life would I want to continue experiencing? This may make me a bit unpopular, but I think that I have to choose The Winner’s Curse.
Winner: The Winner’s Curse
To begin with, full disclosure, I have been a fan of Scott Westerfeld for years. Also, I have never been a gamer. Of any kind. Ever. Having said that, it’s time to delve into two novels that employ the story within a story device in very different ways.
In Afterworlds by Scott Westerfeld, Darcy, the main character of the overarching story has just signed a contract for a book that she wrote during her senior year of high school. After graduation, with a huge advance in hand, she moves to New York City and tries to find her way in the land of authors and publishing. Everything, from finding a cool apartment to getting her first girlfriend and gaining the support of her family seems to come easily to Darcy, which is what makes her whining and complaining so hard to take. The story that Darcy wrote, Afterworlds is told in chapters that alternate with her own. In that story, Lizzie is the lone survivor of a terrorist attack. To help her survive, she is transported to the Afterworld which begins her transition to a psychopomp. Along the way she finds love and deals with a truly evil being. While the terrorist attack will have you holding your breath while you tear through the story, the fact that Lizzie never has to deal with the horror of that experience is a missing piece to her character development.
Guy in Real Life by Steve Brezenoff approaches the story within a story in a much different way. In Guy in Real Life, Lesh wears black, listens to metal music and has a best friend who introduces him to MMOs. One night, he accidentally knocks Svetlana, an independent minded girl who is the Dragon Master in her friends’ RPG, off her bike and thus begins a reluctant friendship/relationship. Lesh’s character develops through the everyday action of the story, as well as his through his presence in the MMO where he first begins playing as a male character only to end up creating a female character based on Svetlana. The characters of Lesh, Lana and their friends are well developed and may remind you of some of the teens that you know. Sure, some of the characters say things that aren’t necessarily respectful and thoughtful, but that rings true for many fifteen-year-olds who are trying to figure out who they are and where they fit in the world.
While the intricate structure of Afterworlds is something to be commended, when it comes to characters that are relatable to the reader, Guy in Real Life has the advantage.
The Winner: Guy in Real Life by Steve Brezenoff