About librandian

I am a Teen Librarian who is basically obsessed with Teen books. I'm also a bit of a nerd. I also write a Teen Book review column for a local newspaper and co-host a book review TV show called Hardcover Feedback for a local access cable station.

And the Winner Is….

The 3rd YASF Tournament of Books has come to a close.  The winner of this year’s Tournament of Books is….

Dumplin’ by Julie Murphydumplin

Thanks to all our volunteer reviewers who took the time to read and review these amazing book.  Hopefully you found a new favorite while following along with the tournament.

Here is the complete bracket of the entire Tournament of Books.

2016 bracket final

Tournament of Books Round 4: An Ember in the Ashes vs. The Alex Crow

I Will Survive: The Alex Crow by Andrew Smith vs An Ember in the Ashes by Sabaa Tahir

At this point in the Battle, these two titles have been reviewed multiple times, so please bear with me if I repeat anything others said before me; I tried to avoid reading the reviews to avoid spoiling or biasing myself.

At first glance, these two titles don’t have much in common. On the one hand, with The Alex Crow you have a story that takes place in a mostly contemporary setting with no magic but plenty of science to back up claims of the supernatural and on the other, you have a magical, ancient Roman-esque setting in An Ember in the Ashes. A mostly male lineup of characters in the former versus a relatively balanced lineup in the latter. The completely unexpected versus the more formulaic. No romance versus a double love triangle. Etcetera, etcetera, these two titles seem to be about as different from each other as it is possible for two books to be. But what these two titles do have in common are the underlying themes of fear, survival, uncertainty, and a loss of family that the main characters have to experience and endure. In those ways, thalex crowese books aren’t so different after all.

The Alex Crow

Finding himself the lone survivor of a terrorist attack on his small Middle Eastern village, 15-year-old Ariel is swept away by the U.S. military to join a new family and lead a new life in the United States. By all accounts, he should be grateful that he’s escaping a brutal, lonely, war-torn existence in favor of a comparatively quieter life with a wholesome West Virginian family. But when Ariel is sent off to the Merrie-Seymour Camp with his adoptive brother for the summer, multiple events occur which allow Ariel to see his adoptive family and his new life are anything but wholesome.

The Alex Crow is a highly clever, creative, and wholly unique book – something that I’ve heard is the case for Andrew Smith books in general (though I don’t have firsthand knowledge of this given it is my first time partaking in his writing). It blends contemporary with a touch of humor, sci-fi, and faux historical fiction, and Smith masterfully works multiple subplots into one larger, seamless yet surprising and compelling story. Besides the nonlinear storyline depicting Ariel’s time both in the Middle East and in the U.S., Smith also adroitly weaves together threads that tell the stories of animals long extinct and the mostly-failed boat expeditions of a time before the world was largely conquered by man.

In his portrayal of modern warfare and the collateral damages and spoils thereof, Smith doesn’t shy away from depicting horrifying acts, which are more than hinted at but that somehow manage to avoid crossing into the obscene or gratuitous. They are scenes chockful of discomfort but they feel unrelenting in their realness.

To that point, Ariel is not a character with whom many people can sympathize but he is a character who is becoming more and more conceptually familiar in our society due to current international events. Throughout the story, Smith manages to believably convey Ariel as haunted by his past and unsure of his future. His companions throughout the story help to provide comic relief and assist in pushing the plot along but in doing so, they never quite manage to gain any depth.

An Ember in the Ashes

500 years of Martial rule have wrought oppression and persecution for the Scholars of the Empire but in all that time, it hasn’t managed to dampen their passion for learning or their desire for freedom. Laia, a member of a prominent Scholar family, helps her grandparents to earn a meager living until her brother Darin is caught and arrested as a traitor of the Empire. Not content to let Darin meet his fate in the Empire’s hands, Laia goes undercover as a spy for the Resistance and in the process, many of her preconceived notions about who she is and what she is capable of are challenged.

Although this fantasy book is riddled with familiar tropes that almost make it sound like a dystopian novel – quashed intellect, a great foretelling, fights to the death, a despotic regime – they are presented in ways that make them feel new and exciting. It helps quite a bit that Tahir presents a world in which many of the characters are not strictly good or evil, but realistically complex beings who make both good and bad choices.

Although the Commandant, the rather frightening face of the ember in the ashesEmpire, is decidedly less nuanced than that, Laia, Elias, Cook, and Helene are all great counter-examples to the Commandant and brilliant examples of the complexity Tahir was able to inject into the story. Laia and Elias, especially, are equally deep characters who have faced great losses in their lives and must overcome their fears and weaknesses to prevail against the Empire.

Tahir also excelled in her ability to flawlessly provide a great deal of backstory – via flashbacks, dreams, and dialogue – for the characters, the magic, and for what led up to the events that take place in the story, all without slowing down the story’s quick-paced tempo. More than Alex, the pages of this book kept themselves turning without cause for much hesitation or fear of the kind of discomfort that might be found in the upcoming pages. Unpleasant things may be (and certainly were) headed the reader’s way in Ember but they surely couldn’t be (and weren’t) as strange and unexpected as something Smith would write.

The most disappointing aspect of Ember is the fact that it contains a double love triangle: Laia-Elias-Keenan and Elias-Laia-Helene. In both cases, there is at least one instance of characters being pulled towards another simply due to the way they look. In particular, Tahir did a less than stellar job fleshing out the Keenan character and making him believably compelling as a romantic interest for anyone other than those who like the silent, emotionally detached yet moody types. I know there is an appeal for some in those types of romantic partners but encouraging it in a novel meant for teens is a pet peeve of mine.

What It All Comes Down To

The Alex Crow has so many things working in its favor but this title is not for everyone. Besides its well-crafted absurdity, The Alex Crow falls very short in how it treats females. It’s not that female characters are simply underdeveloped (though they are) or even lacking in greater representation (while it would have been nice to see more females in the story, the minimal inclusion makes sense due to the setting), it’s that those who do exist in the story are insulting and disagreeable depictions of what a girl or woman can be.

Female readers deserve a clever, creative, wholly unique book that does not paint the only representatives of their sex as overly and dangerously accommodating (Natalie Burgess), too good and sexually available to be true (Crystal Lutz), or radically calling for the end of men, only to disappear themselves (Mrs. Nussbaum). Perhaps there is a deeper meaning or a social criticism from Smith that I am missing but if there isn’t, it’s unfortunate that this is the case because Smith hit every other note exactly right, slowly pulling the reader into a reality that no one would want to claim as their own but would delight in reading about.

Where The Alex Crow fails spectacularly, An Ember in the Ashes shines. Although Ember similarly suffers from a surprising lack of female characters (again, the setting provides some annoying but believable limitations), it does have more than Alex and the way Tahir handles the few who are present is a breath of fresh air after Smith’s male-centric storytelling. Tahir herself pays the characters more respect, making them capable and giving them ambition, intelligence, and a full array of emotions. Tahir also acknowledges that in the society in which these female characters exist, things are stacked against them. Fewer are accepted into prestigious positions than men and those who are have to continually prove themselves to the men around them. However, the fact that the females make an effort to fight against those injustices makes all the difference in the world.

In the end, it was Tahir who wrote a book that is accessible and non-polarizing, not to mention completely captivating.


Reviewed by Alea Perez, Westmont Public Library

Tournament of Books Round 4: Dumplin’ vs. Simon vs. the Homo Sapiens Agenda

Of course my bracket came down to 2 of my favorite SimonVS_quote_NEWbooks of 2015! I am a huge fan of the sass of Willowdean in Dumplin’ and well, I am a super fan of all things Simon (Simon vs the Homo Sapiens Agenda).

Body image and coming out are two hot topics with many teens and so we see this topic coming up more frequently in YA Lit. I think both of these books made it this far in the tournament because they took real issues and moments in the lives of teens and made them feel relatable.

Body image in YA when it’s done right is a great thing. I loved that Willowdean embodied the strength and confidence that you see in many big ladies but is something that doesn’t get shown a lot. While I loved Willowdean’s confidence, I also loved that her skinny friend had to tell her that body image issues aren’t exclusive to those who are overweight. The characters felt real and it felt so good to read a story that didn’t end with a fat girl finding redemption by losing weight.

While I can’t relate to Simon the way I can relate to Willowdean, his story is also felt really real to me.  Well first off, Simon has real, normal parents. They are embarrassing in the way parents are when you are a teen, they sometimes say the wrong things as parents do, and they love him the way parents are supposed to love their kids. His friends are different and have normal teen drama and are still awesome most of the time. And social media causes extreme havoc on his life, as we witness in our teen spaces every day.

In the end, it’s hard to pick a favorite but Dumplin’ dumplingets my pick this round. I loved the characters in both books but in the end, Willowdean’s sass is hard to forget.


Reviewed by Denise Hudec, Skokie Public Library

Tournament of Books Round 3: The Rest of Us Just Live Here vs. Dumplin’

Yikes! This was a seriously tough match-up and I’m sure it’ll only get tougher as we get to Round 4. Don’t make me choose! How do I choose?! But I’m jumping ahead of myself — let’s talk about these two awesome books.

The Rest of Us Just Live Here by Patrick Ness hasrest of us just live here a really clever concept. We all know how the Chosen One story goes where an unassuming but effortlessly cool teenager is tasked to take on the zombies, ghosts, vampires, or [insert monster of the week here] that are threatening the town. As Rebekah said in Round 2, Ness must be a fan of Buffy because the Chosen Ones in this story sound a lot like her and the Scooby Gang. But while the Chosen Ones a.k.a. “indie kids” go off and take on these mysterious paranormal figures, the other teenagers in town are just trying to take on their lives while hoping to not become collateral damage. Sure they may encounter these paranormal figures from time to time, but they’re not the ones the blue-eyed Immortals are after.

As Mikey and his friends navigate their senior year, they are acutely aware of the mysterious happenings in their town and Ness provides a short summary of what’s going on with the indie kids at the beginning of each chapter. This format was a bit confusing at the beginning since, as Jessica said in Round 1, the bit about the indie kids has nothing to do with the main characters of this story or any of the chapters. But once you get in the groove of reading, you appreciate the angle in which Ness forces you to see the story. I also appreciated the diversity of this crew of Scooby Gang adjacent teenagers. Kids who are gay, straight, multiracial, high achievers, low achievers, anxious, and seemingly confident make their way front and center, and are all relatable and recognizable characters. I could especially relate a lot to Mikey who, in a story about the kids who are not the Chosen Ones, feels particularly unchoosable. He says to his best friend Jared that he often feels like he’s the “least wanted” of his friend group, and that is a fear that is totally relatable especially when you’re a teenager and sadly even when you’re an adult.

It was a quick story with great narration from Mikey, had kind of a weird developmental arc for the characters, but was very relatable even with all the kooky stuff that happens on the sidelines. As I said before, it has a clever concept…and I love a clever concept!

dumplinNow as I started reading Dumplin’ by Julie Murphy, I knew I was going to like it. C’mon! It’s about a fat girl named Willowdean who loves Dolly Parton — that’s me, y’all. (Note: I am not from Texas like Willowdean or the south but I often say “y’all” for some reason.) Willowdean doesn’t mind that she’s fat at the beginning of the story, but it’s no secret that waist size is often equated to attractiveness and that can take a toll on your self-worth if you’re bigger. It also doesn’t help that there are real bullies out there who go after fat people and ironically make them feel small. Now Willowdean knows all this and, in a way, has made her peace with it. But then Bo, the cute boy she works with who attends the local private school, becomes a real part of her life and her deep-seated insecurities all start to surface from this relationship. It then becomes plain to her that she isn’t like her mom or her best friend Ellen — she’s not what people would consider a beauty queen.

But what’s endearing and realistic about Willowdean is how she reacts to the situations in which she finds herself. She decides that she’s going to enter the local beauty pageant (which may not be super realistic) but her rationale and her defiance against being pigeonholed into a stereotype of a fat girl are. And although she ruffles some feathers and feels insecure every step of the way, she acts against other people’s perceptions of her because damn it to hell she does what she wants okay and why does she have to apologize?! After all, she has the power of Dolly Parton on her side! There’s a realness to her way of thinking that I can relate to as a fat girl. But I bet that non-fat girls, boys, and people will also find themselves relating to Ms. Willowdean Dickson too. I mean, just check out the reviews from Round 1 and Round 2 for this novel — it’s obviously highly relatable, features some real nice romantic moments that made me sigh, and provides an inside look into the far out world of teen beauty pageants!

Although it is a tough choice because these are two fantastic books, I’m going to have to crown Dumplin’ for this round. When I read about Willowdean, it finally felt like I found a character that thought my thoughts. Because being fat does in a lot of ways dictate how you think about the world around you. Just like race, sexual orientation, and other crucial parts of your identity might. It was a deeply personal read for me, and I imagine it will be for others too. But in the end, you have to just channel your inner Dolly Parton and be unapologetic for who you are!


Reviewed by Alice Son, Arlington Heights Memorial Library



Tournment of Books Round 3: The Walls Around Us vs. An Ember in the Ashes

Man, this was a tough choice. The Walls Around Us by Nova Ren Suma and An Ember in the Ashes by Sabaa Tahir are both really strong titles. They are just so different.

The Walls Around Us is “Orange Is the New walls around usBlack” meets “Black Swan”. Violet is a promising young ballerina on her way to Julliard. Three years ago, her best friend Ori was convicted for murdering two ballerinas in their company. But who exactly actually committed the crime? Our other narrator is Amber who is serving time in a women’s juvenile detention center in Upstate New York for murdering her stepfather. Throughout the story, the reader is confronted with questioning the guilt, innocence, and reliability of all three girls. Suma’s writing is creepy and strange. She twists reality in ways that push this book beyond realistic fiction, but not quite into paranormal fiction either. The Walls Around Us deals with female relationship dynamics, bullying, revenge, violence against women, and the tremendous pressures of young adulthood.

An Ember in the Ashes is a really well-fleshed out fantasy saga. Elias is a top military trainee in a martial society (this book was inspired by ancient Rome). He has all the privilege and power a citizen of the Empire could want, yet, he doesn’t actually want it. He detests violence despite being a skilled fighter and strategist. His struggles with morality within the confines of this oppressive world are wholly original and genuine. Laia is on the opposite end of the spectrum. She is a Scholar, the conquered people ruled over by the Martials. A Mask, the type of soldier Elias is training to become, takes Laia’s family from her. Thus, she chooses to become a slave to the violent Commandant of the military academy in order to spy for the Resistance who promises to help break her brother out of the Empire’s prisons. Yet, of Elias and Laia, who has more freedom? Who is making better choices? This struggle for agency and humanity is what makes this book stand out among similar fantasy/dystopia novels.

While Tahir’s fast-paced story is more engaging, it feels almost unfair to compare a well-fleshed-out fantasy saga to something that is pushing the boundaries of realistic and paranormal fiction. Tahir has more to work with just because of the ember in the ashesgenre; fight scenes, mind-reading immortal creatures, explosions, sexy revolutionaries, spies, torture, sexual tension, etc.  I think Nova Ren Suma is more skilled as a writer. Tahir’s similes and metaphors are often clichéd and repetitive. Suma uses her writing to confuse the reader; the plot relies on her strong imagery and characterization through internal monologues. Tahir’s writing, however, is simply a vehicle to deliver a great story. She relies on dialogue and action to deliver the punches far more than Suma needs to.

While I respect Nova Ren Suma for doing something really unique, I have to pick An Ember in the Ashes as the winner. Sabaa Tahir’s characters grapple with interesting challenges both internal and external in a well-built world. She has great command of the plot. She maintains the tension to keep you reading (to the point where you might skip ahead to the next chapter when she switches narrators). As my meter for readability is “Which book made me late for work the most?” I have to go with An Ember in the Ashes.


Reviewed by Kim Naples, Prospect Heights Public Library District

Tournament of Books Round 3: Zeroes vs. Simon vs. the Homo Sapiens Agenda

In the matchup between Simon vs. the Homo Sapiens Agenda by Becky Albertalli and Zeroes by Scott Westerfeld et al, I immediately “zeroed” in on the theme of difference that flows through both books. Both feature characters struggling to appearzeroes “normal,” and differences are something to hide or at least keep to yourself until you’re ready to reveal them on your own terms. When the characters in both books fully embrace their own differences, they triumph.

While sexual identity and superpowers set the protagonists in each story apart from their peers, race does not. Both books feature diverse characters with back stories that show ways that cultures are part of identities. The variety of characters in Zeroes (including an ultra-rich Latino boy, a second generation Nigerian-American girl, and a blind white girl) comes across as very intentional. However, it’s hard to imagine that the teens would ever hang out if their powers hadn’t brought them together – they live very different lives from each other.

Meanwhile, the friendships in Simon’s high school feel natural, being formed around classes and shared interests like drama and soccer. Whiteness is not assumed but rather described, in the same vein that being straight is rejected as the “default” way to be. I particularly appreciate this exchange:

“Okay, and it’s so weird, right, because we have all these ancestors from all over the world, and here we are in Garrett’s living room, and Martin’s ancestors are from Scotland, and I’m sorry, but Leah’s are totally from Ireland.”
“If you say so.”
“And Nick’s are from Israel.”
“Israel?” says Nick, fingers still sliding all over the frets of the guitar. “They’re from Russia.”
So I guess you learn something new every day, because I really thought Jewish people came from Israel.
“Okay, well, I’m English and German, and Abby’s, you know . . .” Oh God, I don’t know anything about Africa, and I don’t know if that makes me racist.
“West African. I think.”
“Exactly. I mean, it’s just the randomness of it. How did we all end up here?”
“Slavery, in my case,” Abby says.
And fucking fuck. I need to shut up. I needed to shut up about five minutes ago.

SimonVS_quote_NEWSimon and the people in his world are well developed and complex; even the ostensible villain is never just a jerk. Simon’s family is warm and solid, and his teachers have inner lives. The voices in the book’s email correspondence sound distinct from each other, and the dialog is generally a joy to read.

Oddly, the voices in Zeroes all sound alike to me, despite that fact that each character was penned by one of the three authors. The teens each have a power and an agenda, but their stories could be richer in emotional detail. And most of the adults in the book are flat caricatures.

Although I’ve loved almost all of Westerfeld’s previous books, and I’ll keep reading the sequels to Zeroes, I’m super excited to read whatever Becky Albertalli writes next. Simon wins the day!


Reviewed by Rachael Bild, Oak Park Public Library

Tournament of Books Round 3: Red Queen vs. The Alex Crow

This was an interesting match-up for two reasons. 1) I have issues with Andrew Smith. 2) I really liked The Scorpion Rules, and was disappointed that it didn’t move to the second round. Despite my personal feelings, I tried really hard to judge both of these books on their own merits.alex crow

The Alex Crow is made up of four intertwined male-centric stories. Two of the storylines follow Ariel, an orphaned refugee from a never-explicitly-named country, who has been adopted by an American family and sent to a Kafkaesque summer camp for boys to bond with his new brother, Max. A third storyline follows the schizophrenic melting man on an epic road trip. The fourth is a diary from a horrific sea voyage undertaken by a ship named The Alex Crow, which provides backstory to the rest of the novel.

Although I was captivated by the Ariel’s camp story and background story, Smith made it hard to judge The Alex Crow on its merits when he had Ariel think things like, “I hadn’t known [my adoptive mother] very long, but who could ever get to know that woman, anyway?” This thought repeats sentiments Smith has expressed in an interview. So, I wasn’t able to set aside my biggest issue with Smith. As much as I enjoyed Ariel’s two storylines, I was disappointed that the female characters are so underdeveloped. Besides the unknowable mother, there are Mrs. Nussbaum (a Battleaxe Nurse trope) and Crystal Lutz, an accordion-playing figment of the melting man’s imagination.

Still, the good stuff is really good. The boys’ experiences at camp are funny. I even chuckled at Max’s constant stream of masturbation jokes. Ariel’s refugee experience is gripping and heartbreakingly believable. I would have liked The Alex Crow better if Smith had stuck to Ariel’s two narrative strands, and devoted more creative energy to developing his female characters. The melting man turns out to be a red herring, anyway; and the voyage of The Alex Crow could have been condensed within a short passage from Mrs. Nussbaum’s book, which Ariel reads at camp.

red queenI began reading Red Queen a few days ago with high hopes. I generally enjoy fantasy, scifi, superhero, and dystopia stories – all elements contained within this attractively-bound book. In a nutshell, Mare Barrow is a member of the oppressed Reds who discovers that she has a special power that simultaneously makes her useful to and a threat to the wealthy, powerful Silvers. Complicating matters are three guys with three different agendas, all pulling her head and heart in three different directions. Can she use her newfound ability and position to help her people? And which guy will she choose? It had me at hello.

Then Silver blood was spilled, and my brain had trouble suspending disbelief. Humans with silver blood? I found myself wondering what could make blood that color, and went so far as to google it. Did you know there is a species of Antarctic fish that has translucent white blood? It’s because it has no hemoglobin! That doesn’t explain how a race of humans could evolve to survive without hemoglobin in their blood (the fish don’t need it because they live in very oxygen-rich water). Never mind, let’s just assume that aliens were involved. If the Silvers are a new race of alien/human/mutant/superheroes, though, did they really need to be white? Silvers turn white when they blush – they are literally the whitest people ever.

Still, when I was able to shut off my brain and not think too much, I enjoyed Red Queen. It features a plucky heroine, some good action, a few pleasing twists, and plenty of teen angst. Though the big twist suffers from too much foreshadowing, I did get swept up in the climactic battle at the end. Unfortunately, it was too little, too late to elevate Red Queen from the middle of the dystopia pack.

Granted, it really just needed to rise above The Alex Crow. The truth is, when I think about Red Queen, it wasn’t just the silver blood that bothered me. Aveyard’s world-building in general wasn’t very thorough; and while she created a Strong Female Character in Mare, her other characters seemed a bit flat. I actually wanted to learn more about Evangeline, Mare’s main rival. She was depicted as a heartless bitch, and I felt like she got short shrift. Descriptions of places were vague, and the kingdom of Norta never came to life for me. I wish I could have seen the map that Mare studied at Summerton.

That’s why The Alex Crow is the victor in this battle. As flawed as it is, Ariel and Max lived and breathed from beginning to end. Maybe I’m a sucker for orphans and masturbation jokes?


Reviewed by Donna Block, Niles Public Library District