Category Archives: Tournament of Books

And the winner is…

The Serpent King by Jeff Zentner has emerged victorious in the 2017 YASF Battle of the Books!

It wasn’t ever a sure thing. You can reread some past posts and follow the book’s triumphs over noble opponent Our Chemical Hearts by Krystal Sutherland, and on to best esteemed competition like Salt to the Sea by Ruta Sepetys, The Sun is Also a Star by Nicola Yoon, and If I Was Your Girl by Meredith Russo.

In the end, though, it was your votes that declared it our winner over We are the Ants by Shaun David Hutchinson.

Congratulations to Mr. Zentner and The Serpent King! 

UPDATE: His response!

And thank you to all of you who voted and read along with us.

But most of all, an enormous round-of-Internet-applause for our reviewers.

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Posted by on April 18, 2017 in Tournament of Books


Tournament of Books, Final Round: VOTE

And the time is now upon us for YOU to all vote for the final winner of our 2017 Tournament of Books. We’ve gone through numerous rounds, and many an awesome book has been eliminated. Our two finalists, We are the Ants by Sean David Hutchinson and The Serpent King by Jeff Zentner, sit before you awaiting judgement. Make your voice heard and cast a vote!

The poll will close at 10 p.m. on Thursday, April 13.


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Posted by on April 6, 2017 in Tournament of Books


Tournament of Books, Round 4: The Great American Whatever vs. We Are the Ants

The match-up between The Great American Whatever and We Are The Ants was a tough call. Both focus on gay male protagonists who use humor to deal with grief and messy relationships with family and friends, but are also very different books. Both are worth reading and passing on. I had previously read The Great American Whatever and listened to We Are the Ants, so for the purposes of judging I did the reverse, with some surprising results.

I read The Great American Whatever over the summer and thought it was pretty good, but not spectacular. Snarky teenage filmmaker Quinn Roberts struggles over the death of his sister/film-making partner, Annabeth, while also struggling to come out. I thought of it (perhaps too dismissively) as “Me and Earl and the Dead Girl.” I felt strongly then, and still do, that Quinn’s grief for his sister is the main story, and his first short-lived romance is somewhat of a distraction. Federle’s funny, but there’s at least one Donald Trump joke that was already dated at the time of publication and is REALLY dated now. I liked the characters, though; and the messy relationships between Quinn, his best friend Geoff, and his mother felt true. The side plots about Quinn’s hero Ricky Devlin coming to town and the summer film program felt contrived. When does that much ever happen in the same week, seriously? Listening to the audiobook helped to elevate the story’s strengths and downplay its weaknesses. The revelations about Geoff and Annabeth, and the emotional breakthroughs between Quinn and his mother and Geoff made a strong impact. I love that The Great American Whatever is a story about Quinn learning that he doesn’t know as much as he thought he did, and accepting it.

I listened to We Are The Ants in the car back in December, and found myself driving around longer than necessary in order keep listening. Henry Denton struggles over the suicide of his boyfriend, Jesse, and whether he should save the earth from destruction by aliens. I found a lot to love about this book. I can’t get enough science fiction with a sense of humor, and equally refreshing to me is that Henry is gay and out, and his family is fine with it. Hutchinson’s dry, world-weary sense of humor is also a big plus. His intermittent scenarios for world destruction are on-point. He successfully develops a number of interesting female characters including Henry’s mom, his Nana, his brother’s girlfriend Zooey, his friend Audrey, and teacher Ms. Faraci. I appreciate his depiction of an abusive relationship between young men. Finally, I love the ambiguity of the aliens’ existence. Are they real? Or are they a metaphor for depression that Henry invented? If the aliens aren’t real, then where does Henry go during his “abductions?” Reading the print book turned up a few flaws. Some of the dialog read a lot cheesier on the page than it sounded in the car. There are some contrivances, like Henry’s writing assignment for Ms. Faraci, and Diego’s (too perfect?) appearance in and impact on Henry’s life. Even so, the story sucked me in and moved just as quickly on the page as on audio. The humor still felt fresh, and Henry’s defiant conclusion gained power.

In the end, We Are the Ants is the funnier and more resonant of the two, and my pick to move on.

Donna Block is a Teen Services Librarian at Niles Public Library. She geeks out on ginger ale and black licorice, Pottermore sorted her into Slytherin (twice), and if she were a dog she’d be a shiba inu.

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Posted by on April 4, 2017 in Tournament of Books


Tournament of Books, Round 4: The Serpent King vs. If I Was Your Girl

The South, replete with dual references to the burger joint Krystal, stargazing, and remarkably rough childhoods, sets the scene for this book face-off. The two novels, amazingly firsts for their respective authors, make strong cases for the complexity and charm of growing up in a small rural town, where everyone knows everyone and secrets are hard to keep. It is difficult to say if the experiences presented in these stories represent a large subset of teen experiences, but it is easy to conclude that both tell important stories and should speak strongly to those teens who pick them up.

The Serpent King by Jeff Zentner

High school senior and son of a preacher man Dillard Early (Dill, to his friends Travis and Lydia) does not live a charmed life. Following his dad’s imprisonment for possessing indecent photos of children, his small Tennessee town hasn’t let him forget his family’s troubled past and doesn’t think much of his future. Neither does Dill. As he watches Lydia, also his crush, prepare to escape small town life for the Big Apple following graduation, he is forced to face the grim reality of staying in place and being consumed by his mother’s and town’s disdain for him.

Readers are presented with a book chock full of raw emotion that, like a genie in a bottle, has been pent up in a space much too small for all the power it wields. When it is unleashed upon the reader, it is a torrent of beautifully interwoven doubt, self-pity, longing, and shame, mingled with glimmers of hope, defiance, and acceptance. It is powerful and resonating, and, in parts, profoundly unsettling.

The characters are flawed but complicated and deep, and the demons they face are so heavy, yet sadly everyday, as to bolster their believability. Zentner masterfully alternates the narration between the three main characters, giving readers a deeper glimpse into their lives and thus more of the story to invest in.

Dill, for his part, is stubborn and moody. While these qualities do on occasion distract, they do not detract from the seriousness of his depression and anxiety, especially where his parents are involved. He leads a complicated life, and his friends know it, but they do not excuse all of his less than charming behaviors because of it.

Lydia veers a little too close at times to a manic pixie dream girl, though her own desire to live a bigger life and to grow outside the constraints of her town help to keep that tendency somewhat at bay. She does not exist just to save Dill. She exists to live out her own dreams, which is often a source of conflict between the two characters.

Travis is, perhaps, the most complicated of all and his story is where Zentner’s ability to weave backstory into the present shines the most. Travis doesn’t have the dual luxury/obstacle of having his problems exposed for all to see. He is both mocked and feared, with little to no sympathy given, and even his best friends don’t know of the troubles he faces at home until it is made impossible for the two to miss them. Even so, despite his troubles, Travis isn’t one to let his circumstances rob him of joy. Of the three, Travis is the character most comfortable in his own skin, making his big moment in the book all the more tragic.

Perhaps best of all, this book gathers, but does not tie up, all the loose ends. It provides connections and a reprieve from pain, but it doesn’t make attempts to completely solve all the wrongs faced by the characters – we know that Dill will continue to fight his own demons. What it does, instead, is offer hope that things will be better with time and efforts to make change.

If I Was Your Girl by Meredith Russo

18-year-old Amanda Hardy, having just moved to her father’s small town of Lambertville, is looking forward to a fresh start for her senior year of high school. Although she hopes to keep a low profile until she can graduate and move to a big city, Amanda quickly finds herself surrounded not only by a new set of friends but also by cute boys who are showing signs of interest. The problem is, she has a secret and if it ever got out, it could be a matter of life or death. The secret? Amanda used to be Andrew.

Russo, herself a trans woman, lets the reader know in the backmatter that this book was written in the manner it was quite intentionally. That is to say, it was written to provide a cisgendered, heteronormative reader with the most familiar framework they might possibly have while reading about the life of someone different than them. Knowing this makes the almost too-perfect outcome less questionable and provides a nice break from the stories that highlight the oftentimes dismal experiences trans people can face. It was lovely to read about a girl exploring her path in life and trying to fit in, who just so happens to be trans. It was nice to have a glimpse at the issues without being overwhelmed by the weight of how heavy they are to those who live through them. So when I say reading this novel was a bit like revisiting a 1980s John Hughes movie, it is meant to be a mostly endearing comparison.

The thing, though, about John Hughes movies is they make you feel good and give you the happy ending you want, but sometimes at the expense of believable plotlines, emotional depth, or fully fledged characters.

The characterization in this novel is a mixed bag, which takes away some of its strength. Amanda herself has a refreshingly authentic voice, which manages to stay more formal than direct conversation with the reader while never straying too far from casual and trustworthy. While reading her story, I was never concerned that I would encounter the John Green condition: teens who speak as though they are preparing for futures in philosophy. (Do some teens exude a maturity and depth that equals or rivals their adult counterparts? Absolutely. But John Green characters tend to test the limits of this.)

Sadly, the secondary characters aren’t provided with much backstory, revealing tidbits only when it helps to move the story forward and in a way that makes them caricatures, reducible down to one label – the Baptist, the fashionista, and the tomboy. Grant, Amanda’s love interest, is given more of a story than Amanda’s close friends and it is even a heartbreaking one but despite this, it still manages to fall flat.

Moving past the characters, the story does do a rather delightful job of presenting a hopeful message, even if it isn’t entirely believable. Readers will want to believe in the hope it offers up and will greedily gobble it down.

This story absolutely needed to be told. The importance of having it present Amanda as approachable and sympathetic cannot be overstated. With luck, more will follow and they will start to address the issues found here. But in the end, it is If I Was Your Girl’s attempt to be so careful on its readers’ behalf and to avoid more substance and complication that makes it just miss its mark.

Winner: The Serpent King


Alea Perez is the Head of Youth Services at Westmont Public Library, where she doesn’t get to work directly with teens anymore but she still works on their behalf. In the land of make believe, also known as her free time, she loves making lists, spending time with her rescue dog, and hunting down Thin Mints.

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Posted by on March 30, 2017 in Tournament of Books


Tournament of Books, Round 4

This is it! We are ready to begin our fourth and penultimate round of the 2017 Tournament of Books.

It’s down to We are the Ants by Sean David Hutchinson vs. The Great American Whatever by Tim Federle, and If I Was Your Girl by Meredith Russo vs. The Serpent King by Jeff Zentner.

In just over a week, you’ll be voting between the winners of those two showdowns. Until then, let us honor the victorious few that have emerged from the noble fallen.

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Posted by on March 28, 2017 in Tournament of Books


Tournament of Books, Round 3: The Serpent King vs. The Sun is Also a Star

In The Serpent King by Jeff Zentner, Dill is the musically gifted son of a minister. His father made his flock handle poisonous snakes and drink poison, but that is not what got Dill’s dad arrested: it was child porn. Dill’s mom believes in her husband so much that she would do anything he told her, including asking her son to take the fall for her husband and believing that it is Dill’s fault that her husband is in jail. Dill told the truth on the stand, so with his father now in jail, Dill has to help his mom pay the bills. His mom even asks him to drop out of high school to make more money. Dill only has two friends in his small town. Travis, who used to go to their church, has an abusive father, and is so into a fantasy novel series that he carries around a staff; and Lydia who is set to go to New York and become more than the Internet-famous she already is for her fashion blog. The three of them are the misfits of the town, but Dill has had a crush on Lydia for a long time and now that they are starting their senior year of high school he knows that she will go off and leave him and he can’t go anywhere.

This is not the type of book I would normally pick up. I decided to listen to the audio and I found myself staying in my car after I parked, just to hear what was going to happen next. I really loved the character of Travis and was highly upset at the author at one point (you will know it when you read it). This is an emotionally charged book that kept me wanting to read more. It is all about the struggles of being an outcast in high school and dealing with parents who probably shouldn’t be parents. It is about accepting yourself and your friends no matter the weird and never giving into what others think. It is about finding your own path, no matter how hard or impossible it seems.

In The Sun is Also a Star by Nicola Yoon, Natasha is spending her last day in New York trying to find a way to stay. Thanks to her father’s selfish stupidity, her whole family has to go back to Jamaica. Having lived in New York since she was eight, New York has become her home. She can’t remember much of Jamaica and doesn’t want to go back. Daniel is the second son of a Korean-American family and is supposed to go to Yale and become a doctor, but what he really wants is to write poetry. These two teens have very little in common, but their lives collide for one day. There is a saying that a butterfly can flap its wings in New Mexico and cause a hurricane in China: The Butterfly Effect. The people these two teens meet on this one particular day influence so much. So when Daniel, in his mind numbed stupor, sees a girl (Natasha) completely entrapped in the music she listens to, dancing in the middle of the street he ends up changing both their lives as well as many others on their single day together. “What a difference a day makes”(p330). One day and the little moments we all feel are insignificant put together to make a difference in everyone’s lives. Every little thing, big or small, effects the next and makes some type of difference.

I had trouble getting ahold of this book from two separate libraries, but managed to finally get it and make my way through it in a few days’ time. By the end of the book I was smiling at it. The moments of the other random people effecting and influencing their decisions made this book so much more powerful over all. While this book did get a bit lecture-y from time to time with lessons on what things mean, the overall feel of the book works. It is an impressive story that gets the reader thinking about all the choices we can make in our daily lives and how those choices and the choices of others can affect us and everyone else.

After much thought I have to think about which book impacted me more and made me think the most. And while I’m sure that many will not agree with my choice, it is a hard one. I have to choose between two award winning books. The winner is: The Serpent King by Jeff Zentner.

Hannah Sloan is Teen Services Coordinator at the Poplar Creek Public Library in Streamwood, IL

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Posted by on March 23, 2017 in Tournament of Books


Tournament of Books, Round 3: If I Was Your Girl vs. Ghosts

If I Was Your Girl by Meredith Russo and Ghosts by Raina Telgemeier are extremely different – in terms of theme, intended audience, writing style, etc. While both are done very well, going into this review, I thought it was actually going to be an easy choice. Turns out, this was not the case!

While I truly liked both books, for me, this round really came down to authenticity of voice. Meredith Russo is a transgender author telling the story of a transgender character. Raina Telgemeier is a white author telling a culturally significant story about a Mexican American character. Prior to pitting these two books against each other, I really hadn’t given the cultural appropriation debate too much thought. It’s been in the news, and I understand why it’s been in the news. However, for my book choices, it always comes down to wanting to hear a good story, wanting to be entertained, and just wanting to lose myself in a new world/adventure/time. I honestly hadn’t given too much thought to the writer behind those stories.

After reading these two books, however, I felt I needed to do a bit more research about voice and cultural appropriation. There has been a LOT written about this topic in the last few years. The more I read and thought about the issue, the more I realized I couldn’t talk about these particular books without addressing it. It’s an amazing and powerful thing to give voice to diverse stories and diverse authors. Having those from within a culture, tell a story (while not necessarily “the” story) of that culture, simply cannot be discounted. That being said, I think that the craft of writing is a tremendous skill and recognizing it as such is equally important. Just because a writer has an authentic voice, does that mean he/she is a successful storyteller? Not always.

For various reasons, I think both of these books would have benefitted from additional editing. Telgemeier is a fantastic storyteller, and I love the relationship between the sisters in this book. However, I feel that negative reviews that reference missteps relating to Dia De Los Muertos do have some merit. If I Was Your Girl is a debut novel, and that showed in some of Russo’s narrative choices. That being said, this book helps pave the way for other voices that will be both window and mirror for future readers. Russo’s story will make a bigger, and longer-lasting, impact on both individual readers as well the publishing world itself.

For that reason, If I Was Your Girl is the winner of this round.


Rebekah is the Web Services Librarian at the Warren-Newport Public Library in Gurnee, IL. She is currently obsessed with Ryan Gosling, Hamilton, and politics – in no particular order.

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Posted by on March 20, 2017 in Tournament of Books