Round III, Bracket I: The Poet X vs. American Panda

The Poet X by Elizabeth Acevedo

A young girl in Harlem discovers slam poetry as a way to understand her mother’s religion and her own relationship to the world. Debut novel of renowned slam poet Elizabeth Acevedo.

Xiomara Batista feels unheard and unable to hide in her Harlem neighborhood. Ever since her body grew into curves, she has learned to let her fists and her fierceness do the talking.

But Xiomara has plenty she wants to say, and she pours all her frustration and passion onto the pages of a leather notebook, reciting the words to herself like prayers—especially after she catches feelings for a boy in her bio class named Aman, who her family can never know about. With Mami’s determination to force her daughter to obey the laws of the church, Xiomara understands that her thoughts are best kept to herself.

So when she is invited to join her school’s slam poetry club, she doesn’t know how she could ever attend without her mami finding out, much less speak her words out loud. But still, she can’t stop thinking about performing her poems.

Because in the face of a world that may not want to hear her, Xiomara refuses to be silent.

Acevedo’s first page is a tough sell. The whole book is written in a beautiful narrative poetry without excessive flourish, but the first page is more flowery and offers a language barrier to an English-speaking reader. Throughout the book there are a lot of Spanish words, phrases, and sometimes whole pages. These are always explained, either with outright English translations or through context clues. The two languages flow smoothly through the story of a girl caught between cultures. But the Spanish on the first page isn’t explained and it made me dread reading the rest because I expected to stop frequently to Google the translation. My point: don’t let the first page scare you away.

Xiomara is a 15 year-old who is expected to fulfill her mother’s lost dreams. She is expected to complete Confirmation classes and fully accept the religion that is so important to her mother, but her “doubt has already been confirmed.” Xiomara’s story revolves around three relationships that are difficult in any teen’s life: her mother, her crush, and her body. Her struggles and pain are relatable no matter the reader’s background. This story is for anyone who needs to be heard.

Poetry is Xiomara’s outlet in the book, but readers could translate that aspect into anything that helps them express themselves. The book is not so focused on poetry that it is off-putting to us prose readers. I would recommend The Poet X to any teen. It would also be a good fit for the parents of teenage girls. It offers several topics that could make excellent conversation starters for teens and their parents. Xiomara isn’t given the information she needs on taboo topics such as menstruation, religion, and sex. She sees her body as a problem, her curves drawing too much attention, and her mother confirms this thought.

The poetic format makes the book go by quickly; it would definitely be a good choice for busy teens. There is an intensity to the story that makes you root for Xiomara and keep turning pages until her problems are resolved. However, the resolutions in her relationships came a little easily considering how difficult the problems felt. Questioning any aspect of her mother’s rules earns punishments that made me cringe. Xiomara ends up with a support network to help her move forward, but her physical and emotional abuse at the hands of her mother is not addressed. Wrapping everything up so quickly at the end disappointed me after the steady flow and heart wrenching scenes throughout the book. If The Poet X was adapted into something else, it would make a great play. There is something about seeing spoken word poetry live that makes a bigger impact than watching it on a screen. A stage adaptation would allow the heart and pain of the characters to come to life.

American Panda by Gloria Chao

At seventeen, Mei should be in high school, but skipping fourth grade was part of her parents’ master plan. Now a freshman at MIT, she is on track to fulfill the rest of this predetermined future: become a doctor, marry a preapproved Taiwanese Ivy Leaguer, produce a litter of babies.

With everything her parents have sacrificed to make her cushy life a reality, Mei can’t bring herself to tell them the truth–that she (1) hates germs, (2) falls asleep in biology lectures, and (3) has a crush on her classmate Darren Takahashi, who is decidedly not Taiwanese.

But when Mei reconnects with her brother, Xing, who is estranged from the family for dating the wrong woman, Mei starts to wonder if all the secrets are truly worth it. Can she find a way to be herself, whoever that is, before her web of lies unravels?

Mei’s parents were born in Taiwan and have extremely traditional beliefs that control every aspect of their and their children’s lives. Chao makes it clear that this is an extreme interpretation of a culture, not what would be seen in most Chinese-American families. Mei, a 17 year-old student at MIT, is caught between wanting to obey her parents and wanting to be happy. While the story delves frequently into cultural superstitions and rules, it is familiar to anyone who feels different from their parents, and who doesn’t, at 17?

Mei is expected to work hard at both beauty and academics, always falling short of her family’s expectations. The contradiction is evident in her struggles with poor eyesight; she can’t see across the room but isn’t allowed to wear glasses because because they’re ugly. Her life is summed up when she says “most things you did weren’t good enough and unconditional obedience was expected.” Anyone who has struggled to meet someone else’s standards will see themselves in Mei. Because of this relatability, the character’s strength in overcoming obstacles is even more impactful. She is able to push through the pain of her parents’ disapproval and actually turn the relationship around enough to help them. One strong part of the characterization is Mei’s love for her parents; despite her difficult relationship with their traditional views, she will not allow anyone to criticize them. Teens will relate to this emotional tug of war. The setting of American Panda is developed nicely, allowing readers to wander around MIT alongside the characters. It shows a glimpse of college life that isn’t often seen in YA. The story is realistic, heartbreaking, and humorous. The book moves fast and keeps your attention, making it a good choice for reluctant readers. I would definitely watch it as a movie; Mei performs cultural dances that would be beautiful on screen.  

The Winner: American Panda by Gloria Chao

There was a huge overlap in these two books despite being focused on completely different cultures. Neither protagonist received important medical or sexual information from her parents. Both were expected to fulfill their mothers’ unmet dreams. Both found a form of expression that allowed them to survive the strict rules and steep punishments. These stories will ring true with many teens no matter their background. I found both books to be well-written, immersive reads. There are two things that pushed my choice toward American Panda as the winner: the humor and resolution. The voicemails had me laughing out loud throughout the book, and there is even a stand up comedy routine. The humor added lightness and likeability to American Panda, whereas The Poet X was primarily dark and dramatic. Not every book needs a happy ending, but for teens who could so easily relate to these characters, allowing an abusive relationship to exist without resolution or explanation in The Poet X is problematic. I would be hesitant to hand the book to a teen dealing with abuse in their own life. In American Panda the conflicts are cleared up for a healthier conclusion. The author’s note at the end also reaches out to readers to let them know they’re not alone. It is a story of a strong female protagonist navigating two cultures to find her own happiness. American Panda wins my vote.

Rylie Roubal is the director, marketer, web designer, kid and teen collection development specialist, teen and adult programmer, and occasional cleaner of mysterious messes at the Hinckley Public Library District. She enjoys playing pool, drinking tea, and reading books in which at least one main character dies at the end.

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Round II, Bracket VIII: Children of Blood and Bone vs. The Belles

Children of Blood and Bone by Tomi Adeyemi

Zélie Adebola remembers when the soil of Orïsha hummed with magic. Burners ignited flames, Tiders beckoned waves, and Zélie’s Reaper mother summoned forth souls.

But everything changed the night magic disappeared. Under the orders of a ruthless king, maji were killed, leaving Zélie without a mother and her people without hope.

Now Zélie has one chance to bring back magic and strike against the monarchy. With the help of a rogue princess, Zélie must outwit and outrun the crown prince, who is hell-bent on eradicating magic for good.

Danger lurks in Orïsha, where snow leoponaires prowl and vengeful spirits wait in the waters. Yet the greatest danger may be Zélie herself as she struggles to control her powers and her growing feelings for an enemy

Tagline: They thought they took our magic.

        They were wrong.

Review: Zelie Adebola is a Diviner, a feared and repressed people who once wielded the power of magic. Amari is Orisha’s princess, spurred to treasonous action after witnessing an act of violence. When their paths collide, their quest begins: bring back the magic that was stolen from the world. Told from multiple viewpoints, Children of Blood and Bone excels in both world-building and in character development. Orisha is a vibrant, living place; supporting characters are distinct and developed, and the mythology of Orisha is well cultivated. While this is the first book in a series, complete with a teaser for future volumes, it reads like a standalone without a substantial cliffhanger. The authors’ note at the end is impactful and underscores the allegory of the tale. Teens who enjoy action, romance, or fantasy will be ready to stand up and cheer by the end of this tale.

The Belles by Dhonielle Clayton

Camellia Beauregard is a Belle. In the opulent world of Orléans, Belles are revered, for they control Beauty, and Beauty is a commodity coveted above all else. In Orléans, the people are born gray, they are born damned, and only with the help of a Belle and her talents can they transform and be made beautiful.

But it’s not enough for Camellia to be just a Belle. She wants to be the favorite—the Belle chosen by the Queen of Orléans to live in the royal palace, to tend to the royal family and their court, to be recognized as the most talented Belle in the land. But once Camellia and her Belle sisters arrive at court, it becomes clear that being the favorite is not everything she always dreamed it would be. Behind the gilded palace walls live dark secrets, and Camellia soon learns that the very essence of her existence is a lie—that her powers are far greater, and could be more dangerous, than she ever imagined. And when the queen asks Camellia to risk her own life and help the ailing princess by using Belle powers in unintended ways, Camellia now faces an impossible decision.

With the future of Orléans and its people at stake, Camellia must decide—save herself and her sisters and the way of the Belles—or resuscitate the princess, risk her own life, and change the ways of her world forever.

Tagline: Beauty is the real Beast.

Review: Camellia Beauregard is a Belle, a gorgeous human by birth – a rarity – and one who wields the magical power of beauty. The default appearance of the society is gray-skinned, red-eyed, and bad-haired, but Belles wield the ability to beautify people. The Belles are debuted in the capital, then assigned to their workspace, whether it be tea house or palace. They soon discover that their lives aren’t as glamorous as they’d anticipated. The Belles’ strength lies in Clayton’s descriptions – lavish buildings, dresses, and appearances abound. Character development isn’t quite as strong: with the exception of Camellia, Amber, and Edel, all the other Belles are pretty much interchangeable. A supporting character’s betrayal is not that surprising, while the villain, Princess Sophia, is cut from the same cloth as Game of Thrones’s Prince Joffrey. The Belles is very much an “opening” book, setting up the beginning of a series and ending on a cliffhanger. Never fear though, book two The Everlasting Rose will be released March 5th. Teens who enjoy lavish settings and royal intrigue will appreciate this title.

The Winner: Children of Blood and bone by Tomi Adeyemi

With superior world-building and character development, it’s a title that leaves you satisfied as you wait for the next installment.

Kate Kite is a Research & Instruction/ Teen Services Librarian for Six Mile Regional Library District. She has worked in libraries since 2002. When she’s not busy pretending to throw glitter, she enjoys giving high-fives.

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Round II, Bracket VII: The Cruel Prince vs. The Astonishing Color of After

The Cruel Prince by Holly Black

Of course I want to be like them. They’re beautiful as blades forged in some divine fire. They will live forever.

And Cardan is even more beautiful than the rest. I hate him more than all the others. I hate him so much that sometimes when I look at him, I can hardly breathe.

Jude was seven when her parents were murdered and she and her two sisters were stolen away to live in the treacherous High Court of Faerie. Ten years later, Jude wants nothing more than to belong there, despite her mortality. But many of the fey despise humans. Especially Prince Cardan, the youngest and wickedest son of the High King.

To win a place at the Court, she must defy him–and face the consequences.

As Jude becomes more deeply embroiled in palace intrigues and deceptions, she discovers her own capacity for trickery and bloodshed. But as betrayal threatens to drown the Courts of Faerie in violence, Jude will need to risk her life in a dangerous alliance to save her sisters, and Faerie itself.

“Just a Human Girl, Livin’ in a Dangerous Faerie World“

The book shines in its character-driven world, exploring relationships between siblings, stepparents, bullies, and figures of authority. Fantasy books are not without fun world-building and in this case we have castles, a hidden lair, faerie fruits that make humans pliable and under brain control, saddled-up giant frogs that are ridden like horses, and flowers that turn into flying horses. Jude, a human in a Faerie world, is a fighter and the reader will be rooting for her success, even in times when her actions are not exactly morally sound. Moments when Jude stands up for herself will have the reader cheering her on this journey in a foreign world.

I would hand this to a reader who I know has enjoyed strong fantasy series and is interested in finding a book that has a sequel. The ending leaves the reader hanging and eager to begin the next book (The Wicked King, out January 2019).

Some commitment to characters is required as there are many players in this game: princesses, princes, friends, knights, servants, and more, all with very unique names. Readers of this book must also be the type who do not mind blood and gore, and who enjoy a good swordfighting scene. There are some intense scenes of violence, including bullying violence. For the teens that ask for books with no sex, this fits the bill, though there is one kissing scene and off-scene references to heirs being sired. I would definitely classify this as a fantasy adventure book.

The Astonishing Color of After by Emily X R Pan

Leigh Chen Sanders is absolutely certain about one thing: When her mother died by suicide, she turned into a bird.

Leigh, who is half Asian and half white, travels to Taiwan to meet her maternal grandparents for the first time. There, she is determined to find her mother, the bird. In her search, she winds up chasing after ghosts, uncovering family secrets, and forging a new relationship with her grandparents. And as she grieves, she must try to reconcile the fact that on the same day she kissed her best friend and longtime secret crush, Axel, her mother was taking her own life.

Alternating between real and magic, past and present, friendship and romance, hope and despair, The Astonishing Color of After is a novel about finding oneself through family history, art, grief, and love.

“Chasing Ghost Birds in Taiwan”

This is truly a uniquely written story, with breathtaking descriptions of emotion as color. For example: brown muddy guilt, pleased as linden green, and shame like Velcro. Leigh’s best friend Axel often asks her “What color?” instead of “How do you feel?”.

This book boasts 108 chapters, but it doesn’t feel like a daunting read because the chapters are short and have marks midway through at the ends of scenes. Not to mention, Pan’s writing is lyrical and fast moving with easy to understand scenes.

Readers who enjoy art and music but feel family pressure to pursue more economical careers may connect with Leigh’s passion for art. A central theme of the book is Leigh’s shared interest in art with her best friend Axel; one of their favorite activities is hanging out with sketchbooks for hours.

Readers who have experienced the loss of a loved one to suicide will find this book profoundly moving. The author experienced this and provides suicide resources at the back along with a touching author’s note. This can be a very emotional read at times and may fit the bill for teens who ask “I want a book that will make me cry.”

Readers who enjoy learning about new cultures will love digging into a new culture. This story takes place in Taiwan and the reader will find vivid descriptions of life there through Leigh’s eyes. Visiting the Taiwanese Night Market, Leigh tries deep fried squid tentacles, fish bowls, and buns filled with sesame paste. Leigh has to communicate with her grandparents through broken Chinese and she struggles to relearn the phrases to help her connect with them.

The Winner: The Cruel Prince by Holly Black

Both stories are excellent for readers who cope with feeling out of place in a different world.

Though Pan’s “Color” has a lyrical and breathtaking writing style, a magical realism storyline featuring suicide may not be for every teen. Meanwhile, The Cruel Prince has high fantasy, adventure, friendship, and will find a larger readership. This was a very difficult decision to make, but The Cruel Prince could easily be put in the hands of any teen looking for a good, fast-paced story to connect with, making it the clear winner.

Genna Mickey is the Assistant Director at the Sugar Grove Public Library, running both the Adult & Teen Departments. Her favorite books include dystopian thrillers, funny memoirs, graphic novels, nonfiction dealing with social justice issues, and YA fantasy/sci-fi. When she’s not reading, you can find her binge-watching The Office or Parks and Recreation with her husband and their 5 fur-children (3 cats and 2 dogs). J

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Round II, Bracket VI: Sadie vs. Monday’s Not Coming

Sadie by Courtney Summers

A missing girl on a journey of revenge. A Serial―like podcast following the clues she’s left behind. And an ending you won’t be able to stop talking about.

Sadie hasn’t had an easy life. Growing up on her own, she’s been raising her sister Mattie in an isolated small town, trying her best to provide a normal life and keep their heads above water.

But when Mattie is found dead, Sadie’s entire world crumbles. After a somewhat botched police investigation, Sadie is determined to bring her sister’s killer to justice and hits the road following a few meager clues to find him.

When West McCray―a radio personality working on a segment about small, forgotten towns in America―overhears Sadie’s story at a local gas station, he becomes obsessed with finding the missing girl. He starts his own podcast as he tracks Sadie’s journey, trying to figure out what happened, hoping to find her before it’s too late.


Sadie is a brutal, twisty mystery of a book that explores the ugliness that hides underneath our society, the girls that fall through the cracks into the ugliness, and how Sadie fights not just to climb out of the ugliness but to destroy those who put her there. The structure jumping back and forth between the podcast and Sadie’s point of view builds tensions as the mystery unfolds and you wonder if West will be able to find her in time – in time for what though? To stop her? To save her? Besides the structure, where Summers excels is in how she manages to breathe life into the side characters. With just small glimpses of Claire (Sadie’s mom) and May Beth (Sadie’s surrogate grandmother), Summers gives careful readers a glimpse of their fallibility as narrators – especially when you compare viewpoints among the three (Sadie, Claire and May Beth).  Fiercely feminist and deeply angry, Sadie will appeal to teens who are already angry about the way the world treats girls and women as well as to those who enjoy a bleak, twisty thriller. As a bonus, anyone who enjoys audiobooks should check this out – the production on the podcast sections is particularly great and mimics current crime podcasts eerily well.

Tagline: Sadie hunts for a killer as those she left behind try to find her before it’s too late in this thriller that’s part Serial, part Speak, and part Winter’s Bone.

Monday’s Not Coming by Tiffany D Jackson

Monday Charles is missing, and only Claudia seems to notice. Claudia and Monday have always been inseparable—more sisters than friends. So when Monday doesn’t turn up for the first day of school, Claudia’s worried. When she doesn’t show for the second day, or second week, Claudia knows that something is wrong. Monday wouldn’t just leave her to endure tests and bullies alone. Not after last year’s rumors and not with her grades on the line. Now Claudia needs her best—and only—friend more than ever. But Monday’s mother refuses to give Claudia a straight answer, and Monday’s sister April is even less help.

As Claudia digs deeper into her friend’s disappearance, she discovers that no one seems to remember the last time they saw Monday. How can a teenage girl just vanish without anyone noticing that she’s gone?

Tiffany D. Jackson is a master at writing main characters that are hiding things from not just their audience, but themselves. First in Allegedly, and now in Monday’s Not Coming Jackson slowly reveals the daily horrors that shape her characters’ worlds and lives sometimes ending with a warping of their very minds. I also appreciated the way Claudia saw the world and people through different colors since coloring is a way she copes with stress. The structure in Monday’s Not Coming is unique. Jackson tells the story over the course of the school year alternating among the Before, the After, and several different years Before the Before. It took me getting through a couple of the months to understand what was happening, so this would be best for persistent readers who don’t mind waiting awhile for a mystery to build before it begins to reveal itself.

Tagline: What would you do if your best friend went missing and nobody else seemed to notice or care?

The Winner: Sadie by Courtney Summers

“I can’t take another dead girl.” May Beth’s refrain could fit both of these books equally well and let me tell you, I love a good dark thriller, but once I finish the rest of my current reads the next book I pick up is going to be all sweetness and light (Phoebe and Her Unicorn here I come).

These two books are great read-alikes for each other. So many adjectives describe them both: bleak, twisty, brutal, angry – particularly at a world that allows girls over and over again to be forgotten, to die, to remain unavenged. Both the trailer park where Sadie’s family waits anxiously for her return and Jackson’s Washington D.C. neighborhoods, are fully realized settings. Both are tightly plotted with fully fleshed out characterizations.

So often I read judges in these competitions talking about comparing apples and oranges, or apples and mailboxes or something equally odd if they feel titles are really different, but I feel like I’m choosing from two really excellent, beautifully ripe and delicious apples. In the end, I’m picking Sadie. The way Summers sets up the podcast to comment on not just Sadie’s story, but on the way our society consumes crime stories often at the expense of all those dead girls that start the stories off, moves it from excellent to outstanding. But really, you can’t go wrong recommending either one to teens.

Jennifer Jazwinski is the Early Literacy Librarian at the Palatine Public Library District. This is her sixth, and probably final, year as a YASF Tournament of Books judge. She blogs about starred reviews and best book lists and book awards at Jen J’s Booksheets. You can also find her as Bkwrm7 on Litsy.

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Round II, Bracket V: Blood Water Paint vs. Dread Nation

Blood Water Paint by Joy McCullough

Her mother died when she was twelve, and suddenly Artemisia Gentileschi had a stark choice: a life as a nun in a convent or a life grinding pigment for her father’s paint.

She chose paint.

By the time she was seventeen, Artemisia did more than grind pigment. She was one of Rome’s most talented painters, even if no one knew her name. But Rome in 1610 was a city where men took what they wanted from women, and in the aftermath of rape Artemisia faced another terrible choice: a life of silence or a life of truth, no matter the cost.

He will not consume
my every thought.
I am a painter.
I will paint.

I will show you
what a woman can do.

Blood, Water, Paint is historical fiction that reads like contemporary fiction, which could be a strength or a weakness depending on your perspective. Employing modern American English, it’s spare on period details and (other than the author’s note at the end) I don’t recall any dates being mentioned. For readers who might be turned off by a novel set in the 1600s, these are pluses. However, readers who aren’t somewhat familiar with Artemisia Gentileschi or Renaissance art may feel a bit lost.

McCullough chose to write primarily in verse, and so as I read I asked myself (as I do every time I read a novel in verse) whether this was the best choice. I think the poems work, often packing a raw, emotional power-punch. I also think that the strongest sections are the stories that Artemisia’s mother told about Susanna and Judith, which are written in prose. Apart from Artemisia, Judith and Susanna are the best-developed characters in the book. Artemisia’s relationships with these Biblical heroines (depending on which version of the Bible you read – you won’t find them in Hebrew or Protestant Bibles) are the closest she has to friendships. They comfort her in her darkest moments and ultimately inspire her to keep painting.

As a story about the artist’s life and work, Blood, Water, Paint is compelling but incomplete, and hopefully will inspire readers to research Gentileschi and her paintings further.

Recommended for:

For all the obvious reasons, I would offer Blood, Water, Paint to teens who are into art, history, law, feminism, social justice and any combination of these. I would also stealthily suggest it to teens I know who might find the religious subjects of Gentileschi’s paintings interesting and the story eye-opening; as well as teens who may be itching for a #metoo narrative but want to hide it for one reason or another. Any recommendation should be accompanied by trigger warnings for rape and torture.

Taglines: Artemesia paints her truth; in the aftermath of rape will she dare to speak it? ANDI will show you what a woman can do.

Dread Nation by Justina Ireland

Jane McKeene was born two days before the dead began to walk the battlefields of Gettysburg and Chancellorsville—derailing the War Between the States and changing America forever. In this new nation, safety for all depends on the work of a few, and laws like the Native and Negro Reeducation Act require certain children attend combat schools to learn to put down the dead. But there are also opportunities—and Jane is studying to become an Attendant, trained in both weaponry and etiquette to protect the well-to-do. It’s a chance for a better life for Negro girls like Jane. After all, not even being the daughter of a wealthy white Southern woman could save her from society’s expectations.

But that’s not a life Jane wants. Almost finished with her education at Miss Preston’s School of Combat in Baltimore, Jane is set on returning to her Kentucky home and doesn’t pay much mind to the politics of the eastern cities, with their talk of returning America to the glory of its days before the dead rose. But when families around Baltimore County begin to go missing, Jane is caught in the middle of a conspiracy, one that finds her in a desperate fight for her life against some powerful enemies. And the restless dead, it would seem, are the least of her problems.

If Dread Nation has a weakness, it is that the first few chapters feel a little formulaic to me. Justina Ireland combines effective world-building and character development to introduce sickle-wielding, etiquette-challenged Jane McKeene and her pretty, perfect arch nemesis, Katherine Devereaux. Handsome rogue Jackson Keats appears soon after, and I think I know where the story is taking this triangle until the girls attend an ill-fated demonstration of a new zombie vaccine. It’s then that Ireland begins to scrape the first layer of scales away from the eyes of her readers. Deeper revelations continue to shape the course of the story, revealing hidden facets to the characters while delivering sharp social commentary.

Dread Nation is eye-opening, and I had thought my eyes were open going in. I found myself constantly re-examining my own perception of our country’s past and present as I read. It’s one of the few series-openers that makes me want to read the whole series not just because I want to know how it ends, but because Ireland has something to say and I want to hear it. I won’t divulge any secrets, but the alternate world Ireland builds is much darker than I at first realized because it’s so close to our reality.

Recommended for:

I would hand Dread Nation to fans of action thrillers, dystopian stories, and zombie apocalypse stories; teens who are into history, social justice, and/or feminism; teens who are sick of love triangles; devourers of series, and teens in search of characters with depth. While teens looking for friendship stories might not be thinking, “zombie alterna-history action thriller,” I would suggest it to them as a stretch/reach choice. Jane and Katherine don’t always like each other, but they respect each other and I found the evolution of their relationship to be refreshing.

Tagline: North Fought South … Until the Dead Rose Up AND: Jane McKeene: Slashing Zombies & Smashing Patriarchies!

The Winner: dread Nation by justina Ireland

Full disclosure, Dread Nation has been one of my go-to booktalks this past year. Badass heroines vs. zombies is an easy sell, but I’ve also sold it on the depth of the characters, relationship dynamics, and abundance of social commentary. If I were to draw a Venn Diagram describing who I would suggest each book too, the circle representing Blood, Water, Paint would be swallowed by a larger circle for Dread Nation. I know it’s not the book for everyone, but I would love for everyone to read Dread Nation, and that’s why I’m picking it to move on.

Donna Block is a Teen Services Librarian at Niles-Maine District Library. She’s into scifi, fantasy, horror, graphic memoirs, and is always tired … so. very. tired. Follow the goings-on of the NMDL Teen Underground on their Instagram: @nmdlunderground.

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Round II, Bracket IV: Contagion vs. Dry

Though Contagion is set in space in the distant future, and Dry is set in Southern California at a time very close to now, both books feature teens struggling to survive intense, life-threatening disasters that come dangerously close to apocalyptic.

Contagion by Erin Bowman

It got in us

After receiving an urgent SOS from a work detail on a distant planet, a skeleton crew is dispatched to perform a standard search-and-rescue mission.

Most are dead.

But when the crew arrives, they find an abandoned site, littered with rotten food, discarded weapons…and dead bodies.

Don’t set foot here again.

As they try to piece together who—or what—could have decimated an entire operation, they discover that some things are best left buried—and some monsters are only too ready to awaken.

Contagion might as well have been written with me in mind. I love the intersection of horror and science fiction, and this tale of an unwitting crew sent to investigate a distress call from a secret mining facility on a frigid, desolate planet light years from civilization–well, it is the stuff of which survival horror fans dream. From the movie Alien to the video game Dead Space to books like The Illuminae Files and Pitch Dark, Contagion is part of a long, great horror tradition. Bowman understands what makes the vast unknown of space scary and capitalizes on it with an atmosphere of intense dread; you just know going in that not all of the characters are going to survive. Because of that, most of the characters read more as red shirts than as real people, and even those characters who have viewpoint chapters (and there are several characters as the story is told in third person with a lot of head-hopping) don’t get a lot of development. Bowman quickly sets up each character’s personality and their motivation, often with an info-dump of their backstory, then sets them loose to see how the inter-party conflicts will play out. The two main characters–Nova, a pilot-in-training, and Thea, a biomedical intern–are the ones that teen readers will relate to the most; they are both surrounded by adults making terrible, selfish decisions and yet have all the power.

I think this book is less about the characters, though, and more about the mystery of what happened on this derelict planet, and why, and who knows about it and is keeping it a secret. In that sense, this book is super successful; it’s suspenseful and scary, and the multiple viewpoints help build a strong sense of paranoia and claustrophobia, since readers will see how many characters are keeping secrets from the others. I wasn’t emotionally invested in any of the characters, especially as so many of them made really dumb decisions when confronted with clear evidence of a dangerous contagion, but I did want to know the outcome of the mystery. For anyone who has read a lot of zombie outbreak novels, especially where the zombies come from an alien organism or parasite, the plot here is familiar but well-done, very fast-paced, and the infection itself perfectly gory.

The world-building outside the immediate situation on the planet is not terribly robust but is sketched in with enough detail to suggest rival political factions in the United Planetary Coalition, battling over a sustainable energy source called corrarium and other shared resources. From the ending, I would guess that Book Two will delve into the politics more.

I’d recommend this series opener to horror and science fiction fans, especially those who want a thrilling and scary book that isn’t afraid to kill off some folks. It also has a strong mystery appeal. A bonus factor in recommending this book is its inclusivity: the two main female characters are a Korean-Turkish biomedical intern and a queer black pilot, but that is not the focus on the narrative at all.

Tag line: Zombies! In! Spaaaaaace!

Dry by Neal Shusterman and Jarrod Shusterman

The drought—or the Tap-Out, as everyone calls it—has been going on for a while now. Everyone’s lives have become an endless list of don’ts: don’t water the lawn, don’t fill up your pool, don’t take long showers.

Until the taps run dry.

Suddenly, Alyssa’s quiet suburban street spirals into a warzone of desperation; neighbors and families turned against each other on the hunt for water. And when her parents don’t return and her life—and the life of her brother—is threatened, Alyssa has to make impossible choices if she’s going to survive

I had a much harder time reading Dry than Contagion, mainly because the situation was so plausible that it made me uncomfortable. Water crises have already been in the news, from the lead contamination in Flint, Michigan, to the drought and water shortages in Cape Town, South Africa; and the flooding in New Orleans during Hurricane Katrina. What happens in Dry doesn’t seem that far-fetched, especially as the water shortage comes from a thoughtless political maneuver mixed with poor governmental planning and a lackluster media response.

Dry follows five teenagers–Alyssa, Kelton, Garrett, Jacqui, and Henry–who come together by sheer happenstance and are forced to make increasingly desperate decisions to find water. Alyssa and Garrett are siblings, and their neighbor Kelton is part of a family of doomsday preppers; when the Tap-Out happens and their neighborhood devolves into catastrophe, they find themselves without their parents and responsible for their own survival. On their journey they pick up Jacqui, a tough-talking runaway with a dangerous streak, and Henry, a wealthy jerk who upsets the group dynamic with his manipulations. The Shustermans do a solid job developing all of these teen characters and showing them empathy; even at their least likable or most insanely gullible, you understand where they’re coming from, and none of them remain unchanged by what happens over the course of this novel. (Well, maybe Henry.) Like most disaster novels, this one is really about the interpersonal conflicts that happen to a group of survivors over time.

In between the teens’ story are Snapshot sections that pull back to show the wide-ranging implications the Tap-Out has on everything from keeping the electrical power plants running; to newscasters trying to cover the story without feeling like jackals; to soldiers forced to make tough choices about the use of violence to protect the limited stores of water. These sections do break up the otherwise fast pacing but also are essential to give a greater context; they also pose difficult ethical questions to readers by showing how a variety of people react to the Tap-Out, and how those reactions affect other people, and on down the line.

I found this book utterly convincing until the ending, which has an anti-climatic time jump to some weeks after the Tap-Out ends that ties up everything a little too neatly. It’s unclear how the water crisis ended, and after all the detail that went into the picture of how it started, I would have liked a more comprehensive picture of, well, where the water came from.   

I’d recommend Dry to readers who like dystopias, natural disaster stories, or intense survival stories. Even readers who like zombie survival fiction can get into this one, I think, because the sense of civilization breaking down and the focus on the dynamics of a small group of struggling survivors are essential pieces of both kinds of narratives.

Tag line: When the water runs dry, some will do anything for a drink. What will you do?

The Winner: dry by Neal Shusterman and Jarrod Shusterman

Both Contagion and Dry are suspenseful, intense survival stories, but I give the edge to Dry. In my reading heart, I prefer parasitic space zombies over realistic depictions of man-made disasters, but I feel Dry is the better-written book, with wide teen appeal to a lot of different kinds of readers. The Shustermans’ focus on the characters made their disaster story more immediate and emotionally compelling, without sacrificing fast-paced action. I feel Contagion also suffered from too much info-dumping character backstories and world details, whereas Dry integrated important information into the story. Contagion, while entertaining, didn’t have a lasting impact the way Dry did, either. Days after reading Dry, I turned on the tap to wet my toothbrush and wash my face and realized I’d left the water running the whole time; I feel teens will be similarly aware of thoughtless water usage after reading this convincing novel.

Krista Hutley is a Teen & Adult Services Librarian at the Wilmette Public Library. She also writes reviews for Booklist magazine. When not working or reading All The Things, she’s probably geeking out over horror movies, Dungeons & Dragons, and fun new stickers for her bullet journal.  

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Round II, Bracket III: Pride vs. The Prince and the Dressmaker

Pride by Ibi Zoboi

Zuri Benitez has pride. Brooklyn pride, family pride, and pride in her Afro-Latino roots. But pride might not be enough to save her rapidly gentrifying neighborhood from becoming unrecognizable.

When the wealthy Darcy family moves in across the street, Zuri wants nothing to do with their two teenage sons, even as her older sister, Janae, starts to fall for the charming Ainsley. She especially can’t stand the judgmental and arrogant Darius. Yet as Zuri and Darius are forced to find common ground, their initial dislike shifts into an unexpected understanding.

But with four wild sisters pulling her in different directions, cute boy Warren vying for her attention, and college applications hovering on the horizon, Zuri fights to find her place in Bushwick’s changing landscape, or lose it all.

I’ve had this book on my to-read pile for a while, so I was excited for a push to make reading it happen.  I can’t comment about the similarities or differences between Pride and Pride and Prejudice since I never did get around to reading the original (gasp!).  I think this helps my review as I don’t think a majority of teens will pick up this title particularity because they read Pride and Prejudice.  This book truly does stand on its own without relying on character development or plot points known from reading the original.  The voices and characters were authentic. There are times, we’ve all seen it, where YA authors try too hard to emulate the speech and actions of teens and it comes off awkward.  Zoboi does not have that issue. Zuri’s family was full of wonderful characters. I’d actually love to read books focusing on each of their own lives as well. I view that as a sign of great writing.  On the other hand, I felt that there was a lot crammed into this book. I wanted to dive deeper into Zuri’s school visit and her own writing. Pride left me wanting more.  

There’s only one weakness hit me while I was reading Pride: I’ve read this story before multiple times.  I know that’s not really a fair weakness for a retelling, but it’s important.  As I said before, this is not based on reading Pride and Prejudice since I’ve never read it (gasp again!).  However, the story of two teens who start out disliking one another and eventually overlook the origins of their feelings and get along is spun a lot.  I felt the story was more predictable, even though it was entertaining.

I would recommend this book to readers who like subtle romances.  This book is also filled with strong, female characters which is not as easy to find in realistic fiction as in fantasy/dystopian books.  Finally, for those who want to encourage reading diverse books, this is the one for you. Also, if audiobooks are your thing, Pride is a fantastic option.  The narrator fit the characters and kept you engaged.  

Tagline: If Jane Austen lived in Bushwick…

The Prince and the Dressmaker by Jen Wang

Paris, at the dawn of the modern age:

Prince Sebastian is looking for a bride―or rather, his parents are looking for one for him. Sebastian is too busy hiding his secret life from everyone. At night he puts on daring dresses and takes Paris by storm as the fabulous Lady Crystallia―the hottest fashion icon in the world capital of fashion!

Sebastian’s secret weapon (and best friend) is the brilliant dressmaker Frances―one of only two people who know the truth: sometimes this boy wears dresses. But Frances dreams of greatness, and being someone’s secret weapon means being a secret. Forever. How long can Frances defer her dreams to protect a friend? Jen Wang weaves an exuberantly romantic tale of identity, young love, art, and family. A fairy tale for any age, The Prince and the Dressmaker will steal your heart.

First off, while I know my own opinions don’t matter in the grand scheme of Tournament of Books, I feel like I should state that graphic novels are not my favorite.  That being said, there are several amazing things about The Prince and the Dressmaker.  The originality behind this story hits the reader right away.  By looking at the cover, you’d think that this is a type of “Cinderella” story where the prince stumbles upon the dressmaker, Frances, and falls for her, bringing her back to the castle for a makeover to easily infiltrate the society types.  In reality, it’s Prince Sebastian who is the subject of the makeover and takes on his true identity as a woman. The book is full of conflict, both the obvious involving Sebastian’s double-life and the slowly growing conflict between Sebastian and Frances.  The illustrations truly make this story come alive, excuse the cliche. It was exciting to see what new dresses Lady Crystallia would wear from page to page.

As for weaknesses, there’s the obvious one in which outing Sebastian is used as a plot point.  Without revealing too much and spewing out a bunch of spoilers, I can see why she chose to include this, but I can see readers sensitive to this situation not wanting to read this one.  The other weakness is more subjective. I think that the character of Frances could have been developed more. The reason I think that it can be viewed more as subjective is that my feelings might be because I just like Sebastian/Lady Crystallia more and pushed past Frances.

I would recommend this for graphic novel readers and non-readers.  This story and the illustrations tell the story seamlessly. This is also an obvious recommendation for those looking for LGBTQ+ books, but once again, may be a triggering issue for some readers.  Finally, I’d recommend this for those looking for a fairy tale turned on its ear.

Tagline: Forget your pumpkins and slippers, there’s a new Cinderella in town.

The Winner: The Prince and the Dressmaker by Jen Wang

It was a difficult decision to pick the best book from these two.  I believe both of them will find many, many readers. While I usually wouldn’t choose a graphic novel over a novel, I feel I must this time.  The Prince and the Dressmaker is the winner.  Pride was great, but the originality in The Prince and the Dressmaker is what pushes it over the top.  Pride is a familiar tale with a plot that we’ve seen before with different incarnations of characters.  The Prince and the Dressmaker deserves to move on and battle another day.

Brandi Smits is the Youth Services Manager at the Orland Park Public Library.  When not doing the library-thing, she is probably dying her hair, cross-stitching something, or reading books in breweries.

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