Tournament of Books, Round Four: Dear Martin vs Gentleman’s Guide to Vice and Virtue

I’m going to admit that I had already read Dear Martin and Gentleman’s Guide to Vice and Virtue last year. Unfortunately, I’d done so while in the middle of a really awful bit of reader’s block, and after forcing myself through each book the first time I couldn’t muster up much excitement about revisiting these titles. Thankfully, it turned out to be an easier and more enjoyable task than expected. Of course this second reading brought about different challenges: what book do I choose now that I’m digging both of them, and how do you compare such different books?

ggtvaIn the Gentleman’s Guide to Vice and Virtue, Henry Montague (Monty to his friends) is embarking on his last grand hurrah before settling down to learn the ins and outs of running his father’s estate. Unfortunately, Monty’s father does not see this trip as a chance for his son to sow his wild oats (really he’s already done plenty of that), but a chance to bring him to heel. Prove yourself worthy, stay out of trouble, and the inheritance is yours Monty. Accompanied by his sister Felicity and best friend (unrequited love of his life) Percy, Monty sets off on a tour that may bore him to death. After taking a tiny lock box in true Henry Montague fashion, an impulsive gesture of petty revenge, the three find themselves running for their lives across Europe where Monty will discover how far he’ll go for love.

First, the things I absolutely loved about this book. Oh my goodness do I love a good uncertain romance with brushing fingers and fumbling kisses. I read a lot of historical romance, and this is my absolute bread and butter. Luckily MacKenzi Lee does a great job of establishing this early on, and I spent a lot of time dramatically sighing in my head about Henry and Percy’s inability to just get their crap together. Just to repeat myself, this is not a complaint. I love this kind of foolishness. The other thing I loved was Percy and Felicity calling Henry out on his white male privilege. Lee gives us a good foundation for why Henry is the way he is, but he’s never given a pass, and he is challenged to be a better human being. This journey was a long one though. At over 500 pages it was a bit of a slog at times for me.

9781101939499On the other side of this bookish duel in Dear Martin is Justyce McAllister. After being forcibly handcuffed and assaulted by a police officer while Justyce attempts to help his white passing, on-again, off-again girlfriend Melo, Justyce finds himself on his own journey, a self-reflection and study of “What would Martin do?” Told in third person narrative and first person letters to Martin Luther King Jr. we see how Justyce interacts with two worlds where he doesn’t quite fit. At his mostly white, elite private school, Justyce is faced with peers who believe that equality in the U.S. is a given, and that race is only a card that makes its appearance when convenient. Thankfully Justyce’s very cute, very white, very Jewish debate partner, Sarah Jane is willing to throw down and confront the white privilege these classmates demonstrate. In his neighborhood Justyce  is made fun of for his intellectual pursuits and what his peers assume is riding on the coattails of white people. Justyce finds himself questioning whether or not his mission to live like Martin is the right way to go when he finds himself at the center of a horrible tragedy.

I am impressed with the diversity of experiences and points of view that Nic Stone wrote into this tiny book. I think anyone that reads this book can find themselves in these pages, and that’s not always going to be a comfortable experience, but it is a valuable one.

MacKenzi Lee and Nic Stone have gifted us with two wonderful books. On the surface they seem very different from each other: a bisexual historical fiction adventure romance vs. a contemporary study of race and the value of black lives. Within the pages though you will find stories about characters finding their place in a world that seems to be fighting their very existence and trying to force them into a specific mold. Both books have a lot to say, and there are readers out there who will find importance in these stories.


Unfortunately, I do have to choose one of these books, and my winner for this round is Dear Martin. Nic Stone packed a punch in such a small book. At just over 200 pages, Stone was able to write a fantastic story that deals with the complexity of race in America and the value of black lives. This is a book I feel comfortable giving to any reader and non-reader. I also like to believe in the transformative power of books, and I think the characters and stories of Dear Martin can provide a perspective that will help readers to understand an experience that isn’t there own, to question their own values, and perhaps to go out and make things better. We see our teens standing up for change, taking control of the political and social narrative, and books like this are helping them pave that way.


Back to Round Three, Bracket Four

Onto Round Four, Bracket Two


Tournament of Books, Round Three: Caraval vs. Dear Martin

Okay, I’m going to be honest here. I don’t read YA as much as I should. But I qualify as a YA librarian now, so I’m working on it. I don’t think I avoid them on purpose. Maybe the stories are a little too contrived for my taste. Maybe I’ve had my fill of angsty romances. But if I take a second to travel back in time to the early days of my adolescence, I find the appeal. When I was a teen, I fell hard for fantasy stories. I was consumed with literature that could take me into a rich new world and let me live there. Being a teenager is hard. And the more I work with teens, the more I remember how raw it all felt. Every emotion, every life event, every single person who crossed my path could fill my head and my heart until they were nearly bursting. So I’m approaching these books with those time-traveled eyes. 

Caraval by Stephanie Garber

27883214I think Caraval tries to take you to those fantastic places to be consumed by the magic and mystery and romance. What I loved the most was its colorful and flowery language when dropping the reader into the heart of the game on the Isla de los Suenos. That’s where this book really comes to life. It’s all in the hazy atmosphere and the caricatured carnival characters and the beautiful dresses described in meticulous detail. The main protagonist, Scarlett, on the other hand, fell a little flat. I didn’t find her compelling nor did I quite buy her motives. The sister bond she spoke of constantly between her and Donatella felt painfully one-sided. For sisters with shared trauma and an unconditional love, they were surprisingly out of sync. 

 Scarlett’s over-the-top rejections of Julian’s “advances” grew old after the fifth time. Yes, we get it. You’re engaged and it would be totally improper to share a room with your pretend-fiancé. Now Julian? I bought. His charm, his swagger, and his character development were totally believable. But where Scarlett’s character development fell flat, her emotional development for Julian (after the countless rejections—let’s pretend they didn’t happen) really shone bright. But that’s the point, isn’t it? Insert yourself into the story and you’re the one falling slowly in love. You’re the one feeling her hesitation and Julian’s breath. 

 This is the first in a series and I’m interested to see how the author builds the rest of the world. I didn’t find the antagonists, Governor Dragna or Master Legend, particularly threatening, but I imagine there’s something more at stake that we won’t find in the first book. But as much as I am critical of the story, I’d definitely suggest this book to my teens looking for a different kind of fantasy read. I think Caraval will appeal to fans of dystopian fiction (somehow I get this vibe) as well as fantasy-romance. 

Dear Martin by Nic Stone

9781101939499And then we do a 180 from dystopian fantasy to realistic fiction. 

I don’t think I was prepared for what Dear Martin was going to be. I mean, in my head I think I knew it, but things got real fairly quickly. 

As a Latina, I’m embarrassed to admit that I’ve let myself be blind to the race issues that surround me on a day to day basis. I fear I’ve lived in a bubble too long. Too long looking at the world through rose-colored (brown-tinted?) glasses and not really seeing myself for the minority I actually am. 

 I identify with Justyce. When you come from the hood, but come out too educated, where do you even belong? How can you be not White but feel like you’re also not not White? 

I recently made friends with an old acquaintance whose writings on his perspective of what being a brown person means to him have made me focus the lens of my own cultural and racial identity. I know what it’s like to hear from your own family members, “Why do you talk so white?” and to ask yourself what that even means. And I’ve been confronted by white people who, when feeling slighted by me in some inconsequential way, told me to “go back to you where you came from, you [racial slur].” I know what it’s like to be so disgusted by the color of my own skin that I wished I could just scrub it all off as if it were just dirt. 

 I’ll never know what it’s like to be Black. And I’ll understand even less what it’s like to be a Black man. But representation in literature matters. Even if it’s not entirely representative of its reader. We can identify with Jus whether it’s because we’re a teen, because we’re Black, because we’ve suddenly fallen in love with someone we never thought we would have, or because we’ve been served some kind of injustice and we’re trying to make sense of it all. 

 Dear Martin does all of those things in a short, but powerful read. Every character felt like a real person who could be sitting in my library right this second. Every letter Justyce wrote to Dr. King was a raw and gripping insight to the hurt and betrayal he, or any kid like him, felt by a society that should be serving and protecting him. We need to be calling out and shutting down not just the Blakes (guy who thinks it’s hilarious to dress up as a Klansman at a Halloween party) of the world, but also the Jareds (guy who thinks Affirmative Action gets a Black kid into Yale and not his merit). We need to protect our Mannys from trigger-happy racists. We need to embolden and empower our Sarah Janes. We need to recognize that we are every single one of them. 

 And I think it matters now more than ever. This book deserves all the attention it’s receiving because if more YA were like this, maybe we can foster an awareness of the racial injustices that still exist to this day and engender social justice in our youth. I mean, it’s already there. So let’s keep sharing these stories. 



So Dear Martin wins this round for me. No contest. 


 Priscilla Resendiz works in Adult Reference with a focus on Young Adult services at the Waukegan Public Library. She’s attempting to expand her reading horizons beyond comedy and sci-fi and is open to every reading suggestion. In the spaces between odd library hours she volunteers with the local high school, goes to kendo practice (but not nearly enough), and watches way too much Star Trek. 


Back to Round Two, Bracket Eight

Onto Round Three, Bracket Two

Tournament of Books, Round Two: Dear Martin vs American Street

While at first glance Dear Martin by Nic Stone and American Street by Ibi Zoboi couldn’t be more different, themes of family, race, culture, and justice are deeply entwined in both. Debut YA authors Stone and Zoboi did not make the decision an easy one because of the poeticism of their prose and relevancy of their characters’ issues, but even with such high stakes storylines, one managed to edge out the other as victor.

American Street by Ibi Zoboi

30256109.jpgAmerican Street follows the immigrant and assimilation of Haitian-American Fabiola Toussaint as she is abruptly torn from her mother’s side, who is detained by U.S. Immigration, and thrust into the care of her aunt and three cousins — all of whom she’s never met and knows little about. Now living in a new country in a new city with a family she barely knows, Fab must learn to find her footing amongst this new environment in a city where drugs, family, and freedom come at a price. Zoboi does a wonderful job of infusing rich Haitian culture into the novel and beautifully weaving Creole into the dialogue in order to better understand Fab’s cultural identity, which we may not be as familiar with. She breathes life into each of the characters and the reader gets to know them as if they were real people. Each character is written so honestly that even with all of their faults, one can’t help but root for them because we understand their pain and reasons for doing what they do — we’ve all made mistakes and these characters are no different. The care with which Zoboi handles Fab’s immigrant experience is well done to capture all of the obstacles a person coming to this country for the first time might experience; it’s not easy and Zoboi reminds us of that. Throughout the novel Fab struggles to find a balance between fitting in in the U.S. and not losing touch with her roots, which I think is a very familiar feeling many immigrants deal with on a daily basis. Highlighting those worries help humanize Fab more and make the reader connect to her, all the while being told it’s okay to feel that way. The one downside to American Street is that Fab’s experiences at times seem a little too far-fetched and convenient, which takes the reader out of the story and make them not feel as connected to it. The big crime plot line hindered the story more than helped it and is what caused it to fall short to Dear Martin.

Dear Martin by Nic Stone

Discussing race relations and racial profiling are two hot topics many authors do not dare tackle, but Nic Stone did just that and did it well. Justyce McAllister is top of his class and Ivy League bound, but not even that can keep him from being handcuffed for something he didn’t do nor can it stop his lifelong peers from looking at him differently. He turns to the teachings of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. to help him through, but his faith in Dr. King is tested when him and his best friend are targeted by an angry cop seeking justice for a crime neither had a hand in. The conversations Justyce and his friends and family are forced to have are raw, uncensored, and not easy. They are conversations people all over the world are having or might even be too scared of facing. Justyce knows that by opening the lines of communication to these issues might result in truths he doesn’t want to hear and he has to learn to come to terms with that because it might result in the loss of relationships he’s had his whole life. The fears and struggles Justyce faces of trying to fit in while also very much knowing the color of his skin affects how others view and treat him is something someone reading Dear Martin might be impacted by, whether directly or indirectly. This turmoil Justyce is facing will resonate with readers and hopefully open the lines of dialogue for them as well. Stone’s development and diverse choice of characters not only makes them more real and tangible, but allows for multiple perspectives on the issues at hand and gives the reader a better understanding of why it’s not always as easy as right from wrong. Justyce struggles throughout the book to do what is right, but those choices do not come easy. Stone does offer numerous lighthearted moments peppered throughout the story to keep it from being so bleak. The way Justyce and his friends talk and joke with one another is relatable and honest in a way readers can see themselves in the pages of the book. The romantic relationship Justyce develops does fall flat, which might be the one downside to the book. I understand why it’s there, but it didn’t add much to the story.

And the winner is…


Dear Martin by Nic Stone

Dear Martin is a tough read from beginning to end, but an important one. The end left me feeling hopeful, albeit emotionally wrecked. It’s a book that forces the reader to think and ask themselves questions they may not have thought to before, but need to. Both American Street and Dear Martin are phenomenal reads in their own right, but where American Street falls short is the unbelievable nature of certain plot points — it tiptoes the line between being real and being implausible. Dear Martin, on the other hand, is so incredibly impactful and will stay with the reader long after they’ve read it.

Marion Olea is the Teen Librarian at the Northlake Public Library District. Her hobbies include eating, traveling, crocheting, and submerging herself in all things pop culture.


Back to Round Two, Bracket One

Onto Round Two, Bracket Three

Tournament of Books, Round One: Dear Martin v The Librarian of Auschwitz

When I said I would participate in this I was only a few months pregnant. Now I’m about 2-3 weeks from having this baby and I’ve been given two extremely emotionally charged books to review and choose between (Thanks for that J). So as I am reading the books I am hoping that I don’t burst into tears with my emotions on high alert. I have avoided reading emotionally charged books this entire pregnancy and now have to face them in my final month. So if I get a little overly emotional in my reviews I apologize ahead of time. Also fair warning there are some spoilers here, but I never give away the big endings.


Dear Martin by Nic Stone

9781101939499Justyce McAllister is one of the best in his class at Braselton Prep. He is even on the debate team and set to go to YALE next year. But Justyce is from a single parent home, he is black, and originally from the bad side of town. So when a police officer sees him in a hoodie with a drunk girl late at night trying to get her into a car, the police officer already assumes that Justyce is up to no good. Justyce finds himself sprawled on the ground in handcuffs with ringing ears, all for trying to help his drunk ex-girlfriend home so she wouldn’t try to drive drunk. The officer wouldn’t let him explain and Justyce was left in handcuffs for hours while everything was worked out. This incident stirs something inside of Justyce. As a way to cope with what he is going through he decides to write letters to Martin Luther King Jr. and aspire to be more like him. At school, one of his classes has started talking about race and if all things are truly created equal. A few of the white guys in the group start talking about how everything is and this spurs them to do and say things that are completely racist as a way to prove that all things are equal. At first Justyce and his half black friend Manny just take it with a grain of salt, but after several incidents on the news of innocent black teens being shot, arrested or killed by police, Justyce can’t take it anymore. Soon Manny can’t either. And then while the two boys are out for a drive, trying to take their mind off their once friend who is filing a lawsuit against Manny for punching him out after racist comments, tragedy strikes.

Race issues are always going to be a thing and are always going to come up, especially with teens in diverse populations. After all the issues in the news that have happened in the last few years, it’s fairly obvious that we can say that this book has come at the right time. This is the type of book that can gut punch you and make you think about everything more seriously. While reading this I was thinking of my cousins biracial kids in St. Louis and many of the teens I have worked with over the last 10 years in the suburbs of Chicago. It also brought up many conversations I had in college with my philosophy professor Dr. Washington. This book hit me hard as I read it and when I came to the end of the book I felt like I had come full circle with the story. It is defiantly a book that everyone should read. And while I frown upon some of the language used in the book, I understand why it is in there.

The Librarian of Auschwitz by Antonio Iturbe

LibrarianAuschwitz_JKT_FINAL.inddDita was asked to be the secret librarian of Block 31 of the Auschwitz concentration camp by the leader of the Jewish people inside the Block. Block 31 housed the school. To be found with a book of any kind is a sure fire way to be executed on the spot. As she was a young pre-teen she was less likely to be suspected during inspections. She was extremely brave, albeit scared, and hid the nine books from the Nazis. As Dita grows and learns about those imprisoned with her she learns that everyone is hiding things.

Okay, so it took me a while to get up the courage to face this book. I have a thing about holocaust books ever since my grandpa told me about his experiences in WW2 (and he left a lot out of that conversation, but his emotional response to me asking him questions and his retelling of what he went through made it clear to me as a 11 year old that this was an experience that he would rather not have had). With that in mind I always approach holocaust books with reverence. I have to be in the right mindset to read them, or I can’t get through them at all. So when I started this, I kept thinking that the holocaust has been written about by so many authors in so many ways that the only way I’m going to appreciate this book is if they come at if from a different angle. By page 100 I felt I was done with reading this, and in all honesty I wanted to toss this book into a large body of water and watch as the pages bleed out into the icy cold water. The holocaust has been written about so often that there are few books that can be counted as different and extremely good. Sepetys’ Salt to the Sea or Jane Yolen’s Briar Rose are much better holocaust books in my opinion. This one skips through time with no warning so as I was reading I had to keep asking myself, is this before or after she landed in the camp? It goes into back stories of some of the other prisoners as Dita discovers their secrets and describes details of what it was like for the Jews who lived inside Auschwitz. And while I’m sure some people will find this a great read, I find it another book on the pile about a time in history that gets talked about far too much in literature, when other wars or other historic events are so often overlooked.

And the winner is….


Dear Martin by Nic Stone …

This is more relevant to the times and something that Teens would much rather read than another book about the Holocaust. Plus, I think it is well written and while both books are about topics that can hit you where it hurts emotionally, Dear Martin did it better with more power behind it!

Hannah Sloan – Teen Services Coordinator at the Poplar Creek Public Library District in Streamwood, IL. Hannah has been a Teen Librarian for the past nine years and has been involved in libraries in one way or another since 1997 when she signed up for the wrong club in High School. 

Back to Round One, Bracket Two

Onto Round One, Bracket Four