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: 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 2: A Court of Thorns and Roses vs. Simon vs. the Homo Sapiens Agenda

I first read A Court of Thorns and Roses last year when I received a review copy from the publisher. I immediately loved its rich, nuanced world-building, fiery characters, and dark subplot. Sarah J. Maas is the queen of modern young adult fantasy and court of thorns and rosesI couldn’t wait to reread this beautiful fairy tale. As for Simon vs. the Homo Sapiens Agenda? My co-worker had been not-so-subtly trying to force me to read it for the better part of six month. I generally ignored her suggestion and when I learned that it was the winner of the previous round, we both found it amusing that the cosmos seemed pre-determined; I would have to read this book.

In A Court of Thorns and Roses, Sarah J. Maas weaves fairy tale retellings with her classic Fae characters. The result is a dark, seductive, creative re-imagining of Beauty and the Beast that will leave you breathless. Feyre has nothing but the charge of providing for her family. Her two sisters and invalid father, she’s responsible for their survival in the harsh human realm. When she mistakenly hunts and kills a Fae disguised as a wolf in the woods, Feyre is bound to repay the debt for the life she ended. Dragged to a magical land that is fraught with treachery and deception, Feyre learns from her captor, Tamlin, and immortal shapeshifter and High Fae, that she will never return to her homeland. Soon, Feyre’s relationship with Tamlin evolves into something neither of them expected. She realizes that her captor is also a captive and that there are forces at work much darker than she could have ever imagined.

Simon vs. the Homo Sapiens Agenda by Becky Albertalli is a witty contemporary drama about a gay teen handling evolving identities, self-acceptance, and love. When Simon Spier’s emails fall into the wrong hands, he worries that his online friendship with Blue, the pen name of the boy he’s been emailing, will be compromised. Funny guy Martin, demands that Simon hook him up with Abby, the cute new girl, or he’ll reveal Simon’s true identity to their entire school. Simon’s life soon gets really complicated when he finds himself pulled out oSimonVS_quote_NEWf his comfort zone and into something entirely new. As his closeness with Blue continues to grow deeper, Simon realizes that he must accept his own story and identity before he’s outed by a class clown.

Despite both books being from two very different YA genres, they both deal with protagonists that must find their way through trying circumstances. Both Simon and Feyre realize their own strength and identities despite outward pressure to fail or reject their true natures. While I am a huge fantasy fan, I was struck with how developed and “real” the characters in Simon vs. the Homo Sapiens Agenda were. By the end of the novel, you feel as though you are a part of Simon’s life. I loved his obsession with Oreos and Elliott Smith, and that Albertalli alternated chapters with snippets of their emails to each other. The reader can see the connection between both of them so clearly and I soon found myself anxiously awaiting the next email chain. While I felt that the ending was a little too happily-ever-after for me, I believe that it’s important to have positive LGBTQ novels available for teens to read. In the end, Simon realized that his initial apprehension was not about external reactions to his coming out. He knew he would have to handle occasional bullies, and he was secure in the acceptance of friends and family. Simon found that he was his own worst enemy, and his emails with Blue helped him understand that this is who he is. Simon’s story is about accepting and being ok with who you are, and that is a seriously powerful message.


Reviewed by Elise Martinez, Zion-Benton Public Library

Tournament of Books Round 1: Carry On vs. The Girl at Midnight

It seems only right and proper to begin this pair of reviews by revealing that I am not generally a fantasy lover. On that note, I can say that venturing into the respective otherworlds of The Girl at Midnight by Melissa Grey and Carry On by Rainbow Rowell was surprisingly delightful.

Both stories were set on a present-day Earth with magical realms hiddengirl at midnight in plain sight. Both spent their plots following a chosen one protagonist as they navigated their destined path via alternating points of view. Both protagonists, Echo in The Girl at Midnight and Simon in Carry On, were born into normalcy, orphaned, and adopted by a sage authority figure (the Ala for Echo, and the Mage for Simon). Both have a prophesied mission to save themselves and their realms, both have to discover and harness their power and prove themselves worthy of their ultimate cause, and both have fierce friends and meet ferocious obstacles along their journey. Both stories feature romances of the heterosexual, homosexual, and inter-magical-beings variety.

The Girl at Midnight is Grey’s debut novel brings a young girl, Echo, who ran away from an abusive home life into the magical realm of the Avicen, a race of magical, feathered people who are at war with the Darkharin, a dragon race with magic of their own. In filching a music box for her adoptive mentor, the Ala, as a birthday gift, Echo sets off a domino effect wherein she must find a possibly mythical creature called the Firebird, the only thing that can end the war between the battling races. During this epic scavenger hunt, Echo’s sense of loyalty and belonging with the Avicen is put to the limits when she accidentally allies with the Darkharin prince, whose ultimate goal is the same as hers: everlasting peace. The door for a sequel is left wide open.

Carry On comes to us via Rowell’s previous YA work, Fangirl. In Fangirl, Cath, a college student, writes slash fanfiction for a fictional, Harry-Potter-inspired book series whose latest installment has yet to reach eager readers’ hands. “Carry On” is the title of Cath’s fanfiction, but Carry On by Rainbow Rowell is professed to be a different story entirely despite sharing a title. In this rendition of Carry On, despite being raised amongst the Normals, Simon has been prophesized to be the most powerful Mage in the world, the only onecarry on powerful enough to end the terror reign of the Insidious Humdrum. As the first Normal to enter the Watford School of Magicks, his presence isn’t always welcome especially by Old Families like his sworn enemy and roommate, Baz’s. However, circumstances bring the unlikely pair (as well as Simon’s friend Penny, and sort-of-girlfriend, Agatha) together to overcome the source of their magickal despair.

Remember in the beginning when I didn’t read fantasy? The Girl at Midnight presented the exact conundrum I have with the genre. While its present action sucked me in and did not let me go until the end, I was left with lingering questions about the magic, the history of the war, and many other tidbits that could have easily been made clear without sequels. While Carry On also left some magickal questions unanswered, the fact that it is the answer to a fictional fan fiction (and ostensibly the last installment in a series) based on a more widely known and much beloved (by me) fantasy left me feeling very at ease with many of the loose strings.

And so I see this round of the battle not as two fantasies with big similarities and bigger differences, but as a debut fantasy versus a veteran meta-commentary on fantasies. And, as the reader who does not easily take to fantasies, you may have already prophesied this round’s chosen one.


Reviewed by Brittany Staszak, St. Charles Public Library

Round one: For Art’s Sake! I’ll Give You the Sun vs. The Vigilante Poets of Selwyn Academy

I’ll Give You the Sun details the alternating perspectives of artistic fraternal twins, Noah and Jude, and their individual exploration of identity, loss and love. Each twin struggles with their anguished responses to the same horrific event that altered the trajectory of their lives. This accident complicates their relationship with art, with each other and leaves a smear of guilt across the canvases of their lives. Additionally, both Noah and Jude struggle with their sexuality; Noah’s unfolding love sti'll give you the sunory and his thoughts and anxieties about being gay stand in contrast to Jude’s attempts to not be that girl.

Noah’s perspectives are told when he is 13 going on 14. He is on the cusp of adolescence and the world seems to be a gaping universe that he can fill with his artistic vision. Yet, he struggles intensely with the duality of his identity. Noah is bullied and doesn’t have many close friends outside of his sister, Jude, and his mom. His inner world is where the magic lies. Noah sees the world in brilliant colors and magical scenes that burst from his imaginative space. He is also beginning to realize that he is gay and does not know how to navigate this landscape. He and Jude are close, almost claustrophobic in their oneness with each other, but as things progress, we see parts of them start to separate and change.

Jude is the superstitious sculptor; she builds magnificent creations from sand, clay and stone. Her storyline takes place when she is 16. Much has changed since they were 13, including a horrible accident that essentially changed the twins forever. Jude hides her fear behind a belief in her dead Grandma Sweetwine’s “bible,” a collection of random passages detailing how to ward off bad vibes, spirits, or any other nefarious influences. Her post-accident journey has diverged dramatically from Noah’s, and she is on her own- the twins are scarred and bitter, alone and ridden with guilt. After the accident, both Noah and Jude’s ability to express themselves artistically has come to a complete halt. Noah seems to reject any artistic inclination and Jude, while studying at a local prestigious art school, cannot seem to push past the guilt and move into a space of artistic creation. However, it seems that the fates kept one link between them intact, and through a series of discoveries and coincidences, Noah and Jude begin to embrace their abandoned identities and break down barriers by coming clean with one another.

I’ll Give You the Sun is a stunning story about Noah and Jude’s struggle to find wholeness, to be something more than one half of a set of twins. It is a true coming-of-age story since their experiences have brought them through seeing the world as something to be broken up and divided between them to realizing the boundless possibilities and often uncomfortable revelations about humanity and our own evolving identities. I feel like I could write so many more paragraphs about the beauty and magnificence of this novel, but I will move forward!

The Vigilante Poets of Selwyn Academy is a quick-witted, perfectly subversive novel about four friends, Ethan, Luke, Jackson, and Elizabeth (and the gerbil, of course), who band together to rid their school of a reality TV show that has infiltrated their institution. The four friends attend Selwyn Academy, a prestigious art school that has been chosen by Hollywood hotshots as the setting for a reality television show, For Art’s Sake. The students chosen to compete on the show must compete in a series of challenges for the chancevigilante poets of selwyn academy to win a $100,000 scholarship to any art school of their choice, and title of “America’s Best Teen Artist.” For this reason, many of the competitors (and faculty) will do anything to maintain their status quo within the show. However, Ethan and his friends begin to realize that the show’s presence has changed the entire atmosphere of Selwyn. Before, students would discuss Prokofiev and opera in the hallways of Selwyn. Now, all subject of conversation revolves around the fabricated drama coming from reality television.

Naturally, a revolution must take place. The teens use the styling of poet Ezra Pound to create their own Cantos, a self-published poem ridiculing the show and admonishing the student body to regain their artistic pride and prestige. The plan encounters some hitches, friendships are betrayed, and Ethan must step out of Luke’s shadow and find his voice in the “uprising.”

At first, it took me a few pages to get used to the rapid-fire inner monologue of Ethan’s introductions. I soon found the rhythm and became quickly enamored with each character. Author Kate Hattemer did a fantastic job of maintaining their individual voices and personalities, and I seriously fell in love with little Baconnaise, the gerbil. While reading Vigilante Poets, I felt as though I was a co-conspirator in writing the Contracantos– that the reader is a part of the subversive movement against the reality TV show. Overall, choosing one winner was genuinely difficult!

Verdict: Both of these novels discuss the struggle to discover your identity in an often chaotic, unpredictable world. Sometimes it is tragedy and loss that forces us to search ourselves, other times it is the need for truth in the midst of change. Both of these books have the potential to serve as a mirror for the lives of teens, and each author creates characters that are wildly memorable and unique. I have to go with my initial reaction on this one and choose I’ll Give You the Sun as the winner. My only complaint was that its near-perfect ending was anything short of miraculous. However, the journey was so beautiful and intense that I feel compelled to choose this novel. Jandy Nelson weaves art- its creation, its power, and its impact on our identity- as the central theme and uses it to create, break and restore her characters. Their journey from adolescence into young adults shows the importance of discovering yourself and confronting your demons, so to speak. Finally, I’ll Give You the Sun reminds us that real life is full of magic.

Winner: I’ll Give You the Sun by Jandy Nelson