Tournament of Books Round 1: Challenger Deep vs. Dumplin’

I’ll admit it: I didn’t know how to fairly judge this bracket. On the one hand, you have Neal Shusterman’s National Book Award for Young People’s Literature-winning Challenger Deep. On the other hand, Julie Murphy’s Dumplin’. Maybe you’re not seeing the problem. Maybe the National Book Award solves all the problems for you, if you’re judging. But it wasn’t nearly so eachallenger deepsy for me.

Challenger Deep is, at first, a disjointed book about Caden Bosch and another Caden, who is a shipmate on a strange ocean-going ship. Caden Bosch has friends, goes to school, draws, and walks. He walks a lot. He walks, seemingly trying to escape a feeling he can’t really name, while his parents worry about him. Shipmate Caden, on the other hand, is trying to survive an ocean voyage with a treacherous Captain and his annoying parrot. It’s hard to make the connection between the two Cadens, but as the story deepens, it becomes clear they’re the same kid. Even so, I just didn’t care about shipmate Caden. I wanted to! I knew, by mid-book, why shipmate Caden existed, and the way Shusterman enmeshed the two Cadens really worked. The trick of putting the hospital and ship together worked beautifully too. But I didn’t love the book, ultimately. I loved things about the book. The illustrations are a nice addition, and really illustrate the book in more than decorative ways. Caden’s experiences and thoughts are vivid, though his supporting cast is a little cardboard-like, at times. The end of the book felt just right to me, even in its brutality. But I say again: I just didn’t love this book. Do I think it’s an important book? Yes, it very well might be. Is it well-written? Yes, absolutely. There’s a lot of good here.

Dumplin’ is seemingly more frivolous than Challenger Deep. Willowdean (Dumplin’) Dickson, a Texan, Dolly Parton-loving fat girl–well, she checked all my boxes for a heroine. So what if her act of defiance is wearing a red dress at a teenage Beauty Pageant? Willowdean and her friends’ visit to a drag show in Texas is one of the most fun scenes I remember reading in 2015. Willowdean’s careful, broken love for her Aunt Lucy touches my soul, and her contentious, not-good-enough relationship dumplinwith her pageant-queen mother hurts me deeply. She’s not perfect; you can’t love the way she treats some of her “friends” in the book, though you can love where she’s at with them by the end of the book. And when Bo kisses Willowdean? I almost can’t stand it, it’s so good. I can’t deny it, I actively love Willowdean. She’s the kind of fierce, wonderful fat girl that I wanted to be as a teenager. I had a hard time figuring out how to write about my love for this book, because I really just want to push Dumplin’ into the hands of all the girls and women I know and make them read it immediately. I’m certain they’ll understand if they just read it. All the love I couldn’t muster for Caden Bosch I pour into Willowdean Dickson. I pity Caden Bosch. I adore Willowdean Dickson. And I think that shows you that I’m the right audience for Dumplin’. I think Dumplin’s audience IS me, and girls like me. I am made to love this book. And I do. I love it so so so much. It’s possibly my favorite YA book I read in 2015.

So you see, this wasn’t a fair fight. It most likely wasn’t possible for me to love any book more than Dumplin’, no matter how good it was. I tried really hard to keep an open mind about Challenger Deep, and I do think it’s a really remarkable book. But it’s not Dumplin’. And because I’m me, I just have to give this round to Willowdean Dickson. She didn’t win that Beauty Pageant, but she can win this round of the Tournament of Books, at least.

WINNER: DUMPLIN’ BY JULIE MURPHY

Reviewed by Angela Romano, Oak Lawn Public Library

 

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And The Winner Is…I’ll Give You the Sun vs. The Winner’s Curse

I confess that there were other books on each side of the tournament bracket that I enjoyed more than both of these. If I’ve learned anything from participating in this tournament, then it’s that the goal is to really to pick the one book that everyone can live with.

I don’t love I’ll Give You the Sun for a couple of reasons, but I do like it a lot. The story of twins Jude and Noah, told through their alternating POVs, grabbed me right away. I found both characters and the transformations they experience over the course of the book to be very compelling. I also think that their passion for art – their need to create – is written in a beliewinner's cursevable way. That’s why I was willing to chalk up the many, many instances of miraculously good or bad timing within the plot to magical realism. The last 50 pages – which wrapped almost everything up in an improbably, overwhelmingly happy way – nearly ruined it for me, though. Judgmental dad has turned into “everything’s cool” dad.  He’s even cool with his 16-year old daughter dating a legal adult who’s also a recovering alcoholic. I’d love it if Nelson were to check in with Jude and Noah in another three years to reveal that some of the happiness they experienced was temporary, that they’ve transformed further, and that their lives go on in unexpected directions.

The Winner’s Curse took its sweet time in hooking me, as I never really connected with the main characters. I also had issues with Rutkowski’s fictional Valorian society. It’s supposedly inspired by the Roman Empire, which had a habit of enslaving the peoples it conquered; but with the picnics, balls and emphasis on manners, this society reminded me more of Jane Austen’s 19th century England. Many little plot holes bothered me, such as: if women are trained in combat and expected to join the military, why can’t they leave the house without an escort? The romance between Valorian aristocrat Kestral and Heranni slave Arin also made little sense to me. Could these two people possibly like each other if the plot did not demand it? Despite my issues, I did find it quick-paced and quite readable. I started to like it more once the Heranni revolution began. What I enjoyed most is the continuous game of bluffing and manipulation that Kestral engages in with everyone she meets. Forget her piano, forget Arin; what Kestral loves more than anything is gambling.

This contest was not a hard decision for me. With characters that attached themselves to me almost instantly and believable depictions of love and passion, I’ll Give You the Sun is the winner that I can live with.

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

i'll give you the sun

Round 3: I’ll Give You the Sun vs. Guy is Real Life

I have a few confessions to make pertaining to this round of the tournament. Confession #1: I absolutely, positively hated Jandy Nelson’s first title, The Sky is Everywhere. When I saw that this book had made it this far into the tournament, I balked. The writing style of that title was such that I panned it on more than one occasion during my YA Lit classes. I put it off until ti'll give you the sunhe end because I was pretty sure that I was going to hate it. Confession #2: I am a newly-minted gamer. I love my tabletop games like it’s nobody’s business. I’ve connected games into my life at every opportunity and got super GEEKED that I was going to be reading Guy in Real Life. My role in the tournament, though, is to take a look at these two titles and match them evenly…so, I did.   As with pretty much every YA novel that I’ve come across in the past few years, I was surprised and pleasantly so.

I’ll Give You the Sun (IGYTS) is about twins Jude and Noah, art, pain, love, death and journeys. This title is full of colorful language, and I had a bit of trouble with it at first. It felt as though I was reading a magical realism title, and as a reader, I’m not the best at that whole suspend-your-questions-and-just-believe thing. As the book went on, it became enveloping. The style did its twisting and turning so I could see the real magic that was happening in the world of Lost Coves. The characters of Jude, Noah and their compatriots are fully developed. IGYTS describes the intertwined relationship between not only brother and sister, but twins. There is a kind of magic in that relationship that only those two people know; twins have been together since the first day. In this story, Jude and Noah move in different paths, but their stories seemingly cannot move forward one without the other. I love the perspective that Nelson shows when the two twins see their sibling’s relationship with their mother before and after a major incident. In the beginning of the book, Noah waxes on the fact that his mother and grandmother loved Jude best. However, as the story goes on, and time goes by, it becomes clear that Noah and his mother had a shared love through art. It is tough for siblings to have that kind of experience when they both want the same thing…love and acceptance.

guy in real lifeGuy in Real Life similarly features love and journeys, but I’d add that this book focuses on acceptance, denial, stereotypes and relationships. But, this story’s relationships focus a bit less on family and a bit more on friends and the world of online gaming. Both Svetlana and Lesh fit into the “typical” tropes for teenagers today (I hate that idea of typical…we is who we is, dang it!). Lesh is a guy who meets a girl by kismet, and she happens to be a confident, smart and original girl gamer. He doesn’t start out the novel as a guy who is into games, but he very easily falls into online games when he is grounded. This leads him to create a character that looks a bit like (and reminds him of) the Svetlana he’s interested in in his real world. What I loved best about this book was Svetlana’s multifaceted character. I love that she embraced her own style and wasn’t worried about popularity or acceptance from anyone more than her friends and herself. She also wasn’t perfect to her family. She had an admirer in Fry, and she wasn’t afraid to punch him in the gut when he needed it. My biggest issue with this book was the ending and the stalker-from-MMORPG-thing. The end felt rushed, and it made me wonder how exactly all of that happened to come about. It was a bit disappointing to me, too, that the parents in this book seemed to be blundering and a bit out of scope. It’s sad that parents have to be an afterthought in YA sometimes.

So, without further ado, I would like to proclaim (and shock the heck out of everyone including myself) I’ll Give You the Sun by Jandy Nelson the winner of this round. Kudos, Nelson, on turning a doubter into a believer. And, of course, thank you for giving us Jude, Noah, Guillermo, Dianna, Brian and Oscar.

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

Round two: Afterworlds vs. Guy in Real Life

To begin with, full disclosure, I have been a fan of Scott Westerfeld for years. Also, I have never been a gamer. Of any kind. Ever. Having said that, it’s time to delve into two novels that employ the story within a story device in very different ways.

In Afterworlds by Scott Westerfeld, Darcy, the main character of the overarching story has just signed a contract for a book that she wrote during her senior year of high school. After graduation, with a huge advance in hand, she moves to New Yafterworldsork City and tries to find her way in the land of authors and publishing. Everything, from finding a cool apartment to getting her first girlfriend and gaining the support of her family seems to come easily to Darcy, which is what makes her whining and complaining so hard to take. The story that Darcy wrote, Afterworlds is told in chapters that alternate with her own. In that story, Lizzie is the lone survivor of a terrorist attack. To help her survive, she is transported to the Afterworld which begins her transition to a psychopomp. Along the way she finds love and deals with a truly evil being. While the terrorist attack will have you holding your breath while you tear through the story, the fact that Lizzie never has to deal with the horror of that experience is a missing piece to her character development.

Guy in Real Life by Steve Brezenoff approaches the story within a story in a much different way. In Guy in Real Life, Lesh wears black, listens to metal music and has a best friend who introduces him to MMOs. One night, he accidentally knocks Svetlana, an independent minded girl who is the Dragon Master in her friends’ RPG, off her bike and thus begins a reluctant friendship/relationship. Lesh’s character develops through the everyday action of the story, as well as his through his presence in the MMO where he first begins playing as a male character only to end up creating a female character based on Svetlana. The characters of Lesh, Lana and their friends are well developed and may remind you of some of the teens that you know. Sure, some of the characters say things that aren’t necessarily respectful and thoughtful, but that rings true for many fifteen-year-olds who are trying to figure out who they are and where they fit in the world.

While the intricate structure of Afterworlds is something to be commended, when it comes to characters that are relatable to the reader, Guy in Real Life has the advantage.

The Winner: Guy in Real Life by Steve Brezenoff

guy in real life

Round Two: I’ll Give You the Sun vs. Grasshopper Jungle

So here’s the thing: Grasshopper Jungle by Andrew Smith got kind of a bum deal this round. I’m glad I read this book. There are a lot of things I liked about it – the gross-out humor, the crazy science, Robby and Ingrid and the underground compound with all its weird pieces sprinkled throughout Ealing, this dying Iowa town that felt so real in its insular detail. I loved the Unstoppable Corn and the Unstoppable Soldiers and the surreal quality of the science fiction laid over this absolutely normal town in the middle of nowhere.Grasshopper Jungle

Little things like how Smith uses food metaphors to describe the skin tones of all the white Iowans in the book – subtly pointing out how ridiculous a thing this is to do when describing a person of any color. Big things like how authentic Austin’s confusion regarding sexuality feels. Austin knows he’s in love with both his girlfriend Shann and his best friend Robby, but what does that mean? What should he do? And why does everything on Earth make him horny all the time?

Austin’s voice – and the question of how much of this history he’s sharing is actually, reliably true – and the question that rises from that – how much of any history is actually, reliably true? This is the heart of the book.

But (and you knew that but was coming from about a mile away – or the beginning of this post, anyway) – I am not the reader for this book. I know there are people out there who love this book. I know there are teens out there to whom I will recommend Grasshopper Jungle and who will adore it. It’s not you Grasshopper Jungle, it’s me. Austin kept going around and around in circles with his history and the voice kept me at arm’s distance, and honestly, I don’t like to have to think so hard about what the author is trying to do while I read (see, bum deal, right?).  I knew going in that there were going to be giant, unstoppable bugs who would only want two things – to paraphrase a bit: to eat and to copulate, but it felt like it took forever to get to the, er, copulating bugs!!

And then I read Jandy Nelson’s I’ll Give You the Sun. And I fell in love. This book – oh man this book. It kept me up ‘til 2 in the morning when I finally had to put it down and go to sleep only to wake up and immediately start reading it again. The twin voices of Noah and Jude separated by time and all the secrets and lies between them captured me in a way Austin’s voice just didn’t. Just like in Grasshopper Jungle there are complex explorations of identity and sexuality going on here both for Jude and for Noah, who are both attracted to boys.

The way Nelson structures the two narratives is masterful – revealing clues to what happened in the years between through both sides of the timeline without the plot or the timing ever seeming forced. Because it’s broken up like this, it’s almost a puzzle structure (literary i'll give you the suncatnip to me – more of GJ’s bum deal) where you can see the pieces falling into place faster and faster towards the end.

Grief is a theme of intense interest to me – my brother died in a car accident over 8 years ago and a close friend followed several years after from the flu – and this book is chock full of grief. Grief not only for those who have left us through death, but grief for how we hide ourselves from the world and grief for how often we seem to harm the ones we love.

But Nelson also shows how humor is still there – even when our worlds are falling apart. I kept stopping to read funny parts out loud to my husband. “I’m so glad I’m not a horse.” “Did you just say you’re glad you’re not a horse?” The way Nelson captures these things makes me wonder what kind of loss and grief she has lived through that she can depict them so well. I can only hope that any teens I know who are dealing with grief in their lives find their way to books like this one.

And to top it all off – I’ll Give You the Sun is also about the power of art to change lives, to remake the world, to break your heart open wide so it can be whole again. (I was a music major in college and my best friend was an art major – seriously the deck just could not BE more stacked against GJ.)

With all these themes (I didn’t even talk about forgiveness or ghosts or magic), I never felt bogged down in my reading. There were so many avenues of thought to explore, but I didn’t feel like I was admiring Nelson’s technique from afar – I was right there in the middle of it.. And on a slightly shallower note, the make-out scenes in I’ll Give You the Sun were really, really hot. Plus, I’m a sucker for a happy ending.

So, Grasshopper Jungle I like you a lot, I hope we can be friends. But my heart belongs to I’ll Give You the Sun. I just hope the next judge treats you kindly.

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

Round Two: Lying and Cursing

I was given the difficult task of choosing between We Were Liars and Winner’s Curse. Because I gave five stars to both of these books after I read them the first time, deciding between the two involved rereading and reevaluating the reasons why I loved them so.we were liars

We Were Liars by E. Lockhart is about Cady, her affluent privileged family, and a mystery surrounding her sudden illness. Liars is narrated by Cady, an unreliable character, and this sets the mysterious tone. Her family is all about appearances and although Cady doesn’t share this philosophy, she suffers it until she meets Gat. Gat isn’t just a handsome, charming Indian boy; he’s the antithesis of the Sinclairs and what Cady wants to be. In the process, she develops a crush. Her desire to impress him causes her to suffer fools and to make a life-changing mistake. The Sinclair family is reinterpreted by way of King Lear through short fairy tales and these tales cause Cady to see her family for what they are-three women manipulated by their father. We see Cady grow through these stories and by the end of the novel, she no longer “suffers fools,” in other words, become angry with stupid people.

Liars has lovely characters that all contributed to the story. Although it’s been done before, weaving King Lear and Wuthering Heights into the novel provided an alternative way of telling a story about love, family, and friendship. Given that most teenagers reading this novel don’t have their own island, the desire to be different from one’s family and to be loved for who you are, is relatable.

Winner’s Curse by Marie Rutkoski is about Kestrel, a seventeen year old Valorian, who’s the daughter of the general. In a land where you are either in the military or married, Kestrel must find a way to achieve happiness with her inevitable decision but her life becomes derailed when she buys a Herrani slave.

Let me begin by saying that Kestrel is a badass and by far one of the best heroines I’ve read in a long time. Since the invention of Katniss, female protagonists in YA fiction are all great fighters or fast runners or the chosen one with all the good magic. What happened to the Hermiones? To the girls who use their brain to outwit their opponents? That girl has returned and her name is Kestrel Trajan. Although Kestrel is the daughter of a general and receives combat lessons on the regular, she is not a good fighter or does she pretends to be. She is a strategist. Throughout the novel, Kestrel’s father possesses strong philosophies of war and weakness and winning. Kestrel listens intently and manages to use other people’s weakness to defeat them. She outwits her father, the leader of the Herrani revolution, and the emperor. Winner’s Curse is a love story that takes its time to build a world of powerful empires and forbidden love.winner's curse

Verdict: Both novels are beautifully written and have powerful themes. Liars is very black and white. It’s about a girl who doesn’t like her family and manipulative granddad and makes a horrible mistake-that’s it. After the tragedy, the family doesn’t change. They relish in their new celebrity status. Cady says she’s changed because she no longer “suffers fools” but because the story ends so abruptly, we don’t know if she truly changed. Does she do charity work? Does she go to college and become a different person than her family? We don’t know. Liars is a great story but there are no other themes or lessons other than there are consequences to your actions-very black and white.

Winner’s Curse however contains many gray areas. It’s not just a love story but about a girl who struggles with her duty to her people and her father or helping the slaves and the man she loves. It’s not just about war but about defeating your opponents through their weaknesses-love, gossip, and pride. It’s about the choices one makes to let a loved one go and the sacrifice of oneself for the greater good. Winner’s is slow and purposeful and exciting.

Although We Were Liars is a literary novel and deemed “good literature” and Winner’s Curse is a fantasy, Winner’s Curse possesses more themes and life lessons.

Winner: The Winner’s Curse

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