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: Caraval vs Landscape with Invisible Hand

This was a hard decision for me.  For one, these are two works of YA fiction which would be hard to make more different from each other. For another, I love the world-building in both, as well as the language which reflects the style of each world.  To boot, I have my own inclinations that might happen to be skewed less toward that of mass-appeal, and feel like I waffle between both for different reasons, even now. See, I have a penchant for science fiction and stories with dry humor and irony (Landscape), as well as shorter works.  I also tend not to like cliched or cheesy romance that has not had time to develop, yet has to take itself ultra-seriously as a plot-point (Caraval).

Landscape with Invisible Hand by M T Anderson

landscapeI love M.T. Anderson’s works, his directness, natural commentary on modern life without being heavy-handed, and that he requires a little more abstraction and working the imagination-muscle. Like his Feed, the sci-fi aspects (the aliens, setting, etc.) don’t take center stage but are a framework for the characters, relationship and dialogue.  Contrasted to Caraval’s omniscient, candid tell-all narrative, more is left unsaid but still understood – the author gives context and atmosphere that allow the feelings and tension he wants to convey, to sink in.  He has so many phrases which are gems, at the same time keeping much of the writing grounded in a doggedly mundane, real unreality (as opposed to Caraval’s beautiful, unreal-unreality).  This might leave the story feeling sparse or tedious for some, but I think it’s great for older teens who appreciate irony and stories that are not action-packed or visually “pretty.” Similar to how the Alex award features adult books that will find teen readership; I would put this in a category of YA books that could have special appeal for adults.

In Landscape, Adam and Chloe have grown to dislike each other but continue to act as fake-boyfriend/girlfriend in something analogous to a pay-per-view youtube channel providing entertainment for the vuvv, aliens who have taken over Earth.  The vuvv are in a position of power, taking advantage of the broken human economy. For instance, while the vuvv have the cure to every disease, very few humans can get good jobs or afford to pay for things like medical treatment.  Adam, a painter, decides to enter a vuvv art contest with a hefty prize, choosing to risk painting the landscapes he loves, rather than what the vuvv are known to like. With such a cool premise, I feel like it could’ve been expanded and developed more.

Caraval by Stephanie Garber

27883214If Anderson’s use of language and descriptions in Landscape is sometimes spartan, Garber’s is baroque.  Highly readable, Garber creates a delicious visual escapade, painted so vividly it goes down smooth as a milkshake (with psychedelic sprinkles).  The setting of Caraval plays as important a role as any character.  Sisters Scarlet and Tella end up separated at Caraval – something of a carnival in a city, or a city in a carnival.  Intending to only stay one day, they’re stranded for five in a game where magic and fantasy blend with reality. It’s hard to know where one ends and the other begins.  Readers will enjoy large doses of action, romance, family issues (complex sisterly love and their struggle against an abusive father who also plays cruel games). They will rub elbows with characters who manipulate, question who to trust, question their senses and the price of their sanity.  You won’t just remember what happened – you’ll remember colors vibrant with emotion, smells, sounds, tastes, the feel of temperature, different fabrics and pressure of touch. This is a place you want to spend time in, and while you’re there, uncover history and clues to a high-stakes competition.  Granted, this is only the first in the series, I felt there was a lot of intrigue and repetition about how fantastical Caraval was, but I wanted the book to show me more of this rather than talk around it, in the places it did. Perhaps the author was just saving some surprises for the sequel(s). Just like the five days they spend at Caraval, it seems to go by too fast.

And the winner is…


Caraval by Stephanie Garber

Despite my personal tastes, I had to go with Caraval as the winner for this round, because I think it offers more to more readers (and more types of readers) than Landscape With Invisible Hand.

Annie Budzinski is a Hufflepuff/Ravenclaw YA librarian at the West Chicago Public Library, local explorer, and kid at heart.

Back to Round One, Bracket Sixteen

Onto Round Two, Bracket Two

Tournament of Books, Round One: Caraval vs When Dimple Met Rishi

For the tournament I read Caraval by Stepanie Garber and When Dimple Met Rishi by Sandhya Menon. Both were titles I was eager to read and had heard great things about, so I was excited to have an excuse to dedicate the time to them.

Caraval by Stephanie Garber

27883214Caraval is the first book in a fantasy / romance series. It follows Scarlett Dragna, her sister, Tella, and a rogue companion, Julian, as they travel through the magical world of Caraval, a carnival controlled by its master, Legend. Scarlett had been mesmerized with the tales of Caraval spun by her grandmother when she was little, and after years of writing to Legend to attend, she has finally been sent tickets. Only a few days before her impending arranged marriage, Scarlett decides to leave the home of their abusive father and attend the carnival. Shortly upon arriving at Caraval with Julian, Scarlett realizes her sister has been kidnapped, and it appears her disappearance is part of the game. The world-building of Caraval is subtle, taking our own world and making it more magical and lush through descriptive language. Throughout the novel, Scarlett and Julian are met with challenges, puzzles, and magic. The story moves at a fast-pace, with action and mystery propelling the characters and reader forward. Throughout the story, Garber leaves the truth elusive. Details about Julian’s role in Caraval, Scarlett’s fiance, Scarlett and Tella’s grandmother, Legend, and many other details unravel throughout the story, always leaving the reader wondering who to trust and what to believe. As the novel comes to a close, the reader discovers the truths along with Scarlett. The ending of the novel, while tying up loose ends, also reminds the reader of a couple of open storylines in order to set up the next book in the series.

This novel was a fantasy in the vein of many current fantasies: a strong female protagonist searches through a magical world for truths while also entering into a romance with a fellow game-player. While there were a handful of possibly cliche fantasy moments, this book quickly catches its reader up in the whimsical, magical world of Caraval, and nothing else matters. The romance and mystery are sure to propel readers forward to find the truth.

When Dimple Met Rishi by Sandhya Menon

511bUaa-oBL.jpgWhen Dimple Met Rishi is a contemporary rom-com that follows Dimple and Rishi through the summer after their senior year of high school. Both characters are Indian American, and throughout the story we see both of them struggle to find balance between honoring their parents’ wishes, traditions, and customs and forging their own paths. Dimple is very focused on her education, but her mother seems more interested in Dimple settling down with an I.I.H. (Ideal Indian Husband). So, when Dimple’s parents agree to send her to the summer coding program at Stanford that she has been dying to attend, Dimple thinks maybe her parents have begun to understand her passion for her education and career. Shortly after Dimple arrives at the summer program she realizes why her parents agreed to send her here: Dimple and Rishi’s parents have arranged for the two to meet in hopes that they will be a suitable couple. While Dimple and Rishi’s relationship starts off rocky, as with many contemporary romances, the couple begins to find common ground and a swoon-worthy romance blossoms. Dimple helps Rishi understand the importance of breaking from family tradition to pursue what he wants (comic book design), while Rishi helps Dimple understand that her family does have her best interests at heart. The couple does come up against the formulaic struggles, but we are left with a happy ending. Throughout the novel, while we do get a rather insta-love story, we also see a good dose of healthy communication. Dimple is also a rather strong and smart female protagonist. And the exploration of the balance of family and personal desires at such a pivotal point in one’s life is very relevant.

Overall, this is a perfect choice for a teen looking for a lighthearted contemporary romance. It hits all the right marks for the genre. While it does touch on more serious issues, at its heart is is a romantic comedy that follows the formula.

It was a really hard decision between these two books, as I enjoyed them both, and I feel they would appeal to different readers, but, my winner is…


Caraval by Stephanie Garber

While I am a sucker for a contemporary romance, and I absolutely loved reading a rom-com with diverse characters, I ultimately think Caraval would be more widely appealing for current teen readers. The fast-pace, suspenseful plot, and magical world all sucked me in early on, and I think the same would be true for many readers.

Noelle Spicher is an Adult and Teen Focus Librarian at Lisle Library District in Illinois.


Onto Round One, Bracket Two