Saturday, March 31, 2012

The Finalists

Round Three Winners
My favorite line from Judge Maggie Stiefvater's decision: "But the idea seemed simple. You read two books, and you like one of them better. You explain your thoughts in a coherent way, and then you retreat to your kitchen to make cookie dough." This is pretty much where Maggie and I split ways on this one.

 My favorite line from Judge Ron Koertge's decision: "I like to really know the characters in books. I like to ride around in cars with them, eat dinner with them, sleep in their spare rooms and poke around in their medicine cabinets." I completely agree with this sentiment, but had no desire to do any of those things with the characters to whom he was referring.

The Undead Winner
  I didn't vote for Okay For Now, but I almost did. I'm extremely satisfied that it won the Undead.

My Thoughts on the Finals

When the list of books in this year's battle was announced four of my Favorite Reads of 2011 made the list: The Cheshire Cheese Cat, Chime, A Monster Calls, and Okay For Now. Amelia Lost and Inside Out and Back Again were also high on my list. Choosing a favorite was difficult. When the list was announced there were seven books I hadn't read and I managed to get them all in before the battle began. I am grateful for this because I probably wouldn't have read Between Shades of Gray or Drawing From Memory without this competition, and I found many things to appreciate in both. Now we are down to 3 books and saying good bye to the 13 others has been difficult. They are all worthy books.

Between Shades of Gray (my review) is an important book that tells a part of history not often discussed. I was hesitant to read it prior to the competition because I am always wary of historical fiction, especially if it is on a subject I know quite a bit about already. This was the case with Between Shades of Gray. I taught at at a school that saw a constant influx of students newly arrived from both Russia and the Baltic States. I needed an understanding of their history because the consequences of it were playing themselves out in my classroom on a daily basis. I exaggerate not at all when I say those kids hated each other's guts. Feeling the need to understand the problem before I could attempt to deal with it, I did a lot of research. This may be why the book didn't have quite the emotional impact on me it had on others. However, it is a wonderful book and one I would most definitely include in my curriculum if I taught middle school or high school history. I really like the way Sepetys made Lina an artist who funneled her feelings and recorded her condition through her drawings. My biggest complaint about the book is that I felt the characters were a little underdeveloped, Lina a mere vehicle for the bigger story and her mother a little too perfect. I appreciated how the book showed all the shades of gray of the human condition and highlighted the perseverance of the human spirit and the power of hope.

Life: an Exploded Diagram (my review) has beautiful language and is constructed in such a way to cause marvel at its literary strengths. It is, in my opinion, not a kids' book. That is not to say that there aren't kids out there who wouldn't want to read it and appreciate it. I'm sure there are. It is, however, a book I wouldn't let my own children read until they were well into high school-a point at which I don't consider people "kids" anymore. The powers that be decided it was a kids' book though and so here it is. I have made it known that I don't like this book. It is, despite its lyrical descriptive language, a cynical and  hopeless dissection of life. It is dark and depressing, but not at all deep. The characters are self consumed and shallow.  I was so sick of listening to everyone in the book whine about the futility and emptiness of their lives, the shaking of their fists at the sky and cursing, the wallowing in their misery. (Hence my boredom.) There is no love of anything, least of all life, demonstrated.I have never understood why adults want to indulge in hopeless cynicism like this and then acclaim it as brilliant. I certainly don't know why we would want to be encouraging children to do the same thing. Hope of a better future, despite one's circumstances, is a quality that I believe should be nurtured, not squashed.

Okay for Now (my review) is the story of a boy, Doug, doing what kids do, growing up and figuring out life. He is doing this in 1968-1969, newly arrived in small town New York. I love Doug. He captured my heart within the first few pages of his story and has yet to let go of it. I wanted to shake him at times, I wanted to hug him at times, I wanted to roll my eyes at him at times, I wanted to give him a high five at times. At all times I found him endearing, even when I didn't like him. What I really find to be brilliant about this book is how Schmidt used Doug to represent the time period. He is an individual that demonstrates the universal. The year of his life we see was an interesting year in the chronicles of American history. On one hand there was vast discontentment and anger brewing over US involvement in Vietnam. Horrors and atrocities were taking place and young men were returning home broken physically and emotionally. On the other hand you have the Apollo missions, a testament to the potential of human perseverance and persistence, so much possibility for the future. Tragedy and hope playing out side by side in the living rooms of Americans every night. Doug has a tragic and sad life in many ways, he has been abused physically and emotionally. At the same time he is persistent and he perseveres. Most importantly he has hope. Even when he has to acknowledge things might only be okay for now, there is always hope that the future will be even better.

You might call me naive or too idealistic, but those are labels I will proudly wear if they describe me as a person who will always choose the hopeful over the hopeless. I prefer books that celebrate the amazing resilience of the human spirit. That being the case I want to see either Between Shades of Gray or Okay for Now win this. Because I love it (and Doug) with all my heart my top choice is obviously Okay For Now.


  1. What a great analysis! I'm with you on the hope issue. Though I confess I still need to get out of the SFF corner and read Okay for Now.

    1. Thanks Kate!

      Okay for Now is a must read, so yes you do need to wander over to the historical fiction corner for a bit. (It's not my favorite place to wander but is worth it for this one.) I'm super excited because Schmidt has a fantasy novel coming out later this year. Can't wait to see what he does in my favorite genre.

  2. Much as I enjoyed Between Shades of Gray, I sometimes wonder if historical fiction gets too much credit when its about something "new." Don't get me wrong, I liked this book; I liked learning something new; but is learning something new in a book enough to make that book better than another?

    As for Life, I tried. The reasons you mention are why I just could not finish it; and when I read the end and saw what real-life event was being used, I threw it against the wall in disgust. (Not literally. In my head.)

    1. Liz-I wonder the same thing about the "new" in historical fiction. I never thought Between Shades of Gray was strong enough, from a literary perspective, to beat Chime.