Battle of the Kids’ Books by Monica Edinger
SLJ’s Battle of the Kids’ Books is a March Madness-style contest for children’s and young adult books now in its sixth year. It begins with the three individuals (myself, Jonathan Hunt, and Roxanne Feldman) that make up the entity known as the Battle Commander reading, reading, and reading before coming up with the 16 contenders (more about our criteria and process here), and creating a bracket for the battles. Meanwhile, School Library Journal recruits 15 outstanding creators of children’s literature as judges. Then, every March, the battle itself takes off — three rounds of a bracket-style competition.
Much of the pleasure of the BoB comes from reading the remarkable write-ups of our stellar judges. Over the years the lineup has been amazing, among them all three of the former Ambassadors of Young People’s Literature as well as other luminaries. Thanks to the wonderful publishers, the contender books speed out to the judges to read and then their thoughtfully written decisions come racing back to us.
We love bringing attention back to books of the previous year this way. The decisions by our celebrity judges are always witty, smart, and invariably get followers reading books they hadn’t thought they’d want to read. The judges do a fabulous job in their write-ups of making both books, the one that goes on and the one that does not, so intriguing that if you haven’t already read them you are going to want to run right out to find them and get started.
To give you a taste of what the battle is like here are a few excerpts from previous BoBs:
2009 Big Kahuna (as the final judge is called) Lois Lowry began her decision with a…
I have given my final decision essay a title. Its title is COP-OUT. That is not a bad title, although not as great a title as, say, TENDER MORSELS….
….which I have read, because even though I was not required to read any of the contenders except the two finalists, I was sent all the contenders (Thank you, publishers. Now will you come to my house and build me some more bookcases, please?) and found that I couldn’t resist. It was a little like shooting a few hoops with Villanova and going one-on-one with Georgetown before finally picking up my whistle and heading out onto the court with North Carolina and Michigan State.
And so I read them all. They were all winners. Please, could we just agree on that at the outset? Well-written, brilliantly researched, handsomely designed. I wish I’d written each one of them, and I’m pissed that I didn’t have a book in the running, and am desperately envious of every author involved, even the ones with whom I had a glass of wine last week….
The following year, Big Kahuna Katherine Paterson used a variation on the understandably popular fruit metaphor when beginning her decision. (The frequent references to apples and oranges caused Horn Book editor Roger Sutton to recently recommend that this year’s judges “…would be wise to avoid any mention of fruit.”).
If you have been following the Battle, you know what a pickle I found myself in. As I told one of the Battle Commanders when I learned the titles of the three finalists, “This is not a choice between apples and oranges, it’s a choice between apples, orangutans, and orchids.” The good news is I was given three fine and worthy books. The bad news is that I had to eliminate two of them….
Judge M. T. Anderson began his with fruit and thumbs:
DARWIN VS. TATE: MANO A MANO (with opposable thumbs)
In last year’s Battle of the Books, judges fretted about comparing apples to oranges. That’s not my problem. I’m forced to compare apples to apples: two books about scientific investigation, Darwinism, and large families, both with yellow foolscap covers ornamented with Victorian silhouettes. One book is fiction (Jacqueline Kelly’s The Evolution of Calpurnia Tate) and one is non-fiction (Charles and Emma: Darwin’s Leap of Faith, by Deborah Heiligman). So here they are – if not the same species, then at least, er, a case of convergent evolution resulting in paired traits appearing in separate clades. So let’s hit it, kiddies: Darwin vs. Tate! ** Survival of the fittest! ** Mano a mano with opposable thumbs!…
Grace Lin, on the other hand, went for a different form of nature by ending hers with snow:
But which do I think is better? That is hard question to answer. To compare Keeper to The Cardturner is like comparing watching a magical snowfall outside your window to the pleasure of watching your favorite television show. One is soul-filling while the other satisfying. For me, I’ll go with the soul and I choose…
As you can see, the judges’ decisions are always thoughtful, appreciative, and generous. And so, whether a book goes forward or not, the write-ups make all of them winners.
As for you Newbery nerds, a warning — I’m afraid the medalists haven’t fared very well at the BoB. Since we make-up our list before the awards are announced we are very proud that we’ve had all of the medalists save one (Moon Over Manifest) since we began and some of the honors as well. That said, to date none of the medalists have made it out of the first round. Jon Scieszka, in 2009 picked The Trouble Begins at Eight over The Graveyard Book. In 2010 Julius Lester went for Tales from Outer Suburbia over When You Reach Me while, in 2012, Daughter of Smoke and Bone was Sara Zarr’s choice over Dead End in Norvelt, As for last year, Catherine Gilbert-Murdock selected No Crystal Stair (the final overall winner of the competition) over The One and Only Ivan. Who knows? Maybe 2014 will be the year that the BOB Newbery Curse is finally broken!
We have all sorts of fun things going on around the battles. Say our Undead Poll. This is a chance for you, the public, to vote for your favorite contender in case it gets kicked out of the competition before the final round. The top vote-getter then gets to return from the dead to participate in the final three-way Big Kahuna Round. (There has been campaigning — one year the surprise winner of the Undead Poll was The Frog Scientist because a scientist blogger urged his readers to go vote for it and….it won in a surprisingly landslide!) Then there are our very popular kid commentators who are very forthright about what they think about the judges’ decisions. I’m pleased to say they will be back this year.
Many teachers, librarians, and others are bringing the BOB to their own schools and libraries. If you are interested in learning more about how to do this, check out Shelley Diaz’s article, “Tips for Creating a Mock BoB” (which features Colby Sharp’s plans for a doing a version of one in his classroom this year).
There’s always loads of chatter on twitter (our handle is @sljsbob and the hashtag #sljbob) and plenty keep up on blogs, pinterest, and other sites which we do our best to document on our Peanut Gallery posts. Drawings, lego, video, and more have been used by our loyal followers to celebrate the event.
All in all, SLJ’s BoB is a fun and playful way to revisit your favorite books from the previous year and to get to know some new ones as well. This year’s Battle begins on March 10th. Hope to see you there!
Monica Edinger, a fourth grade teacher in New York City, is the author of books and articles about teaching, children’s literature, and other related topics as well as a professional book reviewer. She created and help runs SLJ’s Battle of the Kids’ Books and blogs at educating alice and the Huffington Post. Her first book for children is Africa is My Home: A Child of the Amistad, from Candlewick Press.