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Thursday, March 27, 2014

March Madness: Kids' Books Style

For lovers of children’s books, March Madness has had a whole new meaning since the arrival of School Library Journal’s Battle of the Books SLJsBoB) in 2009. That first year, SLJsBoB convinced me to try a book that sounded awful to me: The Hunger Games, by Suzanne Collins. Kids killing other kids on television? I was so not interested. But once four different judges explained why they found it compelling, I changed my mind. Of course, when every child in the country wanted to read it, I was glad I already had!

Here’s the format: The Battle Commanders (Monica Edinger, Roxanne Feldman and Jonathan Hunt), children’s literature enthusiasts all, choose 16 of the best children’s and young adult books from the previous calendar year. Then they arrange the titles into brackets and recruit 15 celebrity judges, authors of children’s and young adult books.

SLJsBoB happens when the excitement of award season and its precise criteria has died down. Part of the fun of the contest is that the judges are given no criteria at all. They simply have to choose a winner between two outstanding books and explain their choice. Hilarity, agonizing and insight ensue.

These are the things I love about SLJsBoB:
  1. The Books - The Commanders do a fantastic job of selecting 16 titles worth reading.  The selections vary across the spectrum of good books from the previous year, including fiction and nonfiction, books for different age levels and books in different formats. You can think of it as a concise and readable best books list.
  1. The Judges - Oh, they pick such wonderful judges!  If my favorite book isn’t always included, at least I can always find some of my favorite authors participating. They’re good at writing books themselves; can they also analyze good writing? It turns out they can.
  1. The Commentary - What happens when you ask stellar children’s authors to choose between two outstanding children’s books – and explain their choice?  All kinds of creative things.
    • Adam Rex using footnotes to compare The Ring of Solomon to Sugar Changed the World.
    • M. T. Anderson revealing authors’ abstruse way of talking about books as they stroll together in their vast estates.
    • Vaunda Nelson explaining how an encyclopedic science book is similar to an atmospheric and poignant teen novel.
    • Mac Barnett explaining his background in pre-modern Scandinavian literature. (Who knew?)
    • In short, reading the judges’ commentary is almost as much fun as reading the books and certainly more easily done in breaks on a busy work day.
  1. The Competition - Okay, my favorite books don’t have a great record, but the competition aspect definitely adds to the excitement. It’s fun to try to guess which book the judge will pick and then discover you know less about the judge than you think you do. It’s fun to figure out which book I would pick and how I would defend my choice, if I were a judge. And it’s fun to cheer for your favorites, all the while knowing (as the judges keep repeating) that each of the books is outstanding, and evaluating books is a subjective process.  When favorite authors share my opinions it’s delightful, but it’s also fascinating when they approach a book completely differently than I do.
  1. The Comments - I feel welcomed as a commenter on Battle of the Books, and there is a sense that the judges’ posts are simply a springboard for hearing everyone else’s opinions.
This is book discussion in a lively, entertaining context. Come on in. Observe, comment. Join the Peanut Gallery! The more the merrier!

- Sondra Eklund, Fairfax Regional Library

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