I’m going to start this final (!!!) battle by telling some stories.
When Beth told me she wanted me to judge the final round, this was my response: “Ha, use me as you see fit! The final round sounds SCARY though. (I am willing! But I want to note my fear, haha.)” I still feel this way. I can’t turn down such an honor, but SCARY.
Beth credits me with the idea for this battle and I tell people NO. WRONG. But it is true I suggested it! See, Beth loves the SLJ Batttle of the Kids’ Books. And, every year, she gets me excited about it, too. So when she was disappointed with this year’s battle books (the fault of a down year for new books, not of the fine people at SLJ), I encouraged her to run her own battle. But I don’t like taking credit it for it because Beth was the one who took that suggestion and turned it into an amazing reality. She went through the hard work of selecting books and tracking down judges and putting it all together.
Another story: I decided to read all the battle books. I’d read 6 of the 16 books before, so that gave me a head start. And I owned 4 more (my gigantic to read pile finally paid off!). Thanks to my excellent library systems, I was able to get my hands on 9 of the remaining 10 books. And I can’t really fault my libraries for not owning A Face Like Glass, as it hasn’t been released in the US. (Except, oddly, on the Kindle. Which was handy for me, as I do most of my reading on my Kindle.)
And I read them all. I suppose that would be a useful thing to add to that story. And ohhhhh. It was fun. I didn’t love all of them (don’t hate me, Beth!), but there was nothing I hated. I had a preference in most rounds, but it was often a mild one because these are all such excellent books.
One more story before I move on to actually talking about the battle: I was completely wrong about what this matchup would be. (Sidenote: My nightmare final battle was Chime vs. Jellicoe Road. Those were on the same side of the bracket, so it would’ve never happened, but I had fun thinking about it. Both of those books are all time favorites of mine. I think I would’ve gone with Chime. Maybe. But ohhh. Jellicoe Road, I love you, too.) In my original mock bracket, I had a final of The Demon King vs. Sorcery & Cecelia. It’s not so surprising, really, that I didn’t accurately pick the final two at the very beginning, even if I am familiar with a lot of the judges’ reading preferences. In that matchup, I had myself picking The Demon King. Then Jess fell in love with Sorcery & Cecelia and I started thinking, ohhhh, maybe I would choose that one. (The School Story, however, is a new favorite of mine, so I love that Mireille picked it to advance.)
Part of me is glad I didn’t have to make that choice, but part of me is sad that I can’t use this battle as an excuse to re-read The Demon King and its sequels.
So, once I knew the final four, you’d figure I’d have a better chance of selecting the final books, right? Alas, I still did not know anything. I thought it would be The Road Home vs. The Cardturner. That choice would’ve been easy for me, as I had trouble with the surprise supernatural aspect of The Cardturner (though I certainly enjoyed the family aspects of the book).
I am creeping dangerously close to reaching 1000 words without mentioning the books I am judging. So! A Face Like Glass vs. Year of the Griffin.
It makes me so happy that both of these books are fantasy! I read across many genres, but fantasy (and I’ll include things like urban fantasy and paranormal romance in this) is still the one that feels closest to me. I respond well to books that come at things in a setting outside our reality.
Frances Hardinge is an author I’ve been meaning to read for a while, thanks to Beth’s glowing recommendation. The way my brain works, this means she’s also been an author I’ve been scared to read for a while. I suppose some of it is fear that I won’t love an author that a friend loves (thereby ruining our friendship forever!), but some of it is I feel like I just won’t be cool enough to like the book.
Fortunately, my fears on that were assuaged when I got to this part:
They could brew Wine that would make you remember the face of your dead love so clearly you could count her eyelashes, or that would make you forget specific chapters of a book so that you could read them again with pleasure.
That spoke to me so much that I was ready to just relax and go where the story wanted to take me.
Diana Wynne Jones, on the other hand, is an author I knew somewhat well. I think I may have even read Year of the Griffin before. It seemed familiar enough for me to believe that it was one of those books I read long ago, before the days of logging everything on GoodReads, before so much of what I read came via internet recommendations. Anyway, whether I’ve read this book before or not, I had a good idea of what to expect with a Diana Wynne Jones book.
Both of these books have great world building, but they do it in different ways. A Face Like Glass describes the world in detail, while Year of the Griffin presents it more matter of factly. I don’t always like the detailed approach, but A Face Like Glass presents such a fascinating world that I was happy to read so much about it. And Year of the Griffin was fairly smooth sailing in this regard. Diana Wynne Jones tends to leave me wanting to know more about her worlds, but in a good way. (And, in this case, some of that “more” may have been covered in The Dark Lord of Derkholm.)
And ohhh, I’m just going to borrow from my fellow judges for a bit. I loved Brandy’s examination of Neverfell’s character. Neverfell IS naive. As an adult reader, who knows ever so much more about the world, it could be easy to dislike how trusting she is. But I don’t. At all. I love how eager Neverfell is to see the good in the world, to immediately embrace people as friends. And, when she finds out about the bad aspects of the world, she does something about them. That’s incredible and incredibly admirable.
And Andree wonderfully pointed out the celebration of intellectual curiosity in Year of the Griffin. The characters are eager to get an education (even defying their families to do so!) and, when it turns out the school isn’t so great, they do something about that. They figure out ways to learn and to apply what they learn.
So. What to do?
Well, for me, so much of this battle as a whole is wrapped up Beth’s and my discussions about the nature of book awards. Awards seem to try to take an objective approach to something that is a subjective experience. Beth talked about this in her critera post. One of the criteria of the Printz award is accuracy. Midwinterblood, by Marcus Sedgwick, won the most recent Printz award. Midwinterblood was also chosen for the SLJ Battle of Kids’ Books and Mac Barnett found quite a few inaccuracies in the book.
And accuracy IS something that’s fairly objective! Maybe the inaccuracy Barnett talks about didn’t bother the Printz judges or maybe they found good things that outweighed any wrong details, but that doesn’t change the fact that Midwinterblood got some things just plain wrong.
So what does that mean for criteria like “voice” and “story”? How can one come to some sort of objective opinion about those? I can’t. And I don’t want to either. I like being subjective. I like telling people, “YOU MUST READ THIS AMAZING BOOK RIGHT THIS SECOND.”
And, yeah, I like going into more depth than that, too. I do like talking about what does and doesn’t work in a book. But, even then, isn’t that personal? You like a book. I don’t. Is one of us wrong? Is one of us so fantastically more intelligent than the other person that we see things the other person can’t? I don’t think so.
A useful phrase I came across years ago is, “I admired this more than I liked this.” So many critically acclaimed novels are well-written, well-plotted, and I don’t like them. And some books that might have more technical flaws capture my heart. Which kind of book is “better”? Well, I’d argue for the one I liked better. When my friends and I talk about books, the question I see us asking each other over and over, is “Would I like this book?” Not “Is it a good book?” We simply want to know whether we’ll enjoy reading it.
Now, I did like and admire both of these books. But when Beth told me what the final two books were, it became a choice between one that did things better technically and one that I liked just a little better.
Why did I like it better? I wish I had the words to explain it. To clarify what it is that made me connect more to this book, to the characters, and the relationships. Maybe someday I’ll know how to write about it. But, for today, I want to make an argument that liking a book is valuable, that the mysterious “something” that makes a book well-loved is as much a part of good writing as things like “delineation of characters” and “interpretation of the theme or concept.”
I want to say that maybe the “best” book is the one I like most.
And that book is Year of the Griffin.
Congratulations to Year of the Griffin, the YA/MG Battle champion! Cue the internet confetti!