Battling Books, Why?

Recently, an individual I admire mentioned SLJ’s Battle of the Kids’ Books with distaste. Why, this person wondered, does everything have to be a competition? As someone who doesn’t follow sports of any kind, hates spelling bees and similar sorts of school activities, and doesn’t watch the Oscars or American Idol, I find it an excellent question. And so why despite my dislike of competition did I come up with this event?

I was inspired by The Tournament of Books which features adult literary fiction and offers a live rooster to the winner because of something to do with David Sedaris’s brother. In last year’s ToB contender announcement the organizers wrote:

But note that the arbitrary nature of this contest does not make it more random than other book awards. For all their diligence and secrecy, book awards rely on the particular tastes of a very few individuals combined with the art of compromise. Not only can book awards not tell you what the best book of the year is, frequently the winner of a book award is not anyone’s actual favorite, but rather not anyone’s least favorite.

What the Rooster stands for is not definitiveness, but transparency. Transparency and fun.

And fun is what I’ve found it to be. Over the years I’d loved their smart discussion about the books, often ended up reading some of their contenders because of it, and thought it would be wonderful to do something similar with children’s books. Roxanne Feldman and Jonathan Hunt thought so too as did SLJ (who came up with the name, I’d probably have gone with something less, er, warlike) and so we were off.

It is, to my mind a game, a way to consider last year’s books, and to consider literature in a wide variety of ways. I see it as a competition only in the way that Shark vs Train is a competition. In other words, the tournament concept gives us a structure that allows us to have fun, be silly and lighthearted; it is a way to consider intellectually and intelligently a handful of the many wonderful books that came out the year before. (For an excellent take on last year’s ToB that I feel captures what the BoB is about as well, check out this column by Laura Miller.) The judges have been absolutely incredible and I can’t thank them enough for their smart write-ups.  We also have a terrific bunch of loyal followers who comment, blog, read, and otherwise have a great time along with us.

This past week Jonathan asked them:

… what is the primary value of Battle of the Kids’ Books for you? Is it purely entertainment? Is it instructive? Is it motivational for children and teenagers? Or strictly for an adult audience?

The responses have been heartening and for those of you who wonder about the idea, I suggest checking them out.  And join in if you disagree. We can take it. After all, we completely understand that what we like about the BoB may not be everyone’s cuppa tea.

ETA Please check out Roxanne’s thoughtful and detail response to this.

8 Comments

Filed under Battle of the (Kids') Books

8 responses to “Battling Books, Why?

  1. Betty Tisel

    I have to agree that BoB is pretty dang transparent and that is something wonderful about it!

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  2. Betty Tisel

    One more thing. I can guess that in round two the KKK might face off against Will Grayson. Talk about apples and oranges. It’s Sophie’s Choice – but I suppose as long as people are really articulate about why they choose one over the other that could be interesting. I don’t think the intention is that the whole battle just be a joke, but it would be hard not to be flip about why choose one over the other (KKK vs WIll G.) And to me if it’s flip or too cute then it diminishes that value of the battle.

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  3. I haven’t found our judges to be flip or cute in a negative way about the contenders. However, they have been very forthright and frequently very witty about the process, witness Lois Lowry in her Big Kahuna decision the first year. (Scroll down to the end to read it here: http://sljbattleofthebooks.com/2009-battle/)

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  4. Kiera Parrott

    I love BoB in part because of the odd mashup of titles squaring off against one another. The Dreamer going head-to-head with The Good, The Bad, and The Barbie? Insanity! But that’s what makes it so darn interesting and exciting. The kind of book conversations I have with colleagues, kids, and strangers on the train are just as eclectic and random. Sometimes comparing apples to oranges allows you to find commonality and shared meaning in seemingly disparate works. Plus, I love the sense of pure fun and absolute love of children’s literature in BoB. The smart discussions that are sparked by both the judges and the commenters have kept me tuned in since the start. I can’t wait for Round One.

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  5. Pingback: Tweets that mention Battling Books, Why? « educating alice -- Topsy.com

  6. A thoughtful post, Monica.

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  7. Roxanne (half of the Battle Commander) here:

    About Apples and Oranges: most of these titles are American children’s books from the same year — and an award committee such as The Newbery IS doing exactly what every single Judge of BoB is doing: having to weight all the aspects of ALL these books and many many more in order to narrow down to the last, final, top choice. Remember this: Moon Over Manifest WAS compared against books like The Dreamer, KKK, Barbie, Dark Emperor, A Tale Dark and Grimm, picture books, Beginning Readers, etc. etc. because the rules call for equal opportunities of all these titles.

    So — the question really is: Why, then, we tend to have a fairly homogeneous selections of Newbery winners and honor books? — mostly Fiction, and mostly Fiction for a certain age range. One can never second guess any one Newbery Committee. All three of us: Monica, Roxanne, and Jonathan, have served once on the Newbery Committee (three different years) and we learn to not second guess the committee members’ reasons and the selection process.

    The refreshing aspect of BoB is that it is so transparent. And you will see that, sometimes, even the most eloquent critic (as all our judges are,) cannot really articulate exactly why they choose one title over another except for personal tastes, preferences, past experiences, moods, and expectations.

    And, the uncertainty and ambiguity that is literary analysis is ultimately what draws me to continuously read and share and want to find out others’ opinions. It would have been so boring if everyone agrees!

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  8. I enjoy both of these annual events greatly, and wave off the grousers. Even when the decisions are trainwrecks (something I don’t really recall happening in Battle of the Books), they can lead to valuable, spirited discussions on the part of people who love books–I’m thinking of poor Frankie Landau Banks’ fate in the ToB. (I’m a little disappointed they’ve shied away from YA titles since.)

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