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Lai v. Griffin

Did anyone see the recent episode of Project Runway where they designed tearaway clothes for strippers? BOTH teams lost. I wish we could do the same here.

Pitting Starry River of the Sky against Splendors and Glooms, Thanhha Lai incomprehensibly evokes a video game junkie “from, say, Dallas” to say that both books work as “entertainment.” And that’s it, really (the essay is only 250 words). She chooses Splendors and Glooms for no particular reason.

Meanwhile Paul Griffin, judging Seraphina and No Crystal Stair, starts out like he’s Time magazine bon vivant Joel Stein, devoting the first five hundred words to sucking up to his publisher, who gives him Snickers. (I picture Scottie Bowditch tossing them into a pool while dolphin-Griffin does tricks.) But when he gets over himself, Griffin does have interesting things to say about his contenders, praising both books for their plot: “this is what most stood out to me—the meticulous scene-by-scene construction and perfect pacing.  Both books are just good old fashioned storytelling: provocative beginnings, wild-ride middles, and endings that are at the same time happy and heart-rippingly poignant.” It’s all good until it comes time for a decision, which he decides to hand over to SLJ editor Rick Margolis along with a bag of Snickers. When Rick graciously denies the bribe, Griffin flips a coin and No Crystal Stair wins. So do wimps everywhere.

So it’s Griffin, for having smart observations. But as Heidi Klum would unsmilingly warn, “You’re in. But not by much.”


Round two is completed and the winner is Martine Leavitt. We will have one more round here, comprising the final three BoB judges (Lynne Rae Perkins, James Patterson, and Frank Cottrell Boyce).


Roger Sutton About Roger Sutton

Roger Sutton has been the editor in chief of The Horn Book, Inc, since 1996. He was previously editor of The Bulletin of the Center for Children's Books and a children's and young adult librarian. He received his M.A. in library science from the University of Chicago in 1982 and a B.A. from Pitzer College in 1978. Follow him on Twitter: @RogerReads.



  1. Heidi Klum Germanic warning for the win!

    To invoke another PR parallel, there was that time when Wendy Pepper was trying to explain why she wanted to pair the hideous clodhopper with the mailman outfit, and Tim Gunn verbally slapped her down with, “Do not. Defend. The shoe. To Me.” This competition makes me want to snap, Gunn-style: Do not. Discuss. The impossibility of judging. With Me. Yes, it’s inherently ridiculous to compare apples and oranges. Yes, it sucks to hurt someone’s feelings. Yes, Snickers are delicious. But this is March Madness, people! You have to compare the books directly! You have to say what doesn’t work for you in a given book! We can’t watch authors miss 3-pointers or play crap defense to tell who wins, the way we can in college basketball– though I hear Elizabeth Wein has a killer jump shot — so to judge fairly who WINS a bracket you have to SAY why one book is better than another! That means telling us what didn’t work for you! For God’s sake, talk flaws. If you’re just going to flip a coin or pick a book without adequately explaining why you liked it more than its competitor, if you’re just going to exclaim over the exquisite language or summarize the plot, you’re writing a book review, not playing bracketology. This is a game. Send the losing author a little mesh baggie of chocolate basketballs if you’re feeling bad. I know we are all delicate flowers, but COME ON, PLAY THE GAME. (So, uh, yeah, I agree with Roger. I’m full of matzah and crabby.)

  2. boy, that’s like the first time EVER that my name has been in the same sentence with “killer jump shot.” Bet you didn’t check that on Snopes.

  3. Roger Sutton Roger Sutton says:

    Also, Marjorie: Don’t. Bore. Nina.

  4. I’d heard it was Wein’s slapshot that was the bomb.

  5. I’m with Marjorie – wimpy decisions are no fun. And when they’re prefaced by “this is so haaaaard” whining, day after day, I start to lose patience with the entire thing.

  6. Roger Sutton Roger Sutton says:

    Elizabeth Wein FLYS the ball into the hoop.

  7. I parachute it in! at night. When no one is looking.

  8. I’m enjoying this series way too much.

  9. I have to say that Roger won me over with the Project Runway references just because I am having way too much fun this season with the Teams theme (when I thought I would have hated it!) But, as part of the Battle Commander, I just have to remind everyone that the author judges do not do this “over and over again” — they each does the hand-wringing ONCE since none of them did any judging before their own match for Battle of the Kids’ Books. The Command Central Team would have to take this criticism back and make sure that we prepare and frame the whole Battle and all the judges better for the future. Agreed?

  10. Roger Sutton Roger Sutton says:

    Fairrosa, I keep scratching my head at your comment. What do you mean?

  11. I don’t understand what you don’t understand. Hmm.. ok.. the response is toward the sentiment that some readers are tired of the judges wringing their hands at how difficult it is to pick between two either vastly different or similarly excellent titles — because it can be tedious to read the same thoughts/feelings (even if they are expressed differently from author judge to author judge.) But, to each judge, this was a fresh experience. So, I said, we’ll make sure that the future invited judges get a fuller picture of the Battle scene. Does this explain? Are you still scratching your head?

  12. Roger Sutton Roger Sutton says:

    Now I see. I guess I thought the judges would have apprised themselves of previous discussions. We routinely send previous speeches to the Newbery and Caldecott winners and Sutherland Lecturers (Linda Sue Park this May; see you there) so nobody has the excuse that they didn’t know what was expected!

    Perkins v. Boyce v. Patterson coming up later today.

  13. It’s understandable that the judges feel the need to publicly wring their hands, and to a certain extent I’m willing to skim through that opening paragraph each time because I know how deeply it must be felt, but what disappoints me is the lack of genuine literary criticism in all the rounds. I don’t want to speak out of turn if Battle Command finds it fun that the decisions are sometimes based on the judges’ gut feelings, or that they resort to a coin toss–I may have expectations for the process that aren’t in the judges’ instructions. I just personally find the whole game less valuable and interesting without meaningful critical thought. No book is perfect, and praise alone is tiring for the spectators (at least for this one), much more than the repetition of the phrase “apples and oranges.” I love BoB and appreciate your work so much, but I’d adore it even more if the judges rigorously, openly studied not just the delights of each book, but the flaws as well. (Frank Cottrell Boyce started that way with CNV in the Big Kahuna round and then suddenly dropped it for TFiOS and NCS.)

  14. ooh, next year SLJ could make BoB bingo cards (i have bingo on the brain after writing bad apology bingo) of phrases and tones judges should not use!

    “apples and oranges”
    “comparisons are odious”
    “so hard”
    “flip a coin”
    [expression of regret at taking this assignment]
    “how can i”
    “holy man”

    and on the positive tip, for every mention of something you didn’t like about a given book (gasp), you get a lovely dauber and a compost cookie from momofuku milk bar.

  15. But just a quick clarification, Marjorie: literary criticism doesn’t mean saying what you don’t like about a book. It’s the scholarly version of “criticism.” What I’d like them to do is point out things that didn’t work on a literary level–language, pacing, characterization, continuity, anachronisms, research, etc.

  16. hm, did i say it was? if so, i apologize. i am quite aware of what literary criticism (vs criticism-criticism) is!

  17. Roger, I think it is important to give the judges some background information and I am certain that some of it was explained to all the judges. (I do not deal directly with any of our judges, so I cannot speak on this matter with great knowledge.). However, BoB judging is by nature entirely different from a published speech by an award winner and the judges are all contributing their time and effort purely out of their kind hearts and a passion for the field. We are still learning and will hone the process better for the future.

  18. I wonder if one thing that might help is if you have a clear sense of what you want this contest to be- what you want the judges’ decisions to do. At one level, there’s the take that this is primarily about fun, about seeing whether you made correct predictions and rooting for your favorites. Clearly that is a part of the contest, but if that’s all it is, then who cares if the judge flips a coin?

    When I look at this contest and the Morning News ToB that inspired it, there are several more specific great things that can come out of the tournaments.
    -They encourage both readers and judges to read books that they wouldn’t ordinarily have picked up. That’s something that people repeatedly state as one of the best outcomes of the contest. That has nothing to do with the judges’ decisions, but it’s worth mentioning.
    -They provoke discussions about the books; often by putting two seemingly unlikely pairings next to each other, it can spark new insights about them. A good judges’ decision can do that beautifully (and it doesn’t even have to get into flaws). It can also provoke interesting discussions about the books in the comments, too. Bringing up flaws can really spark that discussion, in part because they give some friction to rub up against. A lot of hand-wringing and praise leaves little room for more than “my bracket’s still intact” or “boring decision.”
    That said, the commenting crowd in the BoB is oddly reluctant to engage each other. There seemed to be a lot of people itching to talk about TFiOS and the reasons they disliked it, but that conversation never took off- nobody was engaging each other. (Compare that to the comments on the ToB, which can be really great discussions). Good decisions may help with that, but it may never happen (crowd’s too small and people drop a comment and never come back? The mock award blogs scratch that discussion itch and people don’t need the BoB to provide that space?).
    -For me, one of the most interesting things that the decisions can do is to contribute to a conversation about what standards we use to judge books. As I understand it the ToB was founded as a way of mocking awards by pointing out the arbitrary nature of such judgements. But articulating a reason or a standard by which to measure to very different books is a really fascinating conversation, whether you agree with the standards or not. For this, judges aren’t bounded by the criteria of the ALA awards- they can set whatever standards they want and explain to us why they matter. That’s what makes coin-flipping so annoying to me- you’re refusing to engage in what can be the most interesting part of the exercise.

    This is just my view from the peanut gallery, but it seems to me that if we want this to be more than just a bit of fun (even if it is also a lot of fun, which it absolutely is), having a sense of what you want it to be and communicating that to the judges might help get the kinds of decisions you seem to want.

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