March Madness, Kids' Books Style

    When people talk about brackets, I think bookshelves.  Sure, I’ve heard about March madness and basketball, but up till now I haven’t paid much attention.
    Then I discovered School Library Journal’s Battle of the Kids’ Books, complete with celebrity judges, a Big Kahuna Round and, yes, brackets.  Now you’re talking my language!

    The Battle sets a disparate group of 2009 books for kids and teens against each other, with well-known children’s authors serving as the judges for each pair. 

    Award-winning nonfiction author Jim Murphy kicked it off last week with a smackdown between Deborah Heiligman’s “Charles and Emma: The Darwins’ Leap of Faith” and Phillip Hoose’s “Claudette Colvin: Twice Towards Justice.”  Both books were nominated for National Book Awards (“Claudette” won), both received numerous starred reviews, and both are important books that explain the social history of their eras.  As one commentator noted, “Argh!  This is a horribly evil match.”  Of course it is – that’s what makes the Battle so much fun.

    Despite the temptation to call it a tie, Murphy boldly decided on a winner – “Charles and Emma” – and offered a thoughtful, succinct summary of his reasons.  His appreciation for Heiligman’s narrative voice over Hoose’s offered an insightful look at the art of nonfiction writing.

    From there, the cries of anguish could be heard throughout library-land as, in succeeding rounds, great books lost to other great books.  Kristin Cashore’s fantasy, “Fire,” the sequel to the well-loved “Graceling”?  Gone, overcome by Jacqueline Kelly’s Newbery Honor-winning historical fiction title, “The Evolution of Calpurnia Tate.”  Pamela Turner’s “The Frog Scientist,” a science biography for kids, versus Percy Jackson’s “The Last Olympians”?  The Greek gods won out over the poor frogs, alas.

    And so it goes.  Newbery Award-winning author Cynthia Kadohata decided between “Peace, Locomotion” by Jacqueline Woodson, a novel in letters about a boy in foster care, and Richard Peck’s “A Season of Gifts,” the third in his popular series about sly Grandma Dowdel.   Matt Phelan’s graphic novel set during the Depression, “The Storm in the Barn,” vs. “Sweethearts of Rhythm: The Story Of The Greatest All-Girl Swing Band In The World” by Marilyn Nelson, was judged by children’s book critic Anita Silvey.  The first phase ended  on March 24 with author Julius Lester weighing in on Shaun Tan’s “Tales from Outer Suburbia,” a collection of quirkily illustrated short stories, vs. Rebecca Stead’s “When You Reach Me,” winner of this year’s Newbery Award. 

    Before Round Two ends on April 2, librarians will vote for the winner of the Undead Contest, allowing one of the losing books in the preceding round to be voted back to life.  The Undead will join the remaining books for the decision on the final, ultimate winner – recipient of a shiny gold virtual sticker.

    Why participate?  First of all, because it’s fun.  Secondly, it’s a way to showcase some of the best in literature for children and teens.  The Battle is sparking lots of interest online at, with children’s book bloggers weighing in on everything from the selection of titles to the expertise of the judges.  Some librarians are even posting the brackets in their libraries and inviting middle schoolers to join in on the discussion. 

As for me, now that I understand how exciting brackets can be, I might even start following basketball!


First published, in slightly different form, in the Free Lance-Star on March 23, 2010.