This year, I've decided to encourage myself to write book reviews by running a series of tournaments. Every time I finish reading 16 books, I put them in a line-up and torture myself by forcing myself to rank them. This round was particularly brutal.
One thing I've also noticed is that The Series of Unfortunate Events books aren’t winning many rounds. In fact, I think none of them has ever made it out of Round One. And yet, I keep picking them to reread. So there is something in my bracket that is not being accounted for.
I don’t have any more insight than that – into Snicket’s series, my own reading taste (and honesty), or human nature. But it is occupying my mind, now that I’ve noticed it. I will report back if I figure anything out.
I did go back and forth a little in this final bracket, and I thought about skimming back through Lukoff, since I finished Titan’s Curse much more recently, which could be an advantage. Honestly, Different Kinds of Fruit may well be a more IMPORTANT book, but the sheer balance of tone and pacing in Titan’s Curse is just too perfect to be ignored. You almost have to put Different Kinds of Fruit down and think about things. I dare you to try to put Titan’s Curse down.
That much is a matter of taste. My more objective (though still not objective at all) criteria for making the decision came when I realized both of these authors are middle school teachers/librarians. That gave me a tiebreaker criterion: how well they disguised their lessons in the story and prose.
While Lukoff had the harder job there, several of his chapters read like lectures rather than fiction. I’m delighted he gave those lectures and packaged them so well, but the seams do show. At this point, Riordan has made so much of his education work all but invisible. It’s a narrow victory, and I feel a little bad since Lukoff had the harder job, but put that way: Riordan has been sneakier and thus he sneaks to a win here…
Winner: Percy Jackson and the Olympians Book 3: The Titan's Curse by Rick Riordan
This book goes so hard. Seriously, there is not a single chapter of this novel that is faffing around even a little. The third installment of Riordan's first Percy Jackson quintet is a turning point for the series in many ways. It is the first true turn toward a darker story. Those elements have always been present, but the fun of the first two books overbalances the harsher side of both the source stories and the underlying series-long arc.
The first part of Titan's Curse is balanced on a knife's edge, pushing this balance to its breaking point...and then with the first true [Spoiler] of the series, we tumble a long way down. The book introduces several new characters and makes you love them in such quick succession that it hurts to see them put through a darker quest than the previous two. The ending leaves you with the same hopeful but temporary resolutions...only now there is an element of the heartbreaking mixed in. Each chapter is exquisitely made and together they tell a deeper, richer story with many characters completing elaborate and beautiful arcs, not just our protagonist. When I first read this book many years ago, I remember being frustrated with how little Annabeth Chase was featured compared to the first two books. However, on second read, I cannot deny that the time that Annabeth is in the books is so potent that it still meets the most important criterion for the Percy Jackson series (Annabeth CHASE!). Also, three cheers for Thalia Grace. I did not appreciate her enough the first time around.
Runner Up: Different Kinds of Fruit by Kyle Lukoff
Part of me wants to write about what an important book this is. How it walks the reader through big issues in a safe but informative way and, even more importantly, how it depicts families, friends, and classmates having difficult and necessary conversations and conflicts in ultimately healthy ways. I am terrified, however, of implying that this book is no fun. It's tremendous fun! You will fall in love with the characters quickly and then watch them deal with complicated realities. You'll watch them act out and give one another grace and force themselves into new shapes to help one another. But you'll also just love being around them. I found it specifically triggering not for any of the most important storylines but for the depiction of an Outwardly Progressive school folding immediately under parental pressure when asked to actually stick their neck out for their students. That part was so honestly rendered that I processed a lot of things from my time working at a private school. My school was more outwardly conservative but the same rhetoric and situations played out in heartbreaking ways on my campus, and I wish I had had this book then to help me see it and give words it. I appreciate that the resolution was not tidy or Hollywood-happy. I believe many different communities and identities will have a similar relationship with this book -- the entertaining yet gentle way that the various situations are portrayed leaves so much room for healing without sacrificing the dire realities the book reflects.
Now for the Hardest Brackets breakdown.
So many of these were just brutal to decide...
Reading these two back to back really hammered home how wide a category “Middle Grade” is!
I suppose you could say Upside Down Magic is more of a chapter book, but the characters are early middle school age and explicitly entering the next stage of their lives. However, while Lukoff and his characters are dealing with and addressing the complicated real-world issues they face, the families and friends of Upside Down Magic are avoiding and trying to “undo” their strangeness. The consistent and insistent acceptance of Different Kinds of Fruit feels even more healing for the contrast, but the stumbling toward self-love of Upside Down Magic fits the younger age group its aiming for.
The main advantage that Different Kinds of Fruit has is that it’s brave enough to address the real world issues (some of the most banned topics, no less) directly rather than using the comforting metaphors of fantasy.
Upside Down Magic by Sarah Mlynowski, Lauren Myracle, and Emily Jenkins
4.75 (original review on Story Graph)
The skill it takes to create a book this tightly constructed yet this charming and fun is astounding. The three authors have crafted an intricate world, a complicated family dynamic, and a heartbreaking plotline centered around accepting yourself as you are -- while somehow leaving plenty of room for entertaining magical hijinks, all in under 200 pages! The fact that this set up a whole fun magical world for later books in the series to play within just adds to the feat. It does feel like many elements are un- or under-explored, but the book resolves enough that the story feels like it's reached one of the many natural endpoints that are part of growing up. Also: it's a great deal of fun.
This felt like it should have been an easy decision. Zero Local is such ART, and it’s message is so sweet. However, the more I examined all the detailed work, the way that LeUyen Pham (as always) enhances the pacing and fun of the story, I just have to say that Vampirina Ballerina is also ART.
It’s also so much FUN. In fact, it’s an example of the gestures of kindness that spread so beautifully in Zero Local with the added benefit of the message to be yourself and trust people not just to accept who you are but to celebrate it. It is just as powerful a statement as Zero Local, and done in an even more understated way than the gorgeous visuals of the Murrows.
Both books even play with the spreading of an aesthetic – the color yellow across the pencil drawings in Zero Local and the blending of pink and vampire styles as Vampirina Ballerina progresses. Vampirina has a bit more fun with this, but the small details of Zero Local are also well-worth exploring.
Zero Local: Next Stop: Kindness by Ethan Murrow and Vita Murrow
4.5 (original review on Story Graph)
The message of this book is simple, but the little stories that trace through the small details of this book are well worth the time to unravel. It's beautifully crafted, and I love a wordless picturebook always. I was sad to see some of the characters fade out of the story, but that makes sense for public transit as well. The idea has been done before, but it's done very well here.
Vampirina Ballerina Hosts a Sleepover by Anne Marie Pace, illustrated by LeUyen Pham
4.75 (original review on Story Graph)
I hope the message of this book stays with its young readers for a long time. I hope it carries them at least through middle school. That's an awful lot of pressure to put on one book, even a picturebook as carefully crafted as this one, but I do wish it. Vampirina goes through a series of relatable stages in planning her sleepover -- excitement, fear of her family being judged, trying to change herself and her family, and slowly realizing that it is not necessary or desirable. In fact, her friends are won over more and more. The final turn that her family ARE taking a few things from the more pastel-pink friends their daughter has invited into their gothic wonderland is lovely as well. The visuals by Pham add an extra layer of humor and several visual-only threads of storytelling that reinforce the message. They also show that, for some people, accepting the more Halloween-y elements of Vampirina's life is harder than for others. Watching the gentle way that her friends are brought along, no one at too fast a pace for them, is moving. This book clearly cares about all of its characters as much as its title one.
OUCH this one hurts.
What helped me make the decision was actually moving on to the rest of the bracket for a time. Once I knew the winner was going up against Titan’s Curse, I immediately knew: whelp, Titan will definitely beat Sea of Monsters…hm…Tyranny of Sand has more of a shot. Like, I need to sit down and THINK about that one…for awhile...
The Sea of Monsters has arguably the most character growth for our protagonist in the first series, and the fun adventures are top notch. As always with Riordan, the seemingly monster-of-the-chapter structure is a deception. Each piece of the plot snaps together over the last third of the book until every piece is necessary and perfect to the final product. Annabeth also gets a few more chances to shine than in the two books on either side of it.
But the sheer number of mind-bending stories in The Tyranny of Sand and Other Tiny Stories, none of them longer than a traditional tweet, is just stunning. So many of them rewrote my brain. So many of them are even cleverer retellings than Riordan’s, and so many of them just stopped me in my tracks. This book has been my companion for some time because I wanted to make the experience last…and I think I’m going to now start the book over again.
Percy Jackson and the Olympians Book 2 The Sea of Monsters by Rick Riordan
There was no sophomore slump with this followup to The Lightning Thief! Riordan has done an even better job with a character arc for both Annabeth and Percy. The development of Clarisse and introduction of Tyson make this book a showstopper. The adventures once again feel a bit like monster-of-the-chapter structure...but only until it all starts to come together in the last third of the book. Masterful.
The Tyranny of Sand and Other Tiny Stories by Jesse Stanchak
I don't usually love short story collections, but I have always admired Drabble Collections from the world of fanfiction. I always thought that that format could only work with established intellectual properties, so that the reader could bring a wealth of existing knowledge and understanding to the 280-character max tales. I am delighted to be proven wrong. While many of the tiny stories do make use of existing mythology and even reference popular stories, the originals suffer nothing from their brevity. In fact, that is used for devastating effect over and over again. I kept having to put the book down to really think about one of the tiny stories for some time before I could come back for more devastation or hilarity or mystery or...or just to purge my desire to drop everything and write a full novel based on the prompt.
Both of these books launched beautiful and successful series. Both of these books are beautifully and delicately made.
I want to give Vampirina so many extra points for the interplay of illustrations and text. And I want to deduct SO MANY POINTS from The Lightning Thief for the take on Medusa. But…the intricacy of the villain’s plots in The Lightning Thief is actually really stunning. Without even a real break in the action-packed, friendship-building, foundation-creating nonstop thrill ride of this book…we have a slow and deeply impressive rollout of multiple villains’ complex plans. Even on reread, the deception holds up.
The way the final third of this book establishes how worthy are all of three of the opponents set to be series long villains, each with impressive plots to unravel…just wow. Riordan is playing a very deep game while also keeping things fun along the way. As wonderful as Vampirina is at fun and deeper message…it just doesn’t have the time and space to be as intricate.
Percy Jackson and the Olympians Book 1 The Lightning Thief by Rick Riordan
4.75 (original on Story Graph)
What an unspeakably amazing debut this was for Rick Riordan all those years ago. The individual adventures initially feel a bit monster-of-the-week or rather monster-of-the-chapter, but the characters carry it through. Only at the end do the pieces of several complex plots snap all of the seemingly random side adventures together and leave you impressed both with the villains and the author. No part of this book (famously rejected for being "too long") are wasted. There are few moments that felt a bit tone deaf emotionally -- I'll never quite get over how Chiron and even the young campers expect Percy to all but instantly bounce back from [Spoiler], but I suppose that's the life of a half blood? Later in the series that kind of thing might have made a bit more sense, but in both of my readings of this book, I've worried that Percy had accidentally fallen in with a crew of sociopaths who shrug off trauma in children. Also, Riordan later largely corrects this, but his take on the goddesses of Olympus and especially the character of Medusa leave a lot to be desired.
HERE I will deduct points for treatment of Medusa, Aphrodite, and other goddesses. I’m glad Riordan got wise and made it better later, but points officially deducted.
Both of these books are absolutely packed with amazing moments. Not a page is wasted. Everything is richer and deeper than it appears on the surface. There is humor mixed with tragedy mixed with deep insight into human nature. There is magic and wonder and horror and grief. Riordan wins because all of that is folded into one united story, whereas Stanchak has given us a compendium.