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2023 Brackets: The Post Graduation Binge

This year, I decided to document my reading in the most weird and combative way -- tournament brackets! Every time I finish 16 books I put myself through a nightmare of selecting a winner -- complete with multiple heartbreaking decisions along the way. WHY YOU ASK? Because the guilt of letting a book I love lose makes me actually write reviews, which I like to do but never "get around to." So far it's working!

This bracket is brought to you by the decision to read my picturebooks before I packed them away for the move.

It felt less painful than usual. Not unpainful, but less painful, and I think I'm getting more decisive...or more comfortable with my subjective gut feelings. Less need to find some "justified" reason why a book is "objectively better" (what would that even mean?) rather than just something I was more excited about/moved by/etc.

Also, a real Picturebooks v. Novels thing accidentally happening here...

If you’re thinking these picturebooks just don’t have a chance, the reason Hot Dog lost is that it’s calming, sweet narrative utterly failed to calm me down after the rollercoaster ride of tension and tears that Silvera took me on…

Winner: They Both Die At The End by Adam Silvera

5.0 (see original review on Story Graph)

I don't usually review books raw like this, but I spent the last pages of the novel ugly crying and all of that has to go somewhere. It's a beautiful piece of work. I saw most (but not all!) of what it was planning to do coming, and it easily could have been cheesy, but it worked perfectly. It felt like an answer to the questions of the novel about foreknowledge and fate. Could you change your fate if you saw it rushing toward you or someone else? No. But it would change you, to know it was coming. Maybe that's enough.

Runner-Up: Hot Dog by Doug Salati

4.75 (see original review on Story Graph)

This book needs no accolades from me, not with a well-deserved Caldecott Award. The art is beautiful, playful, and heartwarming. The story is sweet and also a good reminder to breathe through distress. The pacing is slow and winding and the art is imaginative.

Hardest Brackets!

Yes, there were still a few of these despite my proclamations of getting better at decisions...

These two books just feel so of a piece that it was hard to really separate them enough to rate!

The magic is gentler and more mysterious in Every Bird a Prince, but by this point, we know the world of the Upside Down Magic series well enough to enjoy it’s wackiness without much hand-holding. The brand of magic in Every Bird a Prince takes direct aim at the message taught much more obliquely in Showing Off – radical self-acceptance and self-knowledge as an ethical weapon against creeping prejudice, self-doubt, and communal despair.

The message of accepting yourself in order to improve your community absolutely shines out of both stories, and both are inspiring for the way the magic and kindness the main characters experience continually expands to include more and more people.

The lyrical tone of Every Bird a Prince wins out over the whimsical hijinks of Showing Off, but both books are spare and efficient but also layered and rich, allowing every character their measure of humanity.

Upside Down Magic #3: Showing Off by Sarah Mlynowski, Lauren Myracle, and Emily Jenkins

4.5 (see original review on Story Graph)

I continue to be impressed by this series, the way it is tidy and even spare but accomplishes so much in terms of world-building, character development for a huge cast of characters, and just fun with wacky magic. The push toward radical self-acceptance gets stronger with each entry, but I appreciate the fact that the character development includes setbacks and shows how complicated it is to change something long-ingrained. Also, player piano Bax! My favorite "wonky" magic yet!

(very minor spoiler)

Every Bird a Prince by Jenn Reese

4.75 (see original review on Story Graph)

The design of this book set my expectations high, and the text met them. True artistry. Stories that push back against the romantic focus middle school often takes are becoming less rare, but this book will likely remain one of my favorite examples for awhile. It's also not as simple as "no time, gotta save the world!" because the monsters must be fought with honesty and self-actualization...which is terrifying! I appreciate how the book shows both young people and adults grappling with their struggles, and the way that the text not only dodges "super special heroine" but instead opens the magic up to anyone brave enough! The book also dodges a lot of my least favorite tropes, captures that feeling of being "left behind" by your friends who are ready for romance (faster) perfectly, and shows how friendships can start to HURT without anyone being wrong or evil...just not brave enough to be honest about who they are, what they want, and which parts they still need to figure out. Also, the illustrations? WONDERFUL. And the princes? PERFECT mix of brave, wise, and hilariously adorable. "I have chosen the best champion! The only champion with explosions!"

(spoilers in blackout).

There’s something quite interesting about reading these collections that feel like scatter pieces of larger ideas one after another. Where The Demigod Files felt tied to that larger world, Ruhl was building toward several amorphous and tenuously but truly connected ideas, assembling them out of unfinished thoughts and hooks for academic essays. The way her pieces of essays started to feel less and less like abandoned projects and more like mysterious parts of the whole was truly wonderful.

I usually don’t go out of my way to consume the “additional content” even of series that I quite enjoy. Thank you TikTok for telling me that the first one is where the original Iapetus storyline was! I got to House of Hades and could NOT figure out how I missed that! And an adventure with Thalia, Nico, and Percy is all I didn’t know I wanted! The children of the Big Three quietly saving the world for their tiring fathers…

In the end, Percy Jackson felt more fun, but 100 Essays is doing something much cooler than I thought going in, and that’s a wonderful reading experience always.

The Demigod Files by Rick Riordan

3.5 (see original review on Story Graph)

I'm not usually big on tie-in books, but it was such a relief to know where the original Iapetus story came from! Sorry, Bob's origin story. That was such a confusion for me reading House of Hades, and I love the fact that this collection of stories is woven into the fabric of the main series. I appreciate that some pieces just don't fit in the tidy books that Riordan writes, but the fact that the wider tapestry of the world always comes back around to the main thread eventually is wonderful.

100 Essays I Don't Have Time to Write: On Umbrellas and Sword Fights, Parades and Dogs, Fire Alarms, Children, and Theatre by Sarah Ruhl

4.0 (see original review on Story Graph)

I loved the idea of this book but felt a little skeptical of what the quality would be. At first glance, a lot of the un-essays felt like the fun hook without the meat of the academic and/or cultural analysis. However, the stories and ideas build on one another and come at much bigger and more nuanced ideas in subtle ways, from multiple angles, in a way that allows the reader to explore the ideas for themselves. It is a deeply intriguing way to write about theatre, audiences, and other ephemeral arts. The book felt almost democratic in its approach, inviting the reader to draw the connections that aren't even directly acknowledged in the text.

Both of these books absolutely destroyed me – like poof there goes my mental health. If I’m judging by that criteria, I found myself having to take breaks from Hunting By Stars whereas I could not look away from Silvera’s sweet, doomed boys.

A better but still incredibly subjective metric that actually made the difference here is that I will always love a clever time travel premise more than a future dystopia. (And yes, future knowledge counts as time travel FIGHT ME!) That’s what edged out Silvera’s masterpiece over Dimaline’s even-more-masterful-than-the-original follow-up.

The climax(es) also feel slightly more earned in They Both Die At The End or perhaps more explicitly foreshadowed. There is a moment near the end of Hunting By Stars that does feel a bit like plot magic even with the back-up to explain how we got here. It’s a magical cinematic moment, and the rich subtext of it and emotional journey behind it are both there. However, it has more of a “what are the chances!” feel than Silvera’s plot which slots inevitably and yet surprisingly into place like falling dominoes you somehow didn’t see until right now.

Both of these books wrecked me. Everyone should read them.

Hunting By Stars by Cherie Dimaline

5.0 (see original review on Story Graph)

Unintended sequels (Dimaline says in the acknowledgements that she had not planned to continue the story after the first Marrow Thieves novel) are rarely this good. Dimaline didn't write just to appease her audience but because she has a lot more to say and say it she does. The parallels to the real history of Native genocide felt stronger (and therefore darker) in this follow-up, and the psychological wringer every character endures is easily as powerful as in the original. As before, the novel feels both like a meandering emotional journey and a fast-paced adventure, and the complicated moral and emotional universe is even richer than before. Well done in every way.

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