Charles and Emma
November 11, 2009 By 3 Comments
While CHARLES AND EMMA is easily one of the best books of the year, I do think many people will not be entirely comfortable with it in the Newbery field. It does skew older than most of the titles we’ve discussed here, and (like LIPS TOUCH: THREE TIMES) is more likely to find an audience among 7th, 8th, and 9th graders. It could easily be a Printz title, but the revised Newbery manual reminds us that we can select such a title if "it is exceptionally fine for the narrow part of the range to which it appeals, even though it may be eligible for other awards outside this range."
While my Horn Book review perfectly captures the strengths of this book, I want to further add that this title is well suited to compete against the fiction because (a) unlike most nonfiction published for young people nowadays, the text (as opposed to the book design and the visual elements) is unabashedly the star of the show and (b) all of the literary elements–plot, character, setting, style, theme, and information–are not only present, but conspicuously distinguished.
Too often we assume that comparing fiction and nonfiction is like comparing apples and oranges and often that is the case, but in several instances–and this one in particular–it really is not that much of a stretch at all. Some further thoughts . . .
Accuracy, clarity, and organization are all present in the text. Heiligman’s research is superb and clearly documented.
Plot is merely the arrangements of the events in the story. Plot speaks to organization (which along with clarity and accuracy is one of the sub-criteria under information so this is a bit of a redundancy). Here Heiligman’s plot choices flow from her theme: her decision to tell Darwin’s story through the lens of his marital life. This book, like THE LINCOLNS last year, proves the old adage that behind every great man there is a great woman (and in these two instances great women who have languished too long in the shadows). Some truly inspired choices here.
This book seems as firmly grounded in its world as any fiction book. I particularly loved the literary allusions to Charles Dickens and Jane Austen to inform the reader what kind of circles the Dickens moved in.
These characters seem wonderfully human and they grow and change over the course of the story, thanks in no small part to the primary sources that Heiligman frequently quotes. These wonderful bits of information convey so much about these people, fleshing out both their characterization and character development.
The writing style is accomplished. Both of my copies are out with student readers at the moment, but I’ll refer you to this excerpt and that one.
What does it mean to be human? To be human is to be deeply curious about the world around us and how it works. To be human is to bravely seek the truth when the truth may be unpopular. To be human is to be deeply and madly in love. To be human is to work through differences in a relationship with a loved one. This book is a thematic tour de force. I don’t think there’s any fiction this year that comes close.