Follow This Blog: RSS feed
Heavy Medal: A Mock Newbery Blog
Inside Heavy Medal

Team Nonfiction: The Second Wave

We’ve already celebrated the merits of CLAUDETTE COLVIN, CHARLES AND EMMA, ALMOST ASTRONAUTS, and MARCHING FOR FREEDOM on this blog.  I must say I agree with Peter Sieruta when he notes that what’s really exciting about many of these titles is the original contribution that they make, not just to children’s literature, but to literature, period.  It’s one thing to synthesize a bunch of secondary and tertiary sources–what I sometimes derisively refer to as regurgitative nonfiction–but quite another to go out and beat the bushes for those primary sources, oral history interviews, and period illustrations in order to craft a wholly unique perspective on a topic.  Anyway, the field of nonfiction books is very, very deep this year.  Here are some more worth considering.
I’m still investigating Debbie’s claim about the fabricated letter quoted at the end of YEARS OF DUST by Albert Marrin, and if true it remains to be seen how it might hurt the book during award deliberations, but I’d like to point out that Marrin takes great pains to highlight how the American Indians took care of the natural resources of the Great Plains and how their communities were ravaged by the Dust Bowl crisis.  A wonderfully comprehensive book with an invigorating mix of science and history. 
Two-time Newbery Honor author Jim Murphy gives us a pair of war-themed books.  A SAVAGE THUNDER describes how the bloody Battle of Antietam was pivotal in nudging Lincoln toward the Emancipation Proclamation, while TRUCE describes the remarkable Christmas Truce during World War I.  Both books have proven popular with my students, but I’m not sure either of them attain the greatness of THE GREAT FIRE or AN AMERICAN PLAGUE, nor am I sure that they necessarily jump out in this outstanding field. 
Of course, Murphy is a also Sibert Medalist and there are several of those publishing this year, too.  Catherine Thimmesh offers up LUCY LONG AGO (Lucy having recently been dethroned by Ardi as the oldest hominid skeleton) and Sally Walker gives us WRITTEN IN BONE which just misses the Jamestown anniversary.  But, for my money, the best book by a Sibert Medalist is THE RISE AND FALL OF SENATOR JOSEPH McCARTHY by James Cross Giblin which, like CHARLES AND EMMA, sits more comfortably in the Printz field.
THE GREAT AND ONLY BARNUM by Candace Fleming is just as wonderful as her previous work, however Barnum does not carry quite the same gravitas as Franklin, Roosevelt, and Lincoln (but here’s hoping that doesn’t work against the book.)  I know Nina mentioned earlier that she finds the scrapbook format does not lend itself well to Newbery consideration, but perhaps this more conventional approach will do the trick.
Kathleen Krull’s excellent Giants of Science series has been sorely overlooked.  They all feature a great synthesis of the personal lives and professional accomplishments of their subjects in a very breezy, readable style–and ALBERT EINSTEIN is no exception.  Like CHARLES AND EMMA, the text here is clearly the star of the show–no book design or illustrations to detract from it.  And kids will read–and like–it!
Viking’s Up Close series of Twentieth-Century Lives is another overlooked nonfiction series.  The most recent standout entry is HARPER LEE by Kerry Madden which does a wonderful job of fleshing out a reclusive icon.  This one’s not quite Printz material, but I wouldn’t mind a spot on the new YALSA Nonfiction Award which announces its shortlist next week.
Quick!  The last time the Newbery committee recognized a science book?  Umm, yeah, that would be VOLCANO by Patricia Lauber in 1987.  THE FROG SCIENTIST by Pamela Turner is a great book in a great series.  Yes, the book design is the star of this photoessay, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that the writing is unworthy.  I have the same worry about MARCHING FOR FREEDOM: the book design and the illustrations outshine the text, but the text is still remarkable, too!
Jonathan Hunt About Jonathan Hunt

Jonathan Hunt is the Coordinator of Library Media Services at the San Diego County Office of Education. He served on the 2006 Newbery committee, and has also judged the Caldecott Medal, the Printz Award, the Boston Globe-Horn Book Awards, and the Los Angeles Times Book Prize. You can reach him at


  1. Dean Schneider says:

    Jonathan, for those of us who missed or can’t locate Debbie’s comments, what exactly is the claim about the fabricated letter?

    i like what you said at the end of the above comments about Marching for Freedom. This is one of the books I would argue for if I were on Newbery this year. Since it is so strikingly designed, with such wonderfully selected photographs, it does run the risk of being dismissed as just a beautifully made book, overlooking the text. But, like you, I feel the text does stand up to Newbery scrutiny. Like Claudette Colvin, the text effectively incorporates oral history and interviews and abundant research yet retains an easy readability, even some good humor. I see this as a superb example of the photo-essay–a perfect balance of photo and essay. This is my FAVORITE BOOK of the year.

    I’m a big fan of the Claudette Colvin, too, and I see Jim Murphy’s A Savage Thunder as distinguished according to all of the Newbery criteria, especially the presentation of information, and turn to just about any page and you see beautifully-written prose. I turned to page 67 just now, for instance, and found a great description of shells that “arced screaming through the air” and “Bullets whirred overhead like angry hornets, clipping away cornstalks and tree branches.” Nonfiction writing as vivid and as rooted in concrete nouns and action verbs as the best fiction.

    My one issue with Almost Astronauts is the choppy prose style the author uses. It lends an immediacy and a staccato rhythm, I suppose, but it’s the one element I wonder about.

    I’m just starting Giblin’s Joe McCarthy today, which by heft, format, and density seems to be a Printz book, as you say.

    If I were on Newbery this year, I’m pretty sure my nominations would have included A Season of Gifts and When You Reach Me, but I’m highest on the nonfiction: Marching for Freedom, Claudette Colvin, and A Savage Thunder. I also loved Harper Lee,Charles and Emma, P.T. Barnum…. What a rich year for nonfiction lovers!

    Thanks for such lengthy and lucid commentaries, Jonathan.

  2. Jonathan Hunt says:

    Dean, in the comments to “Peck a Little, Talk a Little” I quote Marrin’s citation of the letter in question to show that stylistically and thematically the sermon in A SEASON OF GIFTS and the alleged letter from Chief Seattle to President Franklin Pierce are very similar. Debbie links to an article housed at the National Archives which claims that there is no extant copy of this letter, that it remains little more than an apocryphal myth. The section Marrin quotes comes from this letter. Additionally, there is a speech (that Marrin does not quote) that is alleged to have been reconstructed by someone who heard it, but there remain doubts about its veracity. I’m going to look at the source cited when I get back to school.

    The quality of the nonfiction has waxed and waned throughout the decade. Some years there really is a dearth of Newbery quality nonfiction, but this year there is a wealth of it. This year there’s no excuse for not being able to build consensus around at least one of them.

  3. Monica Edinger says:

    Regarding the Seattle speech, I’ve done some research on it and an article (“The Pilgrim Maid and the Indian Chief”, October 2005) as I was bothered by the way Susan Jeffers’ misused it for her book Brother Eagle, Sister Sky. Can’t put in HTML here, but I just looked at the wikipedia entry on Chief Seattle and, based on what I know, the section on the speech controversy seems very sound.

  4. Monica Edinger says:

    October 2005 Educational Leadership, I meant.

  5. Jonathan Hunt says:

    FYI . . . The source cited in YEARS OF DUST for the Chief Seattle quote is Al Gore, EARTH IN THE BALANCE: ECOLOGY AND THE HUMAN SPIRIT (New York, Penguin Books, 1993), 259.

  6. I realize that ALMOST ASTRONAUTS has already been discussed on here, but I don’t think enough has been said about the “inaccuracy” of the facts presented in ALMOST ASTRONAUTS, specifically done by the author to fit within her theme of gender injustice. There’s A LOT about this on the internet and on other blogs.

    The women in ALMOST ASTRONAUTS were not trained for space exploration and were not even employed by NASA. NASA was looking for real pilots for a very difficult mission and the fact that the author left this important detail out, truly weakens her point and theme, in my opinion. Jonathan himself, admitted he would’ve like to have seen how the male astronauts performed on some of the similar tests. The author didn’t include that for a reason . . . It would’ve worked against the point she was trying to make. The mission was extremely important and NASA was not just looking for anybody, they wanted highly experienced pilots.

    I don’t like that’s it’s going to be discussed as a Newbery contender. I think time could be spent discussing a more worthy title. But of course, that decision is up to you guys to decide. Personally, I don’t think twisting historical facts to fit into your message is particularly “distinguished”.

  7. I will say, that I did not know ANY of this until AFTER I read the book and was reading online reviews in various places. I thought the writing in ALMOST ASTRONAUTS was very good and as Jonathan has referred to it, “passionate”. I would’ve had no qualms with it as a contender until I read some of what I did online about the “facts” presented in the book.

    To me, there’s too much slanting of information that impacted my understanding of the themes after I finished the book. While I read the book, I enjoyed it. But after discovering more and more about left out details, I kind of feel like I’ve been duped.

  8. A teacher; I’ve still to re-read this book and check up on this, but now that I feel like I’ve finished exhausting the fiction realm, I can turn back to it. Of course I’d put it on our list before we heard of this debate… will hopefully post again on this soon!

  9. Jonathan Hunt says:

    The individual facts in ALMOST ASTRONAUTS are not inaccurate, but some readers may feel that the way they have been arranged, coupled with the ones that have been omitted, give an inaccurate or misleading picture. I’m sure the real Newbery committee will be having that discussion and you can bet we’ll be discussing it at Nina’s Newbery.

    Can you cite the parts where Stone claims that the women were trained for space exploration or where she claims they were hired by NASA? No, you cannot because she never said those things. However, some of her critics have implied that she has (namely the NASA apologists who have their own agenda).

    The problem that I foresee with ALMOST ASTRONAUTS in the Newbery process is that when you stack it next to CLAUDETTE COLVIN and MARCHING FOR FREEDOM, both of which are also impassioned and righteously indignant but also leave the reader without the vague sense of being manipulated, then I think it may well suffer in that comparison.

  10. Monica Edinger says:

    OK. I’ve the Marrin ARC and the Gore book in front of me. Gore quotes the same 70s speechwriter’s speech attributed falsely to Seattle (and also used by Susan Jeffers’for Brother Eagle, Sister Sky). You can read the same thing over at and elsewhere (search for Chief Seattle). While Seattle’s exact words are no longer available, the earlier transcripts of what he supposedly said (also easily found online) do not present the environmental sentiments of that 70s speech writer used by Gore and now by Marrin, unfortunately.

  11. Jonathan Hunt says:

    Monica, do you think one factual error like this completely derails Newbery and/or Sibert chances? What’s your take?

  12. Monica Edinger says:

    I have to say no matter how good it might be (as I haven’t read the book so don’t know), if I were on either committee (especially the Sibert)this would be a serious sticking point for me. I am surprised that Marrin didn’t track down the quote Gore used (as there is no attribution for it in Gore’s book). I mean, Gore is not a historian, after all.
    We just don’t know if Seattle “understood our place in nature” as Marrin writes in his next-to-the-last paragraph, and can’t “remember the wise chief’s words…” as he concludes in his final paragraph, when they were definitely not his.

  13. “The individual facts in ALMOST ASTRONAUTS are not inaccurate, but some readers may feel that the way they have been arranged, coupled with the ones that have been omitted, give an inaccurate or misleading picture.”

    You are so very right Jonathan. That was my point, you just worded it better for me!

  14. Jonathan Hunt says:

    I don’t think any one flaw is necessarily a deal-breaker. You have to evaluate the book holistically and then see how it stands in relation to the other books under consideration. In this case, there are already some terrific nonfiction books as frontrunners (CLAUDETTE COLVIN, MARCHING FOR FREEDOM, CHARLES AND EMMA) with another handful of darkhorses. So in this particular case, it could be a very costly error indeed.

  15. Monica Edinger says:

    Just want to say that I am not making any kind of global statement about the quality of the Marrin book as I have only read the last few pages and it is totally not fair for me to judge it without having read it completely. However, I have to acknowledge that because I’ve done a lot of research and writing about the Seattle speech controversy my buttons are pushed when I see the false speech presented yet again as the chief’s actual words. I always hope that such a myth has been laid to rest and get incredibly bothered to see it resurface.

    And so my frustration would clearly compromise my reading of the whole book now to be honest. That said, I hate people who complain about books they haven’t read so I do want to say I am only questioning those last few pages, not the whole book which I can’t do. And my apologies to those who champion the book and the author.

  16. Debbie Reese says:

    Thanks for the info on the Gore/Marrin goofs…

    Jean Mendoza and I wrote about that speech in 2001. It is online (free, entire text) in Early Childhood Research and Practice, Vol. 3 No. 2, Fall 2001. To get to it, search on the title: “Examining Multicultural Picture Books for the Early Childhood Classroom: Possibilities and Pitfalls.” It is also linked to from my blog (American Indians in Children’s Literature) where you’ll also find a link to Paul Chaat Smith’s writing about the same speech. (Look for “Home of the Brave) in the “Links to Full Text Articles” section of my site.)

    I have not seen the Marrin book, but to answer the question if this would derail the book, I think it should. It IS nonfiction, and it should be accurate. Giving the Marrin book an award would give that speech currency it does not merit.

    It does, however, provide teachers with a great teachable moment, if the teacher uses the opportunity to say that people get things wrong. Still, though, doesn’t the award signal that it is ok to get some things wrong? Aren’t we trying to teach kids to do research? Does giving the book the award suggest otherwise?

  17. Jonathan Hunt says:

    Thanks to Monica and Debbie for their links. It’d be nice to find a web site which tracked the changes in the speech/letter through its various incarnations. If anyone knows of one . . .

    I doubt there is a nonfiction book in existence that is not inaccurate in one way, shape, or form, so the question for me is not whether this inaccuracy should derail its chances, but how much it derails its chances. It’s not a black and white thing, but rather a shades of gray thing, and the same holds true for fiction.

    To return to a favorite book of Debbie’s and mine, THE ABSOLUTELY TRUE DIARY OF A PART-TIME INDIAN (which includes an offensive racial epithet made worse by offensive sexual imagery) won the National Book Award. Does that award give the racial epithet currency? Does it suggest that such things are okay? I don’t think it does, but you could make that argument. In any case, I think what we do is that we say ABSOLUTELY TRUE DIARY is so wonderful for so many reasons that we overlook this peccadillo. The sum total of the good so heavily outweighs the bad.

    Now, I do think we are less willing to do that for nonfiction, and I’m somewhat puzzled by that double standard. We’re willing to throw the baby out with the bathwater, so to speak. If I found a historical inaccuracy in WHEN YOU REACH ME or THE EVOLUTION OF CALPURNIA TATE would you be willing to toss it out? I don’t think you would.

    Not to downplay the significance of the error, but you do need to look at the entire book and judge its merit. The speech/letter is unfortunate, but the American Indian content is a minor, if important, element. Then, too, there is a degree of irony here, because even as Marrin tears down one myth–the myth of the famous Depression Era photograph, “Migrant Mother,” who is actually a full-blooded Cherokee Indian who remembered her conversation with Dorothea Lange quite differently–even so, he reinforces another myth. Ironic, no?

    So while I don’t think a tiny error in either nonfiction or fiction are necessarily deal-breakers, I do think in this instance–in this year of incredible nonfiction–it proves a very costly mistake, indeed. I also repeat that you obviously need to read the entire book . . .

  18. Jonathan, I don’t think your comparison of the mis-quoted Seattle speech and the racist joke in Alexie’s book is apt. As I’ve said before, there’s a reason for the joke. It isn’t a mistake. It isn’t the result of poor research by Alexie. It may be offensive to some readers (which is, of course, the point, but that’s another topic I’ve already commented on), but it certainly doesn’t fall into an inaccurate presentation of information. It isn’t a “peccadillo” and I don’t have to overlook it.

    I agree that people are more critical of accuracy in nonfiction than in fiction–though perhaps not to the degree that you think–but I’m not puzzled by it at all. I mean, the primary purpose of nonfiction is to pass along information. It may entertain or move or spur to action, but these are informational books.

    Yeah, I’d be willing to toss aside either When You Reach Me or Calpurnia (which isn’t on my list anyway) for a factual error if it was actually proved non-factual, and if it was at all important to the book; how big or important the error would have to be would probably depend on how good the book was otherwise, and whether there were other books that were equally or more distinguished otherwise.

  19. Jonathan Hunt says:

    Wendy, I think your point is well taken on ABSOLUTELY TRUE DIARY. My aim with that comparison was to suggest that when a book wins an award it does not suggest that the book is (a) perfect or (b) that the award expresses approval of every potential problem people may have with the book. I tried to convey that in my original post, but perhaps I was unclear.

    (Wendy, I tried to post on your blog earlier, but it didn’t go through. I appreciated your example from SMOKE SIGNALS–Alexie again–but wonder if anyone might think of an example of something funny written by a non-Native person . . . But I don’t want to deflect attention from the book at hand which is YEARS OF DUST.)

    I think people are critical of accuracy in historical fiction nearly as much as they are critical of it in nonfiction. I disagree with you about the primary purpose of nonfiction. Writers may have one purpose, readers have another. Personally, I read nonfiction primarily for pleasure. Marc Aronson has written about this extensively on his blog, but if people think that the primary purpose of nonfiction is information then it is probably why the genre is held in such low esteem by award committees.

    I think you are basically agreeing with me in your final paragraph. The question that I am asking–and it’s on that you can only answer once you’ve read the book–is this: How important to the book is the factual error in YEARS OF DUST?

    The environmental message of the quote is accurate (meaning that, yes, all things in life are interconnected), but the attribution of it to Chief Seattle is inaccurate. We have no way of knowing if he thought those things; he certainly didn’t write or say them. Marrin probably relied on Al Gore’s reputation as an environmental expert rather than a historian, and that’s unfortunate.

    Ultimately, I would agree with Debbie, but we would arrive at the same conclusion through different routes. She thinks this particularly inaccuracy makes it unworthy of Newbery attention, while I think it’s the fact that CLAUDETTE COLVIN, MARCHING FOR FREEDOM, and CHARLES AND EMMA, at least, are stronger books.

  20. “I read nonfiction primarily for pleasure”–EVERYTHING I read is for pleasure. But isn’t the pleasure in nonfiction about increasing knowledge and understanding of the world? (Besides the usual pleasure one takes in well-written work.) Maybe this veers too far off the topic.

    I really think people are absolutely crazy for accuracy in all kinds of fiction, not just historical fiction. Goodreads is crawling with complaints from people who have specialized knowledge in some area (or think they do) and have read a children’s novel that they claim has inaccuracies and is therefore terrible. Lately I’ve been noticing this a lot in books with special needs characters, like Rules and The London Eye Mystery. People also complain mightily when they read books set in their hometowns that have mild inaccuracies which are totally meaningless to the vast majority of readers. We all like to prove people wrong (dude, I love it) and one-up authors.

  21. Debbie Reese says:

    I spent this afternoon working on an essay about Marrin’s book. I posted it on my site, American Indians in Children’s Literature today (December 6, 2009).

    There’s a lot of Native content in the book… A lot WRONG with the book… It isn’t just one flaw…

  22. Sarah Tang says:

    I was intrigued when you pointed out how poorly science books do in Newbery consideration. I’ve noticed that virtually everyone involved in critiquing children’s books has an academic background in English literature, or history, or perhaps the social sciences. How much does this influence their affection for, say, biography or history over science topics in reviews or award consideration?

  23. Jonathan Hunt says:

    This is a good question, Sarah. I think it’s hard to say. If you look at the Sibert Award, you see that biography and history dominate over science books there, too. I think the human world often tugs at our emotions with greater force than the natural world does. Hence, we see CLAUDETTE COLVIN and MARCHING FOR FREEDOM as inherently more award worthy than something like THE FROG SCIENTIST.

  24. Jonathan, you ask, “Can you cite the parts where Stone claims that the women were trained for space exploration or where she claims they were hired by NASA? No, you cannot because she never said those things. However, some of her critics have implied that she has (namely the NASA apologists who have their own agenda).”

    The problem is that what the book states and what it is structured to imply are often at odds.

    Start with the title. Do the words ALMOST ASTRONAUTS claim “that the women were trained for space exploration”? I suppose one could say no, if one reads the book in the same spirit that one would read, say, a legal document. So let’s grant that the title does not directly claim the women were trained for space exploration. Does it imply it?

    Then, on page 18: “They [Flickinger and Lovelace] put their heads together and named their idea for a female testing program Project WISE (Woman in Space Earliest). In casual conversation, Flickinger often referred to it as a “girl astronaut program.”” Well, you can say, the Flickinger comment is protected by “in casual conversation,” but the book leaves the comment as the last word for that section; it closes with the idea of “girl astronaut.” It doesn’t directly claim the women were being trained for space exploration, you could say. Does it imply it?

    The women taking Lovelace’s tests are called “candidates.” Candidates for what?

    Then there’s the engineering requirement for astronaut training, which disqualified any number of otherwise viable candidates for astronaut training, male and female. We get a glimpse of that requirement if we read the letter Liz Carpenter wrote for LBJ to send to James Webb, but otherwise the book elides this subject completely, in what can only be considered a willful omission.

    And so on, and so on. The problem is misdirection, and consistent misdirection. It begins with the title and runs through the text. It’s a book that must be read defensively.

Speak Your Mind