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Heavy Medal: A Mock Newbery Blog
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Nonfiction Monday

The National Book Award finalists will be announced on Wednesday.  You’ll remember that last year two of the finalists, CLAUDETTE COLVIN and CHARLES AND EMMA, were informational books and a third, STITCHES, was a memoir in the form of a graphic novel, bringing the grand total of nonfiction titles to three.

I don’t know that the Newbery committee has ever recognized more than a single nonfiction title, but last year they didn’t lack for worthy candidates as CLAUDETTE COLVIN, CHARLES AND EMMA, ALMOST ASTRONAUTS, and MARCHING FOR FREEDOM eventually dominated the field with multiple accolades and honors.

As Nina mentioned, this year is shaping up to be another incredibly good year in terms of nonfiction, especially for the older readers in the Newbery range.  SUGAR CHANGED THE WORLD is still one of my personal favorites, but as it’s not published until mid-November, I’ll hold off on the discussion until later.  I finished THE GOOD, THE BAD, AND THE BARBIE late last week and think that it’s even better than ALMOST ASTRONAUTS.  While it’s not dogged by concerns about the interpretation of events, some may feel it appeals to an even older audience.  I’ve heard mixed things about SIR CHARLIE, but I personally found it the most engaging of Fleischman’s biographies, plus it’s the one book I’m going to mention in this post that is a genuine, true blue, honest-to-goodness juvenile title.  I’m with Nina in her admiration of these previously mentioned titles, but I want profile several more members of Team Nonfiction.

THE WAR TO END ALL WARS by Russell Freedman melds a concise chronological summary of the key events of WWI with a broader thematic focus on different aspects of the war.  His use of primary sources, both textual and visual, are characteristic of his best work.  I’ve heard some grumbling about this one–way too simplistic, brings nothing new to the table–so this one is not loved universally.  While it’s not necessarily my favorite either, it’s still a pretty formidable contender. 

THEY CALLED THEMSELVES THE KKK by Susan Campbell Bartoletti is her first book since HITLER YOUTH and it could earn her Newbery recognition again.  Like Freedman, Bartoletti opts for a dual narrative structure–chronological and thematic–that works extremely well for the source material.  This book seemed scholarly and academic, more like BLACK POTATOES than HITLER YOUTH.  That’s an observation rather than a criticism.  Perhaps I miss the photographs of the latter book.  And perhaps, too, I expected a more contemporary history, rather than the focus on the Klan during the Reconstruction.  I’ve obviously got to divest myself of some baggage before I give it another look.

BUILT TO LAST by David Macaulay may the be best of the bunch, but will probably be ruled ineligible as it’s a compilation or reprint of CASTLE, CATHEDRAL, and MOSQUE, albeit with significantly revised text and illustrations.  I bring this one to your attention, then, to ask what you think of the writing.  It clearly stands independently of the illustrations, but is it distinguished?  I think so–even if it is a moot point.

I’m sure there are another half a dozen nonfiction titles that we’ll probably discuss over the next couple months, but do you think any of them will be announced as National Book Award finalists?  Any predictions, nonfiction or otherwise?

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. There have been a few years when the Newbery has recognized more than one nonfiction book, although most of the “biographies” cited are probably more fictional in narrative style than truly informational.

    The 1951 winner, Amos Fortune, Free Man by Elizabeth Yates, used to be shelved in the biography section at my local library. And three of the four Honor Books that year were also bios: Better Known as Johnny Appleseed by Mabel Leigh Hunt; Gandhi, Fighter Without a Sword by Jeanette Eaton, and Abraham Lincoln, Friend of the People by Clara Ingram Judson.


  2. Jonathan Hunt says:

    Thanks, Peter! I love your SLJ Newbery nomination list from the early 1970s. Clearly, the one-year experiment lasted for several years so I have to wonder if the division of the Newbery/Caldecott committee disrupted things more than any dissatisfaction with publishing the lists.

    I notice that ccbc-net is discussing nonfiction now, and I’m sure many of you are tuned into that discussion. I’m curious about the lack of discussion here on titles such as THE WAR TO END ALL WARS and THEY CALLED THEMSELVES THE KKK. Using starred reviews as a somewhat objective indicator of quality, these books seem on par with the usual suspects (THE DREAMER, A CONSPIRACY OF KINGS, KEEPER, ONE CRAZY SUMMER, and COUNTDOWN) and yet my sense is that, by and large, people do not consider them serious Newbery contenders. Agree or disagree?

  3. I thought An Unspeakable Crime: The Prosecution and Persecution of Leo Frank by Elaine Marie Alphin was really, REALLY good. Dramatic and readable for budding true-crime fans, scholarly enough to be award-worthy, very nuanced — a terrific portrait of the case, the main players, and a place and time.

  4. Jonathan Hunt says:

    I’ve been meaning to read this one since it came out last spring; it’s in my pile. My interest, of course, was piqued because of my affection for the Broadway Cast Recording of PARADE, which is based on the story.

  5. Jonathan, I’m glad you liked the lists. They are actually the only public record of Newbery nominees in the nearly ninety-year history of the award. Though I imagine that today’s committees make an even more concerted effort to include NF, picture books, poetry, etc., it’s clear that even in the 1970s, such books were given due consideration. You may be right that changes in the N/C committee resulted in them giving up this experiment…but I wish they’d bring it back! I’ve often wished for a Newbery shortlist of, say, eight to ten contenders, but I think that might ultimately be anticlimactic. But big long lists of 50-75 Newbery nominees have enough content to keep everyone reading and talking for months and would also provide the chance of a more exciting/unexpected winner than a shortlist that includes just a handful of titles.

    Oh great, now I have to go track down the Alphin book! I was lucky enough to see PARADE on Broadway (it didn’t very long) during a visit to NY. Every time I visit this blog I end up adding more tites to my “to be read” list! : )

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