Most of the nonfiction that gets published for older readers tends to look the same: a large trim-size (resembling a picture book) coupled with a book design that divides the reader’s attention: main narrative, photographs, illustrations, captions, and sidebars. It’s a bit rare when a throwback like CHARLES AND EMMA comes along, relying wholly upon the power of the words to capture our imagination. CHARLES AND EMMA was always a longshot for the Newbery, not for any lack of merit, but because of the perception of its “older” audience. THE NOTORIOUS BENEDICT ARNOLD has the same wonderful novelistic approach to its biographical subject, but is aimed at a younger audience. The publisher has it listed for grades 6 to 9, ages 11 to 14, making it even “younger” than THEY CALLED THEMSELVES THE KKK, SUGAR CHANGED THE WORLD, THE WAR TO END ALL WARS, and THE GOOD, THE BAD, AND THE BARBIE (all of which are designated as 12 and up by their publishers).
“I’m convinced that it’s one of the best action/adventure tales in American history,” writes Steve Sheinkin in an author’s note at the end–and by that point, he’s clearly proven this to be true.
It was a beautiful place to die. The sky above the woods glowed blue, and the leaves on the trees were a riot of colors: sunshine yellow, campfire orange, and blood red.
In a grassy clearing, a small group of American soldiers quickly built a gallows. It was a simple structure, made of two tall, forked logs stuck into the ground, with a third log laid horizontally between the forks. The soldiers tied one end of a rope to the middle of the horizontal log, letting the other end hang down. There was no platform to stand on, no trapdoor to fall through–the prisoner would have to climb onto a wagon with the rope looped around his throat. Horses would jerk the wagon forward, and he would tumble off the back. The force of his falling weight should be enough to snap a man’s neck . . .
But this is the end of the story. The story begins thirty-nine years earlier and 125 miles to the east, in the busy port town of Norwich, Connecticut. The story begins with Benedict Arnold.
Sheinkin opens his story with a dramatic account of the execution of John Andre, the British spy who colluded with Benedict Arnold, and Andre’s briefer story is threaded throughout the narrative of Arnold’s life, not only to provide narrative sophistication (i.e. plot), but to add a degree of empathy to the British villains in the story.
This book has everything that we would ask of a Newbery book. It is excellent in all respects–plot, character, setting, style, theme, information–and when more of you have read it, then we can discuss these points further. I’ve made no secret that A CONSPIRACY OF KINGS and SUGAR CHANGED THE WORLD are firmly entrenched in my top three, but I’ve dithered on my third choice. First, I decided on KEEPER, then THE LEGEND OF THE KING, and I may have just talked myself into DARK EMPEROR, but I think this one is a contender, too.