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Heavy Medal: A Mock Newbery Blog
Inside Heavy Medal

Black Hole and Moonbird

Quick!  Name all the science-themed nonfiction books in the Newbery canon.  VOLCANO by Patricia Lauber.  One?  Yes, you read that right: there is only one science book in the entire canon.  Perhaps that will change as there are several excellent science books this year.

We could spend quite a bit of time with THE MIGHTY MARS ROVERS by Elizabeth Rusch and INVINCIBLE MICROBE by Jim Murphy and Alison Blank.  Or we might explore the relative merits of THEIR SKELETONS SPEAK by Sally Walker and Doug Owsley or THE SKULL IN THE ROCK by Lee Berger and Marc Aronson.  Even BOMB by Steve Sheinkin and TEMPLE GRANDIN by Sy Montgomery have scientific subplots.

But for now I’d like to focus on the two science books that I find not only the most distinguished, but also ones that are on opposite ends of the warm and fuzzy spectrum: A BLACK HOLE IS *NOT* A HOLE by Carolyn DeCristofano and MOONBIRD by Phillip Hoose.

This is not to slight the aforementioned books which are all good–distinguished, even.  All of these science books are important because, taken together, they present the Newbery committee–and, by extension, ourselves–with a crash course in what distinguished science literature for children looks like.

A BLACK HOLE IS *NOT* A HOLE

A black hole is NOT a hole–at least not the kind you can dig into the ground or poke your finger through.  You can’t just walk along and fall into one.  A black hole isn’t a hole like that.

If a black hole is not a hole, then what in the universe is it?

decristofano 226x300 Black Hole and MoonbirdThis may be the most distinguished nonfiction title of the year, but it will also be the hardest to build consensus around because an expository text about physics does not make us quite as warm and fuzzy as a narrative text about a tenacious, but adorable little bird.  It doesn’t tug at the heartstrings, does it?  And yet the writing is uncategorically distinguished, but don’t take my word for it . . .

Booklist: Writing with rare verve (A black hole is nothing to look at. Literally.), DeCristofano condenses recent astronomical discoveries into a high-energy account of what we know or guess about one of the universe’s deepest and most unobservable secrets.

Horn Book: Complicated abstract ideas, such as gravity, electromagnetism, and relativity, are logically ordered and clarified in an inviting conversational style and with inspired uses of reasoning and analogies that are perfectly attuned to the comprehension levels of the target audience.

Kirkus Reviews: DeCristofano handles the material with wit, style and singularly admirable clarity, frequently employing easy-to-understand and, yes, down-to-earth ideas and scenarios to help make complex principles comprehensible to readers of all ages.

School Library Journal: This introduction to black holes takes readers from simple to complex by dropping definitions and information slowly and clearly into the lively narrative.

MOONBIRD

B95 can feel it: a stirring in his bones and feathers.  It’s time.  Today is the day he will once again cast himself into the air, spiral upwards into the clouds, and bank into the wind, working his newly molted flight feathers for real.

hoose 270x300 Black Hole and MoonbirdLike DeCristofano, Hoose writes with clarity and verve.  His text meanders freely across the expository and persuasive domains of writing, but it’s his narrative powers, especially as the story pivots around the titular character, that make this not only distinguished writing, but consensus-friendly.

Bulletin of the Center for Children’s Books: Putting an actual beaked face to the problem of animal endangerment makes the story of the species’ peril all the more compelling, and only the truly hard of heart could resist cheering for B95 to make it through one more trip.

Kirkus Reviews: In a compelling, vividly detailed narrative, Hoose takes readers around the hemisphere, showing them the obstacles rufa red knots face, introducing a global team of scientists and conservationists, and offering insights about what can be done to save them before it’s too late. Meticulously researched and told with inspiring prose and stirring images, this is a gripping, triumphant story of science and survival.

Both of these books are worthy of Newbery recognition, but I don’t have much faith that the Newbery committee will see their way to recognizing A BLACK HOLE IS *NOT* A HOLE; I hope I’m wrong.  Prove me wrong, Newbery committee; I dare you! On the other hand, MOONBIRD likewise has all the hallmarks of distinguished nonfiction and seems much easier to build consensus around.  Is there room for two science books on the proverbial podium?  Theoretically, there is, but practically speaking . . .

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Jonathan Hunt About Jonathan Hunt

Jonathan Hunt is the County Schools Librarian at the San Diego County Office of Education. He served on the 2006 Newbery committee, and has also judged the Printz Award, the Boston Globe-Horn Book Awards, and the Los Angeles Times Book Prize. You can reach him at hunt_yellow@yahoo.com

Comments

  1. mslibrarian says:

    I agree with Jonathan that both books are worthwhile titles that should be widely recommended to young readers, whether they receive awards or not. However, I also see that there are some issues in each book. Black Hole has a somewhat poor typographic and layout design and the author does not address the question of “what happens to matters when they are sucked into a black hole.” And Moonbird has a slight pacing issue after the first 2/3 of the book, due to the repetitive nature of the rufas’ journeying and feeding pattern. I think this book would have been perfect if it were slightly shorter and tighter.

  2. Jonathan Hunt says:

    BLACK HOLE: Well, you have stumbled upon one of my biggest pet peeves about critiquing nonfiction: pretending like design and layout are more important than they really are. Too often such criticisms seem like an unwillingness to engage intellectually with the actual content of the writing. If, for example, I said that SPLENDORS AND GLOOMS had poor typography (and it does, by the way: the print is too small, the line spacing too narrow, and there is just too much text on each page, especially for the younger readers that this book seems best suited for). If I argued that this merited removing the book from serious consideration . . . Well, you wouldn’t take me very seriously, would you? Yet we do this all the time for nonfiction. Why the double standard? Can you be more specific about how the design choices make the text less effective? I believe your second complaint is addressed in chapter 7, especially page 50. Basically, DeCristofano says that we just don’t know what happens, although we can guess. Not very satisfying, but it’s the truth, and maybe it will inspire some readers to grow up to be astrophysicists and explore that question.

    MOONBIRD: Well, there are eight chapters in this book and only two of them are devoted to the slightly repetitive southbound migration. So, again, it’s hard for me to really take your complaint seriously. On a different tack, how does the pacing of this one compare to the so-called jumpy pacing of NO CRYSTAL STAIR or the leisurely pacing of SPLENDORS AND GLOOMS?

  3. mslibrarian says:

    I will address all the points by Jonathan here:

    1. Yes, the design/layout actually does come into play when there is the entry in the criteria that the illustrations (I take that as to include all the visual elements) detract the whole reading experience. What’s wrong with the design of Black Hole? I don’t have the book with me, but here are some points I recall: there are caption texts that’s set to probably 8 or 7 or even smaller size fonts that do not have to be so small or hard to read; there are pages where the placements of the images look institutional (to quote my daughter’s comment, “This is exactly what my science textbook looks like” — while the chapter lead-in large artists’ renderings are indeed quite nice — so there is that imbalance of “tone” in the visual presentation. I might be able to include more (color choices? that’s taste, of course!) when I get back to work and look at the book again.

    2. The “what happens to matters” still remains a hugely under-addressed topic in this book, even though there are a lot of speculations in the field. So in a book where many topics addressed ARE still largely theoretical but the author does not shy away from presenting one or several theories, to not explore a bit further in a book for kids (and I imagine many kids would have raised that query…) seems odd to me.

    3. Re Moonbird: My emotional reaction and engagement to the first 2/3 of the book is so high and also really love the final notes that Hoose poses for the young readers to do something about their world that the less effective chapters simply stand out in stark contrast. Does this make sense to you? Too much/too long of a good thing?? Perhaps. I find No Crystal Stair’s ensemble pieces not confusing or jumbled, by the way, but keep the narrative fresh. Just a note: I like multi-perspective tales, as long as the author does not make me mad by using the device poorly.

  4. I’m sold on MOONBIRD. It feels to me like what a nonfiction winner should look like, something in the great American tradition of nature writing. There might be a couple fiction titles I think are better, but it had better win something.

    Re: BLACK HOLE, I like it a lot, but I have two issues. One is that I question how well the text stands alone without the illustrations. The second — and to me more important — involves Presentation of Information. The book starts out using Newtonian physics, and only towards the end introduces relativistic principles. The part where relativity is introduced talks about the relationship between Newtonian and relativistic frameworks, but the initial explanation of Newtonian mechanics doesn’t mention that relativity will be coming. The result is that a child reader learns one explanation for what happens in a black hole, only to learn later on in the book that there’s another, better explanation. As someone with a lifelong interest, if no post-high school education, in physics, I’m all for teaching both Newtonian mechanics and relativity, but I think talking about one without telling the reader that the other is coming might confuse a child.

  5. Also, if you’re going to mention TEMPLE GRANDIN, at least throw a bone in the direction of RUNNER OF THE MOUNTAIN TOPS, the one science biography in the Newbery canon ;)

  6. Myra Zarnowski says:

    Bravo for giving some much needed attention to well written science books. It is especially important to recognize books that show the process of inquiry in action. My colleague Susan Turkel and I have referred to these books as “the literature of inquiry.” These books not only convey content, they also reveal process in an engaging way. Since study after study has shown that most science books do not adequately reveal what scientists call “the nature of science,” the books that do should be recognized.

  7. Alys says:

    I think that one of the reasons that nonfiction critiques so often mention formatting while fiction does not is because modern nonfiction tends to be a highly visual medium in a way that middle grade novels are not. The formatting and book design can affect the order in which a reader accesses the information and can help set, for lack of a better word, the pacing. I can’t remember what book it was, but I read a book last year that kept randomly highlighting the first word in a particular paragraph. My brain processed this different typography as a section heading and then when it was just a random sentence it jarred the flow. It wasn’t until I read something disruptive that I realized what a difference a well-formatted book can make. I see the book design of a fiction book like the background hum of my computer fan. If it’s bad (small print or poor spacing) then its annoying but something that slips into the background. Whereas book design for many nonfiction books is more like the feedback noise the computer makes when I do something, an intermittent signal that I am interacting with. Is design the most important aspect of a book? Of course not, that is and always will be the actual text. But I think dismissing it as completely unimportant and not something that should ever be commented upon is also missing something.

    I think talking about the typography of fiction books does add to the conversation (even if not the Newbery conversation, of course!). When you were complaining about the typography of Splendors and Glooms, it made me wonder if small print and too-much-on-the-page was part of the reason that I, too, felt bogged down and slogging through as I read the book the first time. When I re-read it I’m going to try to be more aware of the impact its having on my subconscious.

  8. mslibrarian says:

    I agree with Alys. And want to add that, to me as a reader, typography, white space, line spacing, chapter heading and border designs all are important for the whole reading experience. Take One Year in Coal Harbor for example — there are pages where the last lines on each page presses to the very possible bottom of the page and practically collides with the page number — while some other pages there is the space of a single line between the lat line and the page number. This disturbed me so much at the first glance, I felt really reluctant to even start reading the book. I did read it and I did enjoy the book — but never really got “comfy” with the crammed pages. This does not hinder my appreciation of Horvath’s writing but it did mar my reading experience.

  9. Jonathan Hunt says:

    mslibrarian . . .

    1. Oh, I don’t have a problem with discussing the design of BLACK HOLE (or indeed any nonfiction, easy reader, or picture books that we might consider for Newbery). I’m just adamant that we also consider when the design of novels make their content less effective. I won’t belabor this point for each novel that we consider here, but I can argue against the design of virtually any book.

    When I was on the committee, there was a Big Six publisher that used crappy paper stock for all of their mid-list titles and, as a result, the pages often warped and dimpled–and text on the opposite page bled through. In fact, this publisher had won a recent Medal for just such a book, yet I consistently see paper stock mentioned in, say, nonfiction reviews. So, again, the double standard is perplexing.

    I don’t have a problem with any of the font sizes in BLACK HOLE. Yes, the captions are smaller than the sidebars which are smaller than the primary narrative text. In comparison, the text for SPLENDORS AND GLOOMS, for example, appears to be smaller than the primary narrative text, but bigger than the sidebar text. I’m not sure what point you’re trying to make: That you can’t read the small text? That children can’t? That readers of nonfiction need bigger font sizes? Also, you have used “looks like a textbook” the same way that Sondy used “reads like nonfiction”: as a pejorative term. It’s an accurate description, but we may not all share your bias against the look of textbooks. Indeed, my issue has always been more with the way textbooks read than with the way they look. So, yeah, it *does* look like a textbook–it kind of should; it’s an expository text, after all–but that in and of itself does not mean that it doesn’t read like a Newbery book.

    2. I encourage you to reread chapter 7 (“Close Encounters of the Imaginary Kind”) which includes quite a bit of speculative theories about what might happen to matter inside a black hole. I tried a lazy Google search and couldn’t find better answers to this question–either for kids or adults–than the ones DeCristofano provides. But maybe you will be more successful than me. I do share your frustration about wanting to know more, but I think that much speculation might move closer to the realm of science fiction.

    3. I completely understand where you are coming from, and you may need to reread MOONBIRD again to get a better sense of why that section lagged for you, but I’m not sure that it necessarily had to do with how many words he used to discuss that section of the journey. I may even find that I agree with you, that there is a slight pacing issue, but for me the pacing is still clearly superior to, say, WONDER and SPLENDORS AND GLOOMS.

    Sam . . .

    1. This concern could be resolved by covering the illustrations on a reread. I think you’ll find that while the illustrations enhance the text, the text itself is very distinguished. In fact, I would argue that the text is much more distinguished than the illustrations. If you walk to your library shelf and start pulling recent black hole books, you’ll probably notice some equally good illustrations, but then when you start reading them, the difference becomes apparent.

    2. I think going from Newton to Einstein fits in the general pattern of simple to complex. I’m not sure why not telegraphing this to the reader is such a sticking point for you. I think that could have just as easily confused the reader as this current option does. In any case, if you were on the committee this year, you would probably have some of your child readers take a crack at it, and that would inform your opinion on this point.

  10. Jonathan Hunt says:

    I didn’t see the most recent comments by Alys and mslibrarian before I posted mine . . .

    Design is part of the Newbery criteria, but in no way do I read them as allowing you to nitpick a nonfiction book to death while giving a free pass to the fiction (not that I’m accusing anyone of doing that). They explicitly state the award is given *primarily* for the text and it further gives things to look for in the text (interpretation of theme or concept, presentation of information, etc). I don’t read the criteria to mean that writing and design are co-equal. Even when the design makes the writing less effective, I don’t think that can completely undo everything that the text accomplishes.

  11. Mark Flowers says:

    With MOONBIRD, I find myself in the same unenviable position as Jonathan when he read SPLENDORS AND GLOOMS – bored, without any good justification for it. I just didn’t much care about the moonbird. If this makes the shortlist, I suppose I’ll reread it, but for now, I’m just not motivated enough to try to figure out my response.

    BLACK HOLE, on the other hand, I thought was spectacular. I was not at all bothered by the shift from Newtonian to Einsteinian physics, as I felt that it fit with the overall arc of the book of digger deeper and deeper into just what a black hole is. I was particularly impressed with the way it came back around at the end to explaining that a black hole *is* a hole. Kind of. Very clever.

    As for typography and layout, I agree completely with Jonathan that if we’re going to seriously ding an NF book for it, we have to do the same for F books. I read S&G on an ereader, so I can’t speak to that one, but I’ve certainly read many MG novels with weird fonts or just too small print that distracted from my reading experience. And I remember as a child instinctively avoided books where the font was too small or the number of words per page too high. I still feel that way. But honestly, I don’t think this is an issue we should be giving a lot of time too.

  12. Wendy says:

    I was the opposite–bored with BLACK HOLE, though I thought MOONBIRD was good rather than spectacular. I thought the text of BLACK HOLE read kind of… condescending, maybe? Or like it was trying too hard to be a Fun Science Book?

    There were parts of MOONBIRD that I thought were great, but overall, like Mark, I wasn’t that interested in the bird himself–I thought all the parts about him were stretching a point. They’re speculative of necessity, and so lack the authority of the other sections. I didn’t think the book needed a central character at all, or at least not in the way it was done–my favorite parts of the Moonbird saga were in people looking for him and then being excited to see him; I definitely wanted to know afterward when he’d been sighted last and looked it up. No matter how many actual pages/chapters were devoted to migration, I felt the same as mslibrarian–it started to feel repetitive. I got the feeling that Hoose didn’t really have enough to make a whole book out of. And I thought, too, that the narrative arc was lacking–after a couple of chapters, I didn’t get a sense of where the book was going. Not every book needs to have a narrative arc, but I didn’t get a clear, coherent structure from MOONBIRD. These are criticisms I spend time on only with a book I do think is good; I think MOONBIRD is good but not as distinguished as other offerings. I have THE IMPOSSIBLE RESCUE and BOMB and others yet to read and still hope for the right nonfiction (for me) to come along.

  13. Jonathan Hunt says:

    FYI . . . MOONBIRD will pick up its 6th starred review from SLJ in October. BOMB will have 5. Booklist is the lone hold-out on that one, but I disagree with their reviewer who I think made some silly points.

  14. mslibrarian says:

    I’m just addressing one point here: Mind you, not trying to start a fight. Mainly, I am not sure that I agree that we HAVE to give equal considerations on design to MG novels and MG nonfiction — it’s very much like you cannot give a collection of poetry that is NOT a verse novel or a THEMED collection the same consideration of character development and plot and pacing as that of a historical fiction or fantasy.

    So, by nature, Nonfiction (to me at least) comes as a “full package” when the publishers decide to include design elements on the pages: positions of sidebars (are they distracting from the flow of the main text or placed just right to enhance the richness?); the choices of type and size (are they helping the readers to easily grasp the information or distracting the readers because they vary too much or too large or too small?) the graphic elements (are they well chosen graphics that help illustrating the author’s points or are they superfluous or are they chosen to make the book look “pretty” but do little to clarify the information?) So much to consider. And Yes, I do understand that the authors have little control over all of these, but when we read a graphically heavy MG NF, it is not possible to separate the experience and to quarantine all the “main text” from the rest. If that is the case, the committee members should all just receive plain pages with the text typed on them without all the rest. Will THAT be fair to any of the NF that Jonathan champions this year? I think not.

  15. Mark Flowers says:

    @mslibrarian – on that very last point: actually, I think that would be *awesome* if they provided plain text copies of the books with no graphics. It would allow the focus to be just on the text and not lead to these sorts of discussions. And in the case of a few of them in particular that I can think of (BOMB, WE’VE GOT A JOB) it would really highlight all of their strengths.

  16. Jonathan Hunt says:

    But the criteria say that we can expect distinguished features in those areas which are relevant to a book, so character development may not be relevant to a poetry collection or indeed to BLACK HOLE, while presentation of information may not be relevant to some novels. Fine–don’t hold those books accountable for them. But design is relevant to *all* books, even if it more explicitly impacts some kinds of nonfiction.

    Again, here’s my difficulty with your point of view. Nobody *LOVES* BLACK HOLE; it’s not a warm and fuzzy book. But anybody who has spent any time with expository books of information (whether published this year or any other) knows that this text is head and shoulders above similar books. Since *most distinguished* is a relative standard rather than an absolute standard, we can say that this text does what it does as well as any text this year. The problem is that nobody actually *LOVES* it. How can we marginalize this book, then, so we don’t have to consider its strengths? Design!

    There are six criteria for text: plot, character, setting, theme, style, and information. You can consider design only if it makes the text less effective. So does that make design the seventh criteria? Does it carry equal weight? Or more? When you allow design and writing to become co-equal then you give yourself a loophole, especially with a book like BLACK HOLE. Character and setting aren’t relevant to BLACK HOLE, but the other four are. So you’re telling me that design trumps plot, theme, style, and information? I don’t think so.

    Now I’m obviously putting words in your mouth since in a normal Newbery conversation we would discuss all the strengths of this book, and then get to the weaknesses. I know you have said that you agree on the strengths of the book, and I’m probably anticipating concerns that are very alien to your true intentions, and if that is the case then I do apologize, but you can see why I am suspicious. I personally think it’s very impressive–but I love BOMB and MOONBIRD, and I love some novels more, and . . . Oh, wait! What’s love got to do with it?

  17. mslibrarian says:

    Jonathan, I agree fully with this statement, “But anybody who has spent any time with expository books of information (whether published this year or any other) knows that this text is head and shoulders above similar books.” I truly do — appreciate the author’s skills in presenting complex concepts to the intended young readers! And I love how the book ends, that a Black Hole is actually a LOT like a Hole :)

  18. Mr. H says:

    I finished BOMB last week and thought it was incredible. My favorite so far this year, but my reading list is limited.

    I do want to get to one more nonfiction title, and I’m thinking BLACK HOLE may be it. I read the free pages of MOONBIRD on Amazon and wasn’t really that impressed. When my free time is so precious, I want to read something I’m going to “like”. TEMPLE GRANDIN is there too, but I’d like to read something totally different from BOMB. Any suggestions?

  19. Points well made and well taken, Jonathan, about a reread helping with evaluating the text of BLACK HOLE.

    As for the Newtonian/Relativistic issue, I may be projecting my own experiences as a child reader here. One of my favorite books growing up was THE CARTOON GUIDE TO PHYSICS, which is definitely pitched for an older audience than BLACK HOLE. CARTOON GUIDE took the strategy of saying up front, repeatedly, that Newtonian mechanics were only an approximation — a good approximation under normal circumstances, and one that made the math a lot easier, but an approximation nonetheless. Maybe I wanted that out of BLACK HOLE, and maybe it’s because that’s how one of my favorite books approached it. It’s funny, the way expectations can sometimes carry over. If we were having a conversation about this around the table, I think that’s an objection you could talk me out of.

  20. Sandy D. says:

    Huh. I knew that there wasn’t much nonfiction (and no straightforward science w/o history) in the Newbery Award winners, but I honestly thought there must have been some in the Honors lists, especially with so many great science books in the last 10 years or so. How disappointing.

    I wish my local libraries would get more of these books you’ve just mentioned. They seem to get the literary Newbery possibles much earlier than the nonfiction ones.

  21. Jonathan Hunt says:

    Mr. H: BLACK HOLE would be a good choice because it is so different from the other books in the field–being both a science book and an expository text–and it’s relatively short, too. I would describe BOMB, IMPOSSIBLE RESCUE, TITANIC, FAIRY RING, and THE GIANT as narrative nonfiction. To one degree or another, each author uses suspense to drive their story in the same way a novelist might. WE’VE GOT A JOB is also quite good and civil rights books (THE VOICE THAT CHALLENGED A NATION and CLAUDETTE COLVIN) have done well in the past.

    Sandy: It’s sad, isn’t it? But here’s another sign of the science stigma. Sy Montgomery has won the Sibert and two honors for Scientist in the Field books, but she’s never been buzzed for Newbery–until this year when she a biography out. I know the design of Scientist in the Field is awesome and kind of overshadows the text, but still . . .

  22. Mark Flowers says:

    Speaking of Science NF, and particularly @Mr. H, here’s my mom’s thoughts on THEIR SKELETONS SPEAK and THE GIANT (both of which are strong contenders, for me): http://crossreferencing.wordpress.com/2012/10/01/cardiff-giant-vs-kennewick-man/

  23. Ed Spicer says:

    And you didn’t even do anything but mention Bomb, which is better than both.

  24. Nina says:

    Okay, having finally just gotten my hands on and finished both…am I the first one to say that BLACK HOLE strikes my warm-fuzzy bone better than MOONBIRD? I think both are great, btw…and we do have more NF to discuss. But I was the kid for whom those goofy thought experiments eclipsed any heroic migration story, which I’d have known I was supposed to feel emotional about, and so resist.

  25. Jonathan Hunt says:

    http://www.hbook.com/2012/10/blogs/calling-caldecott/ocean-sunlight/

    Over on Calling Caldecott, Lolly Robinson asks the following question about OCEAN SUNLIGHT: “Does this book have a chance with the committee? Will it depend on how many of them have an interest in science?” It’s ironic that we have been saying the same thing for A BLACK HOLE IS *NOT* A HOLE. Should it matter whether the committee likes science? Shouldn’t they just recognize the most distinguished book–whether or not they like it?

Trackbacks

  1. [...] Moonbird: A Year on the Wind with the Great Survivor B95 (Farrar) by Phillip Hoose, which explores a species of bird that migrates hundreds of thousands of miles over the course of its life. [...]

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