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Heavy Medal: A Mock Newbery Blog
Inside Heavy Medal

Proud to Be an American?

We’ve already considered TEMPLE GRANDIN and CHUCK CLOSE: FACE BOOK, but there are four additional biographies for young readers that we ought to pay attention to this year: ABRAHAM LINCOLN & FREDERICK DOUGLASS by Russell Freedman, MASTER OF DECEIT by Marc Aronson, THE BRONTE SISTERS by Catherine Reef, and THE AMAZING HARRY KELLAR by Gail Jarrow.

freedman Proud to Be an American?In any other year, I would probably be touting ABRAHAM LINCOLN & FREDERICK DOUGLASS as one of the leading nonfiction contenders, but it’s a measure of the strength of this year that it can’t even crack my top five nonfiction books. I’m fond of the duel biography format, and I think it’s used very effectively here, but I think my baggage may be getting in the way of a greater appreciation for this one. I’ve read so many Lincoln books–including Freedman’s own–that that side of the narrative, while extremely well written, isn’t terribly informative (I know, I know: not informative for me–but probably very informative for a child reader.) On the other hand, Douglass’s side of the narrative was fascinating and I found that I wanted to know more about him–as much as I learned in David Adler’s FREDERICK DOUGLASS: A NOBLE LIFE from a couple years back. But my expectations and preferences have nothing to do with the book that Freedman has actually written.

aronson4 223x300 Proud to Be an American?Just as Freedman has really used the friendship between Lincoln and Douglass to survey the mood of the country during a pivotal stretch of American history (slavery, abolition, Civil War, emancipation), Marc Aronson uses his biography of J. Edgar Hoover, MASTER OF DECEIT, to examine the middle of the twentieth century, from World War I to the Vietnam War–and he does a wonderful job of doing so. In the notes for MASTER OF DECEIT, Aronson reveals a chilling personal connection to the subject matter. I just wish he had opened the book with that revelation (much as he and his wife, Marina Budhos, did in SUGAR CHANGED THE WORLD) and then recast the book in a slightly different light. But again my expectations and preferences have nothing to do with the book that Aronson has actually written. I actually don’t think that will trip anybody up, however. It’s arguably the most YA nonfiction of the year (both in subject and in treatment) which does not bode well for consensus, but there are some other things that make the book divisive, too. Mark and Sarah Flowers do a good job of laying many of them out here and here.

I’m in the middle of THE BRONTE SISTERS and am enjoying it very much, but my library does not have THE AMAZING HARRY KELLAR so I probably won’t be reading that one. To my mind, TEMPLE GRANDIN is the most distinguished biography for children, but if you’d like to argue otherwise, I’m all ears.

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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. Mark Flowers says:

    I agree that it might not be a very Newbery reaction, but I can’t think of a buzzed book that I found more pointless than Freedman’s. We have many better biographies of Lincoln (including Freedman’s) and better biographies of Douglass (including Douglass’s). They meet all of two or three times in total. I just couldn’t figure out what the reason for the book to exist was.

  2. Sandy D. says:

    I know you’re not supposed to compare an author’s past works for the Newbery, but I can’t help doing it when drawing together my own feelings about a book.

    I just wasn’t blown away by Lincoln & Douglass, like I was by the Lincoln photobiography. It was interesting (and I did enjoy the way Freedman used both men’s lives and their friendship to illustrate the history, though I really wondered just how close their friendship was….more than acquaintances, less than Freedman implies?) but it didn’t really have that visceral impact on me that I’ve come to expect for the best Newbery winners.

    You’ve certainly piqued my interest in Aronson’s book now.

  3. Nina Lindsay says:

    Huh: I didn’t bring any baggage to the Freedman, and thought it was incredibly informative and accessible: nice brief length, generous design, and appealing angle to tell this story. I think it will really strike young history readers in the right way.

    Still cracking Master of Deceit

  4. Jonathan Hunt says:

    I found it amusing that Freedman objected to Aronson’s description of him (“translator”), but that is essentially what he has done here–and what he explains in his author’s note. That is, that the scholarship for grown-ups on the Lincoln/Douglass relationship had advanced enough to justify a book on it. The Newbery criteria do not privilege “new” or “old” nonfiction (whatever those are), however, so this observation is irrelevant to our discussion.

    I do think it’s fair to quibble with whether their friendship is exaggerated. I think that perhaps it is slightly–but certainly no more than the Norwegian chapters. ;-)

    I misspoke. I do think the Freedman is incredibly informative and accessible. I just didn’t find any new information in it because I’ve read so widely about both of these figures. When I contrast that to TEMPLE GRANDIN (about whom I knew relatively little and thus learned quite a lot), I get more excited. In a second read of both books, they would both have “old” information and I would be able to appreciate them for what they are independent of my expectations and preferences.

    I do think AL & FD is sufficiently well written to justify Newbery recognition (not the Medal, mind you, but an Honor). At least I think that in a vacuum, but then I go through my nonfiction list, and find that as good as the Freedman is, I think BOMB, MOONBIRD, TITANIC, IMPOSSIBLE RESCUE, WE’VE GOT A JOB, and TEMPLE GRANDIN are more worthy.

  5. Wendy says:

    This is one of the few books Mark and I disagree with this year. I thought it was excellent. Part of that is my own biases toward what nonfiction should be (really, what writing for children should be); I found this refreshingly straightforward. It doesn’t reach to make points, create drama where there might be none, or have language that strikes me as condescending.

    I didn’t think the friendship was exaggerated; I thought Freedman’s point was to show how these men, who didn’t actually know each other very well, had a great impact on each others’ lives. They did CALL each other “friend”, even if the relationship looks to outsiders like acquaintanceship, and Freedman explores why that would be in this book.

    I felt like my previous knowledge gave me license to consider the structure and purpose of the book. I thought it was an effective device to compare Lincoln’s shortcomings (in hindsight) to Douglass. Most modern biographies of Lincoln mention that he had a ways to go in his personal approach to race relations, but it’s easy to brush that off with “he probably did the best he could” kinds of attitudes… until you put him up next to Douglass, and it’s all given a name and a face.

    I haven’t reread Aronson’s comments on “new non-fiction” which made my blood boil at the time, and now I need to reread the author’s note in this book, which didn’t particularly catch my interest one way or another.

  6. Sandy D. says:

    See, I’ve read a lot of Temple Grandin’s work already, and I still thought that “Temple Grandin” was pretty great for kids (and adults unfamiliar with her books). Although Lincoln & Douglass was informative and illuminating, I just wouldn’t recommend it as whole-heartedly.

  7. Jonathan Hunt says:

    Since the bulk of this debate has focused on LINCOLN & DOUGLASS, I’d like to see if we might jumpstart the discussion on MASTER OF DECEIT. As I mentioned, I know this seems like the most YA nonfiction of the year, and likely a strong Printz contender as well, but what do you think of its Newbery chances? We were quite fond of SUGAR CHANGED THE WORLD, after all . . .

    For the record, I found Mark and Sarah Flowers’s discussion of the book interesting, but the treatment of the ethnicity controversy, whether in the text or in the notes, didn’t bother me. I’m just happy to have this information in a book for young readers (i.e. probably middle school and high school). I find Aronson’s tone deliberatiely provocative so that, too, doesn’t bother me, but I understand why it rubs some people the wrong way. What do you think?

  8. Wendy says:

    Hmm… is this one I need to seek out? To be honest, I don’t care for Aronson’s style as a rule, and I’d gotten the impression the Newbery chances for this one were slim enough that I haven’t made myself read it. Anyone want to convince me?

  9. Jonathan Hunt says:

    Ironically, Sarah Couri just paired these same two books together for review over at Someday My Printz Will Come.

    http://blogs.slj.com/printzblog/2012/11/11/nonfiction-roundup/#more-1640

  10. I think Sarah Couri over at the Printz blog (http://blogs.slj.com/printzblog/2012/11/11/nonfiction-roundup/) hit on my reservations with the Freeman book. I read it months back, but remember feeling there was something reductive about the parallels between the two men and their lives and now Sarah has made it clear in her post (http://blogs.slj.com/printzblog/2012/11/11/nonfiction-roundup/) with this money quote:

    “I also — and maybe this is just me — had some issues with the parallels Freedman draws between Lincoln’s life and Douglass’s life. Yes, there are entire books on the similarities the two men lived (destitute circumstances, nearly complete lack of formal education, rising from practically nothing to become central figures in national discourse). But were they that similar? Is it really comparable: desperately poor hardscrabble beginnings vs being considered property? Really? It’s just so superficial.”

  11. Wendy says:

    …and I’ll say what I said over there, which is that I think Sarah is making a claim that Freedman didn’t (though I don’t have the book in front of me). Lincoln and Douglass are shown to have points of connection and points of dissonance, which is what made their limited relationship surprisingly meaningful (to each man) and which gives it its impact on a national level. Lincoln had his opinions on slavery and on African Americans in general; Douglass actually lived it. Dozens of white authors, looking back–even dozens of white abolitionists during Lincoln’s time–can/could criticize Lincoln for his race-relations shortcomings, but that all rings a little thin compared to this, where we get the voice of absolute authority in Frederick Douglass.

  12. I truly don’t know much about the relationship between Douglass and Lincoln, but I do think a book featuring them together this way suggests a significant one, especially to younger readers who will come to it with no background knowledge at all.

  13. Wendy says:

    Well, I’m not saying the relationship was insignificant–only superficially so; as others have pointed out, they only met a few times, and Freedman doesn’t seem to me to be glossing over that fact. The book explores a subtler kind of relationship than that between, say, Jefferson and Adams.

  14. Yes, and I wonder if the intended audience is at the developmental place or has the necessary background to truly appreciate and get that subtler kind of relationship.

  15. Wendy says:

    That’s the crux of the question, indeed! Maybe this is a more daring book of Freedman’s than it seems at the outset. I wonder if he does succeed.

  16. As for the Aronson book, I think both Sarahs have made some very important points. My feeling is that this book is beyond the Newbery age range as it demands a more sophisticated level of reading ability to consider all that is presented. Kids need to be ready to consider the problematic areas and not just absorb them and accept them. Not sure kids 14 and under are ready for that.

  17. ..or at least not with this book given some of the slipperier aspects that the two Sarahs (or are they Saras — have to go teach so can’t go check:) tease out.

  18. Jonathan Hunt says:

    I never felt like Freedman was equating growing up poor to being a slave. The strength of the dual biography is the ability to compare and contrast, and Freedman did that here without distorting each subject. The friendship wasn’t necessarily overplayed, but I do think it is a fair question. I’m not buying that kids cannot understand this kind friendship, especially when I think about celebrity friendship (are Ellen and Oprah really friends?) or pen pal friendship in the digital age with texting, twitter, e-mail, and Skype.

    I do not think MASTER OF DECEIT is too old for the Newbery, but it’s just going to be virtually impossible to build consensus around this one, given the many excellent titles that skew younger–and Aronson’s divisive style.

  19. Cecilia says:

    MASTER OF DECEIT probably doesn’t make my top five, but I did enjoy it and I think it’s worth the read, Wendy. As I think I mentioned in a comment on an earlier post, it paired well with BOMB as I think together they give a broader picture of all the concerns about Communism in the US following WWII and how those concerns manifested themselves in people’s lives (i.e. scientists protecting atomic secrets, Hoover hunting down suspected spies).

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