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.
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.
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.