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Heavy Medal: A Mock Newbery Blog
Inside Heavy Medal

Moonbird

Upon rereading MOONBIRD, it remains firmly entrenched in my top three.  hoose MoonbirdIt doesn’t have the buzz that BOMB does, but I think it’s just as good in its own way.  Take plot, for instance, a criterion that most people would give to BOMB in a head-to-head comparison.  To be sure, the tension and suspense of BOMB is hard to beat, but the way Hoose has organized his information is no less impressive.  It’s a tour de force of non-linear plotting.

We meet B95 in his old age, and follow his journey from the bottom of the world to the top, but once we are at the top of the world, Hoose gives us a flashback to when B95 was a baby, surving the breeding ground and preparing to make his first southbound voyage.  Then we flash back to the present to continue his southbound flight, fraught with even more danger than the northbound one, something we appreciate even more now with the help of new technology–geolocators–that helps us track the flight paths.

In between these chapters, we have profiles of various scientists who are interested in B95.  To be sure, these serve as Scientists in the Field vignettes, modeling career paths for young readers, but from a narrative standpoint they are also flashbacks focused on different viewpoint characters.  And speaking of viewpoint characters, Hoose has woven his own story into that of B95 and the rufa red knots.

Now to respond to a couple of the criticisms from the first round of discussion.

First, the idea that this book is preachy or didactic.  Eric and I have revisited this in the comments elsewhere, but I want to lay it out here as well.  I see this as a work of conversation biology.  Hoose’s point of view is telegraphed to readers from the first page.

Meet B95, one of the world’s premier athletes.  Weighing a mere four ounces, he’s flown more than 325,000 miles in his life–the distance to the moon and nearly halfway back.  He flies at mountaintop height along ancient routes that lead him to his breeding grounds and back.  But changes throughout his migratory circuit are challenging this Superbird and threatening to wipe out his entire subspecies of rufa red knot.  Places that are critical for B95 and his flock to rest and refuel–stepping-stones along a vast annual migration network–have been altered by human activity.  Can these places and the good they contain be preserved?

Or will B95′s and rufa’s days of flight soon come to an end?

Hoose has to persuade you that we can–and should–take the necessary steps to preserve the rufa red knot.  He has to make you care about the birds.  That’s the author’s purpose for writing the book, and not surprisingly he revisits this question–Why should you care?–in the final section of the final chapter.  Every storytelling choice, every expository nonfiction choice was made with this end in mind.  I think he succeeds, but I know other people remain unmoved by the plight of the birds.

Second, the idea that the southhbound journey is redundant or that the pacing lags because of it.  Now that I’ve reread this, I don’t think there’s much merit to this criticism.  As I mentioned above Hoose constantly switches the viewpoint and introduces new information to maintain the level of suspense and interest.  However, I do think the horseshoe crab section is one of the more compelling sections of the book, so I can understand why some people might feel a lull afterwards.

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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. Wendy says:

    Oh, I think if we find that the southbound journey section is redundant or sort of dull, that criticism has exactly as much merit as we assign to it. That you don’t find it so doesn’t make it without merit. And that this has been a common criticism is what makes me think that it probably does have merit and it isn’t just me being impatient. I think you’re probably right about the juxtaposition with the horseshoe crabs not serving the southbound journey well–that perhaps in and of itself it wouldn’t seem quite as dull to me as it does in comparison–but that doesn’t make me like the book as a whole any better. Overall, I thought this was a good book but that there are too many others that are more distinguished on a literary level. No objection to seeing this in the Sibert canon, as long as several other of my pet books are included, too.

  2. Jonathan Hunt says:

    Wendy, that’s fair enough, but to be honest, I think there were only 2-3 people who found that section redundant, so I’m not sure that I’m willing to call it a common criticism either. And, yes, there are plenty of nonfiction books this year, and I can be persuaded to support a couple of the ones that you prefer over this title, namely BOMB and TITANIC, provided that we can convince the others to join us.

  3. Mark Flowers says:

    I didn’t specifically have a problem with the southern journey, but I agree with Wendy that it is a valid criticism. As for nonfiction titles, I’d support the following books as more distinguished than MOONBIRD, in this order: BOMB, TITANIC, WE’VE GOT A JOB, INVINCIBLE MICROBE, THEIR SKELETONS SPEAK, THE GIANT, MARCHING TO THE MOUNTAINTOP, and maybe MASTER OF DECEIT.

    I only think the first three of those deserve serious Newbery consideration, but I honestly think all are better written and delineate their themes better than MOONBIRD, which I think is a fine book, but I agree with the assessment (I think it was Wendy who said this) that it is a glorified magazine piece, not a fully integrated book.

  4. Jonathan Hunt says:

    Okay, pacing is a valid criticism. I just don’t find it to be a significant flaw when weighed against the book’s strengths. I have no problem giving MOONBIRD up if we can get rid of *all* the books with pacing problems. That’s a small and easy sacrifice to make in order to ditch SPLENDORS AND GLOOMS.

    These are the nonfiction titles that I would want to discuss around the Newbery table: BOMB, MOONBIRD, TITANIC, THE IMPOSSIBLE RESCUE, WE’VE GOT A JOB, ABRAHAM LINCOLN & FREDERICK DOUGLASS, THE FAIRY RING, A BLACK HOLE IS NOT A HOLE, and TEMPLE GRANDIN. That’s not to say that I think I could vote for all of them, but I think these nine titles have distinguished features that merit discussion time. Since I’m a strategic voter I might be able find a place for TEMPLE GRANDIN, TITANIC, WE’VE GOT A JOB, A BLACK HOLE IS NOT A HOLE, or THE IMPOSSIBLE RESCUE before MOONBIRD on my own ballot even if I, personally, might not find them as distinguished.

  5. Georgie says:

    Something I haven’t seen really seen in other books that are leaning toward save the animal movement is that there was on story about a man who can’t make money because he can’t catch that many horseshoe crabs. It’s nice to see another view point.

  6. cheryl says:

    I think that Hoose makes his point about the importance and “worthiness” of saving the rufa red knot through telling the reader about the scientists, the significance of the places where the birds stop during their annual migration, and by creating an emotional link to B95. I already cared about the birds without his final plea, and it almost seemed like he was worried that the point had not already been made through the text. I loved this book, but in my opinion, the direct plea makes this book less distinguished (although wonderful). The point is well made throughout the entire book.

  7. Nina Lindsay Nina Lindsay says:

    I commented on the pacing issue over at MORE SPLENDORS AND GLOOMS http://blogs.slj.com/heavymedal/2012/12/28/more-splendors-glooms/#comment-108328

    I’m working on a reread of MOONBIRD now, so will have to come back with more specifics. Wendy and Mark seem to arguing against it’s place in our shortlist at all, and we’ll probably need to have a nonfiction smackdown after our Mock Newbery (Jan 13), since TITANIC and WE’VE GOT A JOB certainly belong in an extended shortlist…but we tried to keep our list trim. MOONBIRD stood out to me from the beginning, and now in memory, for the effectiveness of that voice (which, Cheryl points out, is present throughout the narrative and might be diminished by the plea at the end), and the careful tread between personalized narrative and nature journalism. Mark: you say “glorified magazine article” like it’s a bad thing….there are some magazine articles that are outstanding works of literature. I do hear your argument and am rereading for argument and theme…but would be interested in seeing it taken apart next to, for instance, BOMB.

  8. Wendy says:

    Nina, I think that’s the point (or anyway, it was my original point on the matter)–some magazine articles are outstanding works of literature. There are few types of writing that please me more. But that’s in part because they’re succinct. if MOONBIRD and one or two other NF titles of the year had been published as books just as they would have been as magazine articles, I would have been more into them. But they feel a little overblown… “glorified” in order to make them into “proper” books.

  9. Nina Lindsay Nina Lindsay says:

    Thanks for clarifying Wendy; having finished my re-read I see your point more clearly, though I’m not sure that it knocks this from contention for me. I wonder how much is based on our experienced-reader expectations of seeing a “large” book and expecting a certain “heft” of story from it. The core narrative here IS mostly succinct. Then there are A LOT of sidebars, and departures, and ancillary information. Since in most of the cases those departures are indicated as such through design, I didn’t feel it make the book “glorified” or “overblown”…it allowed me as a reader to read at different levels, and from different angles, which I appreciated.

    I do think that from Chapter Eight on, readers would have appreciated a little more succinctness. Part of the issue may be the double-narrative that Hoose sets himself: the story of B95, and the story of Hoose learning to be a bird tracker. The bird tracking part feels like a secondary narrative to me, and is the lesser engaging, but still an interesting counterpoint. But after we finish The Southbound Journey (which I like even more this time…it seemed the perfect ending to me, though not of course, the ending…), we leave B95′s story and then have several codas to Hoose’s narrative, which kind of drag out the energy.

    Despite flaws I’m fully ready to admit and compare…I still find two remarkable strengths in this book, for which I’d have likely still given this a nomination, were I on the real committee. The major is Hoose’s subtlely outstanding narrative voice in his “nature writing” sections (those directly relating to the animal life). I find his prose clean, detailed, evocative, amazingly compelling and briskly paced. The minor being his Source Notes, which I find well suited to his narrative. They give the reader plenty of information on his sources, but also additional information on his story and details about how he crafted it. They’re not overburdened, or over-long. I’d hold these up against almost all of the other nonfiction this year, and most directly, for our mock discussion, against those in BOMB.

  10. Jonathan Hunt Jonathan Hunt says:

    One thing that might cause people to lose interest in the last third of the book is that the horseshoe crabs kind of solve the mystery of why the rufa red knot population has crashed close to extinction. If Hoose had started B95′s story at the North Pole then the horseshoe crab section would have been closer to the resolution of the book, but the southbound flight–which is the more dangerous of the two–would have been stuck in the front of the book, not to mention Hoose’s own personal involvement in the story. Pick your poison.

  11. Jonathan Hunt Jonathan Hunt says:

    Phillip Hoose on why he wrote MOONBIRD . . .

    http://philliphoose.com/2013/01/16/why-did-you-write-moonbird/

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