On this exciting inauguration/MLK Day, it feels special to have you all checking in to Heavy Medal! While you’re here, don’t forget to vote (deadline Tuesday morning), and to update us on your Mock Newberys.
Meanwhile, in some comment that I can no longer find, I promised a “Nonfiction Smackdown.” Building our shortlist, there was very strong showing of potential nonfiction candidates that Jonathan and I talked about including. We chose BOMB and MOONBIRD as two of the strongest that also exemplified different kinds of nonfiction narratives. But, if we’d let ourselves and go whole-hog with a nonfiction-only shortlist, it might have looked something like this. (The first four are YALSA nonfiction finalists and I’m just listing them randomly after that.) Talking about nonfiction specifically with only the Newbery criteria in mind is an interesting exercise that doesn’t necessarily do full justice to the book. But each of these below succeeds primarily because of the literary strengths of their texts. Which ones (okay: pick three) could you make the best stand for at a Mock Newbery?
MOONBIRD by Phillip Hoose / FSG. The discussion at our Mock Newbery detailed the uneveness in arc and focus that made this feel weaker than Sheinkin, but I still think that Hoose’s sentence-level narrative skills might be the top of this list, and his source notes provided exactly what I felt Sheinkin’s lacked. For a previous post/disucssion, see Jonathan’s thoughts.
TITANIC: Voices for the Disaster, by Deborah Hopkinson / Scholastic. This one got some discussion at Disasters and Hoaxes, …and then didn’t quite make our shortlist, so probably has not gotten it’s due yet on this blog. Of all the titles presented here, this is the one where the author most “disappears” in a completely effective way….reminding me of our discussions about Hoose’s CLAUDETTE COLVIN, noting the skill in how to select and present other people’s words.
WE’VE GOT A JOB by Cynthia Levinson / Peachtree Press. First discussed here, this one also narrowly missed our shortlist, but keeps cropping up on people’s favorites. It’s a fabulous read, and my own perspective needs some more tempering, because I keep wanting to compare it to previous years books on similar subjects that I think were stronger. The author stays very behind the scenes here too, and that might be my only criticism when comparing this to others here…that even with TITANIC I had more of a sense of who the author was, and their angle. That is really nitpicking on my part, as the voice of these four young people who “did their job” comes through loud and clear.
TEMPLE GRANDIN by Sy Montgomery / Houghton Mifflin. First discussed here, and picked up in comparison to other nonfiction titles frequently thereafter, this one still stands out to me for engaging narrative. Each chapter has a clear arc, and we have a sense of Montgomery shaping this story for readers. I said something in a previous discussion about the sections from Temple’s POV being based on interviews with Temple, which was not exactly right… Montgomery clearly interviewed Grandin’s childhood friends, but also relied on several books by Grandin (or co-authored by Grandin). With this, and others, if I were on the committee I’d have looked for “experts” on this material, or at least browsed some of the source material myself, to get a sense of how Montgomery has adapted her narrative.
MASTER OF DECEIT by Marc Aronson / Candlewick. This has not gotten a lot of discussion here, and I suspect that many have left it aside assuming that it’s “YA,” but it’s the perfect counterpoint for discussion with BOMB. While I share Sarah Flowers’ concerns as brought up at crossreferencing, I ultimately tend to Mark’s side on the debate. And while the concerns might keep me from casting a ballot for this one, I might have likely nominated it to get it on the table for discussion. Aronson’s narrative shows how writers can take this genre beyond a “just the facts, ma’am” approach in a way that elevates the whole discussion for his audience, and engages them in it. He oversteps, but no other book on this list, this year, is quite so daring.
ABRAHAM LINCOLN & FREDERICK DOUGLASS by Russell Freedman / Clarion. Missing from the photo above because I’ve lent it! Mark called it “pointless” [update: and now regrets it], but I still find it to be one of the stronger nonfiction titles this year, and a perfect entry-point to this part of history for the upper-elementary audience who’s been introduced to it, but deserves a more engaging narrative than the text-book versions. It also stands next to TEMPLE GRANDIN in my eye for breadth of story balanced with brevity of text.
INVINCIBLE MICROBE by Jim Murphy and ALISON BLANK / Clarion. A perfect example of nonfiction narrative that sucks the reader in, and keeps us engaged by keeping the topic lively…taking the story of TB through science, politics, and social history. Murphy and Blank’s source notes stand against Hoose’s (and Aronson’s) as exemplars of how the back-text can extend and support the main text.
THE GIANT by Jim Murphy / Scholastic. Okay, no one else is getting double-billing here, but Murphy’s got two humdingers out this year, and we barely mentioned either of them (though we did get to hear from Murphy on this one). While INVINCIBLE MICROBE might seemed to be the “heftier” or “more important” story of these two…from a purely literary perspective I think that GIANT is the stronger. Murphy plays the subtext of the “hoax” to it’s full advantage…he starts Chapter One in his usual “you are there in the moment” style (which he does so well, often relying on the weather–a documentable fact–to make you feel like you are physically there) , relating a story that was related in his sources…and which turns out to be a story a completely manufactured moment.
And…what have I left out? I’d have actually liked to include NO CRYSTAL STAIR in this discussion, because the elements that we’re considering when we talk about nonfiction for the Newbery are almost all present there too, and it still tops my list of anything in this post. But figuring that might muddy the discussion too much, I’m leaving it out.
What then, would I pitch for as my top three here? I have to take a leap of faith with most of these, not having looked at them so carefully as BOMB or MOONBIRD. And while acknowledging BOMB’s strengths and likely lead, I have to stand by my still considered concerns for it in my first ballot and put my points behind titles I feel are due at least discussion of an honor. So:
1. MOONBIRD. A leap, since I acknowledge its weakness, but I’m going to assume that others would have revealed plenty too in discussion. When I think of what a distinguished nonfiction narrative voice sounds like, this is it.
2. TEMPLE GRANDIN. For overall package, and engaging voice.
3. THE GIANT. Just edges out several others there (notably TITANIC), but think it’s uniquely strong and likely to be overlooked.