As you well know, last year was an amazing year for nonfiction. We had an unprecedented amount of depth and quality in the field, and while only one nonfiction book–BOMB–cracked the Newbery roster, I felt that several additional titles, namely MOONBIRD and TITANIC, were similarly worthy. While the nonfiction field is much thinner this year, there are still some bright spots. One of the brightest spots is the publication of four–four!–Scientists in the Field titles: STRONGER THAN STEEL by Bridget Heos, ERUPTION! by Elizabeth Rusch, THE TAPIR SCIENTIST by Sy Montgomery, and THE DOLPHINS OF SHARK BAY by Pamela Turner. The latter title doesn’t publish until November so our discussion of that one will be limited until then.
The Scientists in the Field series is universally recognized as an excellent science series, winning numerous awards and accolades, but science books as a whole tend to be ignored by the Newbery committee. Indeed, the last science book was recognized 27 years ago when VOLCANO by Patricia Lauber won a Newbery Honor. For some reason, science books don’t fit the Newbery stereotype, but hopefully the thinner field and the opportunity to compare and contrast entries within the series will help us appreciate the distinguished qualities of these books. No, they do not necessarily provide the adrenaline rush of BOMB, the heartstopping suspense of TITANIC, or the elegant nature writing of MOONBIRD, but they are excellent in their own right.
For me, the most inherently interesting title is STRONGER THAN STEEL, a book about genetics that proves the saying, “Truth is stranger than fiction.” Unfortunately, the narrative, which is structurally more complex than most of the other titles, does not unfold with either clarity or organization–a missed opportunity. On the other hand, both THE TAPIR SCIENTIST and THE DOLPHINS OF SHARK BAY have a fairly straightforward narrative. Both of them are essentially extended photoessays with the authors peeking over the shoulders of their respective scientists, in typical fashion. There’s nothing inherently wrong with that, of course, but I fear the novels will seem more complex in a head-to-head comparison.
To my mind, THE TAPIR SCIENTIST also has design problems when compared with the other titles. The decision to use three columns of text makes some spreads difficult to read when numerous visuals are absent. Moreoever, I’m not sure that the subtitle of the book–Saving South America’s Largest Mammal–was sufficiently addressed in the narrative. Why are tapirs worth saving? What is their role in the ecosystem? How would it be poorer for their absence? And how does observing them explicitly help us to save them?
The cream of the crop, to my mind, is ERUPTION! The sentence level writing is just as clear and concise as any of the other titles, but the narrative is more complex, and the book as a whole captures the inherent drama of volcanoes–and working in close proximity to them. Not that the real committee will be doing this, but I also find it interesting to examine it alongside VOLCANO to compare and contrast not just how the design of science books has evolved in the past twenty five years, but also how science itself has evolved during that span. ERUPTION! is arguably my favorite nonfiction title of the year and I would love for it to break the Newbery science jinx, but I’m willing to entertain arguments for the other titles as well.