If I’ve heard this once this year, I’ve heard it a dozen times: It’s a weak year for nonfiction. Actually, this isn’t really true. It’s an average year for nonfiction, but it seems weaker because (a) last year was so unbelievably awesome and (b) the strong nonfiction this year isn’t the kind that tends to break out of the nonfiction award ghetto. We’ve already discussed the four Scientists in the Field titles and the ineligibility of adult nonfiction books adapted for children and LOCOMOTIVE which is arguably the best of a strong crop of nonfiction picture books that also includes TRAIN by Elisha Cooper, LOOK UP! by Annette LeBlanc Cate, and BRAVE GIRL by Michelle Market. We don’t spend much time on nonfiction picture book texts because of the triple whammy of bias (short, heavily illustrated, nonfiction). Let’s take a quick survey of some of the other possibilities and then we may come back and revisit some of these in greater depth as our interest (or yours) dictates.
We kind of started to discuss COURAGE HAS NO COLOR by Tanya Lee Stone (four starred reviews) on the last post of last season. I mentioned that, while I think it’s extremely well written and researched, I was expecting the soldiers to see active combat duty, and it felt like the book could have been called ALMOST PARATROOPERS. That’s first reading baggage that could be dispelled by another reading and discussion, so consider this your invitation to pitch this one to us anew.
EMANCIPATION PROCLAMATION by Tonya Bolden (four starred reviews) sort of covers similar territory as last year’s ABRAHAM LINCOLN & FREDERICK DOUGLASS, but the thing I appreciated about this one is the poignant scenes that bookend the main narrative that capture that wonderful sense of anticipation by the African American community, something akin to what the first Obama inauguration was for this generation. The middle part wasn’t quite as brilliant for me, but that shouldn’t keep it out of our discussion.
RANDOLPH CALDECOTT by Leonard Marcus (four starred reviews) is an extended biographical essay about the life and art of Randolph Caldecott. Personally, I wished for more information on the second half of that equation, as I’ve come to expect wonderfully incisive art criticism from him, and I just wanted more of that here, even if that might not have appealed quite as much to a child audience. I’m sure that will be another issue that could be raised with this title, but I don’t think it has any less inherent appeal than George Orr, Horace Pippin, Igor Stravinsky, or some of the other artistic types that have been featured in children’s books this year.
And speaking of biographies, BECOMING BEN FRANKLIN by Russell Freedman (three starred reviews) is a very solid title with many distinguished features. I wonder if we might subconsciously compare it to (a) Freedman’s own excellent body of work and find it wanting or (b) subconsciously compare it to last year’s ELECTRIC BEN and also find it wanting. Of course, these are both moot points and not even worthy of bringing up for discussion around the table, but still.
Since I nominated THE ANIMAL BOOK by Steve Jenkins (three starred reviews) and since I’ve expressed interest in THE GREAT AMERICAN DUST BOWL (three starred reviews) as a graphic novel, I’m going to discuss them at greater length in a separate post. Suffice it to say, that I think the text can be successfully parsed out from the whole contribution, so the question then becomes: Is the text distinguished? I think so, but such as answer requires us to reconsider what
“distinguished writing” looks like in various genres, and whether that’s lowering the standard of excellence (as Leonard Kim suggested) or simply acknowledging the conventions of various genres of writing.
Finally, I’m going to mention a couple of personal favorites that haven’t fared quite as well with other readers. The first one is IMPRISONED by Martin Sandler (one starred review), which is about the treatment of Japanese-Americans during World War II. You may remember that I also liked his book, THE IMPOSSIBLE RESCUE, from last year. It seems like the Martin Sandler fan club is very small. My other pet nonfiction book is “THE PRESIDENT HAS BEEN SHOT!” by James Swanson (one starred review), and I think this one makes for an interesting comparison with Sheinkin’s LINCOLN’S GRAVE ROBBERS this year in terms of how each author generates suspense through their respective writing styles: Sheinkin’s showing-not-telling vs. Swanson’s telling-not-showing.