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Heavy Medal: A Mock Newbery Blog
Inside Heavy Medal

Eruption!

rusch2 Eruption!Jonathan made a statement by giving this his first October nomination.  When we pick a nonfiction title for our shortlist (cause we always do), it’s easier to tend to the longer, historical narrative nonfiction offerings, which read more like novels and so seem easier to compare with other contenders.  And we had several of that sort to choose from this year, and which we might just see on the podium January 27….but ERUPTION is at least as strong as any of them, and while there “are no limitations as to the character of the book considered except that it be original work”…we just rarely see science narratives win the Newbery.  Why?

Part of what makes ERUPTION so strong is that it integrates the science, the action, and the human interest stories so well.  It’s wonderfully paced to bring the reader up to speed with each part of the story, changing-up the tone just enough without confusing.  So while its strengths are in “Presentation of Information” “Interpretation of Theme or Concept” and “Appropriateness of style,” what I find distinguishes it is that it also has a strong sense of plot, character, and setting.   I’ve always been a fiction reader, so I can’t quite inhabit the brain of the reader who doesn’t care to read anything unless it’s “true.”  But reading ERUPTION, I can almost:  what better characters that these real life local volcano observers and their network of volcanologists who brave both  physical danger and minute observation to try to anticipate volcanic activity, and help communities live in a careful balance with nearly unpredictable eruptions.  What a feat: to tackle understanding a geographic activity whose patterns and changes take place of the course of multiple generations…it’s as ambitious as understanding the history of stars. This had me on the edge of my seat.

Now, I’m going to bet that some of you weren’t on the edge of your seats, and I’m wondering if this is one of those titles whose strengths are utterly apparent, or if it’s a “get it, or don’t get it” title.   I think that the strengths are certainly below the surface: no prose here as pea-cocky as THE TRUE BLUE SCOUTS for instance.   But when you stop hearing the author, and only inhabit the story, that’s also a sign of fine writing.  Rusch’s never dropped me, even when she’s just describing the texture of dirt.

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Nina Lindsay About Nina Lindsay

Nina Lindsay is the Children's Services Coordinator at the Oakland Public Library, CA. She chaired the 2008 Newbery Committee, and served on the 2004 and 1998 committees. You can reach her at ninalindsay@gmail.com

Comments

  1. While I really like ERUPTION and think it’s the best nonfiction of the year, I find it difficult to argue that it’s the most distinguished contribution to children’s literature of the year. It scores high in all the criteria (except character development, where I’d give it good–not great–marks), but the gestalt effect isn’t as powerful as ONE CAME HOME or WHAT THE HEART KNOWS. Now, I know “powerful gestalt effect” is not one of the Newbery criteria. But there’s a textbook quality to ERUPTION that keeps me from feeling passionate about it and I want to fee passionate about the book that gets the medal. I’d be happy to see this win an Honor, but not the Medal.

    • Nina Lindsay Nina Lindsay says:

      Destinee, this is a quandry that many committee members entering into discussion on a book they don’t feel “passionate” about. Can you imagine the ideal reader being “passionate” about this? I can. I didn’t note a “textbook quality” which to me means dry and choppy writing. I can see, if the subject doesn’t grab you, that it feels like “homework.”

      • Yes, Nina, and I can definitely imagine a reader being passionate about ERUPTION. I said in my goodreads review that it may inspire future vulcanologists, and I meant it! I agree that the writing isn’t dry or choppy at all. In my opinion, it’s the format that gives it a textbook or “homework” feel, as you put it. To see this as a Newbery book, I really have to push myself to think outside the traditional Newbery box, which is why I love this blog.

  2. Blakeney says:

    I found the narrative in ERUPTION extremely compelling. While sidebars are used for much of the info on volcanoes, the text never veers from the purpose in the subtitle – the science of saving lives. In very dramatic circumstances, people we come to know had to make really challenging decisions that impacted the lives of those living near the featured volcanoes. I was impressed by the international nature of the efforts depicted. Driving plot, interesting characters, dramatic interpretation of how scientific information is used to make real world policy decisions, clear information accessible at varying interest levels. So far, in my top three.

  3. Jonathan Hunt Jonathan Hunt says:

    Here’s my take on this one. Since there are four Scientists in the Field titles, I think it makes sense to compare them to each other first. As I mentioned earlier, STRONGER THAN STEEL is fascinating, but the disparate elements are not woven cohesively into the narrative very well. THE TAPIR SCIENTIST and THE DOLPHINS OF SHARK BAY are both quite good, but the structure of ERUPTION! gives it an advantage when it goes head to head against the fiction. ERUPTION! reads like a story with numerous events in the plot (Nevado del Ruiz, Mount Saint Helens, Mount Pintabo, Volcano Training Camp, and Mount Merabi) rather than a single over-the-shoulder photo journal. So to my mind, ERUPTION! is the very best of a strong crop of Scientists in the Field titles–but is it the best nonfiction title of the year?

    Compare it to COURAGE HAS NO COLOR and EMANCIPATION PROCLAMATION. Both of these are histories for a slightly older audience. Both of them are quite good, distinguished even, but I find that the focus in ERUPTION! is much tighter and the suspense that Rusch develops is much more palpable than either of those books. Perhaps this is another judgment call, but I find ERUPTION a more compelling work of narrative nonfiction. Personally, I think THE ANIMAL BOOK is the other standout nonfiction title of the year, but it’s an entirely different kettle of fish, being an expository text in a reference book.

    So maybe it’s the best nonfiction book of the year, but is it really the best overall book of the year? I’m not sure, but the plot is certainly more distinguished than either P.S. BE ELEVEN or THE THING ABOUT LUCK. TRUE BLUE SCOUTS and FAR FAR AWAY are more plot-driven books but they both have leisurely pacing. Thus, ERUPTION! is the only book on our shortlist that is a plot-driven book with a fast pace. CLEMENTINE has a similarly fast pace, but is more character-driven. While ERUPTION! and CLEMENTINE appeal to those third and fourth grade readers, I think the former continues to appeal to students all the way through middle school, making it distinguished for a very wide range of readers.

  4. Leonard Kim says:

    Is BREAKFAST ON MARS eligible? Technically it should be, yes? I just read it, and I think it’s now at the top of my list, non-fiction or otherwise. What’s more, unlike some other contenders, I can picture a lot of disparate people of different tastes supporting this.

    • Jonathan Hunt Jonathan Hunt says:

      BREAKFAST ON MARS is ineligible because, “Reprints, compilations and abridgements are not eligible.” BREAKFAST ON MARS is a compilation (as is GIVING THANKS), and thus ineligible. But I agree with you that it is a great book! I’m recommending BREAKFAST ON MARS and THRICE TOLD TALES to teachers everywhere. Nevertheless, this brings up a good question: Why are there no essayists writing for children? No David Sedaris, for example?

      • Leonard Kim says:

        I’ll defer to you, but later on, the terms say:

        • Further, “original work” means that the text is presented here for the first time and has not been previously published elsewhere in this or any other form. Text reprinted or compiled from other sources are not eligible. Abridgements are not eligible.

        Here as in the section you cite, they use terms: “reprinted” “compiled from other sources” and “abridgements” which suggests to me that the key point is whether the writing is original. As far as I can tell, all of the essays in BREAKFAST ON MARS (with the exception of the intro) are original and written especially for the book. I think one could argue that it is not a “compilation” in the sense the Newbery terms are using it?

  5. Jonathan Hunt Jonathan Hunt says:

    Leonard, I think you may be right, but it’s probably a gray area that the Newbery chair would need to rule on if this book came up for serious consideration. I find nothing in the back of the manual to shed further light on the situation. Here’s a practical problem for you: Who gets the Newbery Medal? Rebecca Starn and Brad Wolfe? The thirty seven additional authors who contributed? See, technically the book doesn’t win the award, rather the author(s) win the award for creating a specific book. So, I ultimately think the chair would rule that handing out that many Newbery Medals doesn’t fit the spirit of the award even if the criteria are kind of fuzzy on that point.

  6. I agree that Eruption! holds appeal for an extremely wide ranging audience, and that, for me, puts it far ahead of The Thing About Luck which, while beautifully written and appealing to me as an adult reader, will have a far narrower appeal for kids I think. I’m not sure that criteria is as important to the committee as it is to me as school librarian, but I want the Newbery winner to be one that is outstanding AND that lots and lots of kids will be excited about. I think Eruption! is the one this year, and how great that it’s also nonfiction.

    Loving this discussion. I’ve followed it a bit in past years, but I’m following much more closely this year and learning lots.

  7. Nina Lindsay Nina Lindsay says:

    That’s an interesting comparison Erin… though, ultimately, that “breadth of audience” you’re talking about would not be a part of the discussion or consideration. Though it’s understandable that adults who work with kids appreciate a winner that they can get the whole class (or school!) excited about…the real strength of the award is in the entirety of the list. If the Newbery winners and honors every year really honor excellence overall, each reader should be better able to find the best book for them on there somewhere. (The diversity of kinds of books on the list is another interesting discussion).

    I wonder though, if you think that the breadth of audience for Eruption points to a particular strength in the Newbery Criteria. Expressed as a strength among, for intsance, “appropriateness of style” or “interpretation of theme or concept”…if you can show that ERUPTION does what it does *better* than THE THING ABOUT LUCK or others…that would serve it well in Newbery discussion.

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