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Heavy Medal: A Mock Newbery Blog
Inside Heavy Medal

The Family Romanov

First of all, you need to know something about me as a reader to understand why I find this one quite possibly the most distinguished contribution of American literature for children this year.  I like biography, but it can often feel too claustrophobic for me to inhabit a single viewpoint with a very linear narrative arc.  So while I loved, for example, THE NOTORIOUS BENEDICT ARNOLD by Steve Sheinkin when it came out, I was much more excited about SUGAR CHANGED THE WORLD by Marc Aronson and Marina Budhos and how it developed the theme of sugar throughout world history,  A couple years later, the shoe was on the other foot: the complex history of BOMB trumped MASTER OF DECEIT, Aronson’s biography of J. Edgar Hoover.

So I like the big sprawling histories; they read almost like epic high fantasy to me.  Indeed, the Washington Post review said as much about this one, “Candace Fleming’s latest book has the elements of an overheated dystopian thriller —political repression, malevolent figures, a protracted war, endangered children— but no prospect of a triumphal ending.”  For those who think this one is “too old” for the Newbery, I would suggest that you give it to the same kiddo that’s reading Rick Riordan or Suzanne Collins.  To me, that’s the natural audience for this book.  And here, in marked contrast to her earlier books, it’s all about story developed solely through words.  (There are picture but they are confined to a couple of glossy spreads inserted in a couple of places.)

The genius of this book is that while it does feel like a very big story on a very big canvas, it’s also a collection of intimate family portraits.  This is also biography in the best sense, in that you get to know each member of the royal family up close and personal.  To my mind, it hits all the marks: plot, character, setting, theme, style, and presentation of information.  The only question that remains is this: Can it climb past BROWN GIRL DREAMING with its groundswell of support for the popular Woodson and what is clearly her best chance to date at winning the Medal after three Honor books?

But it’s been 27 years since a nonfiction book won the Newbery Medal.  Isn’t it about time?

 

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Jonathan Hunt About Jonathan Hunt

Jonathan Hunt is the Coordinator of Library Media Services at the San Diego County Office of Education. He served on the 2006 Newbery committee, and has also judged the Caldecott Medal, 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. As I said earlier, this is my top pick for the Newbery. I am much more a fiction fan than nonfiction – I enjoy good nonfiction but I don’t tend to fall in love with it and want to pass it out to everyone I know the way I do with some novels (WHEN YOU REACH ME, THE WEDNESDAY WARS, etc.). I thought BOMB was one of the best nonfiction books I’ve read in the past few years and voted for it, but I don’t think it rose above my third or fourth choice, and I supported it but didn’t feel that strongly. And I’ve read a fair amount about the last days of the Romanovs, so I picked THE FAMILY ROMANOV up somewhat reluctantly, thinking it would be a retread. But this book is just tremendous — engaging, compelling, while also far more instructive than other books I’ve read about that time, with a pace that just keeps galloping along towards the tragedy.

    Other books I’ve read about the tragedy of the Romanovs have been insular — about the royal family and their changed circumstances from luxury to privation and then their murder. But this book interweaves that seamlessly with the portrait (far too static a word for this book) of what Nicholas was doing, and failing to do, that led to the revolution, and also uses first-person sources to show what life was like for the poorest peasants (and how many of them there were, and what barriers kept them that way) while the Romanovs and the nobles were living the high life in (deliberate) ignorance of how ordinary folks were struggling.

    It’s a political thriller and a family story (with more individual personalities than I remember in other books about the Romanovs). It shows Nicholas’s and Alexandra’s weaknesses, how they reinforced each other in making terrible decisions, what they deliberately blinded themselves to, and the missed chances to potentially avert what happened. It shows Nicholas on the eve of the revolution, tossing aside unread an urgent telegram warning him, with a dismissive remark, and playing dominos instead because that’s what he did to relax.

    I hope it wins everything. It was sad not to see it on the NBA shortlist (though I haven’t read Port Chicago 50 yet – that’s next).

    • Rereading what I posted, it may sound like the book could be didactic. It is anything but. Fleming contrasts the Romanov’s life of extreme privilege with that of the dirt-poor people they ruled, but she does it through story.

    • Barb Outside Boston says:

      I loved SUGAR and non-fiction in general, but have limited time. These critiques have convinced me this is worth my time–thanks!

  2. Throwing a question out there, because otherwise, this discussion could be kind of dull–I don’t think anyone, or at least not many people, would deny that this is an excellent book. I won’t say that I’m going to play devil’s advocate, but I do want to challenge you a little.

    In what specific ways does this book show “excellence of presentation for a child audience”? No question about the “excellence of presentation” part, but does this book address children’s understandings, abilities, and appreciations?

    My first impression was that it doesn’t do that, specifically. Naturally, it would be silly if the fact that this is a book “for everyone” kept it from being recognized “for children”, but I think it’s an interesting question. I’ve never read a book about the Romanovs and I could be completely wrong, because almost without exception, all the mediocre or negative reviews of this book on Goodreads seem to be from some sort of adult Romanov fandom, who complain that there’s “nothing new” here and that it’s simplistic and you can tell it’s written for children. Maybe if I were well-versed in what’s out there on the Romanovs, I’d be very impressed that the author managed to take all that and turn it into something for children. But my impression, from the naive standpoint, is that this is a book some children will love, but they will love it as people, not as children, if that makes a whiff of sense.

    Just to be clear, I’m not saying that it’s “too old for the Newbery” or anything like that. I’d like to hear discussion on whether it’s “distinguished literature for children”, as opposed to just… “distinguished literature”.

    • Genevieve says:

      Wendy, that’s an interesting question, and one I’m not sure how to answer, as I’m a passionate advocate of and reader of children’s literature but have no training in the matter (I’m not a librarian or teacher). To me, it seems aimed at the 11-14 age group rather than adults, and I hesitated, for example, to recommend it to an adult relative I know with an interest in Russia (who is more likely to be snobby about the fact that it’s a children’s book). What would you say makes BOMB children’s literature rather than literature for everyone? or CHARLES AND EMMA? I don’t know the answer to that.

      I’ll probably stumble here, and I’m just thinking out loud so to speak, so take everything I say with a grain of salt and not as if I’m saying this IS what children’s literature is:
      It seems somewhat simpler than adult literature on the Russian Revolution would be — less dense, more concerned with accessibility/interest, less concerned with covering absolutely every aspect of the revolution. For example, Lenin is mentioned for a few pages discussing how he came to be involved with the revolution, and later in his involvement with the order for the execution, but we do not get pages and pages about him. I feel like it covers the events at a level appropriate to children’s understanding (including teens – I would’ve loved to have read this in high school when I took Modern European History). The vocabulary is appropriate to children (bright 11-14 year olds and high schoolers) rather than to a college or adult audience, though I don’t have it with me to give you an example. And a good amount of focus is on how Nicholas and Alexandra, as parents, cosseted their children and kept them from learning about the world, and overindulged them (leading Alexei in particular to be quite a handful for other adults to deal with), which thematically ties in with how Nicholas indulges himself rather than pay attention to how anger is building in his country and how he could help defuse it rather than make it worse.

      But I would like to hear from librarians and teachers who are more conversant with children’s nonfiction and how it differs from adult nonfiction.

      • Genevieve says:

        I looked at interviews with Fleming and noticed that she said, “What, I ask myself, does my reader need to know to understand the next scene. The Family Romanov is context-heavy. One of things I grappled with was how to explain certain Russian concepts to young readers who have little or no base of information. How could I fill in the gaps for them without stopping the narrative flow?”
        http://thehidingspot.blogspot.com/2014/07/interview-with-candace-fleming-author.html

      • Melissa McAvoy says:

        I agree it is an interesting question about what makes this for children, and think Genevieve got at most of it in her post and quote from Fleming. I am a school librarian and am so excited to recommend this to my seventh and eight graders. What I think distinguishes it from adult nonfiction is a stronger sense of story. Like Bomb the author has used tremendous skill to take something as messy as real history and manage to distill complex events and present them in a way that generates a classic and satisfying story arc. I think this is why kids nonfiction is often so much better than adult nonfiction-it has all the scholarship and the the author knows they have to keep the pages turning and not maunder on and wander down some minutia, and usually vanity-inspired, esoteric rat hole. There is no room for authorial ego in kid’s nonfiction which is what lots of adult nonfiction-and fiction- suffer from. (in my opinion :) In order to be able to do that you not only have to be a gifted writer, you have to know the history inside and out. The inherent difficulty of what Fleming pulled off- making the complexity of the Romanov’s, Russian history, the Bolshevik Revolution, Rasputin, World War 1, etc., comprehensible and fascinating, so that the reader can follow the story and have ‘a ha’ moments and be surprised and be aware of how much more there is to know about every topic, but to believe it is all graspable, makes this my top choice. I can’t believe how good the book is and I think what she accomplished is surpassingly difficult.

    • Leonard Kim says:

      My personal feeling is that this book IS “too old” for the Newbery (i.e. for readers over 14) on account of the upsetting, graphic portrayal of the Romanovs’ execution (and also an actual photograph of Rasputin’s battered and waterlogged corpse, though admittedly it’s small and just a headshot if I remember). But after last year’s FAR FAR AWAY discussion, I accept that it is eligible for consideration. (According to Jennifer Jazwinski’s spreadsheet, 2 of the 6 starred reviews do appear to consider it a little out of range (grades 9-12) and the other 4 appear to consider ~12 as a lower limit.) That said, I think we might agree the Newbery manual suggests that a top-of-the-age-range book should be held to a very high standard, and I don’t think this book meets them. (But I need to marshal my arguments, as it seems this book will have some ardent defenders.)

      • I think the portrayal of the execution is upsetting but not graphic. I think it’s appropriate for ages 12 to 14, though some sensitive readers age 12 might not want to read it. Overall, I think the book is less upsetting/graphic than One Came Home, for example, or about the same.

      • I didn’t find the photo particularly upsetting – in fact, I didn’t even think twice about it – but I grew up having access to my dad’s mortuary school textbooks, so I probably wasn’t the typical child and perhaps am not the best person to judge it on that count.

        I found the text perfectly acceptable for the higher end of the age range for the Newbery, and I can think of several 10 and 11 year olds we serve who are advanced readers who would absolutely love this book. While we do shelve it in our teen section, I would have no problem suggesting it to a few of our upper-elementary patrons.

      • An author friend of mine wrote an essay about being obsessed with the Romanovs around 5th and 6th grade, and with Anastasia dying in the snow. I read the book with her in mind; would it have been the right book for her, then? I feel sure that it would have been. Granted that she was one of the more morbid teenagers of my acquaintance, but still. I know enough children around the upper end of the Newbery age range who are not just really bright, but really interested in tragedies and horrible deaths, who I would feel totally comfortable recommending the book to.

      • Jonathan Hunt Jonathan Hunt says:

        Replying to Leonard’s comment way up above . . .

        Actually, since the Newbery Medal goes up to and includes age 14 and since most 9th graders spend all or the majority of their freshman year being 14 the six major review journals all concur that this is entirely within the boundaries for the Newbery (not that this is definitive–the committee determines this). “Upsetting” and “graphic” are subjective terms and you are free to use them to describe yourself or specific children that you know, but do they really apply to all children? Personally, I don’t think this book is either upsetting or graphic, either now or as a child reader–and I don’t think I’m an anomaly.

    • Jonathan Hunt Jonathan Hunt says:

      Replying to Wendy’s comment way up above . . .

      I think children will relate to the many child characters, namely the Romanov children but also the peasants and such in the primary source interludes. I also think children appreciate a good story, and this one certainly is that.

      But your final observation recalls something I remember reading in the preface to ENDER’S GAME. Card writes that when he was a child he never felt like a child; he felt like a person. His thoughts and hopes and desires did not seem to him inferior or undeveloped or immature simply because he was a child. He never felt they should be discounted–and I agree. Children are a subset of people, so if this book appeals to them as people rather than more narrowly as children, then I don’t understand what the problem is.

      • While I tend to agree, regarding books as books, the way the criteria are written does speak to “writing for children”, so I think it’s worth talking about.

      • Jonathan Hunt Jonathan Hunt says:

        Definitely worth talking about. :-)

      • Jonathan, you remind me of the discussion we had read Ender’s Game on BBYA many years ago. The SF fans felt that experienced SF readers would roll their eyes at what they saw as hackneyed characters and events but that those new to the genre would enjoy it. I hear something of the same in the question above of how Fleming’s book stacks up against adult titles. But one thing I love about The Family Romanov is that it does not indulge in all the nostalgia for Faberge, etc. that plagues adult books about the subject. Fleming is a lot tougher on the family than was Robert Massie, largely responsible (with Dr. Zhivago!) for popular interest in the era today.

    • I am pleased to see Candy Fleming’s book discussed here and believe that she definitely shows “excellence of presentation for a child audience.”

      For example, one challenge in writing about history — especially, in this case, unfamilar history, is to provide appropriate context that helps illuminate the dramatic arc of the narrative. By including the sections, “Beyond the Palace Gates,” Fleming provides different viewpoints and stories, as well as rich, nuanced historical context. These sections are not dry, far from it. Take “Another Family Circle,” where she includes an excerpt from Gorky about the poverty of his life when he was nine, or another section that includes a letter to a newspaper from a shopgirl. I certainly don’t think this is too old for fourteen, and another example of Fleming’s accomplishment is her use of short chapters and “signpost” headings which also will help young readers.

      I also admire this book — and Candy Fleming’s entire body of work — for how well it models nonfiction for children and teens. The ROMANOVS includes 21 pages of source notes, another way in which this book demonstrates excellence of presentation.

      I know other views of what constitutes creative nonfiction are out there. But to me it’s quite simple. When today’s twelve year olds grow up to write papers as undergraduates (or high school students), they will be scurrying to the OWL Purdue site to figure out how to cite sources. They will soon learn that taking text and making it into dialogue, putting words in someone’s mouth, is not, in fact, nonfiction. Fleming models this so well, and in her note introducing her bibliography, she acknowledges that she stands “on the shoulders of dozens of historians…”

      In these ways and many others, including being such a heartrending, compelling story, The Family Romanov is an extraordinary accomplishment.

  3. By the way–Jonathan, I know why (or think I do) you didn’t include Good Masters, Sweet Ladies when you said it’s been x number of years since non-fiction won the medal, but it’s technically incorrect and I would champion GMSL as being more non-fictiony than you might–but I think what you mean is “informational”, right?

    In order to doublecheck my info there, I clicked my bookmark for the Newbery winners and honors for the first time in a while. I see they’ve put up the names of every person on every committee. I know it’s hard work and all, but that struck me as the most laughably self-congratulatory thing I’ve seen in a while. You can barely find the titles amid the muck of names. Anyone from ALSC reading this? Shouldn’t it be about the books and the authors, rather than the committee members? http://www.ala.org/alsc/awardsgrants/bookmedia/newberymedal/newberyhonors/newberymedal

    • Jonathan Hunt Jonathan Hunt says:

      Well, GOOD MASTERS! SWEET LADIES! has a nonfiction call number, but it’s as much historical fiction as it is nonfiction. I wouldn’t think of DARK EMPEROR as nonfiction either. There is a certain kind of librarian that does not like nonfiction and, if given the opportunity, would count poetry, memoir, hybridized nonfiction, graphic novels, or picture book nonfiction rather than reading an honest-to-goodness longer work of research-based expository or narrative nonfiction.

      I like the addition of the names to the committees. I think it’s a great reference tool for ALSC members who want to see who has previously served on various committees, just for the sake of curiosity or when it comes time to vote.

      • I guess, if that’s the point of the page, but I don’t think it is. That’s the only place where you can find a list of all winners and all honor books. Or rather, you used to be able to find it. I have zero interest in who was on the committee, but I have used this page as a resource so many times that it’s included in my small number of bookmarks. Perhaps if people are interested in who served on a committee, that could be on a different page.

      • Jonathan Hunt Jonathan Hunt says:

        I hear you. They are also listed in Wikipedia, but the presentation isn’t quite as nice.

    • Julie Corsaro says:

      As a member of the arguably endangered profession of librarianship, as well as ALSC, I think it’s great that the association is promoting its members who volunteer countless hours serving on its award committees. The last time I looked, which wasn’t very long ago, they were not listed.

      • Nina Lindsay says:

        I do this think is very new, and while I agree with Julie, I take Wendy’s point. I can see why it’s there though… this is the only page of record for the listing of this award….and I used to have to depend of the vagaries of search engines to help me figure out “which year was so and so on the committee?” It’s nice to have it, really nice. I bet that eventually ALSC will figure out a slightly more elegant way to present it.

    • Barb Outside Boston says:

      I hadn’t noticed the change so I went and took a look–I think the titles stand out and are easy to find, so I don’t mind adding the names of those who worked so hard.

  4. Leonard Kim says:

    Okay my arguments, presented one at a time. This first argument clearly isn’t going to convince anyone who already advocates this book, but it might articulate why some people just don’t see this as a serious contender.

    THE KATE DICAMILLO ARGUMENT: Yes, what one considers excellent writing is subjective, but I think there is a “camp” of readers out there that hold a common set of writing “values.” If you agree that FLORA AND ULYSSES was deserving, then I think you are of this camp, because I think it’s hard to argue for FLORA AND ULYSSES on any other grounds than writing style. And if you don’t understand how that squirrel book could win, then I think your view of writing simply differs. That’s fine, and I have no idea what actual proportion of readers or committee members consider Kate DiCamillo the ne plus ultra of writers, whether it be a large or small minority or majority, but I definitely think that people of this camp will consider THE FAMILY ROMANOV lacking, and this is obvious from the very beginning: the extended description of the opulent costume ball that seems to try to be vivid and evocative and put the reader there, e.g., “the great mansion, which stretched for three miles along the now-frozen Neva River, blazed with light, its massive crystal and gold chandeliers reflected a hundred times in the mirrored walls of its cathedral-size reception rooms.” Clearly there is a lot of writing out there, fiction and non-fiction, that tries for something similar. Is the FAMILY ROMANOV a conspicuously excellent example of such writing? Personally I would say no; the prose merely serves. But my taste as a reader runs towards writing like, “It’s the grandest building in Greenwood, all that white, sturdy stone, all that carving, all that heaviness, so serious, and at the same time so sheltering, with those four massive columns in front of the doors that just beckon you on in, like the columns across the front of the White House in Washington, D.C.” I think last year, there must have been a bloc on the committee which held similar writerly values, not just because of FLORA AND ULYSSES but also ONE CAME HOME. If there’s a similar set of readers on this year’s committee, I think THE FAMILY ROMANOV is going to be a tough sell.

    • Jonathan Hunt Jonathan Hunt says:

      Leonard, I have both my copies of THE FAMILY ROMANOV loaned out so I’ll be hard pressed to quote some examples of the prose style to you until I get them back, but here’s an observation.

      One area that we keep harping on about REVOLUTION is the handling of Raymond’s perspective, which is definitely secondary to Sunny’s perspective, but still leaves us wanting. I would argue that Fleming had a similar conundrum here, but handles it better than Wiles did. The Romanovs, like Sunny, are definitely the main character here, but her primary source interludes allow us to experience that secondary perspective (although it rotates among various characters). We always feel the authenticity of that perspective to a greater degree than we do Raymond. :-)

    • Melissa McAvoy says:

      Interesting points Leonard but I personally can argue against them. I loved Flora and Ulysses, not just for the writing, but for the story and a lot for the humor. (Of course writing is part of both of those.) AND Family Romanov is at the top of my list-right next to West of the Moon, but I think edges it out for ‘degree of difficulty’ reasons.
      I also don’t have a copy of Romanov with me but think your two examples bring up the point that in narrative nonfiction the writing needs to serve the facts-not horse the reader into sharing the emotional viewpoint of the author. So I would have a problem finding writing like your second example in a nonfiction work: the ‘serious’, the ‘sheltering’, the ‘beckoning’ are all telling me what to feel in a way that isn’t consistent with the mission of nonfiction. I will re read Romanov before our discussion, but I remember loving the writing and admiring the skill that allowed it to provide so much clarity. That said, I agree, if you are looking for emotionally memorable prose, narrative nonfiction is not the place to go-but, if you are looking for writing that provides access to emotionally memorable information, it is.

      • Genevieve says:

        I agree with you, Melissa, though I couldn’t figure out how to express it, so thank you.
        FLORA AND ULYSSES was my top choice last year, and THE FAMILY ROMANOV is my top choice this year (just barely passing BROWN GIRL DREAMING).

  5. Leonard Kim says:

    Well, I’ll defend the proportions of REVOLUTION in another discussion. But I did want to discuss the choice of included primary material in THE FAMILY ROMANOV. This relates to the “other components of a book, such as illustrations, overall design of the book, etc., may be considered when they make the book less effective,” statement in the Newbery terms and criteria. As you note yourself, there is little effort to do much with pictures, and in that respect I would suggest the book is relatively less effective compared to other non-fiction titles as well as REVOLUTION. But that is a minor point.

    The author makes a conscious decision to quote texts for the “Beyond the Palace Gates” sections devoted to the poor and non-aristocratic while using her own words for the story of the Romanovs. Despite what you and Deborah Hopkinson feel, I don’t think this really works because 1) many of the texts aren’t particularly well-written compared to Candace Fleming’s own prose (despite what I said above) whether it be because of translation or the quoted authors themselves mostly not being great writers. (I guess I disagree with Deborah Hopkinson in that I did find these sections relatively dry.) 2) Apparently to make these passages work to her own satisfaction, Fleming still needs to put in what I feel is a disruptively large number of ellipses and square bracket insertion/alterations. Ms. Hopkinson cites the Gorky example, so I will do the same:

    “I … did as grandpa advised…. I felt an immediate attachment to my brother. I felt he understood everything I was thinking…. The little one held out his hands to me, with a shake of his little white head. His scanty hair was almost gray, and there was a sage and elderly expression in his [tiny] face.
    …”

    In contrast, REVOLUTION uses quotes and illustrations in a way that, with less authorial intervention, match the tone and impact of Wiles’ own words, creating in my view a more harmonious, unified whole that elevates both.

    “I’m reminded . . . of an expression from the Bible: ‘He loved me before he knew me.’ In Georgia and Mississippi, the local people were like that. They loved us before they ever saw us. When you showed up, they didn’t even ask you if you were hungry. They would just do for you like you were their own children.”

    I’m particularly impressed that Wiles’ uses some of the same photos and quotes as the other Freedom Summer non-fiction books to greater effect.

    I do completely agree with Deborah Hopkinson that great non-fiction books are models for young writers. And I agree with you Jonathan in wishing it were time for a non-fiction title to be recognized (and actually a non-fiction title was my top Newbery pick on Goodreads last year). Non-fiction books were just as important to me growing up as fiction. I guess I’m just not seeing why this particular (and despite all I’ve said, admirable) title is the one.

    • I probably fall somewhere in between Leonard and Deborah on the strength of the quoted, non-Fleming passages; I thought some of them were fascinating, while a few didn’t hold my interest. Always, they seemed carefully chosen, and (to answer my own original question) I noticed that she often chose to feature young people or memories of youth, which I liked. I will say that I haven’t read Revolution, and I don’t plan to, because I didn’t care for Countdown. But if I can compare Romanov to Countdown (and what I assume is similar technique in Revolution), the interspersed passages are meant to do opposite things. In Countdown they add depth to the main story (or are supposed to); in Romanov they add contrast. Yes, they deepen the picture of Russia at that time, but I saw their primary function as showing how very different the lives of the Romanovs were from their subjects. This does two things: keeps the book from being overly sympathetic to the Romanovs (the children, obviously, didn’t do anything wrong; but it’s hard to feel overwhelmingly sorry for them when you see how all the other children in the country were living), and it shows (without telling!) exactly why the people of Russia were so ready for revolution–how the ground was laid for communism. i thought this structure really elevated the book. (I can’t disagree that the ellipses are distracting at times, but while again I can only speak to Countdown, I found the quoted material there often manipulated and taken out of context, but that wasn’t made obvious to the reader.)

  6. Printz not Newbery consideration for this excellent book, please.

    Candace Fleming has done a masterful job of recounting the end of autocracy in 20th-century Russia. Her ability to present, in brief, a fast-paced narrative of a famously complex historical transition, while at the same time providing fascinating insights into the psyches of the major players, is, in a word, awesome.

    However, my major takeaway from this book is that Nicholas and Alexandra Romanov were two of history’s most spectacular failures. Inept, self-centered, ignorant, irresponsible, you can take your pick, Russia was incredibly ill-served by these hapless heads of state.

    But it is very unlikely that even the most adept middle-grade or middle school reader has acquired the historical perspective to understand this. You’re talking about kids barely out of their Disney Princess years who hardly know Russia exists, since it is no longer our primary geopolitical enemy. Their pathway into the book is most likely through the Romanov children, whose historical significance is related to their deaths, not their short, unaccomplished lives. (Perhaps that is why the myth of Anastasia arose; history could not cope with the undeserved fate of these innocent children.) A high-schooler versed, or at least interested, in world history would be much more appreciative of Ms. Fleming’s skill as a writer and historian.

    This book reminds me, in its level of quality, of Russell Freedman’s LINCOLN: A PHOTOBIOGRAPHY (I know, I know, it won the Newbery, but it IS about our most consequential President.) LINCOLN is written so well that a number of adults of my acquaintance mistakenly picked it up, read it, and loved it, thinking it was a book written for adults. For the reader interested in Russia (that’s not everybody), THE FAMILY ROMANOV has the potential to have that kind of long-lasting, broad-based, appeal.

    • Brenda Martin says:

      And don’t forget there are other options as well – Sibert Medal and/or YALSA Nonfiction Award.

    • I’m puzzled by this response. Russia actually is very frequently in the news right now, but that’s probably not what you mean, since most kids are only peripherally aware of the daily news. I learned very little about USSR/Russia in school at any time (it was both during my school years) so I don’t think that would have helped me understand this book better in high school. Young children may be focused on the poor princesses who were brutally murdered, but I can’t imagine they won’t wonder why, and even if they don’t understand the whole thing, I don’t see that as a problem. When I was in fourth grade I read, over and over, the adult book A Night to Remember about the Titanic. I didn’t grasp everything the author said about the intricacies of social class and how it affected the disaster, but I saw the injustice. A child who is interested enough to pick up Romanov now is building a strong foundation on which s/he can add more and more information and understanding about so many things: monarchy/autocracy, WW1, communism, and so on.

    • Nina Lindsay says:

      Mary, give kids some credit. They’re smart. And yet they might even learn something by reading the book.

      • Brenda Martin says:

        I may not agree with all of Mary’s rationale for how this is more Printz than Newbery, but I do think that while it is such a fine line between 11-14 and 12 & Up, I would side with the latter to best describe the readership of The Family Romanov. That doesn’t make it ineligible for Newbery consideration – just that I think some are pushing this lower and lower than I believe it reads, even for the stronger kid readers.

  7. “You’re talking about kids barely out of their Disney Princess years who hardly know Russia exists…” I have to respectfully disagree here. You/we are talking about kids who are almost 15 (“…up through 14) and those who pick up this book are very likely to know Russia exists. I think this book works very much for the upper end of the Newbery age range. There didn’t seem anything in it that kids who have an interest in history and this period wouldn’t have the context to enjoy royally (pun intended).

  8. Nina Lindsay says:

    Sorry this post went off to the races without me. I want to chime in to say that while I firmly agree with all of the defenses of this book and count it among my favorites, I’m not yet willing to give it my top spot. Jonathan is the ideal reader for this book. I’m the least ideal reader for this book. I want to look at tempering each of our extremes before I settle on my analysis.

    My main question about this story is its focus and momentum. I agree that the merits of the book are in how Flemong has selected and layered these individual and primary-sourced narratives. It’s what makes this book great. And yet, for me, it also undercuts the momentum. Because…. well it’s just a horrible, horrible story. We can see it doomed from the start (and young readers will see this to. Any reader does, or can, know how it ends). Who am I rooting for? Why am I reading in excruiating detail of the weirdly insular and oblivious Romanovs, now the miserable peasants, now the inept goverment? Yes, I kept reading on, willingly, but it was unpleasant. I know a lot of this has to do with my adut response to the story, and I tried to be aware of that, and ask, okay, but where is the young reader responding, and wanting to read on, and why? And… well I was too demoralized to see the answer for myself, so I’m asking you all.

    That I’m able to feel this way and still recognize I read a great book is, I think, proof that it’s distinguished.

    • I think you’re going to see a blog post on this topic from my ten-year-old niece pretty soon–her idea. (We read the book independently of each other.) I do think it’s a challenging book–and again, not speaking of age/reading level, but emotionally and intellectually. It’s pretty awkward to be put in the position of rooting for people who, somehow or other, are going to turn into the enemy themselves.

      • Nina Lindsay Nina Lindsay says:

        Can’t wait.

      • Eric Carpenter says:

        Wendy,
        If it makes you feel any better they are going to turn into our ally before our enemy. (Though some would argue that the pre-Stalin/first generation Bolsheviks were never the enemy).

    • Leonard Kim says:

      One of my age “thresholds” (be it 12 or 14 or whatever) is the “world is an awful place” book, which was also my primary problem last year with FAR FAR AWAY beyond any issues with mature content. Like the Freedom Summer books or THE PORT CHICAGO 50,THE FAMILY ROMANOV is “opinionated.” We get sentences like, “To the peasants’ minds, the nobility–who possessed not only half the land in Russia but also the most fertile acreage–did not legitimately own their estates. Peasants believed the land should belong to those who plowed it….what was wrong with a hungry family stealing a few apples from a man who had more than he could ever use himself?” These are the kind of statements, sympathy-generating attitudes attributed to an entire class of people, that seem geared towards younger readers, but would be overly simplistic and speculative for an serious “adult” history. So one might argue that the answer to “where is the young reader responding” is, at least initially, the recognition of injustice and unfairness, just as they are meant to with the other non-fiction titles we discuss. But you are right, there is an “interpretation of theme” problem here. The final historical lesson here, if any, appears to be that injustice will be used as an excuse for an even more brutal regime and those who suffer will continue to suffer. Now maybe that’s just reality because the world is an awful place, but I had the same “why am I reading this” reaction, which slides easily into “why should young readers read this?” What is there to recommend really? That it’s an “interesting” topic? What if you’re not interested in early 20th-century Russian history? I don’t think the book is *so* good that it will convert the unwilling reader (though I have seen others testifying that it’s happened, so I’m willing to be wrong here). That it models scrupulous historical writing? That there are paparazzi glimpses of the ultra-rich and their intrigues and from-a-safe-distance documentary-like glimpses of the ultra-poor and murder and rebellion and the fall of an empire? Is it just a sensational story?

      • Nina Lindsay Nina Lindsay says:

        Leonard, a possible response to your and my dilemma is in addressing what Fleming has said was the impetus for this book… all those girls who wanted her to write about Anatasia. Do young readers get an overly romanticized view of this period, when they get any view at all? If so, could this book be an answer to that…just laying out the bleak truth, but in a way that is approachable for them?

        I’m now even more eager to compare this to EGG & SPOON….but want to give you all time to read that long and recently-released book.

  9. hunter a johnson says:

    I think that family Romanov is very “detailed”. there for some younger kids might think it is gory so there for family Romanov is not in my top 7

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