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Heavy Medal: A Mock Newbery Blog
Inside Heavy Medal

Port Chicago 50 Redux

As Jonathan and I start revisiting each of the titles on our mock discussion shortlist (and please do keep commenting on JOEY PIGZA), it seems time to jump back to one of the first titles we introduced this season, Steve Sheinkin’s THE PORT CHICAGO 50: DISASTER, MUTINY, AND THE FIGHT FOR CIVIL RIGHTS, which has since made the YALSA nonfiction award finalists and NBA finalists lists.

In a comment on the Nonfiction Contenders post, Genevieve said: “That story was completely new to me, and I think to a number of other readers. If I don’t consider the newness, to me it didn’t reach the heights of my other top contenders.”  This echoed Jonathan’s sentiment that “It’s not that the first half of this book was mundane, it’s that having read virtually every civil rights book published for children in the past dozen years, it just feels too familiar to me. I know that’s an adult response that many, if not most, children will not share.”  They  both went on to acknowledge the book’s strengths, noting that it just didn’t make the top for them.

It is worthwhile examining how we feel about the “importance” of the story, and especially, as Leonard Kim pointed us to, in relationship to another book on our shortlist with the same issue: REVOLUTION (which I’m in the middle of my re-read on now).   Noting that “the award is not for didactic content,” but rather “for literary quality and quality presentation for children,”  the committee does consider “interpretation of the theme or concept” among its criteria.  That is, how well does the author develop the idea being presented, for the intended audience…regardless of how important we might think the idea is for that audience.

At the same time, the committee is also considering that overall concept of what makes their winner “the most distinguished contribution to American literature for children”, and suggests that among the definitions of “distinguished” are:  “Marked by eminence and distinction; noted for significant achievement.”   I feel that under this umbrella, the fact that a book brings something fully new to the literature IS a consideration, if done in a distinguished way.   We’ve seen this, I’d suggest, with books like A JOYFUL NOISE, THE GIVER, WHAT JAMIE SAW, CARVER: A LIFE IN POEMS, HITLER YOUTH, WHERE THE MOUNTAIN MEETS THE MOON…  and many others, including the infamous SECRET OF THE ANDES.   “New” is certainly not the only thing that distinguishes these works (and is not a requirement for a winner), but may be among what made them rise in their particular year.

I’d argue the same for THE PORT CHICAGO 50.  The newness of the story is absolutely one of the things that I find remarkable about it; but only the first thing.  Sheinkin’s working of the oral histories into a lively, provocative, and fairly short narrative is the true achievement.  It is true, as Jonathan points out, that until Sheinkin gets into the meat of the story his background/context isn’t necessarily award material.  But, apropos of Leonard Kim’s debunking of my theory that REVLOUTION was overloaded with Raymond’s voice (and more on that soon!), I have to point out that Sheinkin’s context setting in the first two chapters take up a measly 12 pages, much of which are photos.    Imagining a young reader coming to this story, freshly, I think that Sheinkin gives them plenty of opportunity to engage (and the nonfiction text invites readers to browse or skip these sections as desired, as does Wiles’ documentary material). I find so much among the remaining pages to appreciate that this still remains easily in my top 3.

I haven’t offered an argument here for PORT CHICAGO vs. FAMILY ROMANOV, since I’d like to think that each of us can make room for more than one nonfiction among our top contenders, but the truth is that the Sheinkin always sits above the Fleming in my mind. I have a significant personal bias, since I am NOT a text-heavy history reader.  Sheinkin’s work stands out to me because is DOES make its content accessible and distinguished to readers who may think they don’t like to read history.   That is part of its achievement.   This doesn’t mean that Fleming’s work “fails” because it doesn’t do this, it simply doesn’t have this aspect going for it among its many strengths.  It does share the element of “newness for audience” with Sheinkin’s…and we’ll look at it very soon.

 

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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. I’m not going to really respond specifically to this book, but to the bigger question of newness. I recently saw someone raving about Russell Freedman’s Angel Island because it began with something complete new to her. I, on the other, hand was already familiar with this (the poetry on the walls at Angel Island) so I wasn’t as blown away. However, because of her enthusiasm, I’m taking another look and want to determine if the writing is what makes it distinguished rather than that the information seems new to some. In the case of Port Chicago the material IS new to most of us, I’m guessing. I really need to take another look because it didn’t seem that amazing to me (but then I was, I admit, comparing it to Bomb:).

  2. I am among those who did not think this book was all that compelling. The beginning did drag a lot, and the trial itself was incredibly repetitive. I felt this story could have been condensed, because there wasn’t enough unique detail throughout that warranted this length. I think the story was padded at both ends, and this could have worked better as an article rather than something this length.

    I found the dry nature of the layout and design did not do this narrative any favors, and children would not be compelled to pick up this story on its own merits because it’s such a specialized topic. This book felt more like supplemental material than something that would mark it as essential. I don’t think this book meets the criteria for truly distinguished writing. That in itself removes it from consideration for me.

    • I also found the writing and presentation to be on the dry side, which is a shame, because it is a very interesting story in itself. I can think of a handful of students I might recommend this title to. When I am considering a Newbery contender, I usually feel like it is a book everyone should read. Port Chicago definitely does not stand out like that to me.

      • Nina Lindsay Nina Lindsay says:

        Jenni, though many of us want a Newbery winner to be a book everyone should read, that is specifically not within the criteria. The book may be for a particular readership. That said, I also feel like PORT CHICAGO *is* a book that everyone can read. Interesting. Nothing seemed dry to me. I do think you have to be willing to get involved in the story, and then it unfolds to the ear like a radio play. I think that the “repetitiveness” of the trial that Kristin notes also falls into the same category. Part of the point is how tenacious Marshall had to be, and this comes across.

        I think part of the issue in these responses to the book is one that’s been noted before; that this “story” doesn’t lend itself to a “story” shape. There is no classic narrative arc, because it didn’t happen that way. This may be what ultimately keeps the story from rising as a “distinguished” reading experience for many. I find the story to feel frankly real, and fast to read (I’m not a fast reader). At the end I’m left with the feeling–did that really just happen??–and go back to dip into parts of the story again and again. I read it more like journalism than as a story, which I think is significant achievement and rare in children’s books. (It reminds me of ALMOST ASTRONAUTS in this regard, another story that many faulted for “nothing happening at the end.”)

      • For me, books that truly meet the criteria ultimately are books I (personally) feel everyone should read. There is also a distinction between “can” and “should” when it comes to recommending books. I get what you’re saying about the way non-fiction can be written, I just didn’t happen to feel the writing on this book hit that level. The passages were so straight forward, and some parts seemed redundant and unnecessary. I remember wishing it had the touch of a different editor. It is an interesting piece of history, but I don’t think the story was told in a distinguished way.

      • Nina Lindsay Nina Lindsay says:

        Jenni, I take your points, except for the one about the criteria. I understand your personal feeling, but I don’t see where the criteria suggest that the winner should be something that everyone should read, nor do I see it reflected in the choices of the committee over the years. While some books have wider appeal than others, most are directed toward distinct reading tastes.

      • I guess I look at the Newbery from the viewpoint as a former independent bookstore owner and a current elementary school reading specialist. Typically, books that have won the award are very easy to put into the hands of young readers, even before they are recognized. There is something universal in the characters or situation and the story is told well. The book becomes a touch point for other reading choices and even for moments in life. To me, Port Chicago is told in a way that is largely forgettable. Although the facts of the story are interesting and powerful, the writing is a miss.

  3. Leonard Kim says:

    I thought the story itself was vividly written, but I wish Sheinkin had just told the story. Writing from a specific perspective of racial injustice is laudable, but I’m not sure this story is well-chosen for that purpose. Yes, discrimination certainly put the sailors on that job. Yes, racism definitely worsened the sailors’ situation through all the ensuing events. But I think the story is primarily about refusing to serve despite consequence. That is not a “new” story. And such stories can be about race, such as Muhammad Ali’s (efficiently told as such in REVOLUTION). I think Sheinkin’s particular lens turns this story into something like Wiles’ Muhammad Ali, and that may not be the best authorial choice. I think it actually diminishes its potential to provoke thought and discussion in readers: for example, the sailors acting primarily out of self-preservation and the historical period being World War II not Vietnam. Less pounding of “sailors good, Navy bad” would have allowed a reader to come to the same conclusions, but more honestly, with richer, less simplistic “interpretation of theme or concept.”

    • Brenda Martin says:

      This book is very successful and it deserves the very positive attention it has received. However, I agree with some of the comments above about Sheinkin’s writing style here. I, too, feel he would have done better to focus on the question of refusing to serve despite consequence particularly in a time of war – what’s the safety threshold and where is the line drawn? Two more concerns I’ll add: the lack of even the most rudimentary of maps placing Port Chicago in the Bay Area was a strange design decision, and there were some unfortunately poor reproductions of photos and other documents.

    • Nina Lindsay Nina Lindsay says:

      Leonard and Brenda, I’m intrigued at this idea that the story is primarily about “refusing to serve despite consequence” in a time of war. Maybe I’m not understanding the point, but I saw the sailors actions not as a refusal to serve, but an action to demand better conditions or some explanation. p.76 “”They’d have preferred any other assignment. ‘Put me on a ship and let me fight out there, take my chances there,’ one salior said. ‘Why lose your life to somebody else’s negligence.?'”

      To some extent, Sheinkin’s lens is determined by the material available: the news of the disaster, the hearing scripts, and the oral histories collected by Robert Allen. He is trying to tell the sailor’s story, and this is what they had to say.

      • Leonard Kim says:

        Hi Nina,

        I can’t speak for Brenda, but I would make the following points:

        1) I think “mutiny” (which is in the subtitle) by definition is refusal to obey orders. I think that’s the crux of the story. I don’t have the book here, but regarding your quote: does any serviceman really have the right to expect a different assignment, especially on the grounds of self-preservation? What in fact is the difference between what happened and actually being sent to fight, where one’s life is certainly dependent on others’ performance or negligence? How much “explanation” does a serviceman have the right to expect, and should that affect his/her willingness to serve? Does the “justness” of the war make a difference? (I can make an analogy to those working on the atomic bomb not being told what they were working on.) This story could have been very good for provoking thought and discussion on such topics, but…

        2) “Civil rights” is in the subtitle. That is the particular lens that I am suggesting is questionable, because the other themes raised above means that this particular story is perhaps not the best choice if the primary theme of your book is civil rights. I don’t have a problem with the story itself or Sheinkin’s material. Instead, I suggest that Sheinkin’s focus on the civil rights aspects is too limiting given the richness of this story and in fact could discourage the reader from thinking and drawing their own conclusions. (As I said above, I believe the reader will nonetheless come to the correct conclusion without Sheinkin needing to tip things so much.)

      • Eric Carpenter says:

        Leonard,
        The civil rights aspects are the crux of the situation at Port Chicago. These sailors were not allowed to serve on ships except in the kitchens. Sheinkin sets this up wonderfully in the very beginning of the book. The opening section (and I wish I had the book with me now) describing the african american sailor who earned a service medal during the attack on pearl harbor for his courageous acts during the bombing and then had to return to mess hall duties. While this story has is not directly related to the incidents at Port Chicago, Sheinkin begins his book with it because it provides a clear window into the Navy’s racial climate, which is paramount to the ensuing disaster and mutiny.

      • Leonard Kim says:

        Eric,

        Of course. As I mentioned in my initial comment, discrimination is what put the sailors on that particular job. And racism made their situation worse through all the ensuing events. I don’t question that at all, and that is certainly part of the context. But I still maintain that the “story”: a dangerous job, a disaster, and a mutiny is not well-matched to a civil rights narrative. I haven’t gone combing through history, but I am pretty sure I could find a near-identical story where race isn’t part of the context. I guess that’s my point. Discrimination and racism is part of the context of this particular story. Sheinkin, I believe, makes a questionable choice by making it more than context, elevating it to the “point” of the story. That’s why I brought up Wiles’ opinionated bio of Muhammad Ali in REVOLUTION. In telling Ali’s refusal to go to Vietnam, race is more than context. Wiles/Ali explicitly makes racism the “point.” He won’t go as a moral statement about racism to a war many felt was unjust. With that kind story, an author can really lean into things. I think the Port Chicago as a historical event is more difficult to co-opt into the kind of lessons that Sheinkin wants to convey. To reiterate my first comment — I liked the book and thought it vividly written. It’s the “theme/concept interpretation” part of the Newbery criteria that I’m having more trouble with.

      • Nina Lindsay Nina Lindsay says:

        Leonard, Sheinkin did not “choose” to put a civil rights lens on this story. It was already there, it is the story, and it is the point of the story for the men whose oral histories were collected. It is the story he chose to tell.

        This is reminding me more and more of ALMOST ASTRONAUTS, which I alluded to earlier, a book that many faulted for drawing conclusions. As there, here I would argue that Sheinkin is pretty transparent about the story and the angle he is telling and that this is perfectly suitable for a young audience. Perhaps the story could be told in a different way, but that would be up to another author.

      • Leonard Kim says:

        Hi Nina,

        I agree that it may have been the point of the story for the men whose oral histories were collected. That’s a very good point. I guess my issue is more with Sheinkin’s own “voice,” perhaps similar to those who, in fiction, wish the author and his/her opinions would get more out of the way, especially since the source material is compelling by itself.

        It’s clear I agree the story could have been told a different way by another author. As this is a Newbery discussion, and particularly one of a non-fiction topic that other authors could pick up, my basic point is that I had trouble with Sheinkin’s “interpretation of theme or concept.” I’m not convinced that Sheinkin’s transparency (which I agree with you about) absolves him from this.

      • Brenda Martin says:

        Hi – I don’t wish to minimize the civil rights aspect of the book, which clearly was a major component of the events that took place. However, the refusal the serve despite consequence along with the question of what exactly are the limits of service in wartime (pushing the safety envelope to get those munitions to the troops ASAP) seemed like two very fascinating concepts that Sheinkin alluded to but never entirely followed up on. And those defending his “lens” are absolutely right – I didn’t always agree with Sheinkin’s point of view, but he didn’t try to hide his opinions. And I appreciate that there was no question about objectivity. All told, I feel it could have been an even more outstanding book, and perhaps that’s where some of my reservations lie. Which is a bit of an unfortunate consequence of an author setting a high bar for readers.

  4. Jonathan Hunt Jonathan Hunt says:

    I’m sorry for being AWOL during this conversation. I’ve been traveling this week, and haven’t had the time to catch up on the conversation. For me, this book became riveting once we get to the second half: the mutiny and the ensuing court martial. But then I really like the legal stuff, in general. I think everybody has made some compelling arguments for and against the book. Since I’m shopping for a third place vote, I’d have to give the edge to this one over THE KEY THAT SWALLOWED JOEY PIGZA (so, yes, there is room for two nonfiction books on my ballot), but I’m not sure that will hold up after we review the other four shortlisted titles: REVOLUTION, CROSSOVER, MADMAN, and WEST OF THE MOON.

  5. I feel like the criticism (if it’s really that) toward this book in this thread is centered around what the book “could have been.” That’s not conversation that can be had at the table, is it? Don’t you have to talk about what the book IS, not what you would have liked it to be?

    And for the record, I’m not sure how you tell the Port Chicago 50 story and leave out the civil rights theme… It was the cause of the “mutiny.” As a teacher, if we are studying the text structure of Cause and Effect, this book would be an incredible example. But all the actions in the book come back to the civil rights issue. You cannot tell this story without that backdrop.

    I’m not exactly sure how else Sheinkin could have “just told the story.” It is true, that the idea of refusing to serve and the mutiny in general are fascinating conversation starters, I think the argument could be made that kids will pull those themes out as they are, without Sheinkin leaving out the civil rights issue and just focusing on the story of the mutiny. Plus, even when the trial comes to center stage, the reason for the seemingly unfair ruling comes back to the civil rights issue and the Navy’s stance at the time.

    I guess I’m just confused at the criticism I’ve seen in this thread. I guess I don’t really see it as criticism…

  6. Sharon Levin says:

    Here is my issue with this book and it may be something more for Sibert than for Newbery, is a book true non-fiction when conversations, moods etc seem to come from the author’s brain and not the historical record? Check the difference between The Romanovs and Port Chicago. Fleming’s notes are meticulous, Sheinkin’s are not. I love Books about Civil Rights and I loved learning about a local (to me, since I live in the Bay Area) event, but it bothers me that this is put forth as completely accurate when I am not sure a historian would see it as such And yes, I had the same issues with Bomb, which I know I can’t bring up next Sunday. I’m definitely looking forward to a lively discussion

    • Jonathan Hunt says:

      You wait until after I move to show up?!? Hmpf. 😉

      • Sharon Levin says:

        Ahem, I have to find out from the blog that you moved?!?!? 🙂 I did come when you were there, sigh, just not memorable I guess.

      • Jonathan Hunt Jonathan Hunt says:

        I think you came the year that we had to split in two groups, right?

    • Nina Lindsay Nina Lindsay says:

      Sharon, while yours was my concern with others of Sheinkin’s work, I don’t feel this is a problem here. He clearly describes his sources coming from oral interivews, in which conversations and emotions are often recorded.

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