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Heavy Medal: A Mock Newbery Blog
Inside Heavy Medal

Great Expectations

It’s been a banner year for nonfiction yet again.  Since we’ve been saying that every year for the past several years maybe it’s time to start speaking of a Golden Age of Nonfiction?  In any case, many of the most excellent titles this year are published for ages 12 and up, what many people would consider YA.  Since the Newbery goes up to and includes age 14 that doesn’t exclude these titles from consideration.  It does make it harder to build consensus around such a book, however.  The last thing a book needs is two prejudices working against it–genre and audience.  Two of the brightest lights in the firmament this year are THE BOYS WHO CHALLENGED HITLER by Phillip Hoose and MOST DANGEROUS by Steve Sheinkin.  While they are unquestionably among the most distinguished books of this year, I find myself unfairly comparing them to their author’s books from previous years.

9780374300227_p0_v3_s192x300Employing the same oral history techniques that earned him a Newbery Honor for CLAUDETTE COLVIN, Hoose turns his attention to the Danish resistance during World War II, finding in Knud Pedersen a subject worthy of that treatment.  Knud and his friends, dismayed by the Nazi presence in their country, begin to plan random acts of violence and sabotage which become increasingly bolder and more organized, and as they do so the suspense ratchets up.  How long can they keep this up without getting caught?  And if they do get caught will the Nazis show leniency because of their age?

This book delivers everything the author and reader alike might have hoped for, and yet I cannot shake my own personal feelings of ambivalence.  The format is so similar to CLAUDETTE COLVIN and the topic of Nazis, generally speaking, is so overdone that I’m experiencing a new sensation with a Hoose book: ennui.  To be sure, this has everything to do with me and my expectations and nothing to do with the book itself.  A second read would undoubtedly rid me of these unNewberyish urges to compare this book against those not published during this specific year.

9781596439528_p0_v2_s118x184I have already listed MOST DANGEROUS as a top three type of book for me, but I also find myself comparing it to BOMB which, with its three distinct narrative strands, was more of a page turner.  To be sure, MOST DANGEROUS is suspenseful, but it’s a slower build.  By the time I got to the part where the Pentagon Papers were being leaked, I couldn’t read fast enough.  Nobody else writing for children and young adults can really craft a thriller the way that Sheinkin can.  He’s peerless in that regard–or individually distinct, as we say in Newbery parlance.  Then too the philosophical questions this book raises about loyalty and patriotism, though more likely to appeal to a slightly older crowd than BOMB, show a new dimension to his work.

THE DARK IS RISING is better than THE GREY KING; A LONG WAY FROM CHICAGO is better than A YEAR DOWN YONDER.  I guess it really shouldn’t bother me that BOMB is (arguably) better than MOST DANGEROUS.  It can still be worthy of the Medal–and perhaps it should win.  Once again, a second reading would really help me discard this baggage and appreciate the book on its own merits.  I still wonder how it might compare to a book which I had modest expectations for (looking at you, HIRED GIRL), but far exceeded them.

 

 

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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. Eric Carpenter says:

    If the 1997 committee could overcome three decades of Konigsburg greatness-baggage to find THE VIEW FROM SATURDAY the most distinguished contribution to children’s literature of that year, then I have confidence that this year’s committee can look beyond the greatness of BOMB and CLAUDETTE COLVIN to recognize both MOST DANGEROUS and TBWCH. In fact I’m all for this year’s committee doing a little “Dear Mr. Henshawing”, if that can be a verb, and awarding MOST DANGEROUS the medal to make up for BOMB being robbed of gold a few years ago.

  2. What Eric said.

  3. Therese Bigelow says:

    Eric you are making assumptions about the motives of those committees, unless of course you were on one or both of them.

    • Eric Carpenter says:

      I was really just being a bit facetious.
      I assume every committee’s motivation is to determine the most distinguished contribution to children’s literature for their year.
      aside: Dear Mr Henshaw was my favorite book growing up and think it’s totally deserving of the newbery.

  4. Leonard Kim says:

    I think MOST DANGEROUS is a stronger contender than THE BOYS WHO CHALLENGED HITLER. And I think there is a legitimate way to “compare” MOST DANGEROUS to what’s come before without breaking the Newbery rules. But that exercise makes me hesitant to support it.

    Based on Heavy Medal coverage, Steve Sheinkin seems to be one of those few authors whose every book is an automatic contender. Why should this be? When considering the Newbery terms regarding “literary quality” and “quality presentation for children,” I think it’d be tough to argue that Sheinkin earns his status through “literary quality” alone when you compare his writing to other perennial contenders like Laura Amy Schlitz. Sheinkin writes well enough for his purposes, but his writing strikes me as a bit formulaic. (More talented writers than I could come up with a great Sheinkin parody I’m sure. Just consider all the variations on “he later recalled.”) Is MOST DANGEROUS a great book about Vietnam and the Pentagon Papers, period, without the children’s book lens (which is how I approach “literary quality”)? Compared with all the other writing out there on the subject (including Ellsberg’s own memoir)? I am not read up on this subject at all, but I would be surprised if it were.

    So the argument for MOST DANGEROUS must lean heavily on “quality presentation for children.” I believe this part of the criteria, unlike “literary quality,” is heavily dependent on the zeitgeist. That is, unlike “literary quality,” “excellence of presentation for a child audience” changes with the times and is an arena that is particularly receptive to innovation. To be sure, Sheinkin has a distinctive approach to presenting history to a young audience. One might argue that it was a striking approach, but several books later, at the present time, I personally start to wonder, is this the best approach? If we consistently choose him as the representative for non-fiction, aren’t we starting to diminish the richness of possible presentations for children? When you consider the full, rich variety of approaches to history writing out there, his page-turner approach currently doesn’t make me react, “this is great for young readers.” The history book that made me feel that way this year, the one in my top three, is A FINE DESSERT.

  5. Jonathan Hunt Jonathan Hunt says:

    Steve Sheinkin is one of many authors that we cover over and over again, and we wouldn’t do it if we didn’t think their work warranted it. MOST DANGEROUS and THE BOYS WHO CHALLENGED HITLER (Hoose is another one of our pet authors) both have six starred reviews so somebody must agree with us. I’m not quite following your logic, but I’m not sure that I need to. Compare MOST DANGEROUS (or THE BOYS WHO CHALLENGED HITLER, for that matter) head to head with the books published this year and it compares quite favorably.

    It would be an interesting exercise to look at A FINE DESSERT through the Newbery lens since much of the criticism seems to be aimed at the pictures. Technically, it’s historical fiction, but it’s very nonfiction-y. Kind of reminds me of those David Macalauy books where he created a fictional construct to teach about a historical process.

  6. Jonathan Hunt Jonathan Hunt says:

    Oh, I also wanted to say that it’s been almost 30 years since a nonfiction book won the Newbery (LINCOLN) . . . Isn’t it about time?

  7. I know there’s a ton of writing for adults on the topics he’s covering in MOST DANGEROUS, but I think Sheinkin does a terrific job of choosing what to include and where to focus while making it accessible and highly engaging for younger readers. He tells a complex story in a way that’s easy to follow even if you don’t know anything about the events; and also very absorbing if you do know some of it already. Young readers will fall into both categories. I don’t have the book in front of me, but some examples that impressed me:

    After introducing Ellsberg’s early career, he’s describes what was going on in North Vietnam. Then jumps back to where Ellsberg was at the same time: in the Marines. And finishes (I think) with something like: Ellsberg didn’t go to Vietnam….yet. So while he’s moving the big Vietnam story forward, he’s also checking back in with the main character, and at the same time foreshadowing DE’s future trip. That’s deft, efficient non-fiction storytelling.

    I appreciated the way he used the actual, not always pretty words of the key figures, especially LBJ, RMN, and Kissinger. This is a different view of the presidency than kids and young teens get in typical biographies. It helps readers understand LBJ and RMN more fully, especially in relation to the decisions they had to make about Vietnam.

    Key themes recur throughout the book and Sheinkin lets them build as the story progresses, calling attention to them when needed. For example, LBJ and RMN (and maybe another figure or two?) mentioned how important it was to not be the first President to lose a war. Some readers will identify that theme early on, and recognize its significance. Others may not put it together on their own, so Sheinkin points it out towards the end of the book, when its meaning is especially important. That brings less sophisticated readers up to speed, and serves as confirmation for the more sophisticated readers…good non-fiction books work for both.

    I do think that Sheinkin’s chosen approach is, appropriately, more journalistic than novelistic…so he’s not going for eloquent sentences and rich vocabulary (as we get in an Amy Laura Schlitz novel), but clarity, directness, and immediacy. Which makes sense, given the story he’s trying to tell. But I am interested in Leonard’s comment about formulaic writing and the overuse of “he later recalled.” I didn’t notice this, but will be on the lookout for those weaknesses if I have time to reread this one.

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