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Heavy Medal: A Mock Newbery Blog
Inside Heavy Medal

Newbery Nonfiction

We’ve discussed some nonfiction titles in depth already, namely our shortlisted titles MOST DANGEROUS, DROWNED CITY, and RHYTHM RIDE.  We also briefly discussed THE BOYS WHO CHALLENGED HITLER (although I think it’s worthier of an extended conversation).

However, those are far from the only worthy nonfiction titles to consider this year.  The additional titles below are all at least 64 pages and had 3-4 starred reviews.  I’m including several memoirs below, even though I consider memoirs to be autobiographical novels rather than truly nonfiction (but that’s another discussion, and an entirely moot one for our Newbery purposes).

9780547821832_p0_v2_s118x184BREAKTHROUGH! by Jim Murphy . . . I know that many of the books on this list will be difficult to build consensus around because they will be perceived as high school books rather than elementary or even middle school books.  That makes this one a sleeper, I think.  Published late in the year, this brief account of the team that solved a medical mystery in the middle of the 20th century.  It’s especially compelling that this team included both a woman and an African American at a time when men dominated the medical field.

9781620915974_p0_v2_s118x184FATAL FEVER by Gail Jarrow . . . This is the second book in the Deadly Diseases trilogy, and it’s quite good.  I especially love all the background information woven into the book before we even meet Mary Mallon.  However, TERRIBLE TYPHOID MARY has a more appealing book design, while BREAKTHROUGH! also offers competition in the same genre (i.e. the history of science and medicine).  It may be tough for this one to crack the award line-up, good reviews notwithstanding.

9781603094009_p0_v2_s118x184MARCH: BOOK 2 by John Lewis and Andrew Aydin . . . I thought the first book in this excellent series would have been the best choice since it included Lewis’s childhood memories, whereas this one takes place entirely when he is in college, but the graphic novel threshold had not yet been crossed by the Newbery committee.  Kinda surprised that ENCHANTED AIR made the ENYA shortlist over this one, but then I was surprised that POPULAR eclipsed BROWN GIRL DREAMING on the same list last year.

9780670016792_p0_v1_s192x300STONEWALL by Ann Bausum . . . This one will seem like a high school title to many, but I think it’s solidly middle school, and  Someday My Printz Will Come agreed that the treatment is better suited to a younger audience.  Certainly, the focus here is squarely on civil rights rather than sexuality and for that reason, I think it could be less controversial than, say, GEORGE in an elementary or middle school collection.  I could be wrong, but I don’t think so.

9780763668181_p0_v1_s192x300SYMPHONY FOR THE CITY OF THE DEAD by M.T. Anderson . . . Arguably, the oldest title on this list.  I’m sure we can find 13- or 14-year old readers for it, but I think it would be difficult to make the argument that this one succeeds at what it does better than many of the similarly excellent nonfiction pitched at a younger audience.  Still, does anybody write as passionately about their topic as when Anderson writes about the power and majesty Shostakovich’s music and the impact it had on people in such destitute circumstances?  I think not.

9781626720848_p0_v2_s192x300TOMMY by Karen Blumenthal . . . A good history of the Thompson submachine gun and how it shaped American culture and society.  Some people may find the narrative slightly disjointed, others may find sections a bit dry, but I absolutely love Blumenthal’s talent for synthesizing the political, social, and cultural history of an era.  My favorite of hers is LET ME PLAY, but this one does a fine job.  Another book that straddles that audience line.

9781481435222_p0_v4_s118x184ENCHANTED AIR by Margarita Engle . . . This is one of my favorite Margarita Engle books in recent memory (another being DRUM DREAM GIRL, a potential Caldecott book), but I think the timing isn’t optimal.  As good as it is, it seems to pale in comparison to BROWN GIRL DREAMING, a comparison none of us are supposed to make, but I still can’t help wondering if this have made a bigger impact if it had been published a couple years ago.

9780385753593_p0_v1_s118x184FDR AND THE AMERICAN CRISIS by Albert Marrin . . .  Marrin was a National Book Award finalist for FLESH & BLOOD SO CHEAP, and this is a worthy follow up.  It’s a nice biographical portrait of a famous president and a good examination of the first half of the 20th century.  Like MARCH, STONEWALL, SYMPHONY, and TOMMY it could be hard to build consensus around this book because of the audience.  And then, too, I just don’t think it’s quite in the same league as those in regard to literary merit either.

9780544232709_p0_v4_s192x300THE OCTOPUS SCIENTISTS by Sy Montgomery . . . Another good entry in the wonderful Scientists in the Field series, but I don’t think this one is a serious contender for the Sibert, let alone the Newbery.  This same body of research seemed to result in an adult book, THE SOUL OF AN OCTOPUS, which was shortlisted for the National Book Award in the Nonfiction category.

9780544313675_p0_v4_s192x300TERRIBLE TYPHOID MARY by Susan Campbell Bartoletti . . . I reviewed both this book and FATAL FEVER for Horn Book, and I believe they are both strong books with different strengths.  Here, I like how Bartoletti uses Mary Mallon as a lens to examine American society, and then subsequently to ask some difficult questions, too.  Not sure what’s going on with the cover (THE HIRED GIRL features the same servant girl chic), but otherwise an appealing story in an appealing package.

9780803741232_p0_v2_s192x300TURNING 15 ON THE ROAD TO FREEDOM by Lynda Blackmon Lowery . . . This one started powerfully for me.  Short vignettes that perfectly capture a child’s viewpoint.  They felt poignant and affecting at first, yet somehow–at least for me–diminished in the latter half of the book. Not sure why my enthusiasm waned the further I read.  Thoughts?

Between the four books we already covered, and these eleven titles, not to mention several excellent nonfiction picture books (FUNNY BONES, EARMUFFS FOR EVERYONE, and MESMERIZED, to name a few), there should be something for everybody’s taste.

And yet.  Since we have examined our prejudice, bias, and privilege throughout the past year, I think it’s only fair to ask how these factors affect the genre of nonfiction in the award process.  Melissa Stewart recently wrote this guest post at Fuse 8 about how even the nonfiction that does get recognized tends toward narrative over expository. Marc Aronson, has been beating this drum, I think, as long as anyone has.

So now the difficult question: It’s a widely held belief that adult women prefer fiction, while adult men prefer nonfiction, but there is very little research to back that up.  It’s mostly anecdotal evidence.  Moreover, I think that genre is merely one factor in our often complex reading preferences, and, too, I think reading widely and deeply for the Newbery has a way of leveling the playing field.  And yet, when push comes to shove and you only get three votes . . . I can’t help but wonder that if at least 2/3 of the committee were men then the committee wouldn’t have recognized a heck of a lot more nonfiction over the years . . . What do you think?



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


  1. Leonard Kim says:

    I still feel that fiction “for children” leaves room for unqualified greatness in a way that non-fiction “for children” mostly does not. I think the actual best non-fiction for children is not normally classified in children’s books, but as straight non-fiction, because it’s been long recognized that a great book that explains clearly and satisfies wonder and curiosity will appeal to adults and can be marketed as such. This raises a couple problems for the Newbery, like eligibility (“for which children are an intended potential audience”) and coverage (how the committee can hope to comprehensively seek out eligible books from a far vaster pool.)

    I think one obvious example this year is Randall Munroe’s Thing Explainer, which I bought for my 5th-grader for Christmas. I suppose it is a little like a David Macaulay How Things Work book, except Munroe explains things like the Large Hadron Collider, the US Constitution, and plate tectonics using only the 1000 most common English words. It’s great stuff, the #10 best-selling book on Amazon, and the book jacket claims, “this book is for anyone—age 5 to 105—who has ever wondered how things work, and why.” But on Amazon, for example, it’s classified as a Humor book on one hand and as a Math/Science book on another.

    I read a lot lately about how adults are comprising more and more of the readership for “young” books (admittedly mostly YA). A novel can be packaged as a “young” book and reach an adult audience. I think that’s less true of non-fiction, and I do think that shows. I guess what I’m saying is that I don’t think it’s a gender thing. If I were on the committee, I’d still be hard-pressed to select a non-fiction title. As I’ve said before, I liked MOST DANGEROUS, but for someone whose books always seem to be in the discussion, Sheinkin writes far less well than the best fiction writers in children’s books (who arguably write at or near the level of top adult fiction writers) or the best “adult” non-fiction writers.

    • Jonathan Hunt Jonathan Hunt says:

      If you were on the real committee, Leonard, you would be at liberty to bring these excellent “adult” nonfiction books to the table so long as children are an intended potential audience. I agree that there is lots of stuff out there for a general audience that could be looked at by the committee. Still others, are clearly beyond the abilities, appreciations, and understandings of children.

      Obviously, I disagree with your assessment of Sheinkin’s writing, both in comparison to other nonfiction writers and all writers regardless of genre. Of the best of the year lists that have been published so far–we’re still waiting for Bulletin–three books unanimously appear on all lists–MOST DANGEROUS, DROWNED CITY, CHALLENGER DEEP–and two of those are nonfiction.

  2. Leonard Kim says:

    I think an argument could be made for HUMAN BODY THEATER. I’d take it over any of those you listed (that I’ve read) except for TURNING FIFTEEN.

    • Jonathan Hunt Jonathan Hunt says:

      I liked HUMAN BODY THEATER, too. I didn’t feature it in this post because it only had two starred reviews. Not that there’s anything wrong with two star books–They frequently get Newbery recognition–it’s just that this post would have ballooned. Another good two star nonfiction book is THIS STRANGE WILDERNESS about John James Audubon; it’s also on the ENYA shortlist. It’s published by University of Nebraska Press, so that’s why it’s off the radar for most people.

      But back to HUMAN BODY THEATER. I think that it will suffer from the science/expository bias that Melissa Steward featured in her Fuse #8 post, but I’d sure like to be proven wrong. It would also have to overcome a graphic novel bias. Would still love to see some SIbert love, regardless.

  3. I’ll second Leonard’s recommendation for HUMAN BODY THEATER. It takes a big, complicated topic (the human body) and presents it in a way that’s entertaining and accessible. It’s an engaging science book that really builds the reader’s knowledge. Mixing humor and information is a tricky balance, and she does it very well, never verging too far into outright silliness and continually layering information and concepts without confusing the reader. The illustrations are hugely important, but the writing is very strong in terms of accuracy, clarity, and organization, and I think it definitely achieves the ever-important “excellence of presentation for a child audience.”

  4. Ah, the Heavy Medal nonfiction discussion. As a nonfiction writer I always appreciate it, while also always bracing myself for a certain amount of discouragement. I am reminded of the time a librarian told me, “The boys in my school really prefer nonfiction,” but in a tone of such wonder and horror you might easily have taken out the word “nonfiction” and inserted “syphilis.”

    I think we all have preferences that need to be kept in mind. If you are wondering if you have a certain preference concerning fiction/nonfiction, I think it’s instructive to compile of the last ten books one has read for pure pleasure–professional development doesn’t count–and tally up how many were fiction versus nonfiction. I do think committee members really strive to get beyond their personal fiction/nonfiction preferences, but of course we’re all human so it’s tough.

  5. Jonathan, you have definitely had an effect on my reading: I now enjoy and read more nonfiction.
    This year I have read most of the books mentioned – including both Typhoid Mary titles (quite a feat as one wasn’t very good). Of these mentioned above, my favorites were ENCHANTED AIR (cannot seem to forget it!) and TURNING 15… I really enjoyed SYMPHONY but think it really reads for an older audience. MOST DANGEROUS and BOYS WHO CHALLENGED HITLER both made my initial top 5. I’m thinking about my final top 5…..

  6. Nina Lindsay says:

    I need to get to HUMAN BODY THEATER, and am still right now catching up on nonfiction. Just finished SYMPHONY FOR THE CITY… Which I’d started earlier and put down when I found I agreed with Jonathan it would be a hard push for age level for this discussion. I do find it astounding.

    Jonathan, I won’t bite on that gender question, but the Melissa Stewart post you mention has got me thinking, a lot. I mention in my recent post “Choices” that I learned to read nonfiction through award committee discussions. But I think I meant, really, narrative nonfiction. I think I’ve always enjoyed expository….we just don’t find as much of it of as high quality in children’s lit. Is it there, but we’re just not finding it… Or looking for it? (Though I prefer expository nonfiction to narrative, I’m truly a fiction reader.)

    Narrative nonfiction doesn’t have a natural hook for me, though once I get into the flow I’m there. Getting “into the flow” is generally an indicator that it’s “good”… And I think we can often find, in narrative nonfiction, elements that are easier to hold and compare to novels. I’m wondering, I guess,
    If narrative nonfiction is to expository, as novels are to picture books, or poetry, or easy readers, in the context of award discussions. This was Melissa’s question too I think. Why aren’t we finding it, and what should we be introducing at the table to do so?

    • Nina,
      If you are a fan of expository nonfiction, you will love HUMAN BODY THEATER. While middle grade expository nonfiction titles are few and far between, two others that I highly recommend are BUGGED by Sarah Albee and A BLACK HOLE IS NOT A HOLE by Carolyn DeCristofano. It’s worth noting that all three of these titles take a humorous approach to their topic.

      Expository nonfiction picture books are far more common than expository nonfiction middle grade titles. One reason for this is that an expository writing style works best for survey books ( and for books that present scientific or mathematical concepts ( Thanks to talented book creators like Steve Jenkins and Robin Page, Nic Bishop, and Dianna Hutts Aston (to name just a few), publishers have found that these kinds of children’s books often sell well enough to make them worth publishing.

  7. Jonathan Hunt says:

    I’ll explore the perceived gender disparity a bit more by using our Top Five tally as a snapshot. It comes with a couple of caveats, however. First, our top five lists from November are a work in progress and could look drastically different from what we would post now. Second, most of us spent relatively little time thinking about our choices compared with a real committee member who invests hours thinking about nominations and ballots. And third, that lack of preparation often means that we default to our favorites, but as Nina mentioned reading widely and deeply in the field has a way of mitigating our preferences and biases. Thus, I think this is skewed more than you would see on an actual committee. Nevertheless . . .

    We had 27 people who voted: 19 women, 8 men (I’m assuming that Kelly and Jean are women; if they’re not then it skews things even more). We’re including memoir and comics here as nonfiction.

    100% of the men (8/8) included nonfiction in their top five; 50% of the men (4/8) included 2 nonfiction titles; 47% of the women (9/19) women included nonfiction in their top five; 11% of the women (2/19) included 2 nonfiction titles. When you can put 2 nonfiction titles in your top five, then it increases the odds that consensus can be built around one of them.

    The overall top five books from our tally were: THE WAR THAT SAVED MY LIFE (17), ECHO (12), GOODBYE STRANGER (10), MOST DANGEROUS (9), and PENDERWICKS (9).

    38% of the men (3/8) voted for THE WAR THAT SAVED MY LIFE; 74% of the women (14/19) did, too.

    50% of the men (4/4) voted for ECHO; 42% of the women (8/19) did, too.

    75% of the men (6/8) voted for GOODBYE STRANGER; 21% of the women (4/19) did, too.

    75% of the men (6/8) voted for MOST DANGEROUS; 16% of the women (3/19) did, too.

    38% of the men (3/8) voted for PENDERWICKS; 32% of the women did, too.

    If only the women from this sample voted THE WAR THAT SAVED MY LIFE (74%) would be the Medal book with ECHO (42%) as a definite Honor book; PENDERWICKS (32%) could have been an additional Honor book. While the men would have been split between MOST DANGEROUS (75%) and GOODBYE STRANGER (75%) with one winning the Medal, and the other as a definite Honor book; ECHO (50%) could have been a second Honor book.

    Female privilege seems like such an oxymoron, yet I ask you to look at these numbers–imperfect and anecdotal, at best–and answer whether such a thing does not, in fact, exist.

    • Nina Lindsay Nina Lindsay says:

      Jonathan, I don’t actually disagree with you about this, I just try actively to resist saying “women prefer fiction” bc I think it’s self-perpetuating, like “Math is hard.” Your sample is telling; I agree it’s almost certainly more skewed than the actual committee, but there’s room in there to unskew and still be out of balance.

      So, while we’re on the topic, do you think the subject and type of the nonfiction book has anything to do with it? The nf with buzz this year–MOST DANGEROUS, BOYS WHO CHALLENGED HITLER, SYMPHONY–are narrative historical nonfiction about men and war.

      • Jonathan Hunt Jonathan Hunt says:

        I think it’s a factor, but it’s not necessarily the only factor, or perhaps not even the most important factor, in why nonfiction doesn’t get recognized more often. I think the best remedy for the situation is simply talking about it and raising awareness, and since we’ve examined bias and privilege all year, I thought this would be fair game, too. Any committee that has more than one male on it already has them disproportionately represented relative to ALSC membership and stacking the committee with men isn’t necessarily a solid guarantee either. Some men simply won’t find nonfiction worthy of their ballot (Leonard, for example), others may like other books better (GOODBYE STRANGER, for example).

        I definitely think those titles that you mention from this year have an especial male appeal, but we’ve had books like ALMOST ASTRONAUTS and CHARLES AND EMMA in other years, too. I’d love to hear other thoughts on this, though . . .

        Also, worth thinking about is that all of Melissa Stewart’s recommendations are picture book nonfiction. Betsy Bird just posted her 100 Magnificent Books for Children and all of the nonfiction was picture books, but for RHYTHM RIDE. It begs the question: Is there a lack of quality nonfiction for children that is longer than 32-64 pages?

  8. I think it exists, I see it in my library population. Boys love to find engrossing nonfiction, whereas it is a “hard sell” with girls. To me it seems a real divide, not a case of gender expectation. For an example, I read and so enjoyed UNTAMED: THE WILD LIFE OF JANE GOODALL and booktalked it to a school aged group of boys and girls. Maybe it was my fault, but no one checked it out. The boys I asked weren’t interested in a “girl book” and the girls blatantly preferred fiction.
    I have always enjoyed biography and history titles and am glad I’m now adding more kids books to my recommendations list! Do any of you teachers see this divide in your classrooms?

  9. I took a look at SYMPHONY today while I was working at the bookshop. It hasn’t generated much interest on the YA non-fiction shelf, though in general we sell little from that section and perhaps store placement is to blame more than the books.
    I didn’t read the whole book but based on the overview and and first chapter that I did read, I’m going to recommend we move it to adult non-fiction. Not that it’s inappropriate for younger kids, I just think there are many adults and particularly seniors who would love this title. Plenty of history buffs and musicians in the neighborhood. Also adult non-fiction is a more prominent section of the store. (I work at a small indy bookshop. About a quarter of our floor space goes to children’s and there is almost nothing in the way of sideline merchandise.)

    Not sure if this is helpful to the conversation but I do think the cover art, the extensive end notes, and the richness of the language make this an outstanding book a book that would hold strong appeal for an adult reader.

  10. As a writer of longer-form, humorous, expository nonfiction, I wanted to chime in and agree with Pamela Turner’s hilarious but insightful comment about many gatekeepers’ views of the NF genre. I, too, have heard that sort of comment all too often. Or, relatedly (“I read your book and actually found it fascinating, and informative!”) Also to follow up with Melissa Stewart’s comments (thanks for the BUGGED endorsement, Melissa!). I do agree that humorous books often get passed over by awards committees, much as funny movies do with Hollywood awards. But I plan to keep writing them, because I try never to lose sight of who my target readers are–middle school kids who voluntarily pick up my books and actually read them. Kids like to laugh. It doesn’t mean our expository, humorous books are any less scrupulously researched.
    And for the record: I think Steve Sheinkin is a tremendous writer, and I love all the books on your list, Jonathan!

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