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Heavy Medal: A Mock Newbery Blog
Inside Heavy Medal

Biography Roundup

“Biographies are but the clothes and buttons of the man. The biography of the man himself cannot be written.” Mark Twain

“When you write biographies, whether it’s about Ben Franklin or Einstein, you discover something amazing: They are human.” Walter Isaacson

“I seldom read anything that is not of a factual nature because I want to invest my time wisely in the things that will improve my life. Don’t misunderstand; there is nothing wrong with reading purely for the joy of it. Novels have their place, but biographies of famous men and women contain information that can change lives.” Zig Ziglar

This is not just an exceptionally strong year for biographies, but there’s quite a range of styles to consider what makes for excellent presentation to a child audience.  Many of these were published in the late summer or early fall so I’m not sure how many readers each book will have yet. It’s likely we’ll pull a couple later in the season for a more intensive discussion.

9781580895842SAMURAI RISING by Pamela Turner . . . Have you read it yet?  If there were 15 boy readers on the Newbery committee, I think this one would win hands down, and it wouldn’t even be close.  At this point in the year, this is the only book that has a guaranteed spot on my ballot.  Turner has really outdone herself here, taking what little we know about this great samurai, and giving color and shape to his life and times.  I’m sure we’ll have a chorus of voices trying to argue that it’s too old for the Newbery, and Leonard Kim called it morally repugnant on a previous thread.  Do we have our first cat fight of the season on our hands with this one?9781596437630_p0_v1_s192x300

PRESENTING BUFFALO BILL by Candace Fleming . . . Oh, William Cody!  What are we going to do with you?  You did some good stuff regarding American Indians and you did some bad stuff regarding American Indians, and you embellished everything you ever did whether it included American Indians or not.  This is quicksand territory for a biographer, but Fleming acquits herself well, particularly in “Panning for the Truth” sidebars which challenge Cody’s narrative and explore these issues through a more modern sensibility.

9780062411082_p0_v1_s118x184THE PLOT TO KILL HITLER by Patricia McCormick . . . This book is comprised of very short chapters which do a fabulous job of propelling readers through the formative childhood years of the subject but do not fully capture the suspense and intrigue of the plotting in the latter half of the book.  While that second half feels like more telling and less showing than adult readers would like, I think there are child readers who will appreciate the brisk pacing throughout.  I’d love to put this book in the hands of child readers to see if they can convince me that my concerns are not necessarily grounded in their abilities, understandings, and appreciations.9780544319592_p0_v3_s192x300

SOME WRITER! by Melissa Sweet . . .  With two Sibert Medals to her credit for picture book biographies, Sweet looks to challenge for the Newbery attention with this extended biography of beloved children’s author E.B. White.  The visual presentation here is fabulous, and since Sweet’s artwork incorporates words into her text, the committee could be able to discuss that more positively than they otherwise might.  Perhaps my biggest–and only–question about this title is whether I’m enamored with the subject rather than the writing itself.  Hmmm.

I’ve still got FLORENCE NIGHTINGALE by Catherine Reef, SACHIKO by Caren Stelson, and BLOOD BROTHER by Rich Wallace and Sandra Neil Wallace in my pile of books to read, and of course, we’ve said nothing of the several fine picture book biographies that have been published this year.  Do you see any of these as serious contenders?

 

 

 

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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. I loved Samurai Rising. Probably my favorite this year. The writing was detailed, humorous and vibrant. The endnotes are also very helpful for more scholarly reading. But even without the backmatter, I thought the story was rich and just had so much to offer.

  2. Leonard Kim says:

    To save time, here is my Goodreads review:
    https://www.goodreads.com/review/show/1614354768

    It does come down to one’s interpretation of “excellence of presentation for a child audience.”

    What are ways to make a reprehensible person “interesting”?

    Through celebrity (“superstar”).
    Through a made-up narrative (“Heroes always seem to need sidekicks to help with their quests”)
    Through “oh-no-he-didn’t” kick-ass shock appeal (too-numerous-to-count)
    Through lowering the bar (Yoshitsune torches commoner’s house and considers them to have
    “no more ‘rights’ than an ox” but is somehow “unusually civilized in his dealings with common people”).

    I concede these could be effective ways to make someone more interesting and sympathetic, even exciting. So it depends on what one means by “excellent presentation.” In my Goodreads review I called this “Zack Snyder history.” I could be completely political and say this is Donald Trump history.

    To me, this is an inappropriate and therefore not excellent way to present history to a child audience (and I hope it’s clear I’m not necessarily put out by the violent content – this is not an age argument). But as I admitted before, I think mine is essentially a moral argument, so am not positive whether this is a good anti-Newbery argument.

    This book takes place within 60-65 years of THE INQUISITIONER’S TALE, and on Goodreads, I called that book “a tonic” to SAMURAI RISING. The authorial problems facing Gidwitz are really quite similar to those facing Turner. But Gidwitz shows it is possible to take what was really an awful time, full of awful violence and awful attitudes, and make something of it: an excellent, and yes exciting, presentation for a child audience that doesn’t resort to a “celebrity double-standard” approach to keep it interesting.

  3. Leonard Kim: odd that, since putting homes to the torch specifically helped to earn your negative review, it was Lee and not Sherman you were moved to liken to the protagonist.

    • Leonard Kim says:

      I concede the point. Though I would suggest there have always been those who revile Sherman and specifically for such actions. I think I chose Lee as someone who has been favored by history (and who I concede was more admirable than Yoshitsune) mostly for being good at war.

  4. Jonathan, I wonder why you’d say, “If there were 15 boy readers on the Newbery committee, I think this one would win hands down, and it wouldn’t even be close.” It seems to me that this comment is both sexist and highly presumptuous. I’d like to think we can talk about a book’s merits without relying on stereotypes like boys loving violence. (Besides, I think a committee of 15 kids would almost certainly give the award to Jeff Kinney or Rick Riordan. Duh.)

    I happen to agree with Leonard that SAMURAI RISING is not Newbery worthy. But, to be honest, I couldn’t bring myself to finish the book. I have no stomach for the glorification of violence. Particularly when it’s nonfiction. Particularly when it’s written for children. Betsy Bird’s review asks “Is Minamoto a hero?” and I think that’s the crux of it.

    • Jonathan Hunt Jonathan Hunt says:

      Guilty on both counts, Destinee: very sexist and highly presumptuous. To be fair, however, I did pose this question last year in much nicer terms, but never got a response. Is there a gendered component to reading response? There isn’t research on adult reading preferences, but the popular wisdom dictates that women prefer fiction and men prefer nonfiction. If there is any truth to this sentiment, then does it bode well for nonfiction when there are only ever 2-3 men on the Newbery committee (and even then men are disproportionately represented in terms of ALSC membership)? No, it does not bode well at all. Just like having 13-14 white people on the committee probably yields a greater probability of books by, for, and about white people. Now I’m not trying to equate genre bias with racial and ethnic bias, but neither do I think it’s as innocent as saying that you prefer vanilla ice cream to chocolate ice cream or the color red to the color yellow.

      And yet. And yet, having been on various committees over the years, and while I think this is certainly *a* factor, I balk at calling it *the* factor. For one thing, there’s still the matter of building consensus around a title. Even if you stack the committee with 15 people who like nonfiction, there’s no guarantee they will agree on the same book, especially in years with lots of possibilities. For another thing, I think that we all have blind spots in our reading, and that every committee member takes their charge seriously enough to approach all books with an open mind and wrestle with these type of issues. And yet another thing, I know women who love nonfiction and men who only read fiction; it’s a stereotype or generalization, at best. Plus, the committee member who, try as she might, can’t quite see eye to eye with me on nonfiction might be a champion of poetry or picture books or books featuring racially and ethnically diverse characters or any other number of worthy books that are just as deserving in their own way. It’s complicated.

      And yet. And yet, we’ve had a run of great nonfiction books the past five or six years: CLAUDETTE COLVIN and MOONBIRD and THE BOYS WHO CHALLENGED HITLER by Phillip Hoose. THE REAL BENEDICT ARNOLD and BOMB and THE PORT CHICAGO and MOST DANGEROUS by Steve Sheinkin. AMELIA LOST and THE FAMILY ROMANOV by Candace Fleming. Books by Jim Murphy and Russell Freedman and Susan Campbell Bartoletti and Elizabeth Partridge and Marc Aronson. To say nothing of the picture books that regularly beat out these longer works of nonfiction for the Sibert Medal. And none of them have been good enough to win the Medal. No nonfiction book has won since 1988. For 28 years, no nonfiction book has been the most distinguished. It’s easy to explain away a year or two, but how to you explain a 28 year drought? If there’s not some systemic bias in place, then what gives? (I could, of course, make the same argument for any genre; was LAST STOP ON MARKET STOP really the only picture book worthy of the honor in the past several decades? I don’t think so.)

      I’ve found over the years with kids that their Newbery tastes include a mix of legit titles and popular ones. My very first mock Newbery with 5th grade students picked SILENT TO THE BONE as the Medal book with BECAUSE OF WINN-DIXIE and JOEY PIGZA LOSES CONTROL as Honor books; but they also chose THE WHITE FOX CHRONICLES by Gary Paulsen. In the last one I did with elementary students both THE LAST HERO and that year’s WIMPY KID were in the mix. The former made the cut as an honor book; the latter did not. I’ve found when I teach students the criteria that they can recognize literary merit even if they also gravitate to the popular titles.

      I’ll address SAMURAI RISING tomorrow. It’s late, and I’m putting the kid to bed now . . .

  5. Jonathan Hunt Jonathan Hunt says:

    I’d like to make a distinction in regards to some of the arguments being made against SAMURAI RISING. I want to make a distinction between a political objection and a moral objection to this book. If you think that Minamoto is a deplorable human being and thus the very existence of a biography about him is unsuitable for children, then that’s a political objection. For example, THE LIFE AND DEATH OF ADOLF HITLER won the Sibert Medal many years ago. Hitler was, by all accounts, a deplorable human being. There will be some people who wouldn’t have wanted such a book to win the Newbery Medal, regardless of how well it was written, but I think we can all agree that this doesn’t pass muster. Moreover, since students are often required to learn about these people in schools, it seems like a silly argument to make. The material in this book is part of the seventh grade curriculum.

    Thus, the real argument to be made is how this person and these events are presented to a child audience. That is where the moral argument comes in. I think the Newbery criteria clearly allow for these types of arguments, and I think most of what you are objecting to fall in this category, Leonard and Destinee, but I question whether they aren’t also vestiges of the former as well. What makes Minamoto a “reprehensible” person and not, say, FDR, who dropped a couple of atomic bombs on Japan, interred numerous Japanese Americans, and cheated on his wife with several extramarital affairs. Why isn’t he reprehensible? What about the string of four American presidents who sent American soldiers to die in what they knew was a hopeless cause. We read about them last year in MOST DANGEROUS and this year in VIETNAM. The atrocities committed by the Japanese in medieval Japan have nothing on those their American counterparts committed in Vietnam several hundred years later. Really and truly. No, none of these presidents wielded their samurai swords and led soldiers into battle, but they all empowered the military leaders who did, and they are not blameless.

    So I start with the premise not that Minamoto is a reprehensible human being, but rather that he is a complex one who is a product of his times and culture. The more human qualities of Minamoto have been lost to time, and what we are left with his largely myth, legend, and accounts of military history and strategy.

    The book is violent. There is no question about that, but I’m not sure that I’d say it glorifies violence, although I understand those who do. I don’t feel that Turner ever condones or celebrates the violence, but she understands that there is a fascination with it, and leverages that fascination to draw readers in. That’s a fine line, but it’s one I believe she has negotiated quite well, although I know people will wholeheartedly disagree. I need to reread the book soonish, and hope to have a post devoted exclusively to this title, but in the meantime, let the discussion continue here . . .

    • Leonard Kim says:

      Hi Jonathan,

      I think if a new biography of FDR came out tomorrow and painted him only as a hero who whipped the Huns and left out the agonizing weighing of the destruction of two cities and civilian lives vs ending the war early and the internment camps and all of that, I think we would question it. We might call it, as I called SAMURAI RISING, “regressive.” And I think one of the things we like about books like MOST DANGEROUS is that it questions and probes the behavior of men in power.

      I don’t think SAMURAI RISING does any of that. Probably like most of us, I didn’t know anything about Yoshitsune prior to reading SAMURAI RISING. My judgment that he is reprehensible comes completely from the information in Turner’s book. And my problem with Turner’s book is precisely the presentation strategy chosen for the information in the book. Going back to an analogy with media coverage of politics — it’s seems to me a “capture the audience at any cost” strategy. I completely agree with you that Turner “leverages that fascination [with violence] to draw readers in” and so it seems we simply have an honest disagreement, because this is *exactly* what I have a problem with, with respect to excellence of presentation. And while I could agree she may not celebrate violence, I think she very much falls into the trap of seeming to celebrate Yoshitsune, and to me at least, that’s not much different. You mention Hitler — I agree a biography of Hitler is not inherently disqualified. But what if there were a biography of Hitler that used the kind of language and presentation strategy used by Turner?

      • Jonathan Hunt Jonathan Hunt says:

        But Leonard a new biography of FDR *did* come out last year. Albert Marrin portrayed a very complex person, but he didn’t portray him as a monster. And who but a monster would drop those bombs and inter those people?

        I’m clearly the target audience for this book. I just swallowed it hook, line, and sinker, so I’m going to have to return to it with a very critical eye, keeping in mind the objections that you and Destinee have raised. Expect an extended discussion of this book at a later date.

        In the meantime, has anyone read the other books yet–SOME WRITER! (five starred reviews), PRESENTING BUFFALO BILL (three stars), and THE PLOT TO KILL HITLER (two stars). I realize these are all early fall books, but thought that we’d have some comments on them.

      • Eric Carpenter says:

        It seems like you are saying that children shouldn’t be offered a celebratory depiction of a person of violence. To my mind, if the book in questions hits all the criteria out of the park (as Samurai Rising does) then we can’t say it isn’t excellence in its presentation for a child audience just because we don’t agree with what is being presented to a child.
        Let’s all remember that the award is not for didactic content. Can we read this in more than one direction? Can this mean that the implicit message of a book is not relevant to its award worthiness? Can’t any discussion of the book’s moral or political content be nullified as being part of its didactic content and therefore not relevant to the discussion? Just as kids learning to be kind by reading Wonder shouldn’t factor into the discussion of that title, kids learning to celebrate someone that some may find repugnant shouldn’t be a factor in the discussion of this title.

        The real committee can’t use non-2016 examples but please allow me this aside:
        Where the Wild Things Are is without question one of the most distinguished picture books ever created, but when it was first published many had problems with its presentation for a child audience. They believed reading the book could harm a child and thought it didn’t teach the right kind of lesson. Luckily the newbery/caldecott committee in 1964 judged the book in front of them and not the message it could potentially impart on its readers.

      • Leonard Kim says:

        Hi Eric,

        Suppose we think of this on 3 levels –

        1) what’s the subject of the book?
        2) what’s the author’s strategy for presenting the subject?
        3) how well did the author execute that strategy?

        I think we all agree that 1) is not relevant to the Newbery discussion, as exemplified by Jonathan’s example of The Life and Death of Adolf Hitler.

        And I think we all agree that 3) is relevant to the Newbery discussion.

        I think where we don’t see eye-to-eye is whether 2) belongs in the Newbery discussion. I get the sense that you don’t, and I admit my objections to SAMURAI RISING mostly centers on 2). I would justify this by pointing to Newbery Critiera 1a: “appropriateness of style” and possibly “interpretation of the theme or concept” and 2: “excellence of presentation for a child audience.” I also admit that judging 2) may well depend on one’s feelings about 1) — a book about Hitler is not off-the-table, but given the subject, certain authorial decisions about how to present the subject arguably could be dinged (but I’m not certain about this.)

        I know practically nothing on the subject, so take the following with a big grain of salt. The subject of the book is primarily Minamoto Yoshitsune. I don’t have a good sense of what the sources are like outside of epics and chronicles like “Tale of the Heike” and the 15th-century “Yoshitsune,” but I think it’s fair to say that any book about him would rely heavily on such sources. And I think it’s also fair to say that strict historical accuracy and modern historical “tone” cannot be assumed from such sources. Given that, looking at 2) above, what strategies could an author take? One plausible strategy would have been essentially a “retelling” of these epics for the child audience, just as most books about Jesus or King Arthur are essentially retellings of stories that originated in historical “biographies”. But this is not the approach Turner chooses. Her book is presented as “actual” modern biography and yet often takes the tone of what I call “celebrity biography” (which may well be more in the spirit of the historical accounts.) It would be like a book purporting to be a factual biography of Charlemagne but actually drawing from and taking the flavor of “The Song of Roland.” I think this is what doesn’t work for me. If this is supposed to be a historiographically modern biography, then the “appropriateness of style,” its gleeful tone and word choices, does seem off to me given what is being portrayed. What if the Siege of Leningrad were portrayed in a similar tone in something like Symphony for the City of the Dead? So maybe, I would have far far less of a problem with this book if it were presented just as a retelling of parts of “Tale of the Heike” and “Yoshitsune.” Turner’s attempt to have it both ways: conflating epic retelling and scrupulous modern biography doesn’t work for me. Again, I think Adam Gidwitz is an interesting comparison. I think his stated impulse in A Tale Dark and Grimm to make fairy tales “awesome” is a similar motivation to Turner’s in terms of reaching the reader. In his author’s note, Gidwitz shows that many of the events in THE INQUISITOR’S TALE are drawn from actual historical accounts, but Gidwitz chose to treat them as stories to retell, not as historical source material for non-fictional treatment. And in taking that approach, I think an over-the-top epic narrative style is more appropriate. Gidwitz did not choose to write a non-fiction history in which he vividly describes scores of knights drowning in quicksand and suggest the reader should find this awesome and entertaining. I think that’s essentially what Turner does.

      • Jonathan Hunt Jonathan Hunt says:

        Leonard, while I like your opening statement I’m not sure that I agree with the latter half. I’m reading some books for deadlines now, and won’t be able to reread this one until early November. Let’s continue the conversation then . . .

  6. I can’t really speak to the concerns that have been brought up by Leonard, whose opinions on this blog I enormously respect and whom I think writes with careful attention to detail. All I really know is that I loved this book. And maybe that’s insensitive, but the gorehound in me was delighted, the biography lover in me was delighted, the historian in me was delighted, etc.

    I read it in one sitting, gasping and oohing and ahhing over the audacity of it all. And to peel back such a little known history was just plain fun for me. I had never heard of Minamoto before this book.

    My students are loving this one as well – even the students who don’t normally gravitate toward nonfiction/biographies. I have a feeling it’s going to do very well in our Mock Newbery… far better than Most Dangerous did last year. (Though I love the latter as much, if not a skosh more.)

  7. SOME WRITER is awesome! :) (How’s that for not-measured, not using the criteria talk?) But what I love most about it is the way text and art works together. So I’m thinking it’s a better candidate for the Sibert and the Boston Globe-Horn Book Award where they can consider both together.
    Though it’s fun to fantasize about it sweeping Newbery, Caldecott, and Sibert — I’m not sure the text even carries enough weight in the presentation for it to have a good chance at the Newbery.

  8. I have a couple of students in my Newbery Club, one fourth grader and one fifth grader, who loved SAMURAI RISING. That surprised me – I thought it would be too difficult for them! So perhaps that speaks to whether it is too “old” for the 0-14 age criteria. I don’t think it is. We just added SOME WRITER! to our reading list and I’m really curious to get feedback from the kids. I adored it, and I don’t think it was entirely the subject matter for me, I think it was the presentation of the primary sources and the text. Every page is so deliberate and beautifully crafted, and I enjoyed how the primary sources weren’t analyzed by Sweet, they were just presented to allow the reader to draw her own conclusions. For example, she never made the connection between the letter his dad wrote him on his 12th birthday and the phrases in that letter that later appeared in the web in CHARLOTTE’S WEB. Being able to make those connections on my own was exciting – but I wonder if children will make those connections, or if they will have the same fascination I did with White’s life decisions. It’s the type of book that has already made teacher’s in my building swoon. (That poem he wrote to his wife…) I wonder if this is as much of a winner for children as it is for adults.

  9. Leonard Kim says:

    By the way, I agree with Betsy Bird that we need to find a way to honor ARE YOU AN ECHO? And I think the only way to do that is to consider it as a picture book biography, with the poems treated as quoted source material (something that was singled out for praise, for example, in The Family Romanov).

  10. I have a quibble about something brought up in this discussion. FDR didn’t order the atomic bombs dropped on the Hiroshima and Nagasaki. That was Truman because FDR had already passed away.

    • Jonathan Hunt Jonathan Hunt says:

      Thanks for catching this! Of course, that doesn’t absolve FDR since he developed the bomb with the understanding that it could be used. And now we can add Truman to our list of monsters . . .

      • No absolution for FDR, for sure. I didn’t want to take away from the good discussion, but the history major in me couldn’t let go. Thanks for your graciousness.

  11. I love Some Writer! and can’t wait to share it with my teachers and students. The Book Trailer is fabulous, too.

  12. Leonard Kim says:

    Finally was able to get SOME WRITER! from the library. It is very good, but in some ways reading it strengthened for me the conviction that ARE YOU AN ECHO? is eligible and award-worthy. Conceptually the books are rather similar, no? Both are picture book biographies of writers. Both are striking in how they interleave the (Newbery-ineligible) writings of their subject into the text. Of course ARE YOU AN ECHO? is smaller-scale, but in a way its text is more “like White” than Sweet’s: nothing is extra, everything has impact.

    • Jonathan Hunt Jonathan Hunt says:

      Okay, I’ve put a hold on this book. Betsy expressed doubt about its eligibility in any of the ALSC categories. Looking forward to it.

  13. Sir. Baxweln W. Henford says:

    In Samurai Rising one of the weak points was character development. I know making a non-fiction novel about a Samurai that lived hundreds of years ago is not easy, but it still disqualified for character development. Otherwise else, I think that this book has a strong plot development and remarkably re-tells the tale of Minamato Yoshitsune

  14. Ayden Morgan Bush says:

    I really enjoy reading the book SAMURAI RISING because it stays with the plot and doesn’t stray very far from the main story and makes me feel connected to the characters. I definitely recommend SAMURAI RISING to older, more advanced students who really enjoy history and intense violence.

  15. While it’s really much too late to comment on this book, I did want to mention that I found Samurai Rising’s straightforward narrative structure very similar in format to medieval Scandinavian sagas (I was a medieval studies major in college) in its just-the-facts-ma’am approach to telling the story. As someone notes above, there is little character development; action is all that counts – and that’s the primary feature of saga recitations.
    Kids interested in military history (there are plenty) will like this book; it has circulated in our library.

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