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Heavy Medal: A Mock Newbery Blog
Inside Heavy Medal

Disastrous Journey, but the Book’s Sure Good

Bound by IceBOUND BY ICE  by Sandra Neil Wallace and Rich Wallace has a lot of qualities that I look for in narrative nonfiction.  It’s a highly absorbing survival story with lots of suspense.  The historical figures have distinct and engaging personalities.  And it’s a piece of history that most readers won’t know about already.  With a compelling true story, though, it can sometimes be tricky to identify how much of the reader’s experience comes from the events or from the author’s artistry.  And that’s what we have to focus on in a Newbery discussion.  In this case, I think the authors do a highly accomplished job of bringing this bit of history to life.     

The use of primary sources brings a strong sense of immediacy to the narrative.  And the Wallaces use the words of De Long and others skillfully to tell this complex story.  They typically let the characters’ own words describe the most emotional moments, while their narrative sets the scenes, paces the events, elevates key dramatic scenes, and provides just enough detail.  Here’s an example of the subtle interplay between Wallace’s words and the quoted portions (in blue), as some of the crew try to reach an island:

They immediately ran into trouble.  After travelling just five hundred yards, they reached an opening in the ice and had to ferry across the water in the dinghy.  But the dogs balked at the water, and several ran back to the ship.

     “The thermometers registered many degrees below freezing point; the boat was covered with ice, our clothes were wet, and our hands frost-bitten,” Melville wrote.   But there was no turning back.  Men who’d stayed behind on the Jeannette caught the dogs and returned them to Melville.  The dogs were dragged through the water and pulled across.  “It was cruel, I know, but there was no alternative,” Melville wrote.  Once the dogs had crossed and were hitched to the sled, “the poor shivering brutes were soon warming themselves in the hard work ahead of them.”

     The men were working hard too….(86-87)

The quoted passages from Melville provide the most drama:  “frost-bitten” hands…”cruel…but no alternative…shivering brutes.”  The Wallaces’ words, meanwhile, efficiently set the scene of the dogs turning back, then being forced back to the sled.  Then they smoothly shift into the next topic, the toil of the men, after which they (and Melville) wrap up the episode succinctly: 

Melville estimated that they’d covered four miles “and made no appreciable gain on the island (87).

 This is just one sample of the seamless weaving of narration and quotation that continues throughout.  The vocabulary and style of Melville and DeLong are different from that of the Wallaces, but the back and forth is never jarring; the Wallaces’ words often seem to heighten the impact of the quoted passages.

They also do an exceptional job of establishing and maintaining a high level of action and suspense.  Yes, the historical events themselves make a pretty grand adventure, but the authors provide a deft balance of historical context, logistical details, and character revelation.  They make it easy for the reader to keep track of things and follow large and small narrative threads.  

For example, we learn a bit about navigator John Danenhower in the listing of the “all-star crew” (32), including the fact he had a secret disease.  Later we learn about his eye problem from an journal entry from De Long, who says Danenhower is “cheerful enough” (56).  Danenhower eventually becomes suspicious (109), then angry when Melville is given command of a boat instead of him:  

Danenhower argued with De Long about the slight.  But De Long angrily insisted that he would not risk the safety of the other crewmen by giving Danenhower command of the whaleboat (115).   

These aren’t major incidents, but they’re easy to follow and we remember enough about Danenhower to notice them.  All that careful backstory matters when that whaleboat runs into trouble and Melville passes the command to Danenhower:

…Melville eyed Danenhower, who’d been an outcast for so long. The navigator was an expert in facing storms.  “How can we get into a safe position?” Melville yelled.

  “If we jibe twice,” Danenhower replied, meaning to turn the boat by shifting the sail from side to side.  Danenhower could barely see, but he could still read the waves.

  “Take charge!”  Melville called (122)

It’s a powerful moment, set up perfectly by the attention to detail and the choice of facts the authors share along the way.  Danenhower isn’t a central figure, but they make sure we learn the most important things about him, exactly when we need to know them.  

I only just finished it, but I’m impressed enough by BOUND BY ICE to strongly consider it for the last round of Nominations, and would do so ahead of several other strong nonfiction titles, including UNDEFEATED, POISON, ALICE PAUL, EYES OF THE WORLD, and ISAAC THE ALCHEMIST.   


Steven Engelfried About Steven Engelfried

Steven Engelfried is the Library Services Manager at the Wilsonville Public Library in Oregon. He served on the 2010 Newbery committee, chaired the 2013 Newbery Committee, and also served on the 2002 Caldecott committee. You can reach him at


  1. Leonard Kim says:

    Just finished this. The book is chronological except there is that few pages of introduction that starts in media res – describing the event that starts chapter 14. I feel the book should have just started there, because, boy, does this book get going then. Insomuch that this is a survival story, survival isn’t really an issue until that point. Everything before – the setup for the journey, life on the steamer, etc. Well, I think the entire first half of the book would feel slow to any reader without predisposed interest to such things, whereas the tale of endurance and survival that follows is more broadly riveting. Putting this in Newbery terms, I think that “interpretation of theme and concept” and “appropriateness of style” falls a little short for me because the first half comes across stylistically like a book about, say, Darwin and the Voyage of the Beagle, which may or may not be of interest and is arguably a bit irrelevant to the “actual” theme: the reason for telling this story is the survival story. Of course some setup is needed, character introduction, etc. but half a book is a lot — I read a 100 pages wondering what y’all were seeing in this, though of course the latter half made it clear.

  2. Steven Engelfried Steven Engelfried says:

    For me, that opening scene was compelling, and it spurred my interest in the details that led up to it. While it’s true that nobody’s life is in danger for some time, the content of the first hundred pages does impact their eventual chances and shows how and why they got to that desperate point. Leonard’s comment that “half a book is a lot” is a good one, though. If the lead-up had been accomplished with fewer words, would it have made the second have less engaging?

    It’s so very nicely researched, but I do think you can argue that the authors may have included too much. I remember hearing Steve Sheinkin describe a marvelous scene about Oppenheimer that he had wanted to include in BOMB, but making the hard decision to leave it out because it would have affected the balance and pace of the story he was telling (he put it much better…this is just how I remember it).

    Other nonfiction books from this year have also used that dramatic opening scene structure to good effect. THE 57 BUS might be the most powerful: a matter-of-fact description of passengers on the bus that leads to the horrifying crime. That scene sticks with the reader through every page of the backstory.

    VINCENT AND THEO drops readers into two separate volatile scenes in the brothers’ later lives, then goes back to their early years and forward. Those scenes are not as shocking as THE 57 BUS, but they have a similar effect: we keep them in mind as we get to know the brothers more and more.

    I thought UNDEFEATED’s opening was also strong. It’s Jim Thorpe’s first day at football practice. We get a bit of his personality, a bit of Pop Warner’s, and it gives us a good frame of reference as we learn more about both men along with the history of football and the Carlisle School.

    EYES OF THE WORLD uses a different approach. The opening scene, of Bob Capra at Normandy, is exciting, but it takes place well after the events of the book. I was a bit disappointed that there wasn’t a closer tie between the introduction and the heart of the book, but that might be just because I’m so used to that approach in children’s nonfiction.

    In THE WHYDAH, the pirate ships approach the ship in chapter one, but it’s not really presented as a key climactic moment in the way that the openings of 57 BUS or BOUND BY ICE use. That seems like the right choice to me, since the book is not really about the pirate capture, or even the sinking of the ship, but the broader, more drawn out story of the sunken ship’s history, including the search, discovery, and excavation.

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