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Heavy Medal: A Mock Newbery Blog
Inside Heavy Medal

Historical Wars Get Personal

bootsonthegroundWhen we did our first round of Heavy Medal Nominations a few weeks ago, we had a total of 96 nominations…and 4 of those were nonfiction titles.  Two went to THE GIRL WHO DREW BUTTERFLIES, which was featured in an earlier post.  One each went to the two titles featured today.

BOOTS ON THE GROUND by Elizabeth Partridge is on the older edge of the Newbery range, but certainly accessible and engaging to middle school readers. Partridge provides a clear overview of the Vietnam war: how it develop and the many ways it impacts the U. S. and Vietnam over time. But it’s the way she ties the war to individual people that really distinguishes the book. She mixes in historical figures like LBJ and Nixon with fascinating first person accounts from interviews she conducted, presenting strongly personal accounts from varied perspectives. It’s a stellar example of “excellence of presentation for a child audience” as cited in the Newbery Terms and Criteria. That deft mix of personal stories and historical details brings a young reader into the history in a deeper and more memorable way than most books of its kind. Those stories are distinct and purposeful: they’re all interesting on their own, but they also work as a whole, combing to convey a rich and diverse view of historical events.

This is one of those cases where the requirement that the Committee “consider only the books eligible for the award” is frustrating. In this case, there happens to be a very high quality book about the same topic from just a couple years ago (VIETNAM: A HISTORY OF THE WAR by Russell Freedman). As a Committee member, I might revisit this book in order to confirm my sense that the Partridge book is even better, and the comparison might help me articulate the unique strengths of the newer title…but I would not be able to make any direct comparisons in a nomination or in discussion.

faithful spyJohn Hendrix’s FAITHFUL SPY also balances a personal story with big events in strokes of history. He relates the life story of Dietrich Bonhoeffer alongside the rise and fall of Hitler. We learn what Dietrich does, then what Hitler does and how it affects Dietrich. The heart of the book is what Dietrich feels about the huge events surrounding him. Some of his thoughts center around the question of assassinating Hitler:

He had no clear idea what he would do when he returned to his homeland. But as the New York skyline disappeared into the gray waves behind him, his thoughts began to linger on a single question: Would god forgive the murderer of a tyrant? (86)

In Hendrix’s note on Research and Authenticity, he writes that unless noted: “when Dietrich or the other characters speak, the content should be seen as speculative.” (171). These “narrative extrapolations” are very effective. They create powerful emotional images, giving tangible representation of Dietrich’s struggles. Examples include his thoughts at passing the Statue of Liberty (“Am I afraid to live as she does?” (83)), and his feelings when he reunites with a co-conspirator in prison (“It was both so good and so tragic to see him in this place” (157)). At the same time, the numerous actual quotes within the book are clearly identified.

Like BOOTS ON THE GROUND, this is distinguished nonfiction that captures the societal and personal aspects of history in ways that will resonate with middle school readers. But I find it much harder to evaluate FAITHFUL SPY in terms of “the text of the book” as the Criteria instruct because the illustrations are so important.  For example, this description of Hitler’s rise is excellent:

Hitler was a cunning manipulator of this uncertainty. He lay crouched in the brush, waiting for just the right moment to pounce on his wounded prey. (39)

But the illustration of the marching army, with the wolf shadow extending to the side, adds significantly to that description. Later images of Hitler as a wolf provide an even more dramatic impact (60, 96, 162), as does the contrasting use of red and green, the page layouts, and other visual content. The illustrations contribute so much to the experience of reading the book that it’s challenging to figure this one out in Newbery terms. It definitely ranks among my most distinguished books of the year, though, and I would strongly consider nominating it. It will be interesting to see if these or any other nonfiction titles are put forward when we open up November nominations next week on Heavy Medal.

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. Eric Carpenter says:

    It’s been a great year from team nonfiction. I’d also add Attucks!: Oscar Robertson and the Basketball Team That Awakened a City by Phillip Hoose to the list of outstanding informational books that will likely be discussed around the newbery table in Seattle.
    I couldn’t nominate it in the first round because it hadn’t pub’d yet but I would have if I i’d been able.
    It’s everything we love about Hoose’s journalistic/interview based nonfiction. Plus basketball!

  2. steven engelfried says:

    Yes, I’m looking forward to the Hoose book too. I’m also halfway through BONNIE AND CLYDE by Karen Blumenthal, and it’s excellent so far. Like BOOTS ON THE GROUND, it’s a middle school and up kind of book. Both seem like great candidates for the Sibert and the YALSA Nonfiction Award, but of course that fact is irrelevant to a Newbery discussion.

  3. I thought BOOTS ON THE GROUND was a masterful piece of work. Bringing such a range of voices, the accessible narration, and images. My starred Horn Book review here: I did wonder though about the New York Times’ reviewer’s criticisms such as the omission or the Mai Lai massacre. I don’t feel at all that Partridge didn’t feel her readers weren’t able to handle harsh stuff as the reviewer surmised. Indeed, her respect for them is palpable. But I do have to admit I hadn’t noticed the massacre omission and that surprised me. (

    I was so excited to read FAITHFUL SPY, but sadly have to say the design was a serious problem for me. The font choice and small size, in particular, made me need to take frequent breaks. This may be an old person’s problem, I don’t know. It looks great, is wonderfully researched and presented, but…this was a struggle for me.

  4. Leonard Kim says:

    I really liked BOOTS ON THE GROUND. I think I Suggested it this summer, and I would hand this book to a middle schooler over Freedman’s book or Sheinkin’s Most Dangerous. (I wonder whether that kind of statement is permissible at the table…)

    That being said, I agree wtih Steven that it’s the first person accounts that make this distinct. I don’t know that the chapters on LBJ, Nixon, et al. rise above treatments in other books. Along those lines, I thought the choice of somewhat generic visuals didn’t help this book (though I’m not sure I’d go so far as to say they made the book less effective.) I felt, if available, more “personal” visuals, connected with the first person accounts, would have been more consistent and effective.

    I thought that “plot” was effective in some of accounts intersecting in the end. It reminded me a little bit of Echo, which won an Honor, in that respect, though I thought it was more effective here.

    Monica, I read FAITHFUL SPY on my iPhone, and as someone with old person’s eyes, it was tough. On Goodreads, I wrote, “In the afterword, Hendrix writes both about making a work of art not scholarship and about the necessity of leaving stuff out. I actually thought he could have gone further in those respects.” I think that falls under “presentation of information” and “plot” and how I thought they could be better integrated into something that aspires to art. I don’t have the book on me, so can’t provide an instance, but in general I felt there were too many examples of things that were only there to present information and didn’t further the book’s artistic or literary cause.

  5. Sorry to be so late to respond to these books. Deadlines are devouring my time this fall. I very much wanted to comment on both though.
    BOOTS ON THE GROUND: To start I should say I’m not at all an objective reader here. My husband is a veteran of Desert Storm, both his NCOs and COs were Vietnam veterans. We have not seen their like since in the civilian sector for dedication, courage, and selflessness–not even close.
    I thought that taking the multiple points of view on the war was a strong choice. Its a large conflict and experiences during varied widely. I was glad to see Mai Lai left out of this text not because it isn’t important but because it would have required the author to find a Mai Lai survivor and persuade him to talk. I have concerns there on ethical grounds. Also it ignores what I consider a central feature of children’s non-fiction–most non-fiction is the first book a child will encounter on a particular topic. It is almost never the last. Why should you try to cover every element of the topic? That only serves to extinguish curiosity. What you need is what I think this book does well–a collection of well organized facts that inspires a reader to look further.

    As for A FAITHFUL SPY, I did see places where larger type would have been better but I doubt that would be an impediment to a 12-14 year old reader. I liked the format which borrows much from graphic novels but doesn’t go in the direction of sequential panels, which would greatly limit the text. That’s a strong choice, picking up the appeal of comics without sacrificing depth and nuanced language. But here’s where I think it really excels as literature for young readers. It asks the question how do you resist evil without doing evil? That is as current and vital a question as any, and I think it will resonate. I’ve read plenty about Bonhoeffer before this and still there were new things to learn. I was particularly pleased to see his influences from the Abyssinian Baptist Church in Harlem brought to the fore. The book is sure to be a conversation sparker and a book that encourages readers to lean in and learn more.

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