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Heavy Medal: A Mock Newbery Blog
Inside Heavy Medal

Where are the Nonfiction Newbery’s?

Of the sixty-six titles suggested here on HM so far this year, only seven are nonfiction. That includes two poetry books (UNDEFEATED and LION OF THE SKY), two picture book biographies (TWO BROTHERS, FOUR HANDS and THE MOST IMPORTANT THING ABOUT MARGARET WISE BROWN), two history books in verse (THIS PROMISE OF CHANGE and ROOTS OF RAP), and one memoir in verse (SHOUT). So where are the regular nonfiction books? You know, the history books for grades 4-8, the long, but not too long biographies? The descendants of Russell Freedman and Jim Murphy? I used to think of those as more “Newbery-type” nonfiction…but maybe that’s not even true any more. In the early 2000’s we had prose nonfiction history books winning Honors for three years in a row: AN AMERICAN PLAGUE (2004), THE VOICE THAT CHALLENGED A NATION (2005), and SURVIVING HITLER (2006). In the past thirteen years, however, only two books like that have been selected for Newbery Honors: CLAUDETTE COLVIN (2010) and BOMB (2013). And nothing in the past six years. I haven’t read any that quite match those titles so far in 2019, but I finally got my hands on a couple that I think should be in the conversation:

Among the “literary quality” components listed in the Newbery Criteria, “Presentation of information including accuracy, clarity, and organization” is the one that jumps out with informational books, and BORN TO FLY rates high in those areas. I especially like the “organization,” as the author weaves in personal stories, historical background, thought-provoking themes, and even a bit of a mystery. But this is a book where it helps to also look closely at some of the other literary qualities, even though they may be more often associated with fiction.

Delineation of characters: Readers get to know the pilots as distinct individuals. We also see the commonalities, starting with the opening sentence: “They were the kinds of kids who jumped off the roofs of buildings.” (1)

Delineation of a setting: There’s just enough relevant context about the time and place, including background about levels of technology, economic factors, and especially attitudes about gender.

Development of a plot: The author reveals events in a carefully constructed way, using moments like the discovery of the sabotage note (101) and the death of a pilot (“The search party found Marvel Crosson that morning.” (138)) for maximum impact.

I was surprised to find that the first part of the book, with the introduction of the pilots and the build-up to the race, more engaging than the actual Derby, though I’m not sure why. I’d want to pay more attention to that on a second read.

1919: THE YEAR THAT CHANGED AMERICA  by Martin W. Sandler

Here’s another history book where the organization has a strong impact on “excellence of presentation for a child audience.” Sandler describes each of the six events with clear and lively prose. He starts well before 1919, providing the right amount of relevant background. Descriptions of the actual 1919 events are followed by lucid discussions of their impact over time, often noting positive outcomes that emerge from tragic moments. For example, he points out that the riots of the Red Summer “were the first stirrings of what would develop into a movement that would change America forever.” (87) Most chapters finish with a “One Hundred Years Later” section that looks at how the issues are playing out in today’s world. That section doesn’t appear in the first chapter, though, which seems like a missed opportunity, and the jump from 1919 labor strikes to 2019 green energy (141-144) is less effective than the others.  

Overall, I feel like this book could reach the level of excellence in “interpretation of the theme or concept” as specified in the Criteria. That “overriding theme” is eloquently articulated in the final sentence:  “…the arc of history is long and varied and gives the trials and triumphs of our own time some added perspective.” (183) I’m sure there’s more Newbery-level nonfiction to be explored this year. I’m especially looking forward to reading Deborah Heiligman’s TORPEDOED, which just came out last week. If you’ve read that one, or the two above, or any noteworthy nonfiction, please share how you think they might fare in a Newbery discussion.

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. Julie Corsaro says:

    BORN TO FLY is one of my favorites of the year. I agree with Steven’s assessment of strengths in relationship to the Newbery criteria. However, I thought the book really took flight (pardon the pun) with the race. With possible sabotage, dangerous planes, distinctive personalities, and powerful nay-sayers, it was an exciting, even poignant ride. I think Sheinkin achieves this in large measure thanks to a punchy narrative style and use of lively, contemporaneous quotes that are a sign of the times. Contradicting myself, here’s a very early example (p. 3) about a youthful rooftop flight that speaks to the theme embedded in the title: ” The crate shot forward, much faster than expected. The track broke with a thunderous crack, catapulting car and rider into the air. Amelia soared across the yard, slammed into the grass, and tumbled to a stop./Alarmed adults ran out from nearby houses./Amelia leaped up, her dress torn, bleeding from her lip, eyes flaming with joy./ ‘Oh, Pidge,’ she shouted, “It’s just like flying!'” Yes, it’s that Amelia, but Sheinkin rightly digs up other exceptional women pilots from the cemetery of obscurity.

    • Steven Engelfried Steven Engelfried says:

      Yes, I really liked the way he captured Amelia Earhart’s place in all this. How her level of fame (high) and level of skill (not that high) affected the race in terms of publicity and public interest. Also that rivalries existed, but the sense of camaraderie and the awareness that they were breaking new ground for women rose to much greater importance.

      • Annisha Jeffries Annisha Jeffries says:

        I’m curious as to why Non-fiction books are lost but as you have pointed out, there are an abundance of titles that don’t get the recognition or readership. I feel that students equate non fiction reading as school assignments and not pleasure reading. Could I be wrong?

      • Steven Engelfried Steven Engelfried says:

        I think you’re right, Annisha, that nonfiction can be associated with school assignments. And although the Newbery Criteria clearly guide the Committee to consider nonfiction along with “all forms of writing,” it can be tempting to look hardest at the nonfiction that reads like fiction. BORN TO FLY certainly has those fiction-like elements, and I leaned on those in my argument above that the book might be Newbery-worthy. That’s not wrong, I think, but it could be more challenging to identify “distinguished” nonfiction when it does have less of a story and more focus on facts and concepts. That’s one reason I’m kind of excited about MUMMIES EXPOSED as well.

      • I know a lot of kids who love reading nonfiction, and certainly don’t perceive it as an assignment. I think a lot of gatekeepers (librarians, teachers, etc) tend to be fiction lovers and thus assume that all kids are fiction lovers too. Or perhaps it’s just that it’s easier, twenty years later, to remember the novels we read as kids that continued to be part of the cultural conversation, even if, at the time, we were much more excited to re-read the dog encyclopedia for the seventeenth time?

        I do outreach to my local elementary school, and when I first started doing booktalks I decided to include some nonfiction titles in each booktalk almost as an afterthought on the off-chance that there might be one or two kids in the class that might prefer them to the fiction. I was completely shocked to realize that the nonfiction books I bring are almost always the most popular books. It’s not just one or two kids, the entire class will fight over the high-interest nonfiction. This information has really informed my ability to assist parents searching for books for their children, especially beginning readers, since many parents don’t even think to try out some nonfiction.

        While most of those books aren’t at all in the running for the Newbery, I’d also make the case, as Jonathan says, that the Newbery criteria tend to lend themselves more towards narrative, and that we, as readers, can sometimes set an unconscious assumption towards narrative when we consider the award.

      • Steven Engelfried Steven Engelfried says:

        Good point, Alys, about booktalking high-interest nonfiction. I almost included CAUGHT: NABBING HISTORY’S MOST WANTED by Georgia Bragg in the post above. (Her HOW THEY CROAKED (2011) is a great booktalk title). CAUGHT has short, funny biographies about crooks and others from history. Very irreverent, but also informative. I haven’t had the chance to recommend it to kids yet, but I believe it will have high appeal, that they will read it, and learn from it. Does that equal “excellence of presentation for a child audience?”

  2. Leonard Kim says:

    I haven’t read either of these. It would seem obvious to compare Sheinkin’s book to Wein’s A THOUSAND SISTERS, which is also about female aviators, but in the Soviet Union during WWII. Has anyone read both? Wein is a great writer and brings obvious passion to her subject. I had also previously mentioned Davis’ MORE DEADLY THAN WAR. Does 1919 address the Spanish Flu pandemic of 1918, the subject of Davis’ book? I really admire Davis’ approach to writing history for children — his ability to select material that would be most interesting to the readership while creating a sense of narrative and thematic direction. I would rate Wein’s literary chops a little better though. Looking forward to reading TORPEDOED.

  3. Steven Engelfried Steven Engelfried says:

    1919 does not look at the Spanish Flu. The six main topics are the Great Molasses Flood, women’s voting rights, the riots of the Red Summer, the Red Scare, labor strikes, and the Prohibition. I still haven’t read the Wein, though…I will soon.

  4. Unfortunately, we (authors of MG/YA nonfiction) barely ever get any publicity. The ones who do are the same authors/books over and over (my agent & I kid that the way the same few NF authors are publicized over and over, you’d think they were the only NF authors for MG/YA in existence). It is frustrating to put in extensive research and then craft a book you are very proud of, only to feel like your work is ignored. I have been fortunate to have my debut THE ELECTRIC WAR gain praise by the people who have read it, but I do feel like we often go ignored. This is why I very much appreciate your article and the publicity for these NF titles, Steven. I hope more people do the same. I am a big fan of Sheinkin’s and have worked with him on an anthology.

    * If you haven’t read my book THE ELECTRIC WAR, I’d be happy to send a copy your way.

  5. Emily Mroczek (Bayci) says:

    Time to get really crazy here- but a nonfiction picture book that has really stuck with me is Nine Months by Miranda Paul (ill.) by Jason Chin. It does an excellent job describing what happens during the nine months a baby is born in ways that a child can understands and the back matter explains everything in more detail, but still not to complicated. I cannot think of any other books for young children that deeply explain what happens during the nine months before birth– just stuff like I’m going to be a big sibling.

  6. I love following the nonfiction discussions here! Wasn’t the picture book biography LET ‘ER BUCK by Vaunda Micheaux Nelson, illustrated by Gordon C. James, also among the books suggested?

    • And Undefeated is definitely a well loved nonfiction.

      • Julie Corsaro says:

        I’m wondering about the eligibility of Undefeated since the poem was previously performed on ESPN — something, perhaps, for the actual committee to discuss. It’s certainly a spectacular book, a teacher’s dream, with plenty of spaces for discussion.

    • Steven Engelfried Steven Engelfried says:

      Thanks for catching my oversight in leaving LET ‘ER BUCK off the list above, Carol. (I had a feeling I’d miss at least one).

  7. Steven Engelfried Steven Engelfried says:

    I just finished another nonfiction book that jumps up near the top of my 2019 list. MUMMIES EXPOSED by Kerry Logan Hollihan. She covers science and history in such an engaging, informative way. The book is part of the “Creepy and True” series, so I expected more sensationalizing and more focus on the gruesome details of dead bodies. But she uses a more curious, investigative approach, and though plenty of humor is woven in, she shows thoughtful respect for the dead and their times. She reveals facts with the child reader in mind, setting up suspense and surprises. She describes the details of the discovery of one ice mummy, for example, then jumps ten year ahead when new information is revealed and “Otzi became the oldest, coldest, homicide ever.” (45). Even the “Factlets” textboxes are used effectively. During one chapter she briefly notes that researches identified the month a mummy died by examining the food it ate (92). At chapter’s end, a full-page explanation describes how they do that: interesting and useful, but also purposely separated from the main text. Earlier on she states a theme that resonates throughout the book: “There’s always something new to learn about something old.” (25). This is a really strong nonfiction book: has anyone else read it?

    • Julie Corsaro says:

      I thought MUMMIES EXPOSED was terrific. Respectful as you note, as the author raises ethical questions around displaying human remains, but also lively and substantive. I really appreciated the scope as Hollihan takes readers across centuries and continents for a deep investigation of a perennially popular topic. In addition, the standard-size format with plenty of photographs provides just the right amount of grotesquery.

      • Steven Engelfried Steven Engelfried says:

        “just the right amount of grotesquery” is perfect. You can get way grosser with mummy photos if you want to, but the photographs chosen reflected the theme that these were living people, not just spectacles.

    • Leonard Kim says:

      I just finished this. Unfortunately the things I most like about this book: that it is up-to-date and the stunning photos are the things least relevant to the Newbery. I agree it is strong nonfiction for children, but I think it would be a hard sell for most distinguished. I think one thing that it does very well in a Newbery criterion (information) is present what was learned about each individual mummy chronologically, illustrating well how we are still able to learn new things from mummies that may have been discovered many years ago when there are advances in technology such as MRI and CT imaging, genetic analysis, etc.

  8. Leonard Kim says:

    Maybe no real shot for the Newbery, but Barton’s I’M TRYING TO LOVE MATH, should be recognized for something. We’ve looked at her books here in the past.

    • Steven Engelfried Steven Engelfried says:

      I agree Leonard. I gave my best shot with Bethany Barton’s GIVE BEES A CHANCE a couple years ago. MATH seems completely successful in the “presentation of information.” Besides being funny, it makes a really strong case about the value and appeal of math, using math itself to push the argument. As the alien points out, the narrator “[uses] math to explain how much [she doesn’t] like it.” Our discussion of how an author can be responsible for the textual meaning of illustrations with graphic novels could apply with a book like this. Like when the alien says “math is understood all over the world,” it’s supported by an illustration of earth with an equation in a world balloon with four pointers indicating different countries/continents. The image is a clever, effective reinforcement of the words, and the author clearly conceived it that way. She’s the illustrator too in this case, but it seems like it would have to be the same even with a different illustrator (Scieszka/Smith’s MATH CURSE (1995) might be a better example of how that would work).

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