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Heavy Medal: A Mock Newbery Blog
Inside Heavy Medal

Riveting True Stories About Sunken Ships, Bomber Planes, and Poisoned Food

I was a little anxious in early fall because I hadn’t read a lot of excellent nonfiction books…I think I’m officially over that. I could easily see a nonfiction title winning the Medal this year, and perhaps a second book getting an Honor. Here are three standouts that I read recently:

TORPEDOED: THE TRUE STORY OF THE WORLD WAR II SINKING OF THE CHILDREN’S SHIP by Deborah Heiligman.

TORPEDOED may be the standout book of the year for me so far. She takes a true story that’s already compelling and creates a rich, complex narrative that’s equal parts suspenseful, thought-provoking, and emotionally involving. There’s a wide cast of characters and she tells us just the right amount about each one. Though it’s a book about disaster and death, it’s full of specific, personal touches that humanize the people and the situations. Often the author plants a seed of information early, then follows up on it much later. Early on we read about the how much the kids appreciated the limitless ice cream (40); a hundred pages later as the ship is sinking, the Beck kids

What a waste of ice cream, Derek said to Sonia.

What a waste, she agreed. All that ice cream. They had lived for that ice cream, and now all those flavors, gone. Lost. (136-7)

The tragedy is never sensationalized, but there are many moments of high drama. One example is when  Marjorie Day watches children die:

And Gussie Grimmond. Strong, quirky, strong-willed Gussie. Gone.

Everyone in that lifeboat, gone. Just like that (105)

The two quoted passages above also highlight the distinctive style that works so well in this book. Heiligman’s choice to paraphrase thoughts and words based on source documents works perfectly. It provides flow and continuity that we don’t always find in quote-heavy histories. You can see it in the two examples just mentioned, how the rhythm and cadence of the sentences are similar. Somehow you get a distinct author’s voice throughout the book, but also hear the individual people.

The structure and organization is also highly accomplished: background information, parallel plot threads, selected foreshadowing, and expertly paced unveiling of events all work very well. We know disaster is coming, but the specifics are often surprising and heartbreaking. I knew something bad was going to happen to them, but I still can’t believe all of the Grimmond kids died so soon!

THE POISON EATERS: FIGHTING DISEASE AND FRAUD IN OUR FOOD AND DRUGS by Gail Jarrow.

Here’s  another excellent fall nonfiction release. A terrific opening chapter describes all of the horrible things that might have been unknowingly included in a typical 1890 dinner, including borax, formaldehyde, and arsenic (9-11). Then the author traces the long fight to regulate food preparation in the US. The narrative builds around the life and work of Harvey Wiley. It’s a fascinating story, with insights into the ways governments and businesses can impact daily lives. Jarrow’s writing is crisp and clear, and the chronological structure works effectively. This is high quality nonfiction, but I don’t feel it reaches the level of distinction we see in TORPEDOED.

A THOUSAND SISTERS: THE HEROIC AIRWOMEN OF THE SOVIET UNION IN WORLD WAR II by Elizabeth Wein. 

This book was released last January, but I admit I delayed reading it because it looked so long. My bad. This is terrific nonfiction storytelling, with pace, style, and clarity that make it accessible to readers at the higher end of the 0-14 Newbery age range. Wein takes us right into the wartime world of the Soviet Union, introducing a wide cast of amazing female pilots. Like Heiligman, Wein deftly weaves in personal stories with the larger issues of sexism, war, and death that loom over their lives. Along with the bombs and crashes, for example, readers learn how to make a wind-free, puddle free shelter under a plane’s wing (272) and why underwear mattered (155). Without overdoing it, she occasionally and deliberately steps out of the immediate historic events to address readers, providing perspective on matters like the “mix of fear and patriotism” that may have inspired the young women (47). This seems just right in terms of “quality presentation for children.”

Though it can be challenging to keep the wide cast of pilots straight, Wein helps by highlighting specific details for many of them. When Galya Dzhunkovskaya appears, for example,  we learn she’s a singer (199). Eight chapters later she reappears and that singing is briefly mentioned again to touch our memories (265). All of the individual stories are told well, and together they build a full and fascinating picture of  a unique group of women.

The book isn’t actually even that long, since the last 80 pages are notes and back matter. As Leonard mentioned in an earlier comment, this is a natural one to compare to Sheinkin’s BORN TO FLY. I think both are worthy Newbery contenders…but TORPEDOED now just might be my frontrunner for the Medal.

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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 sengelfried@yahoo.com.

Comments

  1. Mary Lou White says:

    Any thoughts about the National Book Award Winner 1919? I just started it and am wondering if anyone thinks it might grab the Newbery as well.

    • Steven Engelfried Steven Engelfried says:

      1919 was very strong, both in the individual chapters and the broader picture it paints of the US at that point in time. I wrote about a couple moments that I thought didn’t work as well in an earlier post: “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.” I’m curious if others had concerns like these with this otherwise excellent book?

      • I really appreciate 1919 with how comprehensive it is in its view of the time. Throwing light on pockets of history both taught and not. I’ve decided not to get it for my elementary school. I feel it broadness of topic won’t draw my age groups in.

      • Cherylynn says:

        My concern was the way the modern stories were chosen. The #MeToo Movement could have been part of the Suffragette modern story or the section about green energy which had to do with worker conditions. With some of the other choices made I was looking for this movement to be part of the story and it was never mentioned.

  2. Carol Edwards says:

    I think Infinite Hope falls in this category as well.

    • Steven Engelfried Steven Engelfried says:

      Agree with INFINITE HOPE being a really strong contender. With INFINITE HOPE, A THOUSAND SISTERS, and TORPEDOED, we’ve got three truly stellar World War II books this year, all of which tell fresh stories in distinct ways.

  3. Did you see that FREE LUNCH made the YALSA non-fiction list along with TORPEDOED and THOUSAND SISTERS? I purchased but not read FREE LUNCH because of an earlier mention by Roxanne. I don’t think it has been discussed here yet. I plan on reading my copy soon, but I do have a student who feels very strongly about it.

    BTW, I’m almost finished with TORPEDOED and I can’ think of a better written book this year. However, it is so brutal, I’m having a hard time with it.

  4. Julie Corsaro says:

    TORPEDOED just got one of my nominations. I read it last summer and think it has legs. Perhaps to DaNae’s point, I agree that is is intense at the same time that it is written for a younger age range than is usual for Heligman ( I understand this would NOT be something that the real committee could discuss). Given that readers know that the ship will be torpedoed from the get-go, I think Heligman did an excellent job of building suspense and throwing in some red herrings (it’s the young woman in the skimpy dress on deck that outlives her more comfortably dressed compatriots, for instance). If I have one complaint about this stylishly written and intricately researched book, it’s keeping track of all the people on board. For this reason, I especially liked the last section with its tighter focus about the last lifeboat to come in.

    • Steven Engelfried Steven Engelfried says:

      Keeping track of people is something I struggled with in a few books this year, including TORPEDOED, BORN TO FLY, and A THOUSAND SISTERS. On a reread (which I haven’t done with any of those three), it’s something I’d try to pay close attention to. Looking for ways the author helped us remember who the character is without interrupting the flow of the narrative. I don’t have TORPEDOED in front of me, but the red jacket that helped us keep track of one boy (Colin?) is a good example. In all of these books, but maybe in TORPEDOED more than others, I felt like I got to know individuals more as the story continued. It felt mostly okay to not have all the names straight during the activity leading up to the torpedo, but after that we needed to connect more solidly with their individual stories.

  5. Popped on to see how things were going, and am happy to see nonfiction being discussed. As a member of the 2020 YALSA Excellence in Nonfiction committee, I can say that there is plenty of exemplary nonfiction that year that I think has extraordinary Newbery potential.

    If you’ve not seen, our committee published our five finalists last week, two of which are represented in this post. Yay, Steven!

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