Well, perhaps less of a round up than an offering of two books — two books that I don’t think will go the distance in PrintzLand (although of course only time will tell). We’re looking at the Freedman book on Lincoln and Douglass and the Aronson book on J. Edgar Hoover. My problems with each are…interestingly contradictory, I’m afraid. (And in my struggle to work through all of this, I find myself wishing I could just link to all the amazing, inappropriate, unhelpful but hilarious videos I can find. Forgive me, you guys. And thanks, Spielberg, for releasing a movie at the perfect moment for this blog post. How timely that Lincoln is so zeitgeisty.)
And at the risk of destroying all blogging creditability up front, I will also admit that nonfiction is not at all my area of reviewing expertise. I was a history major in college, but that was a long time ago, and I don’t feel entirely comfortable looking at nonfiction from a literary perspective. Of course in PrintzLand we start and end with Printz policies and procedures. But in an effort to feel a little more prepared to write this blog post, I also took a look at YALSA’s Excellence in Nonfiction Award policies. “The title must include excellent writing, research, presentation and readability for young adults.” OK, check. Do you feel ready?
I’ve got four stars for this book (PW, Booklist, SLJ, and Kirkus). My biggest problem with this book is that it seemed to settle on simple answers and it sometimes lacks a sophisticated sense of history; overall, it seems really young. I have trouble seeing this as a book for teens — the publisher recommends it for 9 to 12 year olds, while some reviews peg it for grades 4 and up/ages 9 and up. I definitely found it on the younger end of that spectrum; Freedman spends some time talking about Lincoln’s timid abolitionist leanings, for example. Were these a result of political expediency? A thoughtful approach to law vs justice? Something else? This book never asks those questions; I’d expect a teen book to delve into these issues. While it would be impossible to say with certainty, with more of a focus on primary sources it would be possible to formulate a thesis and give supporting evidence. I wanted more speculation from Freedman, and he just didn’t make space for educated guesses in this book.
I also — and maybe this is just me — had some issues with the parallels Freedman draws between Lincoln’s life and Douglass’s life. Yes, there are entire books on the similarities the two men lived (destitute circumstances, nearly complete lack of formal education, rising from practically nothing to become central figures in national discourse). But were they that similar? Is it really comparable: desperately poor hardscrabble beginnings vs being considered property? Really? It’s just so superficial. I wanted more exploration of and thoughtfulness about that argument, if it has to be there. (It also makes me think about Hollywood’s approach to history, especially civil rights/black history: it almost always seems to come from a white perspective because that’s “history.” And an all-black cast, an all-black story couldn’t really be seen as American. Check out The Help. Or The Long Walk Home. Or, or, or.)
On the other hand, Aronson’s Master of Deceit falls far more comfortably into the Printz Award’s age range; his approach to history is more sophisticated and allows for more questions and debates to occur throughout the text. In fact, Aronson’s not afraid to speculate and in this instance I think he actually goes too far (I can never, never be happy, clearly). Sarah Flowers and Mark Flowers, over at Crossreferencing, did a fabulous job of fleshing these problems out — they gave examples of the questions Aronson raised about Hoover’s sexuality and his ancestry and pointed out that that those are two very “sneaky” questions. (They also had a marvelous discussion about the different approaches a historian might take when writing a history book for teens and — oh, just go read their smart posts now. It’s worth your time; I’ll wait.)
I felt a tremendous amount of personal discomfort with those two particular moments in the text, but my critique goes beyond my own feelings. Those were moments of real teachability, moments that could have been a fantastic opportunity to launch a thoughtful, thought-provoking discussion about the unknowable parts of history — the parts I always thought of as “history gossip.” But gossip and known, recorded history just aren’t the same things; a history book has to respect the difference. I agree that wondering and speculating are two important parts of studying history, but there are more responsible ways of asking and answering those questions, while leaving plenty of room for discussion and debate.
Those are two big (and beautifully discussed) examples of Aronson choosing “drama” at the expense of careful story telling. There are others, sprinkled throughout the book, and that’s why I don’t rate this read higher on my Printz-o-meter. Take the subtitle: J. Edgar Hoover and America in the Age of Lies. Were we more truthful before the Palmer raids? Are we more truthful now? I mean, obviously Aronson doesn’t actually believe so; later parts of this book masterfully make the case against that idea. But why imply that’s the case? Aronson is passionate and a good story teller. But storytelling and passion do not necessarily equal great history, and so I’d have trouble fighting for it at the table.
A lot of my criticisms are feeling highly personal and all about me, me, MEEEE, or at least about my ideas about history, so I want to turn this over to you all for discussion in the comments. But before I stop (I will; I promise!), I have another thing I wonder that’s only tangentially related. Why does teen fiction have to look like a text book? Why the bigger size? The glossy paper? Can’t it look more like adult nonfiction? Why not?