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Heavy Medal: A Mock Newbery Blog
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Spring Nonfiction Newbery Contenders

Last year was another really strong year for nonfiction.  SUGAR CHANGED THE WORLD, THEY CALLED THEMSELVES THE KKK, and THE WAR TO END ALL WARS were particularly strong, but they were all published for ages 12 and up, and it’s hard enough to build consensus around a nonfiction title, let alone one that may also be perceived by many committee members as “too old.”  I found THE NOTORIOUS BENEDICT ARNOLD to be just as good, but pitched to a slightly younger audience (ages 10 and up), so I thought this one might have better Newbery chances, but no.  And then, of course, the Sibert recognized some excellent books for an even younger audience (ages 8 and up): KAKAPO RESCUE, LAFAYETTE AND THE AMERICAN REVOLUTION, and BALLET FOR MARTHA.  This year promises to be another banner year for the genre because the spring season alone yielded three excellent contenders for Newbery recognition.

Candace Fleming’s last book, THE GREAT AND ONLY BARNUM, was shortlisted for the YALSA Award for Excellence in Nonfiction, and before that THE LINCOLNS won the Boston Globe-Horn Book Award for Nonfiction and was shortlisted for the Los Angeles Times Book Prize.  Much to my horror and chagrin it was completely shunned by the ALA Youth Media Awards, namely the Newbery, Printz, and Sibert.  Now Fleming’s back in the thick of the award talk with another book that is among the very best of the year–perhaps the best.  I’m still trying to sort out what I make of the fiction, and I still need to read Marc Aronson’s TRAPPED, but if I had to vote today AMELIA LOST would easily be in my top three, and quite possibly my first place vote.  There are many distinguished qualities of the book, but one of the most impressive to me is how Fleming is able to take the search and rescue efforts and sprinkle them throughout the book like magic fairy dust, creating a palpable sense of tension and suspense.

Karen Blumenthal won a Sibert Honor for her first book for young readers, SIX DAYS IN OCTOBER: THE STOCK MARKET CRASH OF 1928, but it’s her next one, LET ME PLAY: THE STORY OF TITLE IX–THE LAW THAT CHANGED THE FUTURE OF GIRLS IN AMERICA, that absolutely blew my mind.  Now she’s back with BOOTLEG: MURDER, MOONSHINE, AND THE LAWLESS YEARS OF PROHIBITION.  Blumenthal excels at taking complex social movements and breaking them down for young readers with a cohesive mix of cultural, political, and economic analysis.  To be sure, this one’s a bit of an intellectual workout for young readers, but the historical anecdotes and biographical vignettes make it extremely engaging and readable nevertheless.

You may remember that a couple years ago we discussed YEARS OF DUST by Albert Marrin, a book that many of us found problematic because of its well-intentioned, yet off-the-mark portrayal of American Indians.  Now Marrin offers up FLESH & BLOOD SO CHEAP for our examination.  It opens with a compelling teaser about the horror of the Triangle Fire–it remained the single greatest New York City disaster until the terrorist attacks of 9/11–and ends with a modern day analysis of the current practice of sweatshops in developing countries.  My only concern with this one is that, especially in comparison with AMELIA LOST, I wish Marrin had managed to bottle up the magic in the prelude and sprinkle it over the rest of the narrative.

Sondy reminded me in the comments below about QUEEN OF THE FALLS by Chris Van Allsburg which not only slipped my mind, but slipped under my radar.  I’ve been meaning to check it out of the library, but I’ve never managed to remember.  Most of the reviews heap the lion’s share of the praise on the illustrations, but there are hints of a solid text.  Booklist: “Van Allsburg’s telling of the rest of the tale—Taylor’s failure to parlay her adventure into cash—is especially affecting, and readers will embrace her resolve.”  Horn Book: “This illustrated biography climaxes beautifully with a double-page spread of the great falls, a tiny barrel bobbing in the current, and a powerful one-line text: ‘Oh, Lord,’ she whispered, and then she was gone.”  What do you think?  Worthy of Newbery consideration?

If you haven’t read these spring titles yet, please get busy reading.  If you have read them, please offer up your comments on them, and prepare yourselves for the fall crop of nonfiction contenders, particularly the aforementioned TRAPPED, DRAWING FROM MEMORY by Allen Say, HEART AND SOUL by Kadir Nelson, and BLIZZARD OF GLASS by Sally Walker.

Jonathan Hunt About Jonathan Hunt

Jonathan Hunt is the Coordinator of Library Media Services at the San Diego County Office of Education. He served on the 2006 Newbery committee, and has also judged the Caldecott Medal, the Printz Award, the Boston Globe-Horn Book Awards, and the Los Angeles Times Book Prize. You can reach him at


  1. I’m with you on AMELIA LOST for the same reason — that lovely ratcheting up of the tension with the ongoing sections on the search and rescue is superbly done on top of a fascinating and lively scrapbook-style biography. Excellent.

    I’ve also now read BOOTLEG and BLIZZARD OF GLASS and found them well done too if not quite as exciting reads as the Fleming. However, that isn’t a criteria for Newbery! I’ve also taken a look at TRAPPED, but have to sit down and read it properly. I received HEART AND SOUL this weekend and it is absolutely gorgeous.

    One of the issues for me when it comes to nonfiction, especially history and biography (and historical fiction too, for that matter) is that we can be swayed by our own lack of knowledge about the topic and/or by the sentiment that it is so important for kids to know about. And so when we don’t know the subject well (be it fiction or nonfiction) and we think it is an important topic we have to trust that the author got it right. How authors put things together, what they put in and leave out, authenticity — all complicated issues. These days I keep thinking about all of this as I read such books and really appreciate all the more the notes and back matter they provide even as I remember last year’s Chaplin book which had plenty too and at least one source was very flawed, but I only knew that because I’d been researching Chaplin too. No way would I have otherwise. That experience makes me wary indeed.

    No answers, just mulling things over.

  2. I really enjoyed AMELIA LOST, although not for the same reasons. I found the search and rescue stuff interesting, especially when it came to light that the reason for the struggle could be pinpointed to radio troubles, the same thing we found during the biography portion, Amelia refused training on . . .

    . . . but what I found most fascinating about the book was how unlikeable I think Amelia truly was. She was brass and arrogant and wanted the spotlight on her at all times. She preached equality for women but wasn’t about to let another woman steal her stage. I loved reading about details like her putting on makeup after crashes and buying a pilot jacket and sleeping in it for days to make it look worn. That was all very fascinating to me.

  3. Amelia Lost is my top pick this year. LOVED LOVED LOVED, for all the reasons mentioned (and Mr H, don’t forget how hard she worked on that “carefree” cropped haircut, and how she weighed down her plane with promotional materials she hoped to sell!) I thought Fleming did an amazing job building suspense, but also in painting Amelia as a nuanced character. I didn’t find her entirely unlikeable — I saw her as a fascinating mix of adventurous, funny, hyper-competitive, avaricious, calculating, self-sufficient…

    Re the Marrin book, I’m a little bit of a Triangle Fire freak (related by marriage to one of the key players, do a participatory art project about the fire every year, make my editors sigh when I say I want to write JUST ONE MORE PIECE about it). I think I’m VERY well-informed on the topic, which means I’m the opposite of easily swayed — I’m eager to be hyper-critical! And I thought Marrin did an absolutely tremendous job.

  4. What about Allen Say’s DRAWING FROM MEMORY. I found it awe inspiring, but it is clearly a book that uses a lot of visuals. Does the text stand on its own? This is my favorite nonfiction of the year and I believe the Sibert committee will give it a long look but can the newbery committee do the same?

  5. It was funny to me reading AMELIA LOST right after QUEEN OF THE FALLS. Both women were after publicity, and Amelia managed it well (being young and pretty) – much better than the heroin of QOTF did. The book was really well-written. I too, thought the way the search was woven through the book worked very well. It still didn’t grab me as much as a work of fiction, but that’s not Newbery criteria….

  6. Jonathan Hunt says

    Yikes! I knew I was forgetting some picture book nonfiction! Since QUEEN OF THE FALLS is a spring title, I’m going to edit the post above to reflect that. Since DRAWING FROM MEMORY is a fall title, I’ll address it a bit later. I remember admiring Say’s text for KAMISHIBAI MAN during my Newbery year, and I look forward to rereading this one with an eye toward the Newbery criteria.

  7. That’s interesting, Marjorie–I don’t know the Triangle fire as well as you do, but I consider I know it pretty well, and I didn’t think the Marrin book was good. Part of my frustration with it was that I felt he spent very little time on the fire–the events leading up to it, the fire itself, or the direct aftermath. If his theme was meant to be about the Triangle fire, I didn’t find his development of it distinguished. If it was about labor relations in the US in the early 20th century, sure. But THAT book wouldn’t sell any copies. I found the writing itself dry and non-compelling. And I thought it strange that the book ended with what seemed to me like defensiveness about our own silent support of Asian and Latin American sweatshops that operate under very similar conditions to the sweatshops of the Triangle era. That, too, took away from the “development of theme” for me.

    Amelia Lost–it was difficult to avoid comparing this with Fleming’s other books, and also with Almost Astronauts (which I disliked). This book is one where you really see how an author can develop theme and plot in a work of nonfiction; characterization, too. But for all that, I didn’t think it was quite stellar enough to rise above some of the other books of the year. I note that several of the praises above are really about interesting anecdotes and don’t necessarily have anything to do with the writing.

    I think Monica’s points above are so important. Especially, if we know a subject well we can get hung up on what the author didn’t include; what we feel indignant about, or like the author isn’t telling the whole story. It’s hard to step back and think “wait, maybe this doesn’t matter at all”.

    Trapped! is waiting for me at the library. I loved that story, and remember thinking while I was watching the miners being pulled up that eventually this book would happen, and I wished I had the connections and experience to be the one who would write it.

  8. Jonathan Hunt says

    Wendy, the subtitle of the Marrin book is “The Triangle Fire and Its Legacy” so I do think labor relations are fair game, and I didn’t feel he was defensive about third world sweatshops as much he was showing a conundrum: damned if you do, damned if you don’t. I do think he spent lots of time setting everything up with immigration and the development of the garment industry, and as I said, I wish he would have leavened that section with some of Fleming’s magic fairy dust.

    Now with the Fleming, I hear what you are saying about the anecdotes. They don’t necessarily contribute to Fleming’s sentence level prose style (although I think there is plenty of that), but her editing and selection of various sources does inform her writing (just as what any fiction writer chooses what to include or discard informs *their* writing). The anecdotes do a particularly good job of developing and revealing character, and I think the Earhart that emerges from these pages is a vastly different creature–a more complex nuanced one–than we have heretofore seen in a juvenile biography of Amelia Earhart.

  9. I suppose that’s just a difference of opinion, and Marrin’s politics aren’t exactly relevant to the topic at hand–unless we want to consider my feeling that they take away from the apparent theme of the book. You see, “damned if you do, damned if you don’t”–which I think is a generous way of describing what Marrin has to say, but I don’t have the book here to quote from–is exactly what I would call “defensiveness” about modern-day sweatshops.

  10. Jonathan Hunt says

    You sound as if you think Marrin is endorsing modern day sweatshops, but I don’t think he is, nor do I think he’s revealing his politics. Why don’t you look at the book again and get back to us?

  11. I’m not convinced that’s the best use of our time, but I was able to pull a few things off the Amazon search function. They’re out of context, and Marrin does balance them with statements about Bangladeshi sweatshops being bad. But look at pages 159-161, where Marrin’s point seems to me to be that sweatshops are bad but better than the present alternatives, and quotes someone as saying “The simplest way to help the poorest Asians would be to buy more from sweatshops, not less”. That is (to me, from my personal lens etc) a simplistic and reactionary way of looking at the issue. When I first read it, my immediate thought was “Who would have been the ones saying this about our Triangle ladies?”. Answer: the fat cats who kept their working conditions bad.

    Marrin’s last sentence is “That is the lasting lesson of the Triangle Fire.” (referring to “eternal vigilance truly is the price of liberty and safety”.) Yet he has just spent the preceding pages showing us that nothing has changed except the nationalities of the women involved. So how is there a “lasting lesson”?. Does this conclusion make sense?

  12. Jonathan Hunt says

    I don’t think Marrin’s analysis was simplistic. Here’s what I took from it. We think we’re being moral by refusing to support sweatshop labor–and we are–but the unintended consequence of that is some kid has to go do even more dangerous work for less money. We (meaning Americans, not us specifically) created the sweat shop problem there in the first place, and now we feel guilty about it, and want to boycott, which creates a vacuum with nothing to fill the void. The flow of money from the developed country to the developing country has stopped, and a country with scarce natural resources, now cannot even take advantage of its cheap manual labor. The history of industrialized countries are littered with exploitation, colonialism, imperialism, slavery, multinational corporations, the whole thing. I’m not saying it’s right, but it’s sure not simplistic.

  13. Wendy, my point was more that when we do know a subject well we can see the holes and errors in a way others cannot. The challenge though is to communicate that to others in a way that doesn’t seem overly picky. Very very difficult to do, I’ve found.

    As for AMELIA LOST I do admire the writing enormously; the way Fleming structured the book is, to my mind, masterful. Gets my vote on all of these:

    Interpretation of the theme or concept (wonderful development of Amelia as a shrewd self-promoter from the getgo)
    Presentation of information including accuracy, clarity, and organization (superb structure as I have already noted)
    Development of a plot (this is where I think the drama of the search and rescue is particularly effective)
    Delineation of characters (Amelia as a very complicated and not always likable hero along)
    Delineation of a setting (The promotional stuff in particular as it helps show the development of celebrity culture as kids know it today)
    Appropriateness of style. (Again, the search/rescue sections mixed with the scrapbook bio sections)

  14. Just building on what you were saying, Monica, about how our own knowledge/lack thereof about a subject affects our response to it.

    Jonathan, I’m not going to argue sweatshop politics here.

  15. (And on a second read through the comments above, I see there are more comments about the writing in Amelia Lost than it seemed at first–please don’t be insulted, commenters!–but I do think that’s another one of the challenges with evaluating nonfiction for its literary qualities–separating high interest in the subject matter from the quality of the writing. At least, for me it is. Thanks for your excellent analysis above, Monica.)

  16. Jonathan Hunt says

    I’m not an expert on Amelia Earhart, but I have read recent juvenile books about her: AMELIA EARHART: THE LEGEND OF THE LOST AVIATOR by Shelly Tanaka (which won the Orbis Pictus), AMELIA AND ELEANOR GO FOR A RIDE by Pam Munoz Ryan, and AMELIA EARHART: THIS BROAD OCEAN by Sarah Stewart Taylor, et al. I also saw the biopic with Hilary Swank. And I think Fleming’s portrayal is more nuanced than any of them.

  17. Mark Flowers says

    Jonathan and Wendy: I think you are both right about what Marrin is saying in the last chapter, because the chapter is so confused as to be practically incoherent. In different places he seems to be arguing that 1) sweatshops are a necessary evil, 2) sweatshops aren’t so bad, 3) those Asians don’t deserve American standards (seriously: “a sweatshop, bad as it might be by American standards, is less bad than a garbage dump”), 4) that what we are seeing in East Asian is a process that will be gradually improving in ways similar to what we saw in New York.

    So, Jonathan is right that Marrin isn’t JUST being defensive, but in the process he seems to make no point and every point at the same time. I don’t think we have to argue about sweatshop politics (although, for the record, I agree with Wendy and think Marrin’s arguments are weak), to say that the writing itself in this chapter is poor, and doesn’t follow from the preceeding chapters.

    Plus, there’s just some really bad, cliched writing:

    “Sure as day follows night, time brings change”
    “Life is such that we cannot always choose between the good and the bad. Sometimes we must choose between the awful, the bad, and the less bad”

  18. I think I mentioned this last year when AMELIA LOST came up. I heard Candace Fleming speak at a conference as she was just beginning to work on the Earhart book. She confessed she was having a hard time liking her subject. While I read the book, I could see some cynicism in her portrayal, but I also believe that Fleming came to feel some affection and respect for her subject as well.

  19. Eric Rohmann says

    (In the interest of full disclosure I must reveal that I live in the same house as Candace Fleming– and that she would kill me if she knew I was writing this. So, you are informed and I am probably in trouble)

    It is the tangled complexity of the Earhart legend and her actual/factual life that makes her story so compelling. As in all her biographies, Candy has tried to show people as they were. She respects her reader and she knows that they deserve see Earhart (or Barnum or the Lincoln’s) as people not that different then themselves, who through work and wisdom and history did remarkable things. We see that Amelia (or Barnum or the Lincoln’s) was even more extraordinary because she did not rise from the forehead of Zeus but found her way like everyone does. It is in the complexity of character that we arrive at the real Amelia. In these days of people rising to fame for no reason except they are famous, it’s hard not to be a bit soured as you read of Earhart’s endless self promotion, her careless flying, and her cynical image making, but in the end the significance of Candy’s telling is that she shows her subject from all sides and allows the reader find their way to Amelia.

  20. Elle Librarian says

    Since there are already plenty who are championing Amelia Lost, I want to put in a small plug for Queen of the Falls. The imagery in this book simply captures the reader and draws him/her in. I love the first few sentences for this reason: “Imagine being as small as a flea, standing on a sidewalk next to an open fire hydrant. This is how visitors to Niagara feel. The water drops from a height that is as tall as a seventeen-story building, roaring like a locamotive and sending up an endless cloud of mist as it crashes onto the rocks and water below.”

    The illustrations are an amazing compliment to the story, but the text is not dependent on them for strength or beauty. I love that Van Allsburg explores a woman and adventure not widely known. The author’s note, photograph of the real Annie Edison Taylor, and bibliography at add credibility to the story, should the reader, like many in Ms. Edison’s time, doubt that a little old lady was capable of a plunge down the Niagara Falls.

  21. Elle Librarian says


  22. Elle Librarian says

    I was majorly impressed with the thoroughness of Fleming’s Amelia Lost. The bibliography was extensive. The many direct quotes, photographs, etc. also added authenticity to the text. I was a little surprised, however, that Fleming didn’t explore the theory that Amelia could have lived on one of the remote islands after the plane crash. A few years ago, scientists had uncovered early 20th century makeup and other artifacts on one of the islands Amelia could have landed on, believing it was possible Amelia could have lived there for awhile after having an emergency landing. It felt implied to me that Amelia couldn’t have lived for more than a couple of weeks after the crash if the crash itself didn’t kill her. I wanted the mystery to live on and, like George, wanted to believe that Amelia’s adventuring spirit sustained her somewhere, somehow after she vanished.

  23. I read TRAPPED today. I liked it, but don’t think it’s a Newbery contender. It’s difficult for me to separate out my own interest in the subject matter, my own hopes for what this book was going to be, the fact that Aronson has some stylistic quirks that I don’t happen to care for, and the actual quality of the writing–since the last is the only relevant point.

    I wanted a book about the human story, primarily about the miners themselves; I’d take a good dose of rescuers and families, too. But the subtitle is “How the World Rescued 33 Miners from 2,000 Feet Below the Chilean Desert”, and that’s what we get. There’s tons of technical stuff about mining and the rescue. It might not be fair, but I feel like if the style and the development of the plot and the characters were strong enough, all of that would totally have held my attention. I’ve read many technical works of nonfiction with great interest. None of TRAPPED is bad, certainly–it’s pretty good. (Except for a very unfortunate typo where a miner writes to his son “you are not the man of the house” instead of “you are now the man of the house”.) But it doesn’t have the outstanding qualities that would make me call it Newbery material. I think the setting is well-done, but most of the characters lack development, and the plot felt sort of scattered and jumbled. (The Chile story mixed with other mines mixed with an odd amount of Greek mythology.) Most disappointing of all, perhaps, was the ending. I assumed we were building up to a climax–as in pretty much every good story–but for no reason I can fathom (I’m sure there is one) Aronson chose to play down the day of rescue completely. Not only is that the high point of the story (except perhaps for the when the first note came up), it’s just packed with moments of high interest, including high technical interest. The shape of the story feels off.

  24. Jonathan Hunt says

    Wendy, I just finished TRAPPED tonight, too. Unlike you, I didn’t follow the news story when it happened and had no expectation about how the story should have played out or what it would include. I think you have some good points, but I still think it’s one of the better nonfiction titles of the year, and definitely worthy of Newbery consideration, if not Newbery recognition. I’m still sorting out my thoughts about it, however . . .

  25. Has anyone considered Chris Barton’s CAN I SEE YOUR I.D.? (Should there be a second question mark behind that sentence???)

    Barton takes a look at several people who have, in varying degrees of success, donned false identities. In separate chapters he examines each of them, and presents them in a second person voice. The use of the second person, in-your-face-direct-address, to the reader casts a kind of identity question upon the reader, which I found compelling.

    I’m just asking…

  26. Jonathan Hunt says

    Kathi, I just put a hold on CAN I SEE YOUR I.D.?, but unfortunately my library does not have THE GRAND PLAN TO FIX EVERYTHING. 🙁

  27. Elle Librarian says

    A simply gorgeous early offering was CAN WE SAVE THE TIGER by Martin Jenkins. While I’m leaning more towards Seibert medal on this one, I want to be sure that it gets a few seconds of limelight!

  28. Elle Librarian says

    *Sibert Award. (Can I also add that CAN WE SAVE THE TIGER has at least five starred reviews: SLJ, Horn Book, Kirkus, LMC, and PW).

  29. Elle Librarian says

    I love how the first few sentences of CAN WE SAVE THE TIGER set the scene for the entire book: “The world’s quite a big place, you know. But it’s not that big, when you consider how much there is to squeeze into it. After all, it’s home not just to billions of people, but to the most amazing number of other kinds of living things, too. And we’re all jostling for space.” The author brings to light some of the most threatened or extinct animals that many would not know about otherwise and highlights not just the more well-known ways animals become endangered, but also the lesser-known. Jenkins discusses it all in just the right amount of detail to make it accessible to young readers without overwhelming them. However, the amazing illustrations do threaten to steal the show at times as they truly do bring these extinct or very endangered animals to life in incredible detail. I do think it has the most chance of being recognized as a Sibert Award winner/honor or a Caldecott award winner/honor (rather than Newbery), but it is a title everyone should give a few moments of their time to peruse. Beautiful!

  30. Elle – I also loved Can We Save the Tiger? however from the author/illustrator blurbs it seems to me that Martin Jenkins and Vicky White are both British (although their citizenship is not mentioned it says Jenkins lives in Cambridge and White received her degree from the Royal College of Art in London). Now they could be expats, and I probably wouldn’t know it, but if they are British, Can We Save the Tiger? is sadly ineligible for both the Newbery and the Caldecott.

  31. Elle Librarian says

    Hmmm – does that make Can We Save the Tiger also ineligible for the Sibert award? It’s still a lovely book- hope people will still explore it.

  32. Jonathan Hunt says

    Yes, it’s ineligible for all the ALSC awards, but it was a Boston Globe-Horn Book Award Honor book along with INTO THE UNKNOWN by Stewart Ross and Stephen Biesty (another great book by another British team).

  33. I reread TRAPPED today and the same thing came to mind as it did the first time around: why are the miners themselves so buried in the story? Yes, the subtitle is “How the World Rescued 33 Miners from 2,000 Feet below the Chilean Desert,” but that doesn’t mean you can’t make those 33 visible and active in this rescue effort. Indeed, there is something of the cavalry coming in to save the day that makes me uncomfortable. There is just so much about all these experts coming in and I’d have liked to see the miners, who have a great deal of expertise too just not the book kind, to have been brought more to the fore. Of course, all 33 couldn’t have been brought in this way, but I think even one of the leaders could have been a stronger presence in the book than is the case. I suspect one problem was that Aronson interviewed some of the rescuers, but none of the miners. There is a different sensibility in the sections where he is writing about actions on the part of those he interviewed from the sections when he is relying on news accounts.

  34. Elle Librarian, I wasn’t going to read CAN WE SAVE THE TIGER — life’s short, and it sounded like spinach — until you quoted the opening sentences. You’re right, those are grabby as all get out! I’m in.

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