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Heavy Medal: A Mock Newbery Blog
Inside Heavy Medal

Scientists in the Field

As you well know, last year was an amazing year for nonfiction.  We had an unprecedented amount of depth and quality in the field, and while only one nonfiction book–BOMB–cracked the Newbery roster, I felt that several additional titles, namely MOONBIRD and TITANIC, were similarly worthy.  While the nonfiction field is much thinner this year, there are still some bright spots.  One of the brightest spots is the publication of four–four!–Scientists in the Field titles: STRONGER THAN STEEL by Bridget Heos, ERUPTION! by Elizabeth Rusch, THE TAPIR SCIENTIST by Sy Montgomery, and THE DOLPHINS OF SHARK BAY by Pamela Turner.  The latter title doesn’t publish until November so our discussion of that one will be limited until then.

The Scientists in the Field series is universally recognized as an excellent science series, winning numerous awards and accolades, but science books as a whole tend to be ignored by the Newbery committee.  Indeed, the last science book was recognized 27 years ago when VOLCANO by Patricia Lauber won a Newbery Honor.  For some reason, science books don’t fit the Newbery stereotype, but hopefully the thinner field and the opportunity to compare and contrast entries within the series will help us appreciate the distinguished qualities of these books.  No, they do not necessarily provide the adrenaline rush of BOMB, the heartstopping suspense of TITANIC, or the elegant nature writing of MOONBIRD, but they are excellent in their own right.

For me, the most inherently interesting title is STRONGER THAN STEEL, a book about genetics that proves the saying, “Truth is stranger than fiction.”  Unfortunately, the narrative, which is structurally more complex than most of the other titles, does not unfold with either clarity or organization–a missed opportunity.  On the other hand, both THE TAPIR SCIENTIST and THE DOLPHINS OF SHARK BAY have a fairly straightforward narrative.  Both of them are essentially extended photoessays with the authors peeking over the shoulders of their respective scientists, in typical fashion.  There’s nothing inherently wrong with that, of course, but I fear the novels will seem more complex in a head-to-head comparison.

To my mind, THE TAPIR SCIENTIST also has design problems when compared with the other titles.  The decision to use three columns of text makes some spreads difficult to read when numerous visuals are absent.  Moreoever, I’m not sure that the subtitle of the book–Saving South America’s Largest Mammal–was sufficiently addressed in the narrative.  Why are tapirs worth saving?  What is their role in the ecosystem?  How would it be poorer for their absence?  And how does observing them explicitly help us to save them?

The cream of the crop, to my mind, is ERUPTION!  The sentence level writing is just as clear and concise as any of the other titles, but the narrative is more complex, and the book as a whole captures the inherent drama of volcanoes–and working in close proximity to them.  Not that the real committee will be doing this, but I also find it interesting to examine it alongside VOLCANO to compare and contrast not just how the design of science books has evolved in the past twenty five years, but also how science itself has evolved during that span.  ERUPTION! is arguably my favorite nonfiction title of the year and I would love for it to break the Newbery science jinx, but I’m willing to entertain arguments for the other titles as well.

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. Sam Bloom says:

    Hey, I take issue with your fact-checking… there was a super-amazing committee a few years back who chose DARK EMPEROR as an Honor book and, last I checked, biology is a science. Yeah yeah, I know what you’re going to say… it’s primarily a book of poetry, but still.

    Anyway, I’m with you on ERUPTION; it is definitely the best of the bunch. I found it to be a real page-turner, and while TAPIR SCIENTIST also had some great writing, it just didn’t stack up. (One other design flaw you didn’t mention: the background/font combo for the in-between sections was next to impossible to read. What were they thinking?!) And STRONGER THAN STEEL really surprised me – such a cool concept, but I had to force myself to keep reading. Maybe it was the fact that, as you said, it was lacking in the clarity and organization departments, I don’t know. But I was downright bored through lots of that one.

    I currently count ERUPTION in my top 5 for the year. I’m hoping to do a re-read before my Library’s Mock Newbery.

    Here’s another science book that I would consider a VERY dark horse in our discussions… ROTTEN PUMPKIN by David Schwartz. I was impressed with that one… great writing, interesting structure. What did you think of it, Jonathan? (I’m going on the assumption that you’ve read it.)

  2. It’s funny, Eruption! is the only book out of about 40 titles that nobody in my Mock Newbery Committee has read yet. Now I can hopefully provide them with some inspiration. I had one 5th grader read Stronger than Steel in one night last week, and she loved it. I myself read the first few pages and appreciated the tone — a combination of educational and funny. A couple kids have read The Tapir Scientist and have enjoyed it, but I think not as much as Moonbird last year (I know they’re not in competition with each other, but the same students are reading it as read Moonbird).

  3. Jonathan Hunt says:

    I haven’t read ROTTEN PUMPKIN yet, but will make plans to do so. Another one on my radar is SCALY SPOTTED FEATHERED FRILLED. Anyone read that one yet?

    All of these SITF titles are good (and worthy of discussion). Each one has from 1-3 stars (so far).

  4. SCALY SPOTTED FEATHERED FRILLED is on my to-read list, but I haven’t gotten my hands on it yet. It sounds intriguing.

    Of this year’s Scientists in the Field, I’ve only read STRONGER THAN STEEL. While I’ve recommended it to friends, family, and colleagues, I don’t feel that it rises to the level of distinction that we saw in Bomb last year. It’s been a few months since I read it, but from what I recall I would agree that the narrative isn’t consistently well-organized. In particular, I feel like the three examples profiled don’t come together for a strong finish at the end. Still a fascinating read, but without a clear enough narrative to break into the Newbery lineup.

  5. I agree with you, Jonathan, about THE TAPIR SCIENTIST. I found it to be surprisingly unclear about the main subject at hand, the tapirs themselves. While I enjoyed learning about the scientists and the work that they do to find the tapirs, some sort of fact sheet about the tapirs (an animal that is largely unknown to those outside of South America) would have really made for a more complete package.

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