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Heavy Medal: A Mock Newbery Blog
Inside Heavy Medal

Nonfiction Contenders

If Nina and I have anointed THE PORT CHICAGO 50 and THE FAMILY ROMANOV as the most likely Newbery nonfiction candidates there is a bevy of wonderfully written books that may also get a look from the committee.

ANGEL ISLAND by Russell Freedman has four starred reviews and while it dovetails nicely with the fourth and fifth grade curriculum here in California, I actually think his other book–BECAUSE THEY MARCHED with three starred reviews–is a stronger award candidate.  My problem with that book, however, has nothing to do with any Newbery criteria.  It simply covers the same ground as MARCHING FOR FREEDOM by Elizabeth Partridge, and since Freedman already scored a Newbery Honor for THE VOICE THAT CHALLENGED A NATION, which likewise seemed inspired by a previous book, in this case WHEN MARIAN SANG by Pam Munoz Ryan, I’m not too keen to see it pick up lots of accolades.

EYES WIDE OPEN by Paul Fleischman likewise has four starred reviews.  It’s a book that’s going to challenge us on two fronts.  First, the publishers have designated it as a book for 14 and up, although I personally think this is fine for ages 12 and up.  Second, this is not a narrative work of nonfiction, but rather expository and persuasive.  It would be a perfect textbook for an information literacy class for secondary level students.  I fear it will be too much for us to wrap our heads around here, but I think it would be a virtual shoo-in for being a finalist for the YALSA Award for Excellence in Nonfiction.

THE VOLCANO BENEATH THE SNOW by Albert Marrin is the last book with four starred reviews that we’ll cover here (Nina is planning to post in the future on JOSEPHINE).  Marrin has been especially prolific this year with three books that ironically span American history.  This one, published in the spring, covers the middle 19th century, while THOMAS PAINE: CRUSADER FOR LIBERTY and FDR AND THE AMERICAN CRISIS cover the 18th and 20th centuries respectively.  If this book is good–and it is very good, dear reader–it only serves to show how very distinguished THE FAMILY ROMANOV really is.

FRIDA & DIEGO by Catherine Reef with three starred reviews is the latest in a string of books over the years that have celebrated one or both artists.  Off the top of my head: DIEGO RIVERA by Susan Goldman Rubin from last year and VIVA FRIDA by Yuyi Morales (a picture book) from this year.  It’s clear that, separately and together, these artists have captured the popular imagination in a way that few others have, thanks to their powerful art and interesting lives.  I’ve long admired Reef’s biographies of artistic types–you may remember her last book was the biography of the Bronte sisters–and she obviously shows herself in good form here.  I just don’t think it rises to the very top.

SEARCHING FOR SARAH RECTOR by Tonya Bolden with three starred reviews is probably the book that presented the most information that was entirely new to me, and therefore it holds a special little place in my heart.  I’ve found that others aren’t quite as smitten with it, so I’ll be curious to know if there are other fans out there.  The focus of the book is on the “Searching for” more than the “Sarah Rector” and if you expect a fully formed portrait of the latter than you will be sorely disappointed.  However, if you would like to explore a little known corner of American history and if you would like to know how historians research their stories then look no further.

STRIKE by Larry Dane Brimner concludes our list of books with three starred reviews.  It’s a powerful story of the migrant farm workers in California fighting for better working conditions, starting with some early strikes in Southern California before moving to the Central Valley for the pivotal Delano grape strike and the emergence of Cesar Chavez and the United Farm Workers.  The story is a nice counterpoint to the civil rights struggles that were happening in the South at the same time.  I found the acronyms hard to keep straight, but after awhile it just let them wash over me.

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. Brenda Martin says:

    Great post, Jonathan. Among the Marrin books, I think FDR AND THE AMERICAN CRISIS is actually a Jan 2015 pub date. I appreciate that in FRIDA & DIEGO there is finally a biography of these two for an older audience that can cover their very…messy lives. And I agree that while I learned a lot, there was something missing there. Although it may have a special place in your heart, for me SEARCHING FOR SARAH RECTOR, was an utter disappointment. While it is an interesting take on a completely lost story, it seemed so much more of an author’s sketch or outline rather than a fully realized book. You’re right that it was about the *Searching* rather than about Sarah Rector. But ultimately it read like a vanity project that most lesser-known authors wouldn’t have had the luxury of being published.

    • Jonathan Hunt Jonathan Hunt says:

      Ah, I reviewed FDR for Horn Book and the ARC said 12/23, but it doesn’t surprise me that Random has pushed it back to next year. Otherwise, you have Marrin competing against himself too much.

      For me, the lesson in SEARCHING FOR SARAH RECTOR is that sometimes you search for somebody in history and never really find them . . . but look what she discovered along the way. It’s the journey not the destination. Not everyone will agree, though, and I respect differing opinions. Did you read her earlier book MARITCHA, by any chance?

  2. What is it you’re implying about Russell Freedman, exactly, Jonathan?

    • Jonathan Hunt Jonathan Hunt says:

      I implied that MARCHING FOR FREEDOM is a better book than BECAUSE THEY MARCHED. It is, of course, but that’s of no consideration for this committee. I also implied that if this particular book were to win then I would be slightly annoyed. Was that not clear?

  3. Nina Lindsay Nina Lindsay says:

    Well…Jonathan, though you admit it has nothing to do with the criteria, you are implying that Freedman is deliberately standing on the shoulders of other (and you suggest better) work. Not sure what the basis is for that, since we see books about the same subjects following each other all the time. Who cares?

    You and I both, I think, have a special place for Partridge’s MARCHING FOR FREEDOM, an incredible book. And, that was an incredible shortlist year!

    …Maybe it’s another year for a list of half nonfiction????

  4. Eric Carpenter says:

    I appreciate how you point out in your summation of Search for Sarah Rector that “the book that presented the most information that was entirely new to me, and therefore it holds a special little place in my heart.”
    I wonder how often we are quick to praise nonfiction when we become enamored with the amount (and personal interest level) of entirely new information. In these cases I have to be very conscious about judging a book on the criteria and not on the newness of the information.
    For example this year I got very caught up in the ‘newness of the information’ in Gail Jarrow’s RED MADNESS. Without a reread I don’t think I can comment on the distinction of this book (as it relates to the newbery criteria) because I found the information so damn interesting.

    • Reminds me of the CLAUDETTE COLVIN conversations from years ago. I believe the newness of that story clouded people’s judgement of it. It was a great story, don’t get me wrong. I had no problem with it Honoring, but I just remember this exact same thing coming up in lots of conversations back then too.

      • Genevieve says:

        Also makes me think about PORT CHICAGO 50. That story was completely new to me, and I think to a number of other readers. If I don’t consider the newness, to me it didn’t reach the heights of my other top contenders, though it was a strong book.

  5. The only book mentioned that was on my shelves was Tonya Bolden’s SEARCHING FOR SARAH RECTOR – read it yesterday and while I have loved many of her books, this one just does not remotely compare to FAMILY ROMANOV or PORT CHICAGO 50 or FREEDOM SUMMER or FREEDOM SUMMER MURDERS. I will be reading as many of the others as I can because nonfiction seems to be dominating my list of favorites (!!).

  6. I thought the Marrin fabulous, but it seemed pretty YA to me. Of course, I suppose we could dig in about the almost-15 reader, the small for which this is perfect, but I don’t wish to. As much as I liked it I wouldn’t be fighting for it over others for Newbery. The Bolden did not agree with me. I did feel manipulated into thinking there would be something about Sarah in it eventually and there was just … nothing. I feel there could have been another way to enter into the material which was interesting. It was new material to me too, but not presented in a way that drew me in sufficiently. I felt she handled the dearth of information much better in MARITCHA (not that we could say that if we were on the Committee).

    • Jonathan Hunt Jonathan Hunt says:

      Monica, I wonder how much your own experience with AFRICA IS MY HOME colored your experience of SEARCHING FOR SARAH RECTOR. Here was an author who certainly didn’t have any more information about her main character than you did, but she chose a nonfiction treatment anyway . . .

      • Only in that I am always interested to see how others deal with the situation I had. When I was still trying to make my book nonfiction I found Bolden’s MARITCHA and Walter Dean Myers’ AT HER MAJESTY’S REQUEST: AN AFRICAN PRINCESS IN VICTORIAN ENGLAND worthy models. SARAH RECTOR feels very different — Bolden is bringing out some unknown history that is fascinating stuff, but it feels that way in spite of Sarah. That is, did you just get interest in the history and sort of forget about Sarah? She seems pretty forgotten for long stretches. The book just doesn’t really feel like a search for the person as much as a search for the history behind that vague person.

      • Jonathan Hunt Jonathan Hunt says:

        Yes, it’s definitely the journey here that’s fascinating, not the destination. Sarah Rector remains a vague figure at best even by the end of the book. I think I read this book as *SEARCHING* FOR SARAH RECTOR and you read it as SEARCHING FOR *SARAH RECTOR*.

  7. Wendy, it’s not just you. Jonathan, it seems unfair of you to say that these two books of Russell Freedman’s are standing on the shoulders of others when you don’t say the same about the Frida and Diego book or about Strike, even as you acknowledge that there have been other books about these two subjects, too.

    And it’s also entirely possible that one or both of Freedman’s books were already in the works when the ones you mention were published–as anyone in publishing can tell you, it can take a very long time for a book to come out. This is especially true for long nonfiction, which is often signed up based on a partial or proposal and then not only is there the time needed for the author to do all the research and writing, and all of the editing, but there is extra time required for photo research, fact-checking, and detailed design. (Heck, final text and art for a standard-length picture book are due more than a year in advance of publication date, and that’s not taking into account the time it takes to create the art, or to edit the text.)

    So unless you know for certain that Russell Freedman was inspired by those earlier books, it seems unfair to just assume that was the case and think less of his books as a result.

  8. Jonathan Hunt Jonathan Hunt says:

    I do think we tend to privilege new information in nonfiction. Learning is fun and engaging, after all. I wonder if we don’t have a similar bias with fiction, but in the opposite direction. That is, that we have stereotypes in our head of what Newbery fiction looks like, and when something agrees with that then we are more willing to see it as worthy.

    Of course, it’s unfair of me to think less of the Russell Freedman books–THE VOICE THAT CHALLENGED A NATION and BECAUSE THEY MARCHED–but I happen to like them both very much. I just don’t think the latter book quite rises to the top for me, and I’m willing to acknowledge that my baggage plays a role in that. Care to persuade me that it should be on our shortlist?

  9. Jonathan Hunt Jonathan Hunt says:

    Here are the YALSA Nonfiction Award finalists. THE FAMILY ROMANOV and THE PORT CHICAGO 50 are expected, but the others are surprising.

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