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Heavy Medal: A Mock Newbery Blog
Inside Heavy Medal

Most Dangerous and Drowned City

9781596439528_p0_v2_s118x184Because of the shortened season and early mock discussions, Jonathan and I may not have a chance to do our usual redux of every title on our shortlist, but we’ll attempt to make space for each one that hasn’t got as much discussion as others.  While people are still reading and commenting on RHYTHM RIDE, I wanted to talk a moment to look at our other two nonfiction titles.

Jonathan called MOST DANGEROUS a “thriller,” and I was surprised to find that a pretty apt term for a work of historical nonfiction. I was impressed at how Sheinkin managed continuous yet variable narrative tension throughout, while dancing between different points of view and during periods of time in which, essentially, “nothing” was happening (I’m thinking here mostly of the Times’ stalling with Ellsberg).  I think Steven, in his comments, elaborated on much of what I noted as the strengths of this narrative.   This feels like a book that Sheinkin HAD to write, because of the availability of primary sources: the Nixon recordings, and Ellsberg himself.  I’m intrigued at the conversation regarding whether this is a “journalistic” or “narrative / novelistic” treatment of the material. While this is clearly an attempt to put down “what happened,”  I see Sheinkin using what I have to assume are deliberate novelistic techniques, employing setting and dialgoue to create dramatic scenes, using leading chapter titles and cliffhanger chapter endings, and even attempting to establish a narrative arc to what was really a series of events.   The fact that you can apply pretty much all of the bulleted Newbery criteria (theme, info, plot, character, setting, style) to this work shows what I think Sheinkin was setting out to do, and achieved extremely well.  I’m the sort of reader who gets lost in journalism, no matter how engaged I am with the subject, and I felt throughout this narrative the writer’s hand in drawing my attention–in a helpful, not awkward, way.

9780544157774_p0_v2_s118x184Equally effective for me-as-a-reader, was Don Brown’s approach with DROWNED CITY.  In comments on our earlier post, Brenda questioned how well a journalistic “reportage-style” graphic narrative might fare in Newbery discussion, while Jonathan made a pitch to consider the text as “voice-over narration.”  It is not a natural way to read, of course, to examine just what the text is doing in a graphic novel; but I find that when I do it here I find plenty to acclaim.   Jonathan typed out the first few pages of text in his post, and I’m just going to repeat one here, it’s the second page of text.  Try reading this aloud, and see if you hear that voice-over narrator, the rhythm that draws your attention to emotional points, and the very deliberate word choice:

From a smudge of foul weather it becomes a nasty tropical storm, and then erupts into a vicious hurricane with howling winds, pinwheeling counterclockwise.  As it does with all big storms, the National Hurricane Center in Miami, Florida assigns it a name: Katrina.

Throughout, Brown uses text as necessary, where necessary, in concert with his images and pacing of layout, to tell the story.  Consider how he mixes the narrator’s voice with actual quotes he puts into word balloons.   We see it first to great effect on p.10-11.   The exchange of narrative/quotes describing the end of the evacuation culminate in the quote from a train conductor “We offered … to take evacuees out of harm’s way. The city declined” followed by the reportage: “Five trains leave New Orleans empty.”  The rhythm of the narrative across this spread leaves the reader with a hollow feeling of dread, which Brown uses for the energy of the page turn, and the image of the hurricane on the following spread.   That image picks up and carries the emotional dread fully, as it is accompany by an almost tinny-sounding dry but detailed report on what is happening with the weather system.  Here the text, even at its driest, is doing exactly what Brown needs it to do to tell his story right.

I feel like I could give every spread this treatment and find excellence; and that, differently from other books with images where we can pull out the text and examine it typed out here (as we’ve done, for instance, with illustrated books of poetry), here the text must be evaluated in its graphic form, as text.  While I am doing this, my focus is on what the text is doing, and how distinguished it is in its effect.  I find it as remarkable, if not more so, that Sheinkin’s thrilling appraoch, or Pinkney’s Groove.

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Nina Lindsay About Nina Lindsay

Nina Lindsay is the Children's Services Coordinator at the Oakland Public Library, CA. She chaired the 2008 Newbery Committee, and served on the 2004 and 1998 committees. You can reach her at ninalindsay@gmail.com

Comments

  1. Hannah Mermelstein says

    I loved Most Dangerous and agree that it excels in all the particular areas looked at by the Newbery committee. I’m just not sure about the age range. I know this is a tired argument in Newbery land, but I feel a bit differently about Most Dangerous than about other books that I feel are borderline (like Goodbye Stranger with the sexting plot, etc.). It’s not that I think there’s anything inappropriate about Most Dangerous for a younger audience, but I just think it would interest teens more (and adults, honestly). We read it with our high school National Book Award reading group, and they (mostly 15- and 16- yr olds) loved it. I know Newbery goes to 14 and I can imagine some particularly mature younger readers appreciating it, but I think I’d rather see it pick up a Printz honor than get Newbery recognition. Does anyone have experience with younger kids having read the book?

    • Jonathan Hunt Jonathan Hunt says

      Having taugh 5th and 6th grade, I’m positive that this book has enthusiastic readers in those grade levels, and I’m sure that if this book is under serious consideration that the committee members will be soliciting feedback from child readers between the ages of 10-14 for their reactions to the book. Is this your strongest arguement–the age–against the book? If so, it seems like a fairly weak one . . .

      • Hannah Mermelstein says

        Yup, the age is my strongest argument against the book, and I’m quite happy for it to be proven a weak one. As I said, I thought it was really well done. I would not be upset if it received a medal or honor. It’s just not a book any of our middle grade ages have picked up so I wanted to ask if others have read it with kids in that age group. I usually have some sense from my students of their reactions to books that I can balance with my own (for example, I’m glad that the kids seem to love The War That Saved My Life as much as I do). I think Most Dangerous is a quality book, so you’re not going to get any more arguments out of me. 🙂

  2. Hannah, I don’t have experience with kids reading either of the two books you mentioned (at least not kids I work with personally-I’m a public children’s librarian) but I just want to throw something out there: just because a book *MAY* interest teens and/or adults more (which is presuming a lot), doesn’t mean that a strong 13- or 14-year old reader won’t enjoy it. I think it is pretty reasonable to imagine older readers I’ve worked with in the past enjoying both of the books you mentioned. Also, Printz recognition and Newbery recognition are not mutually exclusive. The two committees don’t overlap at all in terms of personnel, and since the process for both is confidential it is completely possible to have books recognized by both committees. I wish it happened more often, to be honest!

  3. My sixth graders advanced Most Dangerous to the semi-finals in our Mock Newbery. The kids who had read it *raved* about it. One students worked herself into a lather trying to drum up appreciation for it. Her tactic worked.

    Despite being an admitted Sheinkin Fanboy, I’ve not yet read Most Dangerous, though it’s up next in my queue. I admit my bias from the outset: I will probably love it. Minus the “probably”.

    Drowned City wasn’t even on my radar; I actually had no intention of reading it until I saw it pop up on the shortlist here.

    I read Drowned City yesterday and was utterly and profoundly moved by it. Although I loved El Deafo, I think Drowned City succeeds far better as a narrative text that also happens to be illustrated. Even though it’s a graphic novel, it feels less graphic novel-ly to me than El Deafo.

    There are pages of Drowned City that I read to myself again and again and again, marveling over the words – spare, poignant, powerful. One of my favorites: “Hurricane Katrina crashes ashore at 6:10 AM – its eye sweeps over the small fishing town of Buras, Louisiana – and erases it.” (p.15). The way it’s written, spread across three horizontal panels adds drama and tension, while making the text seem poetic. The fourth panel, brilliantly, reveals that there are no casualties in Buras. This is only one of countless moments of beauty in a book about something so ugly.

    I’m not one to allow my emotions get in the way of reading and processing a book, but I had to put Drowned City down not once, not twice, but THREE times to catch my breath and settle myself. If I hadn’t been reading at work during my lunch break (in full view of students), I probably would have just curled into a ball and cried. That Brown manages to elicit these strong emotional reactions with his words (and in one case, his art) is really a testament to how masterfully he handles his material.

    So. I’d like to see Drowned City (as well as My Seneca Village and Echo) heavily decorated this Awards Season.

    And even if they aren’t decorated, they are all marvels of the written word.

  4. Sheila Welch says

    I bought DROWNED CITY (nice that part of the proceeds go to help the city recover), and when I picked it up, I began flipping through it, back to front as if it were a magazine. Even read that way, the language is quite strong and captured my attention and held it. I agree with Joe’s comments about how well Brown handles this emotionally charged story.

    I do have some reservations about the book, however. Although the illustrations are a huge part of this title, I know it’s the text that needs to be examined for Newbery consideration. My first concern is with the dust jacket. Not the art work, but the inside front flap text. The information on that flap is essential to the total story of the tragedy of Katrina, but dust jackets get lost and flap material isn’t part of any book’s contents. At least one sentence that ‘s vital, “The suffering hit the African American community hardest ; a weather disaster became a race disaster,” is lost to readers. When this omission is coupled with Brown’s tendency to portray his humans’ racial characteristics rather ambiguously, the full story isn’t being conveyed to its audience. I guess, in a way, my reaction to the illustrations detracts from the book’s worth, and I think that’s not good for a Newbery contender. It’s still an amazing, striking book that supplies facts in an unusual and extraordinary combination with haunting images.

    • Nina Lindsay Nina Lindsay says

      Sheila, thanks for pointing out something I hadn’t quite put my finger on. I’d noticed the downplaying of the racial part of the story, but I guess I read more into the illustrations. Your point that their ambiguity, coupled with the sidelining of the comment about the effect on the African American community, does diminish the excellence to me, both in presentation of information, and interpretation of theme. I’ll have to read this again to reflect on how much.

    • Jonathan Hunt Jonathan Hunt says

      You’ve caught me out of town and away from my copy of the book, but a quick scan of images from the book that pop up in a Google Image search reveals many that are obviously African Americans and many that are less obviously so. The ones that you describe as racially ambiguous still don’t read as white to me, though. Will reread and comment more thoroughly once I get back to my office on Monday and have a chance for a reread.

    • I hadn’t noticed that jacket copy; that is really unfortunate. I wonder if Brown left some of the “race disaster” content on the cutting room floor, but at the same time, one would think he would have weaved that throughout the narrative. At the same time, as I look through this, I don’t know that I would agree that the “racially ambiguous” illustrations detract from the subject quite as much, though. I feel like Brown has a color palette that he stays true to, and part of that is the fact that skintones tend toward earthy colors. For the most part (especially when one of the “characters” is talking) I feel like I can tell when a person of color is being featured vs. a white person. But at the same time… hmmm, I don’t know. I feel like I need to look at it a little more. (This is a title for my library system’s Mock Caldecott, so the different criteria are becoming pretty muddled in my mind!)

      • I want to clarify something I just wrote: around the middle of the above comment I meant to say that *Brown’s depiction of skintones* tend toward earthy colors *for this particular book*.

    • I hadn’t noticed the flap copy either 🙁

  5. Brenda Martin says

    Something about DROWNED CITY makes it not quite Newbery-worthy to me, though I have a hard time putting my finger on it. I’ve mentioned before in another thread that the reportage or journalistic style may have been my first concern – which isn’t necessarily a concern at all – but it simply doesn’t feel weighty enough to get gold or silver. That is, despite the weighty subject. It’s a very good treatment of Katrina and its aftermath, to be sure. If the RC broadens its mind to consider something like DROWNED CITY, it would please me simply in that it is something different from the usual fodder, but I don’t expect it to be at the table during the final vote.

    • Nina Lindsay Nina Lindsay says

      Brenda “weightiness” is something that comes up whenever we discuss a shorter, or more lighthearted work. Can you say a little more about why you expect this to knock it off the table? We struggle with this, because it does seem like “weightier” books tend to win, yet there is nothing in the criteria about this.

      • Brenda Martin says

        Hi Nina,

        Sorry it took so long for me to obtain a copy of DROWNED CITY again. First off this is a remarkable work and although it may seem I’m finding a lot of fault I do think this book is deserving of its place on Best of lists. However, some of the sentence-level writing doesn’t quite measure up to Newbery for me. For instance, on p. 9 “Many of the 1.2 million people living in New Orleans and its surrounding suburbs, known as parishes, flee.” (We could nitpick about suburbs and parishes not being the same thing…) And then on p 55, Brown uses the same style “Sick people who might have lived, die.” The use of verb after comma to end a sentence is ungainly. Also, the timeline is a little foggy on p. 33 in describing the roof of the Superdome “it shreds beneath Katrina’s one-hundred-mph scouring”. But in the previous pages, the storm has already passed and by that point it was the flooding that was the problem. Overall I found that the choice of quotes that Brown uses, along with the amazing images, are a lot stronger than his narrative. So that’s why I wonder about it as a Newbery contender.

  6. From what I understand, typos or editorial errors can sometimes push a book out of the running. (I could be wrong, but a former committee member expressed this to me years ago.) There is a word omitted from a sentence in DROWNED CITY. Of course, our copies are all in the hands of students now, but my mind’s eye knows it’s the bottom box on a left-side page, and the word missing is an article, like “the” or something along those lines. Does this bump it out of contention? Sorry for the vagueness!

    • “Some of levee breaches have grown”?

    • Nina Lindsay Nina Lindsay says

      Gosh, I hope no committee would knock a book out based on a typo. I was on a committee that awarded a book with one… We told the publisher and they fixed it in the next printing. No text is ever perfect, and requires many rounds of copyediting and proofreading. (This puts self publishers at a disadvantage.) it’s unfortunate, even embarrassing, for a publisher to print a typo, but it happens,it can be fixed, and it doesn’t reflect on the writing quality.

  7. Jonathan Hunt Jonathan Hunt says

    DROWNED CITY has won NCTE’s Orbis Pictus Award!

    http://www.ncte.org/awards/orbispictus

  8. Jonathan Hunt Jonathan Hunt says

    DROWNED CITY . . . Show and tell. The pictures show; the words tell. Thus, the information about the race disaster, while not communicated in the text is clearly communicated in the pictures. Not even the the shadowy coloring of many of the figures can mask this tragedy. But I understand that some people will want the sledgehammer approach. We had similar complaints about HITLER YOUTH from my year on the committee. Bartoletti trusted her readers that they would see evil for what it truly was–and they did.

    http://www.hbook.com/2015/10/authors-illustrators/don-brown-on-drowned-city/#_

    MOST DANGEROUS . . . I’m on my final disc of the audiobook. Sheinkin is without peer when it comes to his ability to carve out a thrilling story from a mountain of primary sources. The Vietnam War is one of the most complex stories in American history and he has made it accessible for young readers without losing any of the complexity. One of the best pieces of nonfiction written for young readers, regardless of the year. How can it not be recognized? How!

    • Nina Lindsay Nina Lindsay says

      Jonathan…no one was asking for a “sledgehammer” approach. This isn’t rising to a “tipping point” for me, but: the illustrations are ambiguous, and the main text ignores the racial part of the story, so you do have to know more, or read that into it. I think because this IS an introduction that asks people to read more, he gets away with it, but noting it on the end papers makes it feel like an aside, and I think some readers will take note, and feel slighted. I’m glad Sheila brought it up, because I think I noticed on first read and shrugged it aside…which is exactly the point.

    • Jonathan, I also think you are overstating your case a bit when you say that the race disaster “is clearly communicated in the pictures,” because I think just from a cursory glance through it is NOT clear what race many people in the pictures are. And perhaps Brown did that on purpose (in the comments on the CC post I wrote, someone described his illustrative style as “muddy,” which I think is spot on), and perhaps not, but either way, if he makes that bold statement about the disaster hitting the African American community hardest in the jacket copy, I really feel like he was far, far too subtle in illustrating this in his artwork. And surely he should have at least made mention of it at some point in the text. I’m thinking that, for me at least, this one has fallen a bit on my list because of this issue. (It’s still pretty high, though.)

      • Jonathan Hunt Jonathan Hunt says

        Sheila’s original complaint is that the jacket copy (especially a particular sentence) is not present within the main narrative text.

        “The information on that flap is essential to the total story of the tragedy of Katrina, but dust jackets get lost and flap material isn’t part of any book’s contents. At least one sentence that ‘s vital, “The suffering hit the African American community hardest ; a weather disaster became a race disaster,” is lost to readers.”

        Now if you are wanting a fuller discussion than the jacket copy then, yes, I agree that I am overstating my case, but otherwise I do not think I am. Yes, many, perhaps even most, of the characters are rendered in that muddy presentation making it hard to discern their race. However, there are many characters who are obviously African American, and just a few who are recognizably white. I noticed that when characters are depicted in extreme distress and suffering, they are rendered as African American. I do not have the book in hand, but I’m recalling three particular scenes off the top of my head: (1) dead bodies floating in the water, muddied below the water line, but visibly African American as their bodies break the water, (2) an African American waiting on the rooftop as the water rises, and (3) two African American arms protruding from the water holding an African American infant. Are there *any* recognizably white characters shown in this much distress? Are any of the muddied characters who could be white (but could also be black, Latino, or Asian) shown in this much distress? I don’t think so.

      • Jonathan, I have to disagree. Without an overt statement in the text that “the suffering hit the African American community hardest,” what the pictures communicate is that African Americans suffered along with everybody else. Nothing more.

        I don’t know how (or why!) the disconnect between the flap copy and the text happened. I do know that I have two thoughts, possibly in direct opposition to each other:

        1) I wonder if the Newbery committee is even allowed to take flap copy into account in their deliberations?
        2) For me this had been *the* seminal title on Hurricane Katrina and definitely one of my top books of the year. It’s still powerful and hard-hitting and scathing. But, like Sam, the fact that it backs off on confronting that essential truth lessens my appreciation for it.

      • Jonathan Hunt Jonathan Hunt says

        The pictures only communicate that the African American community suffered along with everybody else if you see “everybody else” represented in the pictures. Do you? Do you really look at the pictures alone and not think that the victims of Katrina were overwhelmingly African American?

        If you merely want the jacket copy transported to the main narrative, then I don’t think the difference is that significant because the jacket copy is minimal. If you are wanting a fuller discussion of the role that race and class played–and I don’t think it’s necessarily wrong to want or expect that–then that’s an entirely different story.

        Since the jacket copy is often (always) written by editorial staff, I wouldn’t use its presence to dismiss concerns about the lack of this in the main narrative, but I think it’s probably an issue that the real committee will have to wrestle with and forge their own path with how to treat it.

      • No, to me the information that the African American community suffered most is not communicated through the pictures. As others have pointed out, Brown’s figures here seem intentionally indeterminate — and that very well may have been an artistic choice as much as anything: the muddy palette is certainly an apt one. But the muddy palette also muddies the message.

        Also, I am not sure I would agree that the flap copy is minimal. “A weather disaster became a race disaster” is a pretty strong statement.

      • Jonathan Hunt Jonathan Hunt says

        It is a pretty strong statement, but I’m not sure that children would understand it without the context of the previous clause: The suffering hit the African American community the hardest. I also think the pictures drive this point home over and over again in the way that jacket copy does not.

        If I was on the real committee, reading this discussion, I’d probably want to share the book with children in the Newbery range to gauge what they take away from the book in relation to what we’ve been discussing here.

  9. Leonard Kim says

    I don’t know whether anyone else might feel this way, but one thing that bothered me about both of these books was the authors’ taking what was clearly quoted material and using it as in-the-moment speech. Something about it seems off to me, both aesthetically (I think there is a tonal difference between quoted and actual speech) and as “good” non-fiction practice.

    • Can you give examples of this? I’m trying to follow your argument and respond but I can’t picture what it is that you’re referring to.

      • Leonard Kim says

        Sure. On page 83 of DROWNED CITY, top panel, we see two men in a boat, backs to us, looking at a floating dead body. In a speech bubble, one says, “We have no orders to collect bodies, but to weigh them down if they are floating and mark the spot. We have nowhere to put them.” My suspension of disbelief is challenged that someone would credibly say this just like that in the setting shown.

        The source of the quote is here:

        https://guydinmore.wordpress.com/2005/09/05/city-of-rape-rumour-and-recrimination/

        In the proper context, in the news article, the words seem natural. I just don’t think it transfers well to the use Brown puts them to. As I said before, this is for both literary and “scholarly” reasons. Pretty much every speech bubble in DROWNED CITY bothered me this way. I don’t have a copy of MOST DANGEROUS handy, but Sheinkin’s “re-enactments” of conversations that could only have been recollected or quoted afterwards affected me similarly.

        Interestingly, the next panel, Bush’s infamous “Brownie, you’re doing a heck of a job” was perhaps the only example where I didn’t have this problem, I think because Brown is faithfully depicting something which is on video, not cribbing from a news article or book and putting them into someone’s mouth in some imagined setting that’s supposed to feel “present.”

        Dinmore’s article, linked to above, begins:

        “By the time most of the last stragglers were evacuated from New Orleans over the weekend, only the dead bore witness to a hugely controversial rescue effort that has exposed the racial divisions and poverty of America’s Deep South.

        Six days after Hurricane Katrina tore into the Gulf coast, the dead were still lying or floating about the streets of this sunken city.

        “We have no orders to collect bodies, but to weigh them down if they are floating and mark the spot,” one New Orleans police officer said, noting: “We have nowhere to put them.”’

      • Thanks, Leonard. I can see why that would bother you (and this certainly isn’t the first time one of Sheinkin’s books has been criticized for this… Jonathan, didn’t you ask him about it – and get a personal response – in regards to Bomb?) but I actually think it works. In Drowned City I like the way the quotes lend a documentary feel to the book (in my opinion, one of the most effective spreads in the whole book is the first shot of New Orleans with the giant mass of stormy clouds in the foreground, with the cutaway to the FEMA guy saying something along the lines of, “My nightmare is a hurricane in New Orleans.”)

        Jonathan, if you can’t find it I’ll bet I can scour the archives later when I’m home from work, but I’m almost positive Sheinkin spoke to this criticism at one point here on the blog,

      • Leonard Kim says

        I remember that too about Bomb, so I should say that I don’t think Sheinkin is doing the same thing Brown is. That is, I think what Sheinkin does is within the bounds of “non-fiction” since he can source everything he writes whereas I have more qualms about what Brown does, as it’s hard to believe Brown isn’t relying on invention in the illustrations (and yes I think that arguably makes the text less effective.) My problem with Sheinkin is more purely literary — I think quotes rarely work re-cast as dialogue, even if the quote purports to be what someone said in a conversation. I’m kind of coming from the same place I was last year with The Family Romanov vs. Revolution. Just because you are using outside material doesn’t excuse it from the literary standards you hold your own writing to.

    • You know, Leonard… this device also initially bothered me, too. In fact, when it first occurred with the FEMA character, I thought, “Wait… what?” It seemed like such a disruption to the text that was so elegantly describing the storm’s build-up. Once I got to the spread on 24-25, I was so moved by the quote in the speech bubble, that I went back and re-read the previous pages – kind of my attempt to capture what Brown was attempting to do.

      I agree with the comments that indicate it lends a “documentary” feel to the narrative.

      I’d really like to get a kid’s perspective on the book… what they thought of the device. Unfortunately, the book hasn’t circulated yet in my library – I’ve only had it for about a week though, and haven’t been able to booktalk it yet. After the Thanksgiving holiday, I’m on it!

  10. Jonathan Hunt Jonathan Hunt says

    Obviously, I don’t have a quibble with either presentation. I think Sheinkin probably did weigh in at some point in our discussion of BOMB, but for the life of me I cannot find it amongst all the discussion.

    Leonard, how would you compare and contrast the presentation of information in DROWNED CITY and MOST DANGEROUS with TURNING 15 ON THE ROAD TO FREEDOM, a book which has surely been “recreated” just as much as the Brown and the Sheinkin?

    • Leonard Kim says

      Jonathan, the difference for me is that TURNING 15 is a memoir. As long as its presentation is credible as the author’s memory, I am fine with it, even if things may not have “really” happened the way the author remembers. DROWNED CITY and MOST DANGEROUS in contrast seem to try to present a real history.

      • Jonathan Hunt Jonathan Hunt says

        I don’t know if a “real history” can ever be achieved regardless of methodology. Graphic novel nonfiction is particularly suspect because it often offers a visual record of events that seem speculative at best. There was an interesting conversation about this on the book MY FRIEND DAHMER which was published a couple of years ago. Memoir is tricky because some people have excellent memories. My wife can recall whole conversations from months ago and give you the gist of what each person said; I can barely recall talking to people last week. There’s no way to judge the credibility of an author’s memory. We kind of take it on faith.

  11. Leonard Kim says

    I think my basic point is that “literary quality” is sensitive to things like first-vs-third person and memoir-vs-history. The same presentation in one may not work exactly the same way in the other.

    Here is Ellsberg’s memoir (p.40 on Google Books)
    Within hours I was called into McNaughton’s office. He was as agitated as I ever saw him. He asked me, “Did you have anything to do with telling Mike Forrestal about the new series from the embassy?”
    I said, “Certainly. He didn’t seem to know about it, and it was obvious he needed to see these.”
    John looked at me for a long time and said, “I don’t know if I can keep you in this job. I’ve been told to fire you. I’m in real trouble on this.” He looked away and thought, tapping the desk. I was thinking: I couldn’t share a State Department message with Mike Forrestal?

    Here is Sheinkin (weirdly also p.40 on Google Books)
    Later that same day, McNaughton called Ellsberg into his office.
    “Did you have anything to do with telling Mike Forrestal about the new series from the embassy?” McNaughton asked. He was as upset as Ellsberg had ever seen him.
    “He didn’t seem to know about it,” Ellsberg said, “and it was obvious he needed to see these.”
    McNaughton tapped his fingers on his desk, staring at his new employee for an uncomfortably long moment.
    “I’ve been told to fire you,” he finally said.
    Ellsberg’s mind raced–was the document that secret? Why was one department of government keeping secrets from another? How did they trace it back to me so quickly?

    To my reading, Sheinkin is not an obviously better writer than Ellsberg, so what is the point of adapting the material in this way as opposed to just directly quoting the memoir? Is this really a better or more appropriate presentation for the child audience? And even Sheinkin’s minor re-writing subtly shades the reader’s interpretation (“agitated” vs “upset”, Sheinkin’s turning Ellsberg’s thoughts into quasi-rhetorical questions nudging the reader to Sheinkin’s larger themes) in a way that bothers me in something purporting to be history.

    I did like the book. If it were the only book on the subject someone ever read, I wouldn’t think they were being ill-served, but I can’t quite get behind it for the Newbery, both from a writing and a presentation standpoint.

    • Jonathan Hunt Jonathan Hunt says

      This story is bigger than Daniel Ellsberg’s point of view–and that’s why it’s written in third person, or at least one reason. There are parts of that story that Ellsberg could not and did not know and thus could not relate in his memoir. While this memoir is clearly the basis of the primary source quotations, I’m not sure that we can ascertain that it is the only source that Sheinkin consulted in order to write this scene.

      Perhaps the presentation of THE BOYS WHO CHALLENGED HITLER is more to your taste? To be sure, Hoose shapes that narrative as much as Sheinkin shapes his, but you retain the first person narrative that you really like.

    • Leonard, Sheinkin also had a lot of direct communication with Ellsberg. I assume the additions to that scene come from those rather than authorial embellishments.

    • Leonard Kim says

      Monica and Jonathan, I’m sorry — I didn’t mean at all to imply Sheinkin is embellishing. I did like the book and I liked it better than THE BOYS WHO CHALLENGED HITLER. Really I am just suggesting that if you look at the source and what Sheinkin did with it, it is not obvious to me what is Newbery-level distinguished about his treatment. (It’s just one example of course.) And I would be open to the argument that it’s wrong to focus on sentence or paragraph-level writing when looking at the book’s strengths.

      • Jonathan Hunt Jonathan Hunt says

        You’re implying that Sheinkin merely took a first person memoir and rewrote it as third person. Yeah, I agree there’s not much skill in that, but I don’t think that”s necessarily what Sheinkin did here and it certainly doesn’t describe the entirety of the book either.

  12. Leonard Kim says

    OK, here’s a more complicated example with multiple sources. In addition to Ellsberg’s memoir, the source for this is an interview (not by Sheinkin) with Patricia Marx Ellsberg. (There may be other sources as well.) These relate to events surrounding Dan and Patricia’s first dates. All excerpts are from Google Books.

    Here’s Ellsberg (p.75)
    I got there late, and she met me at the door, but she wasn’t sitting next to me, and I didn’t see much of her.
    April 16, when I called her from the Pentagon, was just past the height of the cherry blossoms, which I hadn’t had a chance to see yet. I suggested that we take the day to go look at them. She said that she going was going to a demonstration the next day at the Washington Monument and a march around the White House to protest the war. I pointed out that I couldn’t very well take part in that, since I was helping to run the war bring protested. I asked if she couldn’t get away from it in the middle of the day for a picnic. She said no, she was going to be doing interviews in the crowd and taping the speeches.
    I said, “You can’t ask me to go to an antiwar rally on the first day I’ve had off from the war, the one day I’ve had off from the Pentagon in eight months!”
    She said, “Well, that’s where I’ll be. You’re welcome to come.”
    My day off was less than twenty-four hours away, and I did want to see her. I made a deal. My weekend off was starting that afternoon at six, another first. If she would go out to dinner with me that night and then come see the blossoms with me on Sunday, I would spend Saturday at her rally. She agreed.

    [later, writing about their Friday night date]
    A table was set for us, and we had the room to ourselves. As we ate and I told her guardedly about what I was doing, I saw that she had marvelous eyes, green and slightly tilted, pointed at the corner like a cougar’s. Eyes were always what I mainly noticed. Hers were strange and entrancing. I’ve never gotten over them.

    Here is Tom Wells in his Ellsberg biography, Wild Man: The Life and Times of Daniel Ellsberg (p.221)
    Patricia remembers: “When Dan walked in the door of my sister’s house . . . I was a goner. Because they had these . . . sunken lights in the ceiling . . . and one of them would shine on the door. And I opened the door¬¬–and I hadn’t seen him for a year, and I hadn’t really connected–and somehow the light hit his blue eyes. . . . I hadn’t seen those blue eyes in that way. And he walked in . . . and I just instantly went, ‘Ah!’ [laughs] And I was a goner. That was it.”78
    Ellsberg asked Patricia out soon afterwards, their first date apparently taking place the Friday night before the first national anti-Vietnam War demonstration, which was sponsored by Students for a Democratic Society on April 17 in Washington. During the course of what turned out to be “a very romantic evening,” Ellsberg asked Patricia what she was planning to do the next day. She replied she was going to go to the demonstration, but that she could accompany her if he wanted to. Patricia was planning to do some interviews for her radio program there. She opposed the Vietnam War. Ellsberg was reluctant, but he was curious about the protest, and he wasn’t going to pass up this opportunity.

    And here’s Sheinkin (p. 52-53)
    “I opened the door,” Marx remembered, “and I hadn’t seen him for a year, and I hadn’t really connected–and somehow the light hit his blue eyes. I hadn’t seen those blue eyes in that way. And he walked in, and I just instantly went, ‘Ah!’ And I was a goner”
    Dan was equally smitten. “I saw that she had marvelous eyes, green and slightly tilted, pointed at the corners,” he later said. “I’ve never gotten over them.”
    Soon after the party, he called her from his office.
    “I have tomorrow off,” he said. Washington’s famous cherry trees were in bloom. They should see them together, he suggested.
    “No” she said. “I’m covering the peace rally for the radio program.”
    He asked if she could slip away for a quick picnic.
    She said no, she’d be doing interviews and taping speeches–but he could come along and hold her tape recorder.
    “You can’t ask me to go to an antiwar rally on the first day I’ve had from the Pentagon in eight months!”
    “Well, that’s where I’ll be. You’re welcome to come.”

    So in this example, I am willing to admit that Sheinkin’s version is the most effective from a literary standpoint, though whether it is Newbery-level literary quality, I’m not sure. However, to do this, he had to delete and conflate history (by omitting their actual first date prior to the rally, where Ellsberg wrote “I danced with her very slowly, very close, the only way I knew how to dance,” and transferring Ellsberg’s words about that first date to the dinner party and making it a quotation.) Look, I’m not denying that writing an historical re-enactment is hard, and I think Sheinkin does do a good job. My questions are 1) does Sheinkin do such a good job to deserve the Newbery? Based on these examples (which are not cherry-picked) I’m not sure. 2) Is his signature re-enactment approach the best presentation for children? Is it really so bad just to quote Patricia et al. the way the “adult” biography quoted above does?

    • Leonard Kim says

      Scratch that last sentence. Sheinkin does handle Patricia’s quote the same way Wells did (and probably had little choice, as it’s in the past tense.)

  13. Jonathan Hunt Jonathan Hunt says
    • I was surprised by that, too, Jonathan. And I was really, really, really hoping that Drowned City would be a dark horse YALSA Nonfiction finalist.

      Sad, too, that Fatal Fever didn’t make the cut.

      I’m beyond thrilled that Engle’s memoir made the cut. What a tribute to her talent!

  14. I finally got my hands on a copy of Most Dangerous. There was a long wait list; I blame the National Book Award. I finished it last night, and I’ve got to say that I was decidedly underwhelmed. Maybe I went in with too high expectations. Everyone’s been raving about it, and I loved Sheinkin’s last two books (Port Chicago 50 and Bomb) so I expected this one to be just as good if not better. And, it wasn’t.

    I’ll start with what I liked. The subject matter is distinctive. We’re now at least two generations removed from this period in our nation’s history. So the audience for this book won’t have heard of Ellsberg and will most likely know little about the Vietnam War or the events surrounding it. I’ll confess that I’d never heard of Ellsberg before reading this. When we studied the Watergate scandal in school, it was presented as an example of Nixon’s corruption and the nation’s loss of trust in the presidency but it wasn’t connected to Vietnam or Ellsberg. So I learned a great deal reading this, and I’m sure children who read it will as well.

    If they can be persuaded to read it, which leads to my major criticism of this book; it’s boring. Since finishing it last night, I’ve been trying to think how best to explain why I found the book so dull. How to compare its failure to the success, in my mind, of Bomb and Port Chicago 50. I’ve come up with two potential explanations. First, both Bomb and Port Chicago 50 have a larger theme that is simple enough, and powerful enough to be picked up on by younger readers. With Bomb, you obviously have the creation of the nuclear bomb, a potential world-ending device. But you also have this fantastic story of espionage and secrecy. Actual towns were created to further this top secret project, thousands of people were working on something they knew nothing about and were forbidden to talk about, scientists were plucked from their homes across the country and sent to New Mexico, for years. It’s thrilling stuff! In Port Chicago 50, the theme was even simpler. You have a story that is so utterly unfair, that it’s bound to enrage even the most casual reader. If there’s one thing kids understand, it’s a lack of fairness. Try cutting a drinking fountain line in any school in America and see what happens. Good luck making it out alive! Most Dangerous had the theme of secrecy too, but it was slowly developed and even more slowly executed. Sneaking off to make copies isn’t nearly as exciting as creating a nuclear fission reaction on a squash court just to see what happens. There was also the theme of government double talk and deception, but that was developed much too slowly.

    I think the other great shortcoming of this book was that it failed to resonate emotionally. Bomb was mostly build up and suspense, done quite well I might add, but it took the time to show the cost of dropping a nuclear bomb on Japan and what that did to the scientists who created it. It packed that emotional punch. Port Chicago 50 relied more heavily on emotional impact. The lives these men lived before, the injustices they suffered and went on to suffer, watching their friends die, and then watching their nation continue to treat them like dirt; it was all heartbreakingly powerful. Most Dangerous just didn’t pack that emotional punch. It could have, though, if the author had done a better job of humanizing the war. We got moments in Vietnam with Ellsberg and a few pilot POWs but it wasn’t enough. The author needed more scenes in Vietnam. He needed more scenes of young men being drafted, sent over, and dying for an unnecessary war. Those things were present in the novel, but understated. The war was presented mostly as a bunch of numbers and a pile of papers. Sheinkin failed, I believe, to make the war real for his young audience. Older adults reading this can rely on their memories to provide the emotional underpinning, but children and young adults of this generation can’t.

    To sum up, I think this is a strong work of nonfiction in that it presents a distinctive story. But I feel that this story could have been told in a way that better engaged younger readers both emotionally and intellectually. Therefore, I am of the opinion that this is not Sheinkin’s best work and is not deserving of a Newbery medal or honor.

    • Emily, I am really interested in your response as someone who actually was a child/teen/young adult during the time period of the book. I remember feeling a bit peeved with the paucity about the draft, feeling there should be more so young readers could better understand that not only did those of us protesting the Vietnam War think it wrong for the US to be involved, but also we our young men were being forced to be complicit it — they didn’t volunteer as today. But then I felt, that isn’t really central to the story Sheinkin is telling — it really is the evolution of Ellsberg. And I found so much good in all of that. I look forward to hearing more about young readers’ response to the book.

  15. Jonathan Hunt Jonathan Hunt says

    Emily, I shared some of yoru reservations of MOST DANGEROUS on my first reading of the book. That is, that it didn’t measure up to his previous books, having neither the suspense of BOMB nor the emotional engagement of PORT CHICAGO 50. My second reading allowed me to divest myself of that baggage. I do think MOST DANGEROUS is suspenseful and emotionally engaging, but not nearly to the same degree as those previous books. But I think it’s more intellectually challenging and more philosophically complex than those earlier books. This may mean that it’s more likely to appeal to slightly older students than his earlier books, but the enthusiasm of sixth grade students testify that it does appeal.

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