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Titanic: Voices from the Disaster (Is Not a Disaster)

Occasional guest blogger Joy Piedmont is back! She (unlike, say, Karyn) likes to read nonfiction, and has OPINIONS about it. Thoughtful, considered opinions. Making her a perfect candidate to guest write as we try to catch up on our nonfiction 2012 piles. So, with no further ado…

Titanic: Voices from the Disaster, Deborah Hopkinson
Scholastic Press, April 2012
Reviewed from final copy

What is good nonfiction?

I know, I know; you came for a review and I’m hitting you with the big questions right up front. Apologies.

Right, so, good nonfiction.

Actually, it’s what any good book is: engaging, honest (factually and/or artistically), moving. Reading isn’t just the consumption of information, it’s an act that must change us, even in a small way. Good books should force us to question, to cry or to shout; we should be moved. Good nonfiction can put you under a spell and make the real unreal. (And isn’t this the inverse of good fiction, making the unreal real?) Good nonfiction, like fiction, is transformative.

When we consider this in light of the Printz, there is no reason why nonfiction can’t be in the conversation, and 2012 has been a particularly good year for YA nonfiction.

2012 was also the 100th anniversary of the Titanic’s sinking. The ship of dreams was, and remains, ubiquitous. The story has been told so often – and it was pretty much inescapable this past spring – that you wouldn’t be alone in thinking that the subject has been covered from every possible angle. James Cameron certainly didn’t push the Titanic into obscurity. (True confession: I saw Titanic during its original theatrical release four times. And yes, I cried every, single time. Sobs.) What Deborah Hopkinson does really well in Titanic: Voices from the Disaster — and this is what all great nonfiction should do — is pull the reader into a story you didn’t think you needed, or wanted to know.

Let’s be clear: this is a nonfiction book that will please readers who subsist on a diet of mostly fiction, but there is plenty of information alongside the narrative to satisfy folks who love facts. The trick is in how Hopkinson tells the story.

As far as stories go, it’s a difficult tale to tell. Everyone knows the ending (spoiler alert: the ship sinks). This is no easy thing for a writer, but Hopkinson creates a moving and gripping narrative by weaving together various eyewitness accounts, each with a unique perspective. It’s not just the method here that’s brilliant; it’s the execution. Hopkinson skillfully shifts perspective from stewardess Violet Jessop to the Collyer family traveling second class, from second officer Charles Herbert Lightoller to seventeen-year-old first-class passenger Jack Thayer, and to several others. Hopkinson uses their words whenever possible, and through their voices we discover the stories of countless other passengers.

The result is an emotional book about the wonder of humanity: our hubris, our courage, our will.

When she’s not describing the many individual tragedies that occurred on the night the Titanic sank, Hopkinson gracefully uses fact to explain or elaborate at various points. To describe the Marconi wireless system and Titanic’s wireless operations, Hopkinson begins the section with the stewardess Violet Jessop, using her words: “I thought of the man in the crow’s nest … surely an unenviable job on such a night” (p. 57). This quote transitions to a brief description of the crow’s nest as a means to see what’s ahead, and the new Marconi system that the Titanic’s wireless operators, Jack Phillips and Harold Bride, would be using. All of this occurs within two pages and manages to maintain the thrust towards the ship’s sinking, the inevitable climax.

While some brief background on wireless messages blends nicely into the narrative, Hopkinson (wisely) chooses to leave some of the denser material for special fact boxes that are really mini-chapters within chapters. Hopkinson uses this technique when describing why the Californian, the ship that was actually closest to the Titanic, never came. This description and the speculation are fascinating, but only as asides, existing just outside of the book’s main interest: the people. The book is laid out so that these occasional departures are visually set apart and attractive.

In general, good design and consistency aid the reading experience. The text is set in ITC Avant Garde Gothic, a sans-serif font, which gives the text a modern, fresh look; dark gray boxes are used for photos and fact boxes, and thin dotted lines, in black or white, are used for borders. Very often photos are spread on whole pages to the edges, contributing to the immersive quality of the text. When Hopkinson writes about the beautiful grand staircase, her words help you imagine what it would have been like to be there, but the photo on the opposite page lets you see it with your own eyes. Photos, illustrations from the period, and primary documents embroider the narrative and lend weight to the text; yes, this happened, it may feel like fiction, but this is fact.

However, most of the facts and figures, including a glossary, and the official damage report and fatality statistics are appendices at the end of the book. Hopkinson has also provided rich material on her sources (including well-documented source notes for each chapter) and offers questions for budding researchers. The best of these supplemental sections is the material on the people in the book, containing great tidbits of information that didn’t fit in the main content. It is a poignant reminder that the “characters” were actual people with lives existing before and beyond the Titanic – although the tragedy never really left many of them. This supplemental section also reinforced my belief that Hopkinson did something extraordinary in this book, pulling together various lives, shaping their eyewitness accounts into a cohesive, engaging plot.

Impressive, absolutely. Perfect? Not quite.

Hopkinson’s use of concise and clear language is often one of the book’s strengths, but she tends to accentuate the end of chapters and sections with a single sentence paragraph: “The titanic needed help,” (p.85) for example, or “One by one, the lifeboats began to make their way to the Carpathia,” (p. 171). This kind of pacing can be effective when used sparingly to foreshadow or underline important events, but when every reader knows the ending, these pithy one-liners become the literary equivalent of a bombastic musical cue for a villain.

Unfortunately, this stylistic tic means the book isn’t quite on the same level as other Printz contenders this year, although it certainly earned its place on the nonfiction shortlist: it is a standout YA nonfiction title.



  1. Thanks to Joy for this lovely review of one of my favorite books of the year. Since Joy offers only one criticism of the book, I guess I’ll have to defend it against that. I can’t really say that I see the chapter ending sentences as a fatal flaw for a couple of reasons:

    1) I’m not convinced that they are a flaw at all. Obviously much of our discussion of literary merit is a matter of personal taste, but this seem more so than many others. I haven’t taken the time to do so, but I’m sure that I could go through all of the contenders I’ve read and find an author’s tic or two (or three) that some people might object to.

    2) Even granted that it is a flaw, I can’t see it is particularly fatal. It seems like a minor enough point, and few enough total words of the text to be able to overlook. If there’s anything this blog has taught us, it’s that all of our favorite books have flaws – it’s just a matter of weighing them against the merits. This doesn’t, for example, seem anywhere near on par with the complaints that some have (myself not among them) about the overboard 20s language in THE DIVINERS.

    And for me, the strengths are just so overwhelming that they crowd out this minor complaint. The prose is immaculate (never, for example, getting cutesy as Sheinkin sometimes does in BOMB), the research impeccable, the pacing amazing. I read Walter Lord’s A NIGHT TO REMEMBER a few weeks after reading this book and I was stunned at how Lord’s generally acknowledged classic actually paled in comparison with Hopkinson’s account of the same events.

  2. @Mark. Thanks for commenting! I’ve been yearning to discuss this book!

    I completely understand your point about flaws. The book succeeds in so many areas, that this stylistic choice (and I agree with you, if it’s a flaw, it is a minor one) took me out of the text when it appeared. Then again, I was reading with a hyper-critical eye. There were moments when it was easy to look past, but as I was rereading, I noticed that although I had made just one note of Hopkinson’s one-sentence accent, it actually appeared more often than I originally thought.

    To me, this points to a deliberate choice, but an unsophisticated one. Might not the same effect have been achieved in a subtler way? Hopkinson is so sensitive and and nuanced in other ways–particularly when describing the devastating farewells many women said to their husbands–why have such loud endings?

    Is it fair to say that it might not be a contender for this? Maybe not. It’s a hard call to make because I can, without a doubt, say that TITANIC is accolades-worthy. I’m just not *sure* that it’s Printz-worthy; I do hope it’s in the conversation though.

    Incidentally, I’m reading BOMB right now and I’m not seeing the cutesy prose you mention (but this deserves its own conversation… once I’ve finished the book!).

  3. “Cutesy” is perhaps the wrong word, but I’m struggling to put my finger on the right one. I love Sheinkin and BOMB to death so I actually don’t intend much of a criticism (and we can talk more about it later) but there is definitely something about Sheinkin’s prose that feels a little off, at least when compared with TITANIC. But, that might just be because BOMB’s language is pitched to a slightly younger audience, in my opinion.

    As for TITANIC, it doesn’t sound like we disagree that much. Yes, she certainly could have been more subtle about the transitions (although, again: is subtle the same as better in every situation? I love subtle, but perhaps Hopkinson felt the effect was worth it for the audience?).

    But, I *am* sure that it’s Printz-worthy. Especially when I compare it to some of the books that are on the shortlist for this blog, in particular TFiOS, Every Day, Raven Boys, The Diviners, even Seraphina – I see some books I love, some I don’t so much, but all books with significant flaws that (fortunately) have so much to recommend them that they (almost all) overcome those flaws.

  4. Mark knows I will bristle at the slight to A NIGHT TO REMEMBER, but I must point out–that is an adult work, and it was written so long ago that the style can’t help but be a little archaic. Is the Hopkinson book a more distinguished presentation for the average modern child/teen? I can’t argue with that.

    I feel like I’ve said this elsewhere, but I think part of what keeps this book from getting more accolades is how effortless it reads. When I was reading BOMB (which I love) I kept thinking about how exciting and well-written it was and how many new insights Sheinkin was helping me make. While there was little-to-no new information for me in TITANIC (I know how smug that sounds; I think I have to say it to make it clear what kind of reader I was for that book), I feel like there would be less of that effect even for a reader who knows little about the Titanic because the events, motivations, quotes, flow so smoothly and logically and inevitably. It’s a less flashy book than BOMB. And when I compare it with MOONBIRD, which I didn’t care for particularly–well, in MOONBIRD I kept thinking about all the angles the author managed to come up with in order to create a whole, well-rounded book out of a somewhat thin concept.

  5. @Mark: Stylistic choices–subtle, loud, simple, complex–can often just become a matter of taste. The transitions didn’t always work for me, taking me out of the text; but you’re absolutely right, subtle isn’t always the way to go.

    @Wendy: Yes! It is SUCH an effortless read. The prose goes down smooth, and although there are no surprises, what Hopkinson does well is put humanity on display. A subject that could have been dull facts and figures, or overblown action, Hopkinson makes into an almost domestic drama. It’s riveting, but never overdone.

  6. Elizabeth Burns says:

    I quite enjoyed this book! Especially as it brought some new things to the table (at least for me). Perhaps not so much new information, as new voices.

    And the writing style worked for me, also.

    It left me wanting more, but I think that is for me typical of NF, especially YA or MG NF.

  7. Jonathan Hunt Jonathan Hunt says:

    Joy, while I appreciate your positive review, I’m surprised that all it takes is one tic to disqualify a book from Printz consideration. I think Mark’s reservation’s about CODE NAME VERITY are more serious than yours about TITANIC, and yet nobody laid down and rolled over when he introduced them. I’m not saying that TITANIC is as good as CODE NAME VERITY or even that TITANIC is necessarily a Printz book. I just don’t understand why those cliffhanger endings knock it out of consideration.

    • Karyn Silverman says:

      Jonathan, I think that’s the conversation: Joy, as an opening gambit, put out there that those cliffhanger endings really detract from an otherwise excellent book, and found them problematic. Everyone else has pretty much disagreed. As a committee (we;;, a “committee”), we should be continuing to talk about it (this would be easier for me if I had read this one yet 🙂 ) and trying to convince her otherwise. Joy, have you come around yet?? And of course, the real question is less what’s wrong with Titanic and more where does it fall in the year’s lineup — two sides of the same question, maybe, but sometimes turning it around helps. I am getting the sense that in fact Titanic, which has had less of a splash than some of the other nonfiction contenders this year might be the best written, but again, that’s from listening to others as it’s in my pile (I’m working on Moonbird first, saving Titanic for a treat next week).

      • Joy Piedmont says:

        Fair point, Jonathan. No book should ever be knocked out of contention for one flaw. There will never be a perfect book, but I think this is less an issue of how many flaws a book has and more about what do a book’s flaws mean to the work as a whole?

        Yes, the chapter endings are problematic because they took me out of the reading experience, but also because they are so stylistically different from the bulk of Hopkinson’s writing. She is concise and clear, but not loud. She’s only loud in those chapter endings, and to switch up style just to create suspense–when really, no suspense is necessary–seems like a bad choice.

        In addition, Hopkinson incorporates facts well, but is it always seamless? No. Her description of the Titanic swimming pool felt superfluous and more like a fun fact than meaningful to theme or story.

        In terms of thematics, yes, Hopkinson handles this story of human ingenuity and frailty well, but it’s not done in a surprising way. It’s fresh and well-done for sure (I still marvel at how she weaves together so many disparate experiences), but the story and what she’s saying is not unexpected.

        I guess what I’m trying to get at is that TITANIC is superb YA nonfiction, but I don’t think I can support it as one of the best YA books of the year. The writing is great, but is the prose delicious in the way that Libba Bray’s is in THE DIVINERS? What she says thematically is strong, but does it make me ponder the ideas days (or months) after reading like I still sometimes think about THE FAULT IN OUR STARS? Those two books certainly have issues, but I use them as examples of other works that do a better job at two things I think TITANIC is weak in.

        [Apologies if this is a crazy jumble of random ideas! Hope some of it makes sense!]

  8. Joy,
    I have several problems with your most recent comment.
    1) on thematics: you say “Hopkinson handles this story of human ingenuity and frailty well, but it’s not done in a surprising way”– not surprising to whom? Is this merely because you have read other books about the Titanic or know the story? How would a teen who knew nothing other than the bare facts (or maybe not that) react to the book? Can I discount TFiOS thematically because I’ve read enough other cancer books, or thought about death deeply enough that none of Green’s insights are surprising to me, personally?

    2) On prose, I tried to get at this a little on my blog – in the latter half of this post: – but I think it important to make a distinction between fiction and nonfiction in terms of what we want to see in the writing. Would flashy prose ala Libba Bray or Margo Lanagan really be appropriate for this type of nonfiction, or would it get in the way of understanding? Can’t nonfiction prose be literate simply by being clear and precise? I think so, but it seems that some people disagree with me. In short, I’m concerned with the fact that Titanic could possibly be “superb YA nonfiction” but NOT “one of the best YA books of the year”. How is it possible that both of these things could be true, unless we are putting our finger on the scale for fiction as the default expectation of “excellence in literature”?

    • Joy Piedmont says:

      Mark, you ask great questions. I’m going to respond in random order:

      “Can’t nonfiction prose be literate simply by being clear and precise?”

      Yup, absolutely. And you’re right, flashy prose would not have been appropriate for TITANIC, but I think there’s a fine line between simple that’s adequate and simple that soars. I fully acknowledge that this is a personal opinion, but TITANIC didn’t sing to me. I adored it, but it shines because of the captivating storytelling and character development.

      “How would a teen who knew nothing other than the bare facts (or maybe not that) react to the book?”

      Fair point. It’s hard to predict how readers with fresh eyes would read anything, and perhaps those unacquainted with the story of Titanic will get fresh insights.

      Also, I would argue that the theme of TFIOS is not cancer (which is the subject), but love, and having the courage to do so even in hopeless situations. Yeah, every story is a love story (sorry for the Aida quoting), but John Green uses this theme and riffs on it with smart and heartbreaking writing. Going back to TITANIC, Hopkinson meditates on themes–human ingenuity, frailty, courage, etc.–that one would expect to find in a book about Titanic. And yes, that’s *my* expectation as an adult reader, but I think thematic excellence for this book would have meant taking me somewhere unexpected. Maybe in a RealCommittee conversation, this would be a moot point?

      “How is it possible that both of these things could be true, unless we are putting our finger on the scale for fiction as the default expectation of “excellence in literature”?”

      If I were to compare TITANIC on a point by point basis with the other strong contenders this year, I still think it would fall just outside the shortlist. But, you’ve hit upon my bias towards fiction as a reader. I love nonfiction, but I do struggle with how to equitably assess it alongside fiction. Any thoughts on how to do this without a fiction-slanted bias?

      • @Joy – a few points: ” I think there’s a fine line between simple that’s adequate and simple that soars. I fully acknowledge that this is a personal opinion, but TITANIC didn’t sing to me”. I think that is a completely fair assessment. I don’t agree, and found the prose to be excellent in a way that I aspire to myself in nonfiction, but that’s at least something we could have an intelligent disagreement on.

        Fair enough on TFiOS being about love–I admit I wasn’t thinking very hard about the example I chose–but I still maintain that I, unlike you, have not found any particular reason to think about its ideas even one time since I read it some 6 months ago. Again, this is something we could delve into a great deal.

        But I do want to get to the conceptual question of nonfiction vs. fiction, which TK has some nice thoughts on, below. In the abstract, I would answer this question differently, but since we’re on a Printz blog, let’s start with the Printz criteria. They say that we are looking for excellence in one or more of:

        •Design (including format, organization, etc.)

        Design, illustrations, and accuracy don’t (for the most part) mean much to the fiction titles on the shortlist, but it is crucial to know that TITANIC does achieve real excellence in all three of these categories.

        Story – now, obviously a lot of Hopkinson’s story was given to her by the real life events, but the criteria specifically rule out using this to discount a title in a line about originality not being necessary. So we’re left with an amazing story, which I think we both agree Hopkinson brings a lot to, especially in weaving together the personal stories of various passengers. I feel like we can just compare this directly to a fiction title. Is it a better told story than X fiction title?

        Voice and Style – I think these are more or less equivalent to the question of prose we’ve been discussing, so I’ll leave them alone.

        Theme – we’ve also already touched on this.

        Setting – theoretically, this should be easy to compare. In the case of TITANIC, I happen to think this is a point against the book. Even with the illustrations, I did not feel confident that I understood the geography of the ship at all times.

        Characters – I think this is fairly tricky to compare directly, since we don’t want our nonfiction to delve into character delienation that is not directly provable by evidence. If there is a great deal of material available to create 3D characters with inner lives, that’s great, but in the case of TITANIC, there doesn’t seem to be. So we’re left with comparing how well Hopkinson draws her relatively 2D characters, vs. the deep psychological depth of something like CNV. Still, we have some help in this – Jonathan Hunt has been talking about the varying demands of characterization in fiction books (on the Splendors and Glooms thread) and how some books (like say a fairy tale retelling) may have deliberately 2D characters. So, like the issue of prose, we have to get at “what is the purpose of this book, and what should we expect from it” in this category.

        So, let’s say, hypothetically, that TITANIC is inferior to a given shortlist title (let’s call it THE DIVINERS) in characters, setting, and voice, but superior in story, and maybe a wash on theme. Maybe for a different book (to give it a random title, THE FAULT IN OUR STARS), TITANIC bests it in voice and story, but loses on setting and characters, with mixed feelings on theme. How much weight can we give Accuracy, Illustrations, and Design? It’s got to be something, right? Personally, if it isn’t clear, I think TITANIC really knocks TFiOS out of the park in terms of story, and especially on voice and style, which I find to be cloying and obvious in TFiOS vs. TITANIC’s clear, muscular, precise language (even granting a notch taken off for those chapter endings). So to me, the fact that it also has excellent design, illustratons, and (especially) accuracy gives it a tremendous edge. I think it gets a lot dicier with some of the other shortlist titles, but you can certainly use this model to make comparisons.

  9. I was lucky that my Printz year was an unfortunately weak year for NF, as our committee really didn’t have to gauge “delicious” prose (a la THE DIVINERS) against strong, clear and precise (TITANIC) writing.
    But I agree with Mark that it is very important that this is considered by committees present and future, and that we do not always default to the so-called delicious.

  10. Karyn Silverman says:

    I agree with TK — it is critical that we not default to the “delicious.” But talk about baggage! So few of us read NF, and even fewer of us read YA NF, because usually there isn’t much of it out there — especially not true YA (as opposed to J titles that have some crossover or go up to age 14). Which means, unlike the situation for fiction, most of any given committee is probably coming to the NF as relatively green readers. I feel really well versed in YA fiction. I’ve read a lot of it, so much so that I am jaded and sometimes even solid writing feels subpar because I feel like I’ve read it before. So it’s relatively easy to recognize the books that really rise above, and the only challenge is weeding out emotional response from critical response.

    Nonfiction, though, is a different ball of wax. Because we’re not just assessing the shape the wax took, we’re considering the components of the wax. Speaking from the I perspective, the first thing that gets me in NF assessment is the accuracy issue, which along with design/illustrations strike me as critical for a great piece of NF writing. But if I don’t know anything about the topic, I am already massively disadvantaged. And usually I don’t know anything, or — as with Titanic — I know too much, so that my assessment is colored by the baggage of my knowledge, which is another type of problematic, as came up with Joy and Mark — because as adults we read differently than the teen readers who are the intended audience. This is, again, not a nonissue with fiction, but is significantly heightened with NF.

    I like TK’s use of “precise” — nonfiction should probably not have the stylistic flair of fiction (as Mark pointed out), but clean, precise writing that is clear and purposeful deserves kudos.

    Ultimately, I think the problem is that we’re comparing apples and oranges. And there’s a reason for that adage (cliche) — they are really different, and what makes one delicious (crunch, tartness) would be the opposite of delicious in the other (a tart, crunchy orange is probably a terrible idea). So how do we recognize them side by side? I can tell you my top 5 fiction titles, no problem, and I can come up with my top five nonfiction as well, but how do I shuffle them together to come up with the top 5 BOOKS?

    I don’t have an answer, just the recognition of the problem. Mark raises some great points about exactly how we can try to compare the apples and oranges, but I’m not sure they really can be compared that easily. How do I place Julie’s Ormaie beside Titanic’s decks? One is crafted and one is reported, and those are different. Similarly, yes — 2D characters make perfect sense in many contexts. But then do I compare the characterization or do I compare the contexts? I could go in circles all day! And still have no real answers…

  11. Jonathan Hunt Jonathan Hunt says:

    Joy said, “I think there’s a fine line between simple that’s adequate and simple that soars.” Maybe you can illustrate with an example? Can you name a past or present YA nonfiction book that’s simple but soars that you would consider worthy of the Printz? Thanks.

    TK, I’m not sure I understand your statement. Last year was an unfortunately weak year for nonfiction, but you were lucky? Because you don’t like nonfiction? Or you do? Anyway, I do think last year was extremely thin, but I think BOOTLEG was not only published for ages 12 and up (squarely in the YA range), but compares favorably with the five titles your committee did recognize.

    • Jonathan, I do like nonfiction 🙂 And I’m glad that there are so many exemplary titles this year. What I meant is we were lucky in the way that because of an unfortunately weak year for (especially older) teen nonfiction, the committee didn’t have a major struggle between choosing great ‘delicious’ writing from great ‘clear & precise’ writing. Nonfiction was discussed, don’t get me wrong.
      As for BOOTLEG, while the writing was very distinguished, there were other problems with the package (unfortunately poor photo repros, if memory serves me) that made it fall short… in my personal estimation.

  12. @Mark: Kudos and thanks for that excellent break down of how we can begin to compare fiction and nonfiction. I agree that it certainly gets a little trickier to make comparisons when dealing with other shortlist titles, and even more complicated when trying to determine a group of “the best.”

    @Jonathan: “Can you name a past or present YA nonfiction book that’s simple but soars that you would consider worthy of the Printz?”
    Great question. I can’t think of any YA nonfiction titles (and I’ve been giving it some thought, but this is my own baggage; I probably need to read more widely within YA nonfiction) but the only book/writer that comes to mind is Dave Cullen’s COLUMBINE. Of course, this is not a YA nonfiction title, but his writing is clear, using simple sentence structure whenever possible, and using just the right amount of descriptive language. Cullen is precise, immediate and heartbreaking. The writing soars despite the subject which is so complex and heavy, and because Cullen lifts the reader up with his words, making it easier to see what he sees.

  13. Jonathan Hunt Jonathan Hunt says:

    I don’t mean to hold you accountable for any single title, TK–a lot of worthy things fall by the wayside in any given year, fiction and nonfiction. When you only have one standout nonfiction title sqaurely in the YA range with some excellent middle school stuff, however, then you signficantly reduce the odds of having the genre recognized. So I think part of this is a publishing problem. We get books like CODE NAME VERITY or THE BRIDES OF ROLLROCK ISLAND which are marketed to 14 and up (and oftentimes 16 and up), but we rarely, if ever, see a similar nonfiction treatment.

    The other part of the problem is that YA librarians simply do not read–and do not like nonfiction–and really do not know how to evaluate it very well. Consider the Alex Awards which don’t have the problem of only having a few excellent nonfiction titles to choose from. There is absolutely no reason–none!–why 50% of the Alex Awards should be fiction. So, what gives?


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