Follow This Blog: RSS feed
Someday My Printz Will Come
Inside Someday My Printz Will Come

Nonfiction Roundup, Part 2

Karyn wrote about the long slog of winter break reading just before a conference/blog deadline. I understand her image, but I think I spend winter break/early January more like a muppet: waving my arms around in a flurry of indecision (and, sometimes, stress because I’ve put off so much committee reading. Blerg!); now’s the time when we’re supposed to be firming up our thoughts on books and able to talk intelligibly about the year as a whole and how any given title fits into it. (Uh, but no pressure, right?)

I actually spent a good portion of my own break trying to catch up, at last, on the nonfiction books on our contenda list. I got to read about deadly diseases (well, one), certain death in the Arctic (well, practically certain!), and a young woman’s experience of the civil rights movement. These are all strong books — engaging reads, beautifully designed (I think; I actually read two of these titles as ebooks, so I’m making a few assumptions based on what I saw on my phone screen and what other people have said), important and enduring subjects — so if the Printz process is about winnowing down, I definitely have my work cut out for me!

Invincible Microbe by Jim Murphy and Allison Blank
Houghton Mifflin, July 2012
Reviewed from final e-copy

If you don’t already duck and cover when people are coughing and sneezing (what? It’s flu season. That is a perfectly non-neurotic reaction!), Murphy’s and Blank’s book might inspire you to start. You will make really good friends on the subway, let me assure you. We’re treated to a fairly comprehensive look at Tuberculosis — its history and our work to eradicate it. I see three starred reviews for it, so it’s an auto-contenda nonfiction title, at least for our purposes. It’s also super interesting (do you like death and diseases? If not, uh, YMMV), well organized, and fairly complete. (There’s a major fast-forward early on that leaps from prehistoric times to Medieval Europe, but the information about TB is basically complete.) Invincible Microbe is also nicely laid out, with strong visuals that complement the text. The public health propaganda made for especially interesting reading, and the pictures of people confined to beds in sanatoriums — especially the kids — were heart wrenching. (Of course, I’m working with limited information here; I read this on my phone and did some poking around the “inside this book” on amazon to see what I could find out about the physical book — if you have a final copy on your shelves somewhere and would like to weigh in in the comments, that would be awesome.)

Invincible is strongest when it describes the horrors TB patients suffered. The crackpot medical treatments (ping pong balls, people, PING PONG BALLS. Sewn into your chest to COMPRESS YOUR LUNG. Apologies for the shoutiness, but PING PONG BALLS.), the needlessly intense strictures on people in sanatoriums, the horrible deaths waiting for people who contracted TB — all fueled by a legitimate fear and horror of this terrible disease. Murphy and Blank paint an intense and effective picture. The portion of the book called The Outsiders is also really well done; the stories of African Americans, Native Americans, and immigrants who were not able to receive the same standard of care as white USians is rage-inducing but important to read.

Although the page count is low (160 pages), Murphy and Blank cover a lot of territory: medical history; social history; light information on science and the search for cures for TB; and the threat of today’s drug resistant strains. This quickness makes for an efficient read, but it also makes it skew younger in terms of audience. (The pronunciation tips definitely add to that impression, too.) In some ways, this reads as more of a summary than an exploration. This is not to say that it’s not a solid book; it is. And I stand behind the publisher recommendation of grades 4 to 7, which does include the younger end of the teen spectrum (barely). But as a read for all teenagers, I’d appreciate some more sophistication: greater detail in terms of the science and experimentation that doctors and researchers were doing; more use of primary sources within the text.

The Impossible Rescue by Martin W. Sandler
Candlewick, September 2012
Reviewed from final e-copy

Let me start off by saying that this is a top read of the year for me, personally. (I love arctic adventures, OK?) I couldn’t put it down — the high stakes, the noble characters (OK, this is nonfiction, so I guess that should be “characters” or, more accurately, people involved); the suspense didn’t flag for me. It was a thrilling read. Sandler very conscientiously used a lot of primary sources — diaries, letters, and most powerfully, Dr Call’s visceral, haunting photographs — to tell the story. Even the maps, on my phone screen, were awe-inspiring; seeing the huge distance traveled and just how far north all of this was happening was impressive. (People with their hands on the physical book, again, feel free to chime in with thoughts!) Using the words and pictures from the people involved is dramatic and vivid. The end material, too, is just as gripping a read as the main text. The “updates” on all of the people involved were interesting. (I am now lobbying for a biography of David Jarvis; that would be such a complicated, great read!)

A couple of reviews on goodreads mentioned dry writing and difficulty keeping people straight. I didn’t have these problems — this was a book I loved (hence having to look for someone else’s thoughts on what didn’t work so well!). Maybe someone in the comments wants to give us some specific criticisms?

To the Mountaintop by Charlayne Hunter-Gault
Flash Point, January 2012
Reviewed from a final copy

Hunter-Gault’s experiences as one of two African American students to integrate the University of Georgia give this history of the civil rights movement heart and individuality. Her voice, especially when sharing her personal memories, feels intimate, and that’s when this book is most engaging and interesting to read. The writing is very well organized; for example, Hunter-Gault helped keep all the “alphabet soup” acronyms and initials (SNCC, NAACP, SCLC, CORE, etc — tricky stuff, especially for a teen audience who might not have heard of many of them) feel organized and clarifies their distinct (sometimes competing) goals.

There are a number of parallels drawn between the youth who led the civil rights movement and the young people who supported Obama. These ties are emotionally effective but are somewhat superficial on further consideration; the stakes in the election of 2008 were  not as stark as the violence and possible death protestors faced in the 60’s. On the other hand, Hunter-Gault makes some graceful connections using languages and speeches: the refrain of “how long” from an abolitionist preacher to MLK to Obama gave me goosebumps (page 120). (Well, OK, King and Obama made those connections first, but Hunter-Gault points them out really beautifully.)

As a unified work, this has a solid thesis; it carefully follows the work individuals did to change voting laws and end voting restrictions, and connects that work to the election of 2008. When sharing her own experiences, or talking about — and quoting — individual’s experiences, it’s a memorable, emotional read. When the focus becomes broader, To the Mountaintop is not quite as effective, and this unevenness is problematic when looking at a book through a Printz lens. At this level, all the aspects of the book need to be strong.

In order to keep the nonfiction all together, Karyn is going to jump in for the last nonfiction contender we’re covering for 2012.

Moonbird: A Year on the Wind with the Great Survivor B95, Philip Hoose
Farrar Straus Giroux, July 2012
Reviewed from final copy

Moonbird has 6 stars. That’s an amazing pedigree (and it’s really got me thinking about stars and criteria and the difference between apples and oranges fiction and nonfiction).

There is no question that the research here is fantastic, and the combination of personal experience (and clear passion on Hoose’s part) with data and depth gleaned from the scientists and the texts Hoose consulted does a great job of modeling the process; the end notes were, for me, a riveting read.

And the base of the story is pretty awe-inspiring. The rufa red knotis an impressive bird, and the distances they cover annually are eye-popping. B95 is definitely worth reading about (although I’m not convinced that there are many teens who will want an entire book about a relatively esoteric and narrow subject). The conservation and preservation issues are also important, and Hoose does a good job of clearly setting out the various risks and potential actions that will preserve shorebird habitats, although I did end the book feeling like conservation had been hit on hard at the end after being a less prevalent theme in some sections, leading to a slight pacing (for lack of a better term) issue. The profiles of scientists and one young conservationist further convey the passion B95 and the rufa red knots have engendered in those familiar with the bird, and the exhaustive (potentially in both senses, but certainly detailed) information about the birds, their migrations, feeding habits, and physical changes as well as their “sacred places” are illustrated with photos as well as some maps.

Hoose also writes with style and verve.  He employs language that humanizes B95 and uses speculation (albeit well-researched speculation) to provide tension to the book in the form of B95’s (presumable) migration. I can see how these devices are intended to bring the story to life. The structure, with the migratory pattern as the basis of organization, is also aimed at creating a cohesive narrative from a vast amount of data collected over a significant time period.

But I mentioned in the preliminary conversation about Moonbird that style is tricky, and may shape assessment of nonfiction too much when it comes to Printz chatter, since some of the other items on the criteria list either don’t apply or automatically suffer in comparison to fiction (style is all that brings the people Hoose mentions to life, for instance, because who they are is fact).

And I find the style here reads young — younger than is appropriate for YA — although the sophisticated sentence structures do skew up, and for me that had a significant impact on where this falls in my lineup for the year. If I consider this as an upper-range title for a middle grade audience, most of my reservations fade away, but as a true YA these are places where I see the text falling down. My reservations about the layout and organization (see below) are similarly affected by the lens I use — this does matter for the Printz, I think, because we are really looking at the book as a whole, and there are issues with the whole that are the result of the package. If I consider whether I would star this had it been sent to me for review in a professional journal, I would say yes, because I would probably be focusing on the information more than anything else (this is what I meant about differing criteria).

Going back to layout: many pages had text boxes with additional information and in some cases (not all), the pages neither started nor ended with sentence breaks, making flow sometimes confusing (I eventually paged back at the end of the chapters, by which point the context for the sidebar information was less clear). Text boxes and images were sized erratically, which I found frustrating visually — the inconsistencies were meaningless and, for me, distracting, but I was reading this right as design was being hotly debated on the Bomb thread, so I will admit that my sensitivity may have been inflated. Also, the question of how heavily design should weigh in an awards conversation is a BIG question. I could be argued out of my objections to the erratic sizing as mattering too much in terms of the Printz, but the organization issues strikes me as more critical since I believe they affect readability.

In the end, this just doesn’t compare to the top five fiction books I’ve read this year, even if it’s the top of the nonfiction pile (which I’m not certain it is, but it has gotten the most critical acclaim). And I have doubts about it as a YA title at all — but six reviewers and YALSA’s Nonfiction committee disagree, possibly on both counts. Anyone strongly support this as a likely final fiver for the RealPrintz?


About Sarah Couri

Sarah Couri is a librarian at Grace Church School's High School Division, and has served on a number of YALSA committees, including Quick Picks, Great Graphic Novels, and (most pertinently!) the 2011 Printz Committee. Her opinions do not reflect the attitudes or opinions of SLJ, GCS, YALSA, or any other institutions with which she is affiliated. Find her on Twitter @scouri or e-mail her at scouri35 at gmail dot com.


  1. I know we’ve had this conversation many times, and as Karyn said recently, no one is probably going to change their minds, but I’m confused by this statement:
    “And I stand behind the publisher recommendation of grades 4 to 7, which does include the younger end of the teen spectrum (barely). But as a read for all teenagers, I’d appreciate some more sophistication”
    I don’t really see how “a read for all teenagers” can be justified. I’m not planning on recommending CNV or BRIDES to 12 year olds any time soon, and there are plenty of Printz awardees just like those, that barely scrape the top of the age range. So, what’s wrong with barely scraping the bottom?

    So, with that said, I see all of these books as clearly YA and therefore theoretic contenders. As for their specific chances, I haven’t read TO THE MOUNTAINTOP, and I got bored with IMPOSSIBLE RESCUE. Of the other two I found INVINCIBLE MICROBE to be a much stronger book than MOONBIRD. We discussed MOONBIRD at length at the Mock Newbery this weekend, and while we all agreed that it was a great book, there were many points that knocked it out of contention (interestingly – I don’t remember any of them having to do with design). I mentioned the strange (to me) disconnect between the book being about 1) a bird who has survived so long, and 2) the fragility of the birds and the conservation message. I couldn’t quite make the prominence of B95 himself jibe with the rest of the book. Others discussed pacing questions, and the weak last chapter where Hoose goes into full-on persuasive mode. So – yes YA, not anywhere near top 5.

    INVINCIBLE MICROBE, on the other hand, I might be willing to make an argument for to be at least in a top ten conversation. It is one of a whole bunch of great NF that I’d place behind BOMB and TITANIC, but it’s a very strong book, with a very different audience and purpose in mind — precisely what Sarah mentions, summary of a huge topic, rather than deep investigation of a smaller one. So I think it would make for a great comparison to those titles.

    • Karyn Silverman says

      Hah! I also thought that last chapter was hugely problematic, and also found the B95 thread a bit of a thin thread to pull the whole together, but was saving those points for when someone defended it strongly. But perhaps I was ready for a rumble that wasn’t meant to be.

    • Sarah Couri says

      Hey, Mark! I could probably try to say that slightly more intelligently here in the comments (although it’s probably true that this discussion may not take us anywhere fruitful). Let me try again. Ahem.

      If I were reviewing Invincible Microbe for NYPL, I’d have said “great read, shelve it in J.” I think that’s often the decision that’s made for these “betwixt and between” age level books — J has more space (usually!) and a bigger budget (often!). It seems odd to me that a Printz winner would live in Children’s rooms around the country. It would have been better put if I’d written “as a read for all teenagers generally” since of course no single book will be a read for “all teenagers.”

      Obviously, I’m coming at this from my own professional experience and with the perspective that working with NYC teens has given me. Others may disagree; that’s what these comments are for. If I were on RealCommittee, it would be my job to hear from people who disagree and consider their experience. (This kind of conversation, by the way, is one place where I think teen feedback would be super useful at the Printz table.)

      Does that clarify? (I can accept that it doesn’t convince you!)

      • Sure that clarifies, and it’s more or less what I thought you meant, but I still (who would have thought?) have problems with it.

        Part of the problem is that J vs. YA shelving replicates to a large extent the Newbery/Printz dichotomy. That is, J (in my experience) runs up through age 14, and YA runs 12-18, so there can be overlap. Indeed, there are many Printz and Newbery books at my library that live in both collections (off the top of my head, I know that AIRBORN and THE WESTING GAME both are in both J and YA). So, I don’t find it particularly helpful to use that shelving standard. The Printz criteria say 12-18, so that’s what I’m going with. And, on the issue of books that scrape the top of the Printz age level, my library carries, for example TENDER MORSELS in both YA and Adult. Also, remember that there have been a couple of cases of overlap between the Printz and the Newbery–LIZZIE BRIGHT, and HOUSE OF THE SCORPION (am I missing one?), so again, it’s not much help to ask where to shelve these books.

        On the topic of NF, interestingly, I discussed THE INVINCIBLE MICROBE specifically with my Children’s librarian before it came out. She said that she couldn’t get any of Murphy’s books to circulate in children’s and so was passing it to me for purchase. Since I have had his books (YELLOW PLAGUE in particular) move, I bought it for the YA collection. Obviously our experiences seem to vary here, but at my branch at least, that is very common – the children’s NF collection is largely books in the 32-96 page range. Anything much bigger goes up to YA.

        I should point out that personally I am completely opposed to this kind of overlap. I think either the Newbery should be 0-12 or the Printz should be 14-19 (or something). You’d still get a bit of overlap on the margins, but not nearly as much argument as you get now. I don’t have any particularly strong feelings about what constitutes a “child” vs. a “teen”–I just think we need to follow the criteria.

  2. Jonathan Hunt Jonathan Hunt says

    Yay for THE IMPOSSIBLE RESCUE! This is my pet nonfiction book that I can’t seem to get anybody else interested in. I’m glad you liked it, too, Sarah!

  3. My issue with THE IMPOSSIBLE RESCUE (other than it was, clearly, not impossible) is that the rescued were not very nice people. The rescuers were amazing and compelling but they had no idea they were risking their lives for dirty, lazy, duty-shirking, grave robbers. Not that only “good” people deserve rescue, but I might have had a sliver of sympathy if they tried to better their situation on their own — especially since they had no reasonable expectation of rescue in the first place.

Speak Your Mind