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Nonfiction roundup, part 2!
It wouldn’t be January at Someday without roundup review posts galore! I’m nothing if not a stickler for tradition so we’re rolling into hump day with three nonfiction books covering three very different subjects: a man whose story might as well be myth, a complicated and unpopular war, and a pacifist turned spy. If there’s any thread connecting these three books it’s perhaps that none have been short listed for the YALSA nonfiction award, which demonstrates the depth of quality nonfiction for young readers we saw in 2016. With no shot at the nonfiction award, do any of these (appearing below in order of author’s last name) stand a chance at the Printz?
Presenting Buffalo Bill: The Man Who Invented the Wild West, Candace Fleming
Roaring Brook Press, September 2016
Reviewed from final copy
How do you write nonfiction about a practically fictitious real-life person? If you’re Candace Fleming you research like crazy, tell a ripping yarn, and then back everything up to show readers your work. I enjoyed reading the remarkable history of young Will Cody and his ride on the Pony Express but I also loved reading Fleming’s alternate take on the tale, pointing out inconsistencies in Cody’s account and places where second and third sources do not support his claims. It’s lovely modeling for students and raises fascinating questions about history and power of story in creating culture.
As always, Fleming’s got a terrific ear for language and knows how to spin out a narrative that’s gripping as well as backed up by evidence. Fleming’s afterword and backmatter are rich with materials, and there’s a particularly interesting section of online sources, which she lightly annotates. The design also enhances the reading experience with generous use of photos throughout the text, and clear boxing of “pull-out” sections and supplements.
If there’s anything that can keep this one from the Printz it may be the lightness of the material. Buffalo is a fascinating American figure and Fleming certainly uses him as a symbol for the American West, but the narrative is fairly simple (for a man who lied constantly) and the themes are less nuanced. Although superior in sentence-level writing, I find it hard to compare this book’s strengths with the numerous strengths of the next book in our coverage today.
It’s not often that you can say a book’s protagonist is a country, but that’s what makes Russell Freedman’s book special. Vietnam as a place and the Vietnamese people are the center around which all other action revolves. After a first chapter which establishes the American protest against the war in 1971, Freedman begins the story of Vietnam in first century B.C. in order to describe the country’s long history of fighting outsiders. As the Vietnam goes from French colonialism to World War I and then World War II Freedman maintains firm control of the narrative, while reinforcing the idea that most of these violent conflicts were fueled by the West’s fundamental misunderstanding of Vietnam, its history and its people.
Of these fatal mistakes in judgement, the American approach to conflict in the country is probably the worst. The Vietnamese thought they were fighting for their independence against another oppressor in a long line of foreign powers trying to control the country, while we thought we were fighting communism. This idea, so complex yet clearly presented in the text is what makes this is a noteworthy work of nonfiction. Because Freedman has made the history of the land his focal point, these kind of connections and revelations become clear in a way that could not be possible in a book attempting to cover every detail of the war.
Although the writing is utilitarian, it’s concise. In under 130 pages, Russell Freedman tells the story of Vietnam, from first century B.C. to present day. The scope is necessary to understand the Vietnam war, and it’s what makes the book stand out. While reading I couldn’t help but think back to last year’s Most Dangerous by Steve Sheinkin. His book concerns the Pentagon Papers and gives a background of the war in telling Daniel Ellsberg’s story. What struck me as really amazing is that the Pentagon Papers get a single sentence in Vietnam. It’s a stark example of how much history Freedman had to condense while retaining clarity. This is a huge point in the story category as he was dealing with a ridiculously tangled plot and he somehow managed to smooth into a single thread.
The one thing that is less than superior is the design and layout. The chapter title font is slightly too fat to be legible and I can’t discern a reason to go with a handwriting style there. Although photos are well-chosen they’re laid out inconsistently using a variety of wraps and sizes. This doesn’t reflect negligence or incompetence by any means, but there’s a lack of purpose that is at odds with literary excellence.
I’d love to see Vietnam with at least some accolades in a few weeks, but I’m skeptical that it has true Printz potential. Is it realistic to hope that it shows up on the YALSA nonfiction longlist?
Although the title promises a spy thriller, McCormick’s book is actually the portrait of a spiritual young man. Dietrich Bonhoeffer is a pacifist and an introspective “hero.” In many of the early chapters, McCormick frequently ends with a moody foreshadowing sentence or paragraph alluding to Bonhoeffer’s ultimate fate. At the second instance it begins to feel like an unnecessary embellishment to generate excitement where it isn’t needed. When done well, these hooks can entice a reader to keep reading but McCormick relies on them too heavily and the book loses power because of it.
The best sections of the book concern Bonhoeffer’s travels in America. His observations about American culture and religion are fascinating and although they aren’t the focus of the book, their inclusion does help explain Bonhoeffer’s moral influences. The strengths here serve to highlight the book’s ultimate weakness which is that there’s not quite enough meat to the narrative, and there’s not enough of Bonhoeffer’s voice to sustain his story.
These may be these last nonfiction titles we get to this year, but what about you, dear reader? Any nonfiction titles with literary merit blow you away? We’re so close to knowing if the Real Committee has a favorite in this strong year.
About Joy Piedmont
Joy Piedmont is a librarian and technology integrator at LREI - Little Red School House & Elisabeth Irwin High School. Prior to becoming a librarian, Joy reviewed and reported for Entertainment Weekly’s PopWatch. She reviews for SLJ and is the President of the Hudson Valley Library Association. When she’s not reading or writing about YA literature, she’s compulsively consuming culture of all kinds, learning to fly (on a trapeze), and taking naps with her cat, Oliver. Find her on Twitter @InquiringJoy, email her at joy dot piedmont at gmail dot com, or follow her on Tumblr. Her opinions do not reflect the attitudes or opinions of SLJ, LREI, HVLA or any other initialisms with which she is affiliated.
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