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Another Nonfiction Roundup
Monday, we got a graphic novel round up. And earlier this year, we had a nonfiction roundup. Now that we’ve reached the end of the year — and seen the Excellence for NF shortlist, and taken a look at all the year-end lists — we’ve got a second round up, taking a look at all the nonfiction titles we’ve been saving. We’ll go through each title alphabetically.
Eyes of the World: Robert Capa, Gerda Taro, and the Invention of Modern Photojournalism by Marc Aronson and Marina Budhos
Henry Holt, March 2017
Reviewed from a digital copy; 3 stars
To be totally honest, I kept putting this off because it was easiest to get in digital format, which limited me to reading on my phone. (I don’t generally mind reading on my phone, but when you start incorporating visual elements, I start to want a paper copy). So I started and restarted (and renewed and rechecked out) a lot. HOWEVER, this was silly of me!
This is history the way I like to read it: big and complicated and also small and nuanced. Aronson and Budhos have crafted something that is part biography, part war history, part journalism history; it’s also about the history of technology and about how we are changed by technology. The writing team is dedicated to tying the historical moments to current day events, showing how everything, really, is interrelated. There’s a lot of backmatter to provide context, there’s even a section on visual literacy and the reading of photographs.
And we should probably talk about those photographs, too. They’re carefully chosen (though not best shown off in the digital format). They’re chaotic, captivating, and worth spending time with. They’re a huge part of the story — just as important as the writing. (Really, someone who wasn’t reading this on a phone, usually on a dim, night-friendly setting should weigh in here to talk about them!). Aronson and Budhos take care to talk about how to read a photograph, how framing and context shape our experience, all of which allows us to better read the carefully chosen images, which ultimately adds weight and context to the text.
So what could keep it from getting a Printz medal? The frequent choice to use present tense provides immediacy, but may be off-putting, especially because sometimes they do switch to past tense. But really, that’s all I’ve got because the writing overall is clear, accessible, and interesting. Buoyed by the pictures, and by the large scope, this is quite a read.
In the realm of nonfiction, Vincent and Theo has a lot of big time buzz going for it, but I wonder if EotW is picking up steam now? It’s popped up on a ton of year-end lists and of course is a finalist for Excellence in Nonfiction. This is history both large and small, and it’s a powerhouse of a book. I think this is a contender; it’s ambitious, it’s complicated, it’s thoughtful.
Alexander Hamilton, Revolutionary by Martha Brockenbrough
Macmillan, September 2017
Reviewed from an ARC; 1 stars
This was the most traditional nonfiction title I (Sarah) read for this post. It’s a meaty, fairly lengthy biography giving your HamFans another source to read. It’s got many images (well, I read an ARC, but it left spaces for a lot of pictures), graphics, offset quotes, and other visual elements to compliment a robust text. Brockenbrough dug deep, using primary and secondary sources wisely and well to tell this story. There’s also quite a bit of backmatter that includes detailed source notes, timelines, a quick guide to “allies and enemies,” and a lot of mini-essays to add context to the work overall.
All of this works quite well as a book; it’s readable and interesting, and engaging, and the readability increases throughout the course of the text. This will be a book you can hand sell in your library, but I’m not convinced it will be getting any medals come ALA. The uneven writing could hold it back, as well as its overall staid-ness. There are more flashy, more risky — and ultimately more solid — contenders out and about this year.
#NotYourPrincess: Voices of Native American Women edited by Lisa Charleyboy and Mary Beth Leatherdale
Annick Press, October 2017
Reviewed from a final copy; 2 stars
Here’s my other top pick from my nonfiction reading pile. This is an anthology from the same team who put together Dreaming in Indian. It’s a similar format, thoughtfully pairing art with text; the focus here is on nonfiction essay writing, poetry, interviews, and brief biographies/pieces of memoir. The flow of the book allows Charleyboy and Leatherdale to include a wide variety of ages, perspectives, and experiences, covering four major themes: commonalities; injustice; rejection of stereotype; thoughts and hopes for the future. This structure also allows readers to take a reading journey that ends in strength and love, which is important and powerful.
There’s a relatively small page count, which allows the reader freedom to breathe with and between the inclusions. The book feels like a scrapbook you’ve just happened to pick up, vibrating with intensity, emotion, and immediacy. Adding to a scrapbook impression is the strong pairings between art and text, and the many different perspectives included. This is a read to be savored. Some of the entries are even hand-lettered; every page feels personal and powerful. I think this is a book that grows and strengthens on re-read.
But we’ve talked before about the difficulties anthologies can face; this text is no different. Being a cohesive whole is easy for a singly-told story (well, relatively, I’d imagine). Pulling differing formats, elements, and pieces into something that approaches cohesiveness is tricky, and the differing tones and voices can work against an anthology. Adding to the consideration is that some of the pieces are very brief — there are paragraphs and tweets included.
I’d be ready to argue hard for this at the table, but the Printz game, as always, depends on consensus. It may be hard for enough committee members to agree enough about this book to net a Printzly medal. But #NotYourPrincess is already a finalist for Excellence in Nonfiction, so I’m very interested to see how it will do. I hope it takes the gold there!
Undefeated: Jim Thorpe and the Carlisle Indian School Football Team by Steve Sheinkin
Roaring Brook, January 2017
Reviewed from digital ARC, 4 stars
Steve Sheinkin books always seem to turn up as major awards contenders every year. Yet, the buzz around this one built and then fizzled. Four stars is nothing to sneeze at and I would never count Sheinkin out completely but his book about Jim Thorpe, Pop Warner, and American football has some problematic elements that have likely hurt its chances for the Printz. I encourage you to read Beverly Slapin’s review of the book over at American Indians in Children’s Literature; she discusses in depth this book’s issues of representation.
Personally, when I read Undefeated I didn’t catch any of those things. I found the book to be an engaging history of the Carlisle Indian Industrial School (which I knew nothing about) and the development of American football (which I watch occasionally). Unlike Sheinkin’s other works, there was a spark missing for me though. He is at his best when writing about high-pressure, complicated situations. A master of tension and pacing, Sheinkin’s main skills are not necessarily on display here. The work is proficient, but it never grabbed me the way his other books have.
The pace here is slower and our focus is split between various subjects. Although Jim Thorpe is the titular protagonist, the book is as much about football itself as it is about him, which is fine but what’s missing is the single element to unify the themes and stories of the work. For Sheinkin, this is usually some dramatic goal or obstacle. Without one here, the book always feels like it’s missing something. —Joy Piedmont
The 57 Bus: A True Story of Two Teenagers and the Crime that Changed Their Lives by Dashka Slater
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, October 2017
Reviewed from ARC, 3 stars
Sasha, a white agender teen, was asleep on the 57 bus in Oakland when they were set on fire. Richard, a black teen hanging out with his friends, flicked the lighter that started the fire. Five years ago the lives of these two teens crashed into each other, creating a story that sits at the intersection race, gender, class, education, and criminal justice. It’s a lot for one book but Slater’s short chapters touch on everything with just enough depth to make a reader sit with two conflicting ideas–for example, Sasha’s attacker should be punished; Richard shouldn’t be tried as an adult–and give them equal weight.
The story is harrowing from start to finish. Structurally, it’s wise to give both teens’ backstory prior to describing the fire and aftermath. Slater’s writing has that magazine quality: punchy and just dipping a toe into overdramatic. The biggest misstep though is in the inclusion of poetry and the occasional shift in perspective. Did she write the poetry? It’s not attributed to anyone else so I’m assuming it’s her. I’m very upfront in saying that I’m not the best reader for poetry but it felt particularly out of place and emotionally manipulative in this book. Likewise, the inclusion of text threads between Sasha’s friends is interesting and shows the trauma their friends went through after the fire, but it’s embroidery that ultimately doesn’t serve character development for our protagonists nor thematic development.
The place where The 57 Bus shines is theme. If I had to choose a single major theme it would be that systems are rigid and unforgiving, especially for teens like Sasha and Richard. Slater outlines the edges of this idea in various ways but there’s no specific way in which it all comes together as a cohesive vision. That could hurt its Printz chances but I think it’s Nonfiction Award chances are still strong. —Joy Piedmont
And thus concludes this installment of nonfiction roundup. Any thoughts? Counterarguments? Other considerations? We are all ears in the comments. And remember, you still have a little time to vote in the Pyrite!
Filed under: Books to look for, Nonfiction
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.
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