Spring Nonfiction Newbery Contenders
Last year was another really strong year for nonfiction. SUGAR CHANGED THE WORLD, THEY CALLED THEMSELVES THE KKK, and THE WAR TO END ALL WARS were particularly strong, but they were all published for ages 12 and up, and it’s hard enough to build consensus around a nonfiction title, let alone one that may also be perceived by many committee members as “too old.” I found THE NOTORIOUS BENEDICT ARNOLD to be just as good, but pitched to a slightly younger audience (ages 10 and up), so I thought this one might have better Newbery chances, but no. And then, of course, the Sibert recognized some excellent books for an even younger audience (ages 8 and up): KAKAPO RESCUE, LAFAYETTE AND THE AMERICAN REVOLUTION, and BALLET FOR MARTHA. This year promises to be another banner year for the genre because the spring season alone yielded three excellent contenders for Newbery recognition.
Candace Fleming’s last book, THE GREAT AND ONLY BARNUM, was shortlisted for the YALSA Award for Excellence in Nonfiction, and before that THE LINCOLNS won the Boston Globe-Horn Book Award for Nonfiction and was shortlisted for the Los Angeles Times Book Prize. Much to my horror and chagrin it was completely shunned by the ALA Youth Media Awards, namely the Newbery, Printz, and Sibert. Now Fleming’s back in the thick of the award talk with another book that is among the very best of the year–perhaps the best. I’m still trying to sort out what I make of the fiction, and I still need to read Marc Aronson’s TRAPPED, but if I had to vote today AMELIA LOST would easily be in my top three, and quite possibly my first place vote. There are many distinguished qualities of the book, but one of the most impressive to me is how Fleming is able to take the search and rescue efforts and sprinkle them throughout the book like magic fairy dust, creating a palpable sense of tension and suspense.
Karen Blumenthal won a Sibert Honor for her first book for young readers, SIX DAYS IN OCTOBER: THE STOCK MARKET CRASH OF 1928, but it’s her next one, LET ME PLAY: THE STORY OF TITLE IX–THE LAW THAT CHANGED THE FUTURE OF GIRLS IN AMERICA, that absolutely blew my mind. Now she’s back with BOOTLEG: MURDER, MOONSHINE, AND THE LAWLESS YEARS OF PROHIBITION. Blumenthal excels at taking complex social movements and breaking them down for young readers with a cohesive mix of cultural, political, and economic analysis. To be sure, this one’s a bit of an intellectual workout for young readers, but the historical anecdotes and biographical vignettes make it extremely engaging and readable nevertheless.
You may remember that a couple years ago we discussed YEARS OF DUST by Albert Marrin, a book that many of us found problematic because of its well-intentioned, yet off-the-mark portrayal of American Indians. Now Marrin offers up FLESH & BLOOD SO CHEAP for our examination. It opens with a compelling teaser about the horror of the Triangle Fire–it remained the single greatest New York City disaster until the terrorist attacks of 9/11–and ends with a modern day analysis of the current practice of sweatshops in developing countries. My only concern with this one is that, especially in comparison with AMELIA LOST, I wish Marrin had managed to bottle up the magic in the prelude and sprinkle it over the rest of the narrative.
Sondy reminded me in the comments below about QUEEN OF THE FALLS by Chris Van Allsburg which not only slipped my mind, but slipped under my radar. I’ve been meaning to check it out of the library, but I’ve never managed to remember. Most of the reviews heap the lion’s share of the praise on the illustrations, but there are hints of a solid text. Booklist: “Van Allsburg’s telling of the rest of the tale—Taylor’s failure to parlay her adventure into cash—is especially affecting, and readers will embrace her resolve.” Horn Book: “This illustrated biography climaxes beautifully with a double-page spread of the great falls, a tiny barrel bobbing in the current, and a powerful one-line text: ‘Oh, Lord,’ she whispered, and then she was gone.” What do you think? Worthy of Newbery consideration?
If you haven’t read these spring titles yet, please get busy reading. If you have read them, please offer up your comments on them, and prepare yourselves for the fall crop of nonfiction contenders, particularly the aforementioned TRAPPED, DRAWING FROM MEMORY by Allen Say, HEART AND SOUL by Kadir Nelson, and BLIZZARD OF GLASS by Sally Walker.
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About Jonathan Hunt
Jonathan Hunt is the Coordinator of Library Media Services at the San Diego County Office of Education. He served on the 2006 Newbery committee, and has also judged the Caldecott Medal, the Printz Award, the Boston Globe-Horn Book Awards, and the Los Angeles Times Book Prize. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org
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