Fall Nonfiction Newbery Contenders
Since I loved SUGAR CHANGED THE WORLD, and I like Marc Aronson’s books in general, I was really looking forward to reading his latest book, TRAPPED: HOW THE WORLD SAVED 33 MINERS FROM 2,000 FEET BELOW THE CHILEAN DESERT. I was impressed with how he incorporated geology, economy, mining, and mythology into this compelling, dramatic current event, but I felt like the X factor was still missing. Wendy mentioned that could have been a larger human element, and I think she’s on the right track. The miners were depicted collectively as a single entity or as types (the leader, the spiritual guru, etc.) rather than as distinct individuals. I also craved more depth on everything in general. So while this one doesn’t rise to the very top of the nonfiction heap for me, it’s still worthy of discussion and consideration, especially relative to some of the mediocre novels people have been touting.
DRAWING FROM MEMORY by Allen Say is a memoir of his journey to becoming an artist. Say’s texts always have an understated elegance about them, and this one is no exception. Don’t let the simple sentences fool you. Notice how, in the first paragraph of the book, each one logically follows the next one, making one great chain of causality.
I was born in 1937 by the seashore of Yokohama, Japan. Our house stood near a fishing village. My playmates were the children of fisherman. Mother constantly worried that I would drown in the sea. She tried to keep me home.
In spite of my bias against memoirs as “fake” nonfiction, I still find this one distinguished. I just don’t think that understated elegance + brevity of text = strong Newbery chances. Now I think the Sibert a more likely possibility–and they’ll be able to take the illustrations into account–but even so I still think it’s an honor book.
WE ARE THE SHIP was one of the most decorated books of its year–Sibert Medal, Coretta Scott King Award for Author, Coretta Scott King Honor for Illustrator. It’s no surprise, then, that this follow up should generate quite a bit of excitement. This time around Kadir Nelson has tackled a larger historical subject: American history through the lens of an African American viewpoint. The illustrations, as always, are fabulous, and Nelson still employs a colloquial first person narrative that somehow manages to be scholarly at the same time. And yet, I wasn’t as enamored with this one. Perhaps I need to dismiss the ghosts of Walter Dean Myers (NOW IS YOUR TIME), Virginia Hamilton (MANY THOUSAND GONE), and Tonya Bolden (various nonfiction books). Perhaps I just know too much about these periods of history to be quite as impressed. And perhaps Nelson has bit off more than he can chew. I think he is prone to oversimplification and overgeneralization, at times, but I’d have to comb back through the book to find those instances. I also have a slight concern about the book design which highlights the illustrations, but leaves huge, impenetrable blocks of text for child readers.
BLIZZARD OF GLASS: THE HALIFAX EXPLOSION OF 1917 will not be published until late November, but the distinguished writing begins on the first page.
Halifax, the largest city of Nova Scotia, Canada, has a story to tell. Fourteen bells in a memorial tower ring part of the tale. In the city hall clock tower, the locked-in-place hands on the clock that faces north freeze a moment of the story, left as it was on that long ago day. A museum containing grim reminders and libraries filled with age-old pages share more. The people of Halifax add chapters to the story each time they speak the memories of those who lived–and died at the time. Old scars are hidden by sturdy stone houses, and tall trees line remade streets. But the roots of the story are still there, and they grow deep.
Here’s another display of true artistry. Walker has chosen to tell this story, in part, through the eyes of five families. This reads like a simple list here, but by this point in the story, the reader knows each of these characters. Note how the clipped staccato delivery heightens the sense of urgency, panic, and suspense. At 9:04 AM . . .
Vincent Pattion, inside the sugar refinery, watched the Mont-Blanc burn.
On Barrington Street, his sons, Gordon, James, and Alan, ran toward the fire.
His wife, Annie, went into the backyard to see what was happening.
Katherine Pattison stayed inside the house.
Albert O’Brien stepped off the ship in the dry dock.
His son Gerald skipped toward the store.
At home, Albert’s wife, Bertie, and his daugher Evelyn watched smoke fill the sky.
Vincent Coleman, his warning telegraph message sent, started to run.
At home, his wife, Frances, and daughters Juanita and Eileen heard sirens.
In school, Eleanor Coleman headed toward her classroom.
Gerald Coleman finished lighting candles in St. Joseph’s church.
On the waterfront, driver Billy Wells tightly gripped the Patricia’s steering wheel.
In the harbor, Horation Brannen and other seamen continued their rescue efforts.
Across the harber, Rose MacDonald and her son Murray watched the cloud grow.
Her sister Hannah Lonecloud stood nearby.
Little Mary peeked from the doorway of the house.
Rose’s son Harvey, following her order, climbed back into bed.
Gertrude Hook, following her mother’s order, turned back to get her mittens.
Pilot Francis Mackey and Captain Aime Le Medec ran into the nearby woods.
Thirty second later, Mont-Blanc’s main cargo exploded.
For me, BLIZZARD OF GLASS is the best of this fall crop, and while I’d still rank AMELIA LOST as my first choice of nonfiction, this one and BOOTLEG rank a close second. So, tell me, have we missed anything? CHARLES DICKENS AND THE STREET CHILDREN OF LONDON by Andrea Warren and MUSIC WAS IT: THE YOUNG LEONARD BERNSTEIN by Susan Goldman Rubin have got good reviews, but I’d be hard pressed to rank them higher than the titles in these two nonfiction posts. Kathi Appelt mentioned CAN I SEE YOUR I.D.? by Chris Barton on a previous thread. Any others we should take note of?
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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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