. . . and Men
So we’ve already covered Team Mice, now we’re on to Team Men which includes the likes of Charles Dickens, Leonard Bernstein, Abraham Lincoln, Jefferson Davis, George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Max Schmeling, and Dinga the blacksmith
Charles Dickens makes a cameo appearance in THE CHESHIRE CHEESE CAT, but he gets his own excellent biography this year–CHARLES DICKENS AND THE STREET CHILDREN OF LONDON–courtesy of award-winning nonfiction author Andrea Warren. This book has a special focus on how his own impoverished childhood shaped his adult concern for these street children, both in his writing and in his charity. By doing so, it communicates to the reader not only how beloved Dickens was, but how influential, too. “The Victorian Age was named for the Queen, but it was Dickens who captured it in print.”
I’m not a fan of biographies which dwell on the childhood years of their subjects; I want to read about people because they are famous, not because they were children. But Susan Goldman Rubin won me over with MUSIC WAS IT, a biography of the young Leonard Bernstein, who knew what he wanted from a young age, but had to pursue it despite the disapproval of his father. He made his conducting debut at the age of twenty-five. Kudos to Rubin for communicating Bernstein’s passion–and to her publisher, Charlesbridge, which has done some nice nonfiction books in recent years, namely EVERY BONE TELLS A STORY and THE MYSTERIES OF BEETHOVEN’S HAIR.
My students loved CHASING LINCOLN’S KILLER by James Swanson, a book from a couple years back that detailed the manhunt for John Wilkes Booth. This one, BLOODY TIMES, alternates between the funeral procession of Abraham Lincoln and the search for Jefferson Davis. Both are equally fascinating, but have one problem according to the Expanded Examples & Definitions: They’re not original work.
Children’s books derived from previously published adult books can’t be considered eligible. The intent of the award is not to see who can successfully adapt an adult book; the award is intended for the original creation of a distinguished book for children.
Since these were both adapted from adult nonfiction books, a fact boldly advertised on the covers, that puts the kibosh on any Newbery aspirations. The curious thing, however, is that the manual cites Mark Kurlansky’s THE COD’S TALE as being ineligible by the same rule, but that picture book is so far removed from his 300 page adult nonfiction work as to be an entirely different book altogether. Weird!
Like the all the books mentioned so far, THE MANY FACES OF GEORGE WASHINGTON by Carla Killough McClafferty has two starred reviews. Unlike them, however, I haven’t been able to get my hands on a copy and actually read it yet, but since Washington is my favorite president, I’m really looking forward to doing so. In 2005, a group of historians, scientists, and artists set about to create three images of Washington as he looked as a nineteen-year-old surveyor, a forty-five-year-old general, and a fifty-seven-year-old president. Apparently, these CSI-type chapters alternate with more standard biographical chapters to create an intriguing book.
Max Schmeling, the German boxing champion who beat Joe Louis and then lost to him in the rematch, figures into a couple of books this year, first in A NATION’S HOPE by Matt de la Pena with illustrations by Kadir Nelson, and then in a young adult novel, THE BERLIN BOXING CLUB by Robert Sharenow. This one hovers at the upper end of the age limit, but since it’s a Holocaust novel . . . well, no, not a Holocaust novel, although the setting is World War II Germany and protagonist is Jewish and his family is persecuted as such . . . it should have broad appeal with the junior high grades, that is 7th to 9th. This one doesn’t have all the atrocities of BETWEEN SHADES OF GRAY or the vaginas of CHIME, but–oh, my!–a circumcised penis does make an appearance. You open the door to scrotums and all kinds of unsavory body parts start showing up in children’s books.
JEFFERSON’S SONS by Kimberly Brubaker Bradley is a fictionalized look at the last twenty years in the life of Thomas Jefferson at Monticello as viewed by three of his slaves, including two children he fathered with Sally Hemings. I’m eager to see how this one compares to THE FREEDOM MAZE by Delia Sherman, another historical fiction (albeit a historical fiction/fantasy hybrid) that also takes a hard, penetrating look at slavery. My copy arrived last night, and I have started it. Please feel free to start the conversation and I’ll join in later.
I’ve also spent the weekend savoring NEVER FORGOTTEN by Patricia McKissack. Dinga, a blacksmith in West Africa, loses his son, Musafa, to slavers. He enlists the help of the four Mother Elements–Earth, Fire, Water, and Wind–to bring him back, or at the very least to bring him word. Beautifully illustrated by Leo and Diane Dillon, McKissack’s free verse poems capture the rhythms and cadence of a griot. This is one that I would consider spending a nomination on, and I’m sure we will revisit it in more depth later on.
Any thoughts on these? Which of them strike you as particularly Newbery worthy? But enough with all this talk of mice and men! Next time, we’ll discuss planes and women. Yes, AMELIA LOST, it’s your turn for the spotlight.
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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 email@example.com
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