Eyes on the Prize
Civil rights elicit a wide range of deeply felt emotions–horror, outrage, disgust, sadness, admiration, and conviction–especially in relation to black holes and shore birds. Generally speaking, we care more because we’re talking about people. Not surprisingly, these books often get their just due, especially when they are well written. Indeed, half of the nonfiction Newbery books in the past decade–THE VOICE THAT CHALLENGED A NATION and CLAUDETTE COLVIN–relate to this very struggle.
This year there are no less than five good nonfiction books with a specific focus on the civil rights: WE’VE GOT A JOB by Cynthia Levinson, MILES TO GO FOR FREEDOM by Linda Barrett Osborne, TO THE MOUNTAINTOP by Charlayne Hunter-Gault, MARCHING TO THE MOUNTAINTOP by Ann Bausum, and LITTLE ROCK GIRL 1957 by Shelley Tougas. I’ve read them all and while each book has something to recommend readers, the cream of this crop is WE’VE GOT A JOB, a book that recalls MARCHING FOR FREEDOM with its narrow focus, vivid narrative, eyewitness accounts, and striking photographs.
On Thursday morning, May 2, 1963, nine-year-old Audrey Faye Hendricks woke up with freedom on her mind. But, before she could be free, there was something important she had to do.
“I want to go to jail,” Audrey told her mother.
Levinson’s narrative pivots around four young people as they become caught up in the 1963 Birmingham Children’s March. I’m impressed by the detailed account of this event, and the way that each viewpoint informs the development of the plot. Because each character is drawn so vividly and because the setting becomes so real, the drama in this story builds wonderfully.
In any other year, this might be the leading nonfiction book, and the most likely Newbery contender, but it’s a crowded nonfiction field. I do think it’s better than most of the fiction. Then, too, it’s not like the Newbery has a quota on nonfiction books that it can’t exceed; it just seems that way.
The committee has shown an affinity for historical fiction over the years. All three titles last year were historical, for example, and four of the five from the previous year, too (including ONE CRAZY SUMMER which fits squarely in this era). So it stands to reason that historical fiction plus civil rights could be a winning formula, and there are a handful of novels this year, but only two have cracked my starred review list: CROW by Barbara Wright and THE LIONS OF LITTLE ROCK by Kristin Levine.
I talk a lot. Just not out loud where anyone can hear. At least I used to be that way. I’m no chatterbox now, but if you stop me on the street and ask me the directions to the zoo, I’ll answer you. Probably. If you’re nice, I might even tell you a couple of different ways to get there. I guess I’ve learned it’s not enough to just think things. You have to say them, too. Because all the words in the world won’t do much good if they’re just rattling around in your head.
Marlee’s voice is one this novel’s biggest strengths, and readers will recognize echoes of other beloved heroines, but she’s also very long-winded and it takes her quite awhile to work her way through the entire school year. Nevertheless, the family dynamic, the treacherous territory of junior high friendships and romances, and the backdrop of school segregation are all well drawn. However, I think there are some conveniences in the plot that allow for the friendship to be torn apart and put back together too easily.
The buzzard knew. He gave the first warning. I was playing in the back yard while my grandmother stirred the iron wash pot over the fire. She had gray hair and a bent back. Standing, she looked like the left-hand side of a Y. If she could straighten her back, she would be taller than me, but since she couldn’t, we were the same height. I called her Boo Granny. She joked that I should call her Bent Granny.
Just as LIONS gives us an unconventional perspective (i.e. the year after the Little Rock Nine), CROW takes us to the dawn of the Jim Crow era to see how the hard work of the Reconstruction was undone. The third person narrative is more to my taste, but even so I found it took me quite awhile to become fully invested in the story. Here, as in LIONS, the presentation of the the family dynamic, the childhood friendships, and the glimpse into the larger political turmoil within the community is handled adeptly. I don’t have quite as many quibbles with this one; however, it still comes shy of my leading fiction candidates.
All three books have obvious strengths–they all have their eyes on the prize, so to speak–and clearly deserve a prominent place in our discussion. Even so, I’m not convinced that any of the three rise to the level of most distinguished. What do you say?
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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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