Disasters and Hoaxes
We’ve already spent quite a bit of time obsessing over BOMB–and with good reason–but there are a handful of other worthy narrative nonfiction books that deserve our attention. Each writer, to one degree or another, has structured the plots of their books to take full advantage of the suspense of their stories.
The book you are about to read tells the story of one of the world’s most amazing adventures, a saga based on arguably the most daring rescue plan ever devised. It is a story filled with extraordinary courage, unprecedented personal sacrifices, human failings and continual suspense.
THE IMPOSSIBLE RESCUE is my pet Newbery contender that nobody seems very excited about. It reminds me of SHIPWRECK AT THE BOTTOM OF THE WORLD by Jennifer Armstrong, so if you liked that one then be sure to give this one a look. A wonderfully suspenseful story rife with courage and drama, this book would rate even higher if we could consider the abundant use of photographs as primary sources in addition to the multitude of quotes sprinkled throughout the text.
At 2:20 a.m. on Monday, April 15, 1912, the RMS Titanic, on her glorious maiden voyage from Southampton to New York, sank after striking an iceberg in the North Atlantic, klling 1,496 men, women, and children. A total of 712 survivors escaped with their lives on twenty lifeboats that had room for 1,178 people. There were 2,208 on board.
Last year, we praised another Titanic book–THE WATCH THAT ENDS THE NIGHT by Allan Wolf–an ambitious account that employed a variety of fictionalized viewpoints to chronicle this tragic event. How much more impressive, then, is this one, grounded even more firmly in the factual record. It’s easy to see why this one captured a couple of nominations on our mock list, and truth be told, I’m thinking about this one as one of my final two nominations.
For as long as she could remember, Frances’s parents had told her stories about England. But when she got there, the real England wasn’t like the stories at all. Frances could see that as soon as the ship pulled into the harbor.
Mark nominated ABRAHAM LINCOLN & FREDERICK DOUGLASS as the most pointless book of the year. For me, it’s this one. To be sure, it’s exceptionally well written, but it’s hard for me to care very much. Maybe I’m jaded by a lifetime of reading tabloid headlines while standing in line at the supermarket or maybe it just doesn’t seem nearly exciting to this boy reader as BOMB, THE IMPOSSIBLE RESCUE, and TITANIC. Despite some obvious strengths, I just can’t get excited about this one for the Newbery, but I’d love to entertain arguments from its fans.
The Saturday morning of October 16, 1869, was cool and damp in Cardiff, New York, as Gideo Emmons headed up the twisting dirt road. To one side, the maple and hickory trees had turned Bear mountain into a blazing mass of yellow, orange, and scarlet leaves. It was a spectacular autumn scene, but Emmons hardly noticed. He was nursing a throbbing headache from drinking too much whiskey the night before. At 7:30 or so, Emmons met up with his friend Henry Nichols, and the two continued walking north.
Like THE FAIRY RING, THE GIANT doesn’t immediately let readers in on the hoax, allowing our curiosity–and the suspense–to build. To my mind, this is the weakest of this bunch, but still interesting for the sake of contrast.
We tend to gravitate toward these books that develop narrative in the recognizable patterns of fiction. Is it right that we should hold these kinds of books in higher esteem? Above something with a more expository presentation of information (not that any work of nonfiction is either wholly one or the other), something like A BLACK HOLE IS NOT A HOLE.
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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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