The Family Romanov
First of all, you need to know something about me as a reader to understand why I find this one quite possibly the most distinguished contribution of American literature for children this year. I like biography, but it can often feel too claustrophobic for me to inhabit a single viewpoint with a very linear narrative arc. So while I loved, for example, THE NOTORIOUS BENEDICT ARNOLD by Steve Sheinkin when it came out, I was much more excited about SUGAR CHANGED THE WORLD by Marc Aronson and Marina Budhos and how it developed the theme of sugar throughout world history, A couple years later, the shoe was on the other foot: the complex history of BOMB trumped MASTER OF DECEIT, Aronson’s biography of J. Edgar Hoover.
So I like the big sprawling histories; they read almost like epic high fantasy to me. Indeed, the Washington Post review said as much about this one, “Candace Fleming’s latest book has the elements of an overheated dystopian thriller —political repression, malevolent figures, a protracted war, endangered children— but no prospect of a triumphal ending.” For those who think this one is “too old” for the Newbery, I would suggest that you give it to the same kiddo that’s reading Rick Riordan or Suzanne Collins. To me, that’s the natural audience for this book. And here, in marked contrast to her earlier books, it’s all about story developed solely through words. (There are picture but they are confined to a couple of glossy spreads inserted in a couple of places.)
The genius of this book is that while it does feel like a very big story on a very big canvas, it’s also a collection of intimate family portraits. This is also biography in the best sense, in that you get to know each member of the royal family up close and personal. To my mind, it hits all the marks: plot, character, setting, theme, style, and presentation of information. The only question that remains is this: Can it climb past BROWN GIRL DREAMING with its groundswell of support for the popular Woodson and what is clearly her best chance to date at winning the Medal after three Honor books?
But it’s been 27 years since a nonfiction book won the Newbery Medal. Isn’t it about time?
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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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