Port Chicago 50 Redux
As Jonathan and I start revisiting each of the titles on our mock discussion shortlist (and please do keep commenting on JOEY PIGZA), it seems time to jump back to one of the first titles we introduced this season, Steve Sheinkin’s THE PORT CHICAGO 50: DISASTER, MUTINY, AND THE FIGHT FOR CIVIL RIGHTS, which has since made the YALSA nonfiction award finalists and NBA finalists lists.
In a comment on the Nonfiction Contenders post, Genevieve said: “That story was completely new to me, and I think to a number of other readers. If I don’t consider the newness, to me it didn’t reach the heights of my other top contenders.” This echoed Jonathan’s sentiment that “It’s not that the first half of this book was mundane, it’s that having read virtually every civil rights book published for children in the past dozen years, it just feels too familiar to me. I know that’s an adult response that many, if not most, children will not share.” They both went on to acknowledge the book’s strengths, noting that it just didn’t make the top for them.
It is worthwhile examining how we feel about the “importance” of the story, and especially, as Leonard Kim pointed us to, in relationship to another book on our shortlist with the same issue: REVOLUTION (which I’m in the middle of my re-read on now). Noting that “the award is not for didactic content,” but rather “for literary quality and quality presentation for children,” the committee does consider “interpretation of the theme or concept” among its criteria. That is, how well does the author develop the idea being presented, for the intended audience…regardless of how important we might think the idea is for that audience.
At the same time, the committee is also considering that overall concept of what makes their winner “the most distinguished contribution to American literature for children”, and suggests that among the definitions of “distinguished” are: “Marked by eminence and distinction; noted for significant achievement.” I feel that under this umbrella, the fact that a book brings something fully new to the literature IS a consideration, if done in a distinguished way. We’ve seen this, I’d suggest, with books like A JOYFUL NOISE, THE GIVER, WHAT JAMIE SAW, CARVER: A LIFE IN POEMS, HITLER YOUTH, WHERE THE MOUNTAIN MEETS THE MOON… and many others, including the infamous SECRET OF THE ANDES. “New” is certainly not the only thing that distinguishes these works (and is not a requirement for a winner), but may be among what made them rise in their particular year.
I’d argue the same for THE PORT CHICAGO 50. The newness of the story is absolutely one of the things that I find remarkable about it; but only the first thing. Sheinkin’s working of the oral histories into a lively, provocative, and fairly short narrative is the true achievement. It is true, as Jonathan points out, that until Sheinkin gets into the meat of the story his background/context isn’t necessarily award material. But, apropos of Leonard Kim’s debunking of my theory that REVLOUTION was overloaded with Raymond’s voice (and more on that soon!), I have to point out that Sheinkin’s context setting in the first two chapters take up a measly 12 pages, much of which are photos. Imagining a young reader coming to this story, freshly, I think that Sheinkin gives them plenty of opportunity to engage (and the nonfiction text invites readers to browse or skip these sections as desired, as does Wiles’ documentary material). I find so much among the remaining pages to appreciate that this still remains easily in my top 3.
I haven’t offered an argument here for PORT CHICAGO vs. FAMILY ROMANOV, since I’d like to think that each of us can make room for more than one nonfiction among our top contenders, but the truth is that the Sheinkin always sits above the Fleming in my mind. I have a significant personal bias, since I am NOT a text-heavy history reader. Sheinkin’s work stands out to me because is DOES make its content accessible and distinguished to readers who may think they don’t like to read history. That is part of its achievement. This doesn’t mean that Fleming’s work “fails” because it doesn’t do this, it simply doesn’t have this aspect going for it among its many strengths. It does share the element of “newness for audience” with Sheinkin’s…and we’ll look at it very soon.
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About Nina Lindsay
Nina Lindsay is the Children's Services Coordinator at the Oakland Public Library, CA. She chaired the 2008 Newbery Committee, and served on the 2004 and 1998 committees. You can reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org
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