It’s been a banner year for nonfiction yet again. Since we’ve been saying that every year for the past several years maybe it’s time to start speaking of a Golden Age of Nonfiction? In any case, many of the most excellent titles this year are published for ages 12 and up, what many people would consider YA. Since the Newbery goes up to and includes age 14 that doesn’t exclude these titles from consideration. It does make it harder to build consensus around such a book, however. The last thing a book needs is two prejudices working against it–genre and audience. Two of the brightest lights in the firmament this year are THE BOYS WHO CHALLENGED HITLER by Phillip Hoose and MOST DANGEROUS by Steve Sheinkin. While they are unquestionably among the most distinguished books of this year, I find myself unfairly comparing them to their author’s books from previous years.
Employing the same oral history techniques that earned him a Newbery Honor for CLAUDETTE COLVIN, Hoose turns his attention to the Danish resistance during World War II, finding in Knud Pedersen a subject worthy of that treatment. Knud and his friends, dismayed by the Nazi presence in their country, begin to plan random acts of violence and sabotage which become increasingly bolder and more organized, and as they do so the suspense ratchets up. How long can they keep this up without getting caught? And if they do get caught will the Nazis show leniency because of their age?
This book delivers everything the author and reader alike might have hoped for, and yet I cannot shake my own personal feelings of ambivalence. The format is so similar to CLAUDETTE COLVIN and the topic of Nazis, generally speaking, is so overdone that I’m experiencing a new sensation with a Hoose book: ennui. To be sure, this has everything to do with me and my expectations and nothing to do with the book itself. A second read would undoubtedly rid me of these unNewberyish urges to compare this book against those not published during this specific year.
I have already listed MOST DANGEROUS as a top three type of book for me, but I also find myself comparing it to BOMB which, with its three distinct narrative strands, was more of a page turner. To be sure, MOST DANGEROUS is suspenseful, but it’s a slower build. By the time I got to the part where the Pentagon Papers were being leaked, I couldn’t read fast enough. Nobody else writing for children and young adults can really craft a thriller the way that Sheinkin can. He’s peerless in that regard–or individually distinct, as we say in Newbery parlance. Then too the philosophical questions this book raises about loyalty and patriotism, though more likely to appeal to a slightly older crowd than BOMB, show a new dimension to his work.
THE DARK IS RISING is better than THE GREY KING; A LONG WAY FROM CHICAGO is better than A YEAR DOWN YONDER. I guess it really shouldn’t bother me that BOMB is (arguably) better than MOST DANGEROUS. It can still be worthy of the Medal–and perhaps it should win. Once again, a second reading would really help me discard this baggage and appreciate the book on its own merits. I still wonder how it might compare to a book which I had modest expectations for (looking at you, HIRED GIRL), but far exceeded them.
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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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