Most Dangerous and Drowned City
Because of the shortened season and early mock discussions, Jonathan and I may not have a chance to do our usual redux of every title on our shortlist, but we’ll attempt to make space for each one that hasn’t got as much discussion as others. While people are still reading and commenting on RHYTHM RIDE, I wanted to talk a moment to look at our other two nonfiction titles.
Jonathan called MOST DANGEROUS a “thriller,” and I was surprised to find that a pretty apt term for a work of historical nonfiction. I was impressed at how Sheinkin managed continuous yet variable narrative tension throughout, while dancing between different points of view and during periods of time in which, essentially, “nothing” was happening (I’m thinking here mostly of the Times’ stalling with Ellsberg). I think Steven, in his comments, elaborated on much of what I noted as the strengths of this narrative. This feels like a book that Sheinkin HAD to write, because of the availability of primary sources: the Nixon recordings, and Ellsberg himself. I’m intrigued at the conversation regarding whether this is a “journalistic” or “narrative / novelistic” treatment of the material. While this is clearly an attempt to put down “what happened,” I see Sheinkin using what I have to assume are deliberate novelistic techniques, employing setting and dialgoue to create dramatic scenes, using leading chapter titles and cliffhanger chapter endings, and even attempting to establish a narrative arc to what was really a series of events. The fact that you can apply pretty much all of the bulleted Newbery criteria (theme, info, plot, character, setting, style) to this work shows what I think Sheinkin was setting out to do, and achieved extremely well. I’m the sort of reader who gets lost in journalism, no matter how engaged I am with the subject, and I felt throughout this narrative the writer’s hand in drawing my attention–in a helpful, not awkward, way.
Equally effective for me-as-a-reader, was Don Brown’s approach with DROWNED CITY. In comments on our earlier post, Brenda questioned how well a journalistic “reportage-style” graphic narrative might fare in Newbery discussion, while Jonathan made a pitch to consider the text as “voice-over narration.” It is not a natural way to read, of course, to examine just what the text is doing in a graphic novel; but I find that when I do it here I find plenty to acclaim. Jonathan typed out the first few pages of text in his post, and I’m just going to repeat one here, it’s the second page of text. Try reading this aloud, and see if you hear that voice-over narrator, the rhythm that draws your attention to emotional points, and the very deliberate word choice:
From a smudge of foul weather it becomes a nasty tropical storm, and then erupts into a vicious hurricane with howling winds, pinwheeling counterclockwise. As it does with all big storms, the National Hurricane Center in Miami, Florida assigns it a name: Katrina.
Throughout, Brown uses text as necessary, where necessary, in concert with his images and pacing of layout, to tell the story. Consider how he mixes the narrator’s voice with actual quotes he puts into word balloons. We see it first to great effect on p.10-11. The exchange of narrative/quotes describing the end of the evacuation culminate in the quote from a train conductor “We offered … to take evacuees out of harm’s way. The city declined” followed by the reportage: “Five trains leave New Orleans empty.” The rhythm of the narrative across this spread leaves the reader with a hollow feeling of dread, which Brown uses for the energy of the page turn, and the image of the hurricane on the following spread. That image picks up and carries the emotional dread fully, as it is accompany by an almost tinny-sounding dry but detailed report on what is happening with the weather system. Here the text, even at its driest, is doing exactly what Brown needs it to do to tell his story right.
I feel like I could give every spread this treatment and find excellence; and that, differently from other books with images where we can pull out the text and examine it typed out here (as we’ve done, for instance, with illustrated books of poetry), here the text must be evaluated in its graphic form, as text. While I am doing this, my focus is on what the text is doing, and how distinguished it is in its effect. I find it as remarkable, if not more so, that Sheinkin’s thrilling appraoch, or Pinkney’s Groove.
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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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