We’ve discussed some nonfiction titles in depth already, namely our shortlisted titles MOST DANGEROUS, DROWNED CITY, and RHYTHM RIDE. We also briefly discussed THE BOYS WHO CHALLENGED HITLER (although I think it’s worthier of an extended conversation).
However, those are far from the only worthy nonfiction titles to consider this year. The additional titles below are all at least 64 pages and had 3-4 starred reviews. I’m including several memoirs below, even though I consider memoirs to be autobiographical novels rather than truly nonfiction (but that’s another discussion, and an entirely moot one for our Newbery purposes).
BREAKTHROUGH! by Jim Murphy . . . I know that many of the books on this list will be difficult to build consensus around because they will be perceived as high school books rather than elementary or even middle school books. That makes this one a sleeper, I think. Published late in the year, this brief account of the team that solved a medical mystery in the middle of the 20th century. It’s especially compelling that this team included both a woman and an African American at a time when men dominated the medical field.
FATAL FEVER by Gail Jarrow . . . This is the second book in the Deadly Diseases trilogy, and it’s quite good. I especially love all the background information woven into the book before we even meet Mary Mallon. However, TERRIBLE TYPHOID MARY has a more appealing book design, while BREAKTHROUGH! also offers competition in the same genre (i.e. the history of science and medicine). It may be tough for this one to crack the award line-up, good reviews notwithstanding.
MARCH: BOOK 2 by John Lewis and Andrew Aydin . . . I thought the first book in this excellent series would have been the best choice since it included Lewis’s childhood memories, whereas this one takes place entirely when he is in college, but the graphic novel threshold had not yet been crossed by the Newbery committee. Kinda surprised that ENCHANTED AIR made the ENYA shortlist over this one, but then I was surprised that POPULAR eclipsed BROWN GIRL DREAMING on the same list last year.
STONEWALL by Ann Bausum . . . This one will seem like a high school title to many, but I think it’s solidly middle school, and Someday My Printz Will Come agreed that the treatment is better suited to a younger audience. Certainly, the focus here is squarely on civil rights rather than sexuality and for that reason, I think it could be less controversial than, say, GEORGE in an elementary or middle school collection. I could be wrong, but I don’t think so.
SYMPHONY FOR THE CITY OF THE DEAD by M.T. Anderson . . . Arguably, the oldest title on this list. I’m sure we can find 13- or 14-year old readers for it, but I think it would be difficult to make the argument that this one succeeds at what it does better than many of the similarly excellent nonfiction pitched at a younger audience. Still, does anybody write as passionately about their topic as when Anderson writes about the power and majesty Shostakovich’s music and the impact it had on people in such destitute circumstances? I think not.
TOMMY by Karen Blumenthal . . . A good history of the Thompson submachine gun and how it shaped American culture and society. Some people may find the narrative slightly disjointed, others may find sections a bit dry, but I absolutely love Blumenthal’s talent for synthesizing the political, social, and cultural history of an era. My favorite of hers is LET ME PLAY, but this one does a fine job. Another book that straddles that audience line.
ENCHANTED AIR by Margarita Engle . . . This is one of my favorite Margarita Engle books in recent memory (another being DRUM DREAM GIRL, a potential Caldecott book), but I think the timing isn’t optimal. As good as it is, it seems to pale in comparison to BROWN GIRL DREAMING, a comparison none of us are supposed to make, but I still can’t help wondering if this have made a bigger impact if it had been published a couple years ago.
FDR AND THE AMERICAN CRISIS by Albert Marrin . . . Marrin was a National Book Award finalist for FLESH & BLOOD SO CHEAP, and this is a worthy follow up. It’s a nice biographical portrait of a famous president and a good examination of the first half of the 20th century. Like MARCH, STONEWALL, SYMPHONY, and TOMMY it could be hard to build consensus around this book because of the audience. And then, too, I just don’t think it’s quite in the same league as those in regard to literary merit either.
THE OCTOPUS SCIENTISTS by Sy Montgomery . . . Another good entry in the wonderful Scientists in the Field series, but I don’t think this one is a serious contender for the Sibert, let alone the Newbery. This same body of research seemed to result in an adult book, THE SOUL OF AN OCTOPUS, which was shortlisted for the National Book Award in the Nonfiction category.
TERRIBLE TYPHOID MARY by Susan Campbell Bartoletti . . . I reviewed both this book and FATAL FEVER for Horn Book, and I believe they are both strong books with different strengths. Here, I like how Bartoletti uses Mary Mallon as a lens to examine American society, and then subsequently to ask some difficult questions, too. Not sure what’s going on with the cover (THE HIRED GIRL features the same servant girl chic), but otherwise an appealing story in an appealing package.
TURNING 15 ON THE ROAD TO FREEDOM by Lynda Blackmon Lowery . . . This one started powerfully for me. Short vignettes that perfectly capture a child’s viewpoint. They felt poignant and affecting at first, yet somehow–at least for me–diminished in the latter half of the book. Not sure why my enthusiasm waned the further I read. Thoughts?
Between the four books we already covered, and these eleven titles, not to mention several excellent nonfiction picture books (FUNNY BONES, EARMUFFS FOR EVERYONE, and MESMERIZED, to name a few), there should be something for everybody’s taste.
And yet. Since we have examined our prejudice, bias, and privilege throughout the past year, I think it’s only fair to ask how these factors affect the genre of nonfiction in the award process. Melissa Stewart recently wrote this guest post at Fuse 8 about how even the nonfiction that does get recognized tends toward narrative over expository. Marc Aronson, has been beating this drum, I think, as long as anyone has.
So now the difficult question: It’s a widely held belief that adult women prefer fiction, while adult men prefer nonfiction, but there is very little research to back that up. It’s mostly anecdotal evidence. Moreover, I think that genre is merely one factor in our often complex reading preferences, and, too, I think reading widely and deeply for the Newbery has a way of leveling the playing field. And yet, when push comes to shove and you only get three votes . . . I can’t help but wonder that if at least 2/3 of the committee were men then the committee wouldn’t have recognized a heck of a lot more nonfiction over the years . . . What do you think?
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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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