“In the midst of the human ugliness of racism, there is the human beauty in the resistance to racism.” Ibram X. Kendi
The National Book Awards had a bit of a 2015 ALA Midwinter moment with African Americans winning three of the four categories, and for decidedly political works, no less. Joining John Lewis and company for MARCH, BOOK THREE in the Young People’s Literature category were Colson Whitehead for THE UNDERGROUND RAILROAD in Fiction and Ibram Kendi for STAMPED FROM THE BEGINNING: THE DEFINITIVE HISTORY OF RACIST IDEAS IN AMERICA. We mentioned MARCH, BOOK THREE in our Graphic Novel Roundup, and while we like it very much, it’s probably better positioned for the Printz, although if THIS ONE SUMMER can be a Caldecott book *wicked grin* then we should never say never. There have been a number of books published this year that allow young readers to reflect both on both the human ugliness of racism and human beauty in the resistance to racism. We’ve covered a number of them, but there are several other noteworthy books.
ASHES by Laurie Halse Anderson . . . The genius of this book is how it exposes for a middle grade audience the hypocrisy of fighting for “our” freedom while denying others the same right. Anderson ties up all the loose ends here. Isabel and Ruth are reunited, Isabel and Curzon finally act upon that simmering romantic tension, and we leave our characters at the pivotal battle of Yorktown, secure in the knowledge that their own personal war for freedom will be a lifelong struggle rather one that will end within a few short years.
Being the third and final book in a trilogy, I suspect a discussion of this one will be complicated by that factor. You all know how I personally feel about this issue–that it should be a non factor–so I will not belabor the point.
IN THE SHADOW OF LIBERTY by Kenneth C. Davis . . . Okay, I feel a little dumb here. As I mentioned in the comments on a previous thread, despite the fact that I have read the book, I assumed this was ineligible an adaptation of an adult book–but it’s not. This bestselling adult author had a book published last year which included the words “Hidden History” in the title; those words appear in the subtitle of this book, so that’s where my error came from. Mea culpa!
This book profiles the lives of five black people who were enslaved by four white US presidents. It is meticulously researched and absolutely engrossing, so why am I not feeling more Newbery love for it? I think perhaps it’s because it reads more like a collection of biographical vignettes than a more integrated critique of the institution of slavery. Am I being unfair in my expectation? Probably so. The publisher lists the audience of the book as ages 10-14, squarely in middle school territory, and that’s spot on; it would be a perfect complement to the Seeds of America trilogy, in fact. I think I’m wanting it to be a Printz book in terms of its treatment of this issue, and that’s my problem, not the book’s.
Several notable books deal with slavery this year. FREEDOM IN CONGO SQUARE by Carole Boston Weatherford and FREEDOM OVER ME by Ashley Bryan were discussed in our Poetry Roundup, while UNBOUND by Ann E. Burg was covered in the Verse Novel Roundup. Check them all out if you have not already done so. Those first two are also strong Caldecott contenders. You have been warned!
BROWN V. BOARD OF EDUCATION by Susan Goldman Rubin . . . On the heels on FREEDOM SUMMER a couple of years ago, Rubin delivers a story from the earliest days of the civil rights movement. We all know this landmark case and what it accomplished, but what I appreciate about this book is that it gives us the story behind it. Perhaps I should say stories since there were actually five separate cases lost at the district level that were consolidated in their appeal to the Supreme Court. Being a history major/political science minor in college probably means that I get more mileage out of this book than most people. I’m not sure if this one can break through to the promised land of the Newbery, but I wouldn’t be surprised to see this one and/or IN THE SHADOW OF LIBERTY make the Sibert list.
We were gifted with a pair of verse novels about the courageous Tuskegee Airmen, YOU CAN FLY by Carole Boston Weatherford and AMERICAN ACE by Marilyn Nelson. Check both of them out in our Verse Novel Roundup. I think both of them are Newbery long shots, but I think the former could potentially snag a Coretta Scott King Honor. The latter doesn’t necessarily strike me as an award winner, but Nelson recently won the prestigious NSK Neustadt Award for her body of work.
BLOOD BROTHER by Rich Wallace and Sandra Neil Wallace . . . Jonathan Daniels is a lesser known figure from the civil rights movement. A white seminary student from New Hampshire who lost his life, Daniels leaves behind as part of his legacy a change to the jury system that disallowed all white, all male juries that upheld Jim Crow in the South. At over 300 pages, this book may intimidate young readers, but the font size is large and the design incorporates lots of images. Still, this is probably a book for middle school and above. Could be a Sibert book, but might be a better bet in the YALSA Award for Excellence in Nonfiction field.
THINGS TO HUGE TO FIX BY SAYING SORRY by Susan Vaught . . . This is an interesting book as I think it’s ultimately a story about cultural appropriation (which will be of keen interest to the adults in our field), and yet I think there are compelling elements for the child reader as well. Although it’s garnered three starred reviews, it’s a fall publication, and I’m not sure how many people have read it. Here are some teasers from the reviews.
Publishers Weekly: Buried truths about Mississippi’s segregated past bubble to the surface in this evocative novel featuring a tenacious biracial 12-year-old who wants to know more about her African-American grandmother’s history. Times have been difficult for Dani’s family since her Grandma Beans, a renowned historian, was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease. To make matters worse, Grandma’s feud with an award-winning author, Avadelle Richardson, has received new publicity. Nobody knows what started the rift, but it’s hurting Dani’s friendship with Richardson’s grandson, Mac, who has been told he can no longer speak to Dani.
Booklist: Combining middle-school mystery and civil rights history with reflections on dying, friendship, and the ethics of writing another’s story from a racially different perspective, this novel is ambitious, thought provoking, and very readable.
Kirkus: The novel . . . ventures successfully into territory seldom explored by white authors, pondering who is entitled to tell a story and exposing slavery’s toxic legacy: racism, its persistent half-life our cultural nuclear waste. A provocative, sensitive, and oh-so-timely read.
EVERY SINGLE SECOND by Tricia Springstubb . . . We’ve discussed Springstubb’s previous novels here the past several years, but I think this one represents a bit of a departure for her as the tone and subject are slightly more serious than her previous efforts. Last year, Brendan Kiely and Jason Reynolds collaborated on an award-winning book, ALL AMERICAN BOYS, that took a hard look at race relations and police brutality. I feel like with this novel, Springstubb has written a middle grade equivalent of that young adult novel. Despite a summer publication, I haven’t seen much buzz about this one. Hence, more teasers.
Publishers Weekly: Springstubb (Moonpenny Island) contemplates the concept of time throughout this wrenching coming-of-age novel, which explores the complex and often painful dynamics among family and friends. In chapters labeled “then” and “now,” the narrative switches between Nella Sabatini’s present, at age 12, and her younger years. When Anthony, the beloved older brother of Nella’s friend Angela, pulls the trigger in a shooting that leaves an African-American man dead, the incident polarizes black and Italian-American communities and raises the ghost of a tragedy from years before (“‘Oh no,’ whispered Mom…. ‘Not again’…. The past rushed up and plowed into the present, a terrible collision, a horrible accident”).
Kirkus: When Anthony mistakenly shoots and kills a black man in a misguided attempt to protect a family, racism tears at the community. One second changes everything, just as her father’s youthful crime changed his life. Time is hard to measure; it stumbles, expands, and even stands still. The past can bump right into the present. Nella learns the importance of kindness and empathy, of not judging people without knowing them–and that every second matters. With an engaging protagonist, a fast-moving story, important themes subtly conveyed, and touches of humor, this is a richly layered story that will have wide appeal.
We began this post with the National Book Awards and we’ll return to it. While some of the above titles will likely receive serious Newbery consideration, and others may be more likely as winners of other awards, I think the best Newbery contender is actually GHOST by Jason Reynolds, a book that doesn’t resonate with the racial strife that these other titles do.
I also think AS BRAVE AS YOU, winner of the Kirkus Prize, is another equally strong contender, and that we could see another instance where the committee recognizes a single author for different books, like we saw with E.L. Konigsburg and Jon Klassen. I think it’s the year of Jason Reynolds. Time will tell.
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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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