2 Brothers, 6 Stars, and 454 pages
I’m Steven Engelfried, one of the new Heavy Medal bloggers. Besides being an avid reader of the blog since it started, I’ve served on the Newbery Committee a couple times. I was on the 2010 Committee (When You Reach Me) and was chair of the 2013 Committee (The One and Only Ivan).
I’ll jump right in with a book that’s solidly in my top three so far: At 450+ pages, Deborah Heiligman’s Vincent and Theo is a long biography. And kids at my library aren’t exactly lining up for new material about the Van Gogh brothers. But it has six starred reviews, won the Boston Globe – Horn Book Award for nonfiction, and this book shines in just about every area of the Newbery Criteria.
The style is especially distinct, creating a reading experience that’s different from any children’s biography I can think of. Mainly third person present tense, with smooth shifts into past tense where appropriate. 121 short chapters with varied length, pace, and styles. Many have the feel of sketches or impressions, each one getting us just a bit further into the characters’ experiences and emotions, gradually building until we really get to know them. There’s an easy, almost conversational flow to the narrative. As if we’re talking about these guys together, learning and wondering as we go.
Heiligman peppers the book with several recurring motifs that help build our knowledge . The most prominent is the image of the two brothers at the windmill: sort of an idealized vision of their potential futures. When Vincent is near death, late in the book, Heiligman doesn’t even have to mention that windmill, but we know she’s referring to it when she writes: “Theo does not leave Vincent’s side. Two brothers, a walk together, a pledge, a promise, a shared path.” (377)
She carefully repeats or varies phrases, sometimes for powerful effect. The chapter on Vincent’s death ends: “Vincent dies in Theo’s arms.” (378). Then she uses almost identical phrasing (taking care with her tenses) when Theo dies: “Vincent died in Theo’s arms. Theo dies alone.” (402).
These are just a few examples of the extreme level of skill and care that Heiligman puts into this book. Her style strongly supports the themes and content, and in ways that readers from the upper end of the Newbery range will follow and fully appreciate. Some reviewers put the age level at 14 and up, likely because of the length and subject matter (it touches on mature issues such as mental illness and venereal disease). In Committee discussions, an advocate for this book would need to highlight the many excellent elements, but also be ready to make a strong case that it fits within the Newbery criteria’s definition of children as “persons of ages up to and including fourteen.”
I think it fits in that range just fine and fully meets the criteria of “excellence of presentation for a child audience.” It may still not out-circ Who Was Princess Diana, but for the readers in the 12-14 year old range who do give it a try, it seems “distinguished” to me. Is it the “most distinguished contribution to American literature for children?” Well, we’re just getting started….
Filed under: Book Discussion
About Steven Engelfried
Steven Engelfried was the Library Services Manager at the Wilsonville Public Library in Oregon until he retired in 2022 after 35 years as a full-time librarian. He served on the 2010 Newbery committee, chaired the 2013 Newbery Committee, and also served on the 2002 Caldecott committee. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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