Martians, Butterflies, and the Depths of the Ocean
When Roxanne, Sharon, and I looked ahead to this year’s Heavy Medal season we discussed how deeply we should dig into each book in the early days. When you read a book you’re really enthusiastic about, it’s tempting to explore every possible example of qualities that might make it “the most distinguished contribution to American literature.” But, no, we’ll try not to do that. Not yet, anyway. We want to give readers time to track down and read the books we highlight. Also, we want to leave more room for the back-and-forth, one-idea-leads-to-another kind of comments that are most helpful in the committee setting that we’re trying to mirror as best we can.
In early December we’ll announce our Heavy Medal short-list and long-list. At that time we’ll revisit some of the standout titles and have time for more in-depth discussions. For now, though, we’ll introduce the titles that catch our attention, share a bit about why we think they stand out, and invite comments from those who have read the books. Only two nonfiction books received more than two reader suggestions in our pre-September “suggestions” poll, so I decided to start with three excellent informational titles that I’ve been especially impressed by:
SPOOKED: HOW A RADIO BROADCAST AND THE WAR OF THE WORLDS SPARKED THE 1938 INVASION OF AMERICA by Gail Jarrow.
In the Newbery Terms and Criteria (which we’ll refer to very often on this blog), Committee members are directed to consider “presentation of information, including accuracy, clarity, and organization,” among other literary qualities. I especially appreciate the “organization” found in SPOOKED. The way the author arranges and unveils the facts is creative and highly effective. She starts with a teaser chapter, like a lot of kids’ nonfiction does, but leaves out the key information that the “invasion” was really just a radio show. Even readers who know that already are thrust right into the point of view of those listeners in 1938 who didn’t know, and responded accordingly. Then we jump back in time for fascinating background about Houseman and Welles, the show they developed, and the H. G. Wells novel. That all sets the stage for the broadcast itself, presented in two extended illustrated sections, set apart by yellow pages. Readers are completely stuck in the studio on those pages, just as Welles and the crew are. It’s in the in-between chapters we learn about the surprising events the radio show has stirred up outside the studio. Like the best history titles do, this book has an immediacy that brings readers right back into a time and a situation that is so different from their own experience…but also has relevance to today’s world.
THE GIRL WHO DREW BUTTERFLIES: HOW MARIA MERIAN’S ART CHANGED SCIENCE by Joyce Sidman
Joyce Sidman is best known for poetry and won a 2012 Newbery Honor for DARK EMPEROR (mostly poetry with some nonfiction prose). This time she tells the fascinating story of Maria Merian, scientist, artist, and explorer from the 17th century. Sidman’s language brings this biography to life, and she uses it in different ways. The main text is both informative and eloquent:
“..she had only the gardens and fields to find what she needed, and her own paintbrush to record it.” (23)
But it’s not so language-heavy that the narrative loses momentum. Sidman uses a slightly different style for the sidebars: more straightforward, but still clear and not a jarring departure from the rest (as sidebars can sometimes be). She opens each chapter with a poem; these stand on their own just fine, but as a whole they trace both the development of a butterfly and the emergence of a scientist and artist. In telling about Maria, Sidman also explores the roles of women, science, religion and art, which were so different four centuries ago, in ways that upper elementary readers can follow and absorb.
OTIS AND WILL DISCOVER THE DEEP: THE RECORD-SETTING DIVE OF THE BATHYSPHERE by Barb Rosenstocki with illustrations by Katherine Roy.
Here’s is a stellar example of narrative nonfiction in a picture book format. You can’t use too many words in a book like this, so you have to choose them carefully. Rosenstocki introduces each of the two characters separately, neatly establishing their different interests and their common goal of going “down, down into the deep.” When they get together to build and test the bathysphere, she deftly balances technical information, the personal responses of the two men, and the wonder of the journey and what they saw. She builds suspense perfectly, setting up the climactic point where they reach 800 feet:
“They flipped on the Bathysphere’s searchlight. Their eyes followed the pale yellow beam that scattered…down, down into the deep. What did the deep ocean look like? Otis and Will knew first.”
Those lines work perfectly with the illustrations, the double sided wordless gatefold, and the turn of a page. Further discussion of this book in Newber terms might address the impact of illustrations for a decision that must be made “primarily on the text,” as well as the weight we should give to the informative back matter…but I’ll restrain myself. For now.
If you’ve read any or all of these, feel free to share reactions in the comments below. Also please let us know if there are other nonfiction contenders we should be looking at.
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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