Historical Wars Get Personal
When we did our first round of Heavy Medal Nominations a few weeks ago, we had a total of 96 nominations…and 4 of those were nonfiction titles. Two went to THE GIRL WHO DREW BUTTERFLIES, which was featured in an earlier post. One each went to the two titles featured today.
BOOTS ON THE GROUND by Elizabeth Partridge is on the older edge of the Newbery range, but certainly accessible and engaging to middle school readers. Partridge provides a clear overview of the Vietnam war: how it develop and the many ways it impacts the U. S. and Vietnam over time. But it’s the way she ties the war to individual people that really distinguishes the book. She mixes in historical figures like LBJ and Nixon with fascinating first person accounts from interviews she conducted, presenting strongly personal accounts from varied perspectives. It’s a stellar example of “excellence of presentation for a child audience” as cited in the Newbery Terms and Criteria. That deft mix of personal stories and historical details brings a young reader into the history in a deeper and more memorable way than most books of its kind. Those stories are distinct and purposeful: they’re all interesting on their own, but they also work as a whole, combing to convey a rich and diverse view of historical events.
This is one of those cases where the requirement that the Committee “consider only the books eligible for the award” is frustrating. In this case, there happens to be a very high quality book about the same topic from just a couple years ago (VIETNAM: A HISTORY OF THE WAR by Russell Freedman). As a Committee member, I might revisit this book in order to confirm my sense that the Partridge book is even better, and the comparison might help me articulate the unique strengths of the newer title…but I would not be able to make any direct comparisons in a nomination or in discussion.
John Hendrix’s FAITHFUL SPY also balances a personal story with big events in strokes of history. He relates the life story of Dietrich Bonhoeffer alongside the rise and fall of Hitler. We learn what Dietrich does, then what Hitler does and how it affects Dietrich. The heart of the book is what Dietrich feels about the huge events surrounding him. Some of his thoughts center around the question of assassinating Hitler:
He had no clear idea what he would do when he returned to his homeland. But as the New York skyline disappeared into the gray waves behind him, his thoughts began to linger on a single question: Would god forgive the murderer of a tyrant? (86)
In Hendrix’s note on Research and Authenticity, he writes that unless noted: “when Dietrich or the other characters speak, the content should be seen as speculative.” (171). These “narrative extrapolations” are very effective. They create powerful emotional images, giving tangible representation of Dietrich’s struggles. Examples include his thoughts at passing the Statue of Liberty (“Am I afraid to live as she does?” (83)), and his feelings when he reunites with a co-conspirator in prison (“It was both so good and so tragic to see him in this place” (157)). At the same time, the numerous actual quotes within the book are clearly identified.
Like BOOTS ON THE GROUND, this is distinguished nonfiction that captures the societal and personal aspects of history in ways that will resonate with middle school readers. But I find it much harder to evaluate FAITHFUL SPY in terms of “the text of the book” as the Criteria instruct because the illustrations are so important. For example, this description of Hitler’s rise is excellent:
Hitler was a cunning manipulator of this uncertainty. He lay crouched in the brush, waiting for just the right moment to pounce on his wounded prey. (39)
But the illustration of the marching army, with the wolf shadow extending to the side, adds significantly to that description. Later images of Hitler as a wolf provide an even more dramatic impact (60, 96, 162), as does the contrasting use of red and green, the page layouts, and other visual content. The illustrations contribute so much to the experience of reading the book that it’s challenging to figure this one out in Newbery terms. It definitely ranks among my most distinguished books of the year, though, and I would strongly consider nominating it. It will be interesting to see if these or any other nonfiction titles are put forward when we open up November nominations next week on Heavy Medal.
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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