Where are the Nonfiction Newbery’s?
Of the sixty-six titles suggested here on HM so far this year, only seven are nonfiction. That includes two poetry books (UNDEFEATED and LION OF THE SKY), two picture book biographies (TWO BROTHERS, FOUR HANDS and THE MOST IMPORTANT THING ABOUT MARGARET WISE BROWN), two history books in verse (THIS PROMISE OF CHANGE and ROOTS OF RAP), and one memoir in verse (SHOUT). So where are the regular nonfiction books? You know, the history books for grades 4-8, the long, but not too long biographies? The descendants of Russell Freedman and Jim Murphy? I used to think of those as more “Newbery-type” nonfiction…but maybe that’s not even true any more. In the early 2000’s we had prose nonfiction history books winning Honors for three years in a row: AN AMERICAN PLAGUE (2004), THE VOICE THAT CHALLENGED A NATION (2005), and SURVIVING HITLER (2006). In the past thirteen years, however, only two books like that have been selected for Newbery Honors: CLAUDETTE COLVIN (2010) and BOMB (2013). And nothing in the past six years. I haven’t read any that quite match those titles so far in 2019, but I finally got my hands on a couple that I think should be in the conversation:
BORN TO FLY: THE FIRST WOMEN”S AIR RACE ACROSS AMERICA by Steve Sheinkin.
Among the “literary quality” components listed in the Newbery Criteria, “Presentation of information including accuracy, clarity, and organization” is the one that jumps out with informational books, and BORN TO FLY rates high in those areas. I especially like the “organization,” as the author weaves in personal stories, historical background, thought-provoking themes, and even a bit of a mystery. But this is a book where it helps to also look closely at some of the other literary qualities, even though they may be more often associated with fiction.
Delineation of characters: Readers get to know the pilots as distinct individuals. We also see the commonalities, starting with the opening sentence: “They were the kinds of kids who jumped off the roofs of buildings.” (1)
Delineation of a setting: There’s just enough relevant context about the time and place, including background about levels of technology, economic factors, and especially attitudes about gender.
Development of a plot: The author reveals events in a carefully constructed way, using moments like the discovery of the sabotage note (101) and the death of a pilot (“The search party found Marvel Crosson that morning.” (138)) for maximum impact.
I was surprised to find that the first part of the book, with the introduction of the pilots and the build-up to the race, more engaging than the actual Derby, though I’m not sure why. I’d want to pay more attention to that on a second read.
1919: THE YEAR THAT CHANGED AMERICA by Martin W. Sandler
Here’s another history book where the organization has a strong impact on “excellence of presentation for a child audience.” Sandler describes each of the six events with clear and lively prose. He starts well before 1919, providing the right amount of relevant background. Descriptions of the actual 1919 events are followed by lucid discussions of their impact over time, often noting positive outcomes that emerge from tragic moments. For example, he points out that the riots of the Red Summer “were the first stirrings of what would develop into a movement that would change America forever.” (87) Most chapters finish with a “One Hundred Years Later” section that looks at how the issues are playing out in today’s world. That section doesn’t appear in the first chapter, though, which seems like a missed opportunity, and the jump from 1919 labor strikes to 2019 green energy (141-144) is less effective than the others.
Overall, I feel like this book could reach the level of excellence in “interpretation of the theme or concept” as specified in the Criteria. That “overriding theme” is eloquently articulated in the final sentence: “…the arc of history is long and varied and gives the trials and triumphs of our own time some added perspective.” (183) I’m sure there’s more Newbery-level nonfiction to be explored this year. I’m especially looking forward to reading Deborah Heiligman’s TORPEDOED, which just came out last week. If you’ve read that one, or the two above, or any noteworthy nonfiction, please share how you think they might fare in a Newbery discussion.
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 email@example.com.
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