Riveting True Stories About Sunken Ships, Bomber Planes, and Poisoned Food
I was a little anxious in early fall because I hadn’t read a lot of excellent nonfiction books…I think I’m officially over that. I could easily see a nonfiction title winning the Medal this year, and perhaps a second book getting an Honor. Here are three standouts that I read recently:
TORPEDOED: THE TRUE STORY OF THE WORLD WAR II SINKING OF THE CHILDREN’S SHIP by Deborah Heiligman.
TORPEDOED may be the standout book of the year for me so far. She takes a true story that’s already compelling and creates a rich, complex narrative that’s equal parts suspenseful, thought-provoking, and emotionally involving. There’s a wide cast of characters and she tells us just the right amount about each one. Though it’s a book about disaster and death, it’s full of specific, personal touches that humanize the people and the situations. Often the author plants a seed of information early, then follows up on it much later. Early on we read about the how much the kids appreciated the limitless ice cream (40); a hundred pages later as the ship is sinking, the Beck kids
What a waste of ice cream, Derek said to Sonia.
What a waste, she agreed. All that ice cream. They had lived for that ice cream, and now all those flavors, gone. Lost. (136-7)
The tragedy is never sensationalized, but there are many moments of high drama. One example is when Marjorie Day watches children die:
And Gussie Grimmond. Strong, quirky, strong-willed Gussie. Gone.
Everyone in that lifeboat, gone. Just like that (105)
The two quoted passages above also highlight the distinctive style that works so well in this book. Heiligman’s choice to paraphrase thoughts and words based on source documents works perfectly. It provides flow and continuity that we don’t always find in quote-heavy histories. You can see it in the two examples just mentioned, how the rhythm and cadence of the sentences are similar. Somehow you get a distinct author’s voice throughout the book, but also hear the individual people.
The structure and organization is also highly accomplished: background information, parallel plot threads, selected foreshadowing, and expertly paced unveiling of events all work very well. We know disaster is coming, but the specifics are often surprising and heartbreaking. I knew something bad was going to happen to them, but I still can’t believe all of the Grimmond kids died so soon!
THE POISON EATERS: FIGHTING DISEASE AND FRAUD IN OUR FOOD AND DRUGS by Gail Jarrow.
Here’s another excellent fall nonfiction release. A terrific opening chapter describes all of the horrible things that might have been unknowingly included in a typical 1890 dinner, including borax, formaldehyde, and arsenic (9-11). Then the author traces the long fight to regulate food preparation in the US. The narrative builds around the life and work of Harvey Wiley. It’s a fascinating story, with insights into the ways governments and businesses can impact daily lives. Jarrow’s writing is crisp and clear, and the chronological structure works effectively. This is high quality nonfiction, but I don’t feel it reaches the level of distinction we see in TORPEDOED.
A THOUSAND SISTERS: THE HEROIC AIRWOMEN OF THE SOVIET UNION IN WORLD WAR II by Elizabeth Wein.
This book was released last January, but I admit I delayed reading it because it looked so long. My bad. This is terrific nonfiction storytelling, with pace, style, and clarity that make it accessible to readers at the higher end of the 0-14 Newbery age range. Wein takes us right into the wartime world of the Soviet Union, introducing a wide cast of amazing female pilots. Like Heiligman, Wein deftly weaves in personal stories with the larger issues of sexism, war, and death that loom over their lives. Along with the bombs and crashes, for example, readers learn how to make a wind-free, puddle free shelter under a plane’s wing (272) and why underwear mattered (155). Without overdoing it, she occasionally and deliberately steps out of the immediate historic events to address readers, providing perspective on matters like the “mix of fear and patriotism” that may have inspired the young women (47). This seems just right in terms of “quality presentation for children.”
Though it can be challenging to keep the wide cast of pilots straight, Wein helps by highlighting specific details for many of them. When Galya Dzhunkovskaya appears, for example, we learn she’s a singer (199). Eight chapters later she reappears and that singing is briefly mentioned again to touch our memories (265). All of the individual stories are told well, and together they build a full and fascinating picture of a unique group of women.
The book isn’t actually even that long, since the last 80 pages are notes and back matter. As Leonard mentioned in an earlier comment, this is a natural one to compare to Sheinkin’s BORN TO FLY. I think both are worthy Newbery contenders…but TORPEDOED now just might be my frontrunner for the 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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