Condors, Honeybees, and Women in Space: Distinguished Informational Books
The Newbery Terms and Criteria list six “literary qualities” that Committee members must consider when evaluating books. The words about “information” get a bit more specific than the others: “Presentation of information including accuracy, clarity, and organization.” We’ve already had some discussion here on Heavy Medal about this element in poetry (ON THE HORIZON) and fiction (BLACKBIRD GIRLS). For this post, though, I’ll focus on how information is presented in three excellent nonfiction titles:
CONDOR COMEBACK by Sy Montgomery & Tianne Strombeck
As she relates her experiences working with condors and the scientists that study them, Montgomery also explores how history, technology, spirituality, education, and politics all relate to the birds. Her careful “organization” provides the “clarity” readers need to absorb and process the information and the connections she makes.
Her writing is both scientific and poetic: “Condors don’t just traverse heaven; they dwell there.” (1). She deftly merges direct observation with questions and wonder as they watch a condor chick take flight:
Does the Orchard Draw chick feel pleased with himself? He holds his wings out – but not to fly again. He’s displaying the mottled grayish patches under his wings – patches that will turn white when he gets older. It almost looks as if he’s celebrating. (38)
She supports facts with tangible examples; she follows the statement: “Condors are social creatures” with brief mentions of their behavior around poppies and when confronted with a weighing scale. Then she elaborates with a longer description about the group eating rabbits (3-4).
Montgomery also achieves a fine balance between relating the work of the scientists and her own personal reactions. The excitement she shares draws the reader deeply into the book in ways that a more straightforward approach might not have done. Like when she gets to hold a condor:
I was delighted to discover that condor poop (and my quick-dry pants) smelled faintly to me of fast-food hamburgers mixed with room freshener. (30)
That use of specific detail is consistent and engaging, ranging from the way superglue helps with tracking birds (25) to the secrets one can learn from a condor’s breath (27). The writing style and organization synthesize facts and experiences into a fascinating, wide-ranging presentation about condors, science, and humans.
Books from this “Scientists in the Field” series have earned Sibert recognition four times (including two honors for Sy Montgomery), but when it comes to nonfiction and the Newbery, history so far seems to beat out science.
ASTRONAUTS: WOMEN ON THE FINAL FRONTIER by Jim Ottaviani & Maris Wicks
This one explores history and science in a graphic novel format. Told from the point of view of Mary Cleave, it’s loosely grouped into three sections: the early history of women and space programs; Mary’s own path into the space program; and the first shuttle flight she takes. Ottaviani’s writing seems just right for the graphic novel format. The interplay between narration, dialogue, and illustrations works perfectly. In the description of Mary’s job interview, for example, narration describes her missteps (“And then I did it again. Different person”); dialogue shows what she says and what she thinks about what she just said (“Oh great, be flippant with a guy that walked on the Moon”); and the illustrations depict her emotional reactions. (69-70). This is a fun scene that also effectively introduces one of the book’s key themes: “diversity of thinking” is essential in a space crew.
In the second and third sections we really get to know Mary as a character and we share her experiences and insights. Here’s the crew’s arrival at the shuttle before take-off:
When we got out of the van, it zoomed away. Fast. And there was Atlantis. Our ride.
In all the simulations, and all our practice runs, there were people everywhere. Now nobody was around but us. We’d never been to the ship when it was loaded with fuel and ready to go. Too dangerous.
“Fueled up, it’s like it’s…”
“Breathing or something.” (111)
Along with the big moments, the text provides details from Mary’s viewpoint and relates them to the science in ways that readers will remember and retain. She is amazed by her first look at the stars from outside Earth’s atmosphere (“‘I mean, air is not overrated, but…’”); at the same time, her awestruck reaction demonstrates the operational need for learning to navigate by stars after the awe has subsided. (119-120).
It can be challenging to evaluate the graphic novel format in terms of “text,” but in this case I feel that the “presentation of information” rivals any book I’ve read this year.
HONEYBEE: THE BUSY LIFE OF APIS MELLLIFERA by Candace Fleming & Eric Rohmann
And then there’s picture book nonfiction, where it can be even trickier to figure out how the impact of illustrations contributes to the information…and how much that matters. In this book, text and pictures work together very well. Rohmann’s words provide the details of Apis’ experiences in clear, but poetic, language:
It is time for her new job.
Not yet…comb building.
Using her wax, her sharp spoon-shaped jaws, and her legs, she shapes,
to create cells.
But Apis is not a builder for long. Three days later, she starts…
Not yet…food handling.
Rohmann’s illustrations, besides being visually striking, provide imagistic references for the bee’s body parts and actions. But it’s those carefully crafted words that bring us right into the complexities of Apis’ world. The repeated device of anticipating “flying” builds suspense and also elevates the reader’s interest: what else would a young honeybee need to do before flight?
The evocative language generates lyric rhythm that matches the step-by-step progression of the bee’s early life. The final page repeats the phrasing of the opening scene (“…a teeming, trembling flurry…”), aurally matching the theme of the insects’ repeated life cycle.
Picture book science is also a likely longshot for Newbery recognition, based on past winners anyway (though DARK EMPEROR’s Honor was just ten years ago), but you might make an argument for this one.
Other possible nonfiction contenders include a couple by authors with more than one excellent book this year. Along with HONEYBEE, Candace Fleming also wrote THE RISE AND FALL OF CHARLES LINDBERGH which we’ll discuss in November in a Guest Blogger post. And ALL THIRTEEN: THE INCREDIBLE CAVE RESCUE OF THE THAI BOYS’ SOCCER TEAM, due out October 13, is by Christina Soontornvat, author of A WISH IN THE DARK which we looked at last week. Please share thoughts and opinions about any of the year’s nonfiction, along with any other books in which the “presentation of information” might be “distinguished.”
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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