Thirteen Kids in Peril and One Grieving Young Woman: death, danger, and two of the year’s best nonfiction titles
I’ve served on the Newbery a couple times, and when I look back, I remember that February was a fun month both times. The February at the beginning of my term was great: it’s when you first start to see the real books that actually could win the award…but that’s not the February I’m talking about. I really liked the February after my term ended. That was when the way I read books went back to normal: No more stopping in the middle of an intense plot to jot a note. The pile of books-to-be-read becomes a thing to look forward to, rather than a grim reminder of how much reading I haven’t done. I could mix in the adult books that I had to put off the year before. For the first time in twelve months, I could just read for fun again. I don’t mean to complain at all about those Committee years, which were fantastic experiences…but yes, the reading shift was nice.
The mock-Newbery setting is not as intense, but the need to take notes and read as a critic instead of just a reader is still there. Sometimes, though, I try to just turn that off and enjoy the book in my hands. The two titles below grabbed me from the very start and I read them in one or two sittings. Later I went back and tried to figure out what these authors did to succeed so completely at pulling me in; but those first, non-stop readings were quite satisfying, and worth taking note of as I think about stand-out books that I’ve read this year.
DANCING AT THE PITY PARTY: A DEAD MOM GRAPHIC MEMOIR by Tyler Feder
It was a bit of relief to read this without worrying, the first time through at least, about the whole can-pictures-be-text question or is-this-a-book-for-the-0-to-14-range. Instead, I connected immediately with the author’s voice and her approach to a very difficult topic. Feder’s conversational tone works perfectly as she tries to describe what it’s like and how it feels to lose a parent. The choice and execution of writing style seems just right. It allows the author to capture extreme and complicated emotions while also providing delicate insights, details, and humor. Instead of just feeling sorry for her, we gain understanding and empathy.
Here are some examples, from right after her mother’s death, of how deftly Feder captures the intricacies of her personal experiences.:
- The arrival of relatives: “It was the WORST family reunion!” (75)
- The irony of her sister’s 18th birthday the following day: “Death is a pretty extreme rain check.” (75)
- Sleeping in a hotel room in clothes that don’t fit: “Cold and vulnerable in the air-conditioned room, I felt like a newborn baby. Everything was unfamiliar and scary.
I wanted my mommy.” (77)
- Waking up with the “teeniest bit of relief…No more phone calls with ‘a little bit of news.’ No more wondering. The certainty of loss was cold and steady under my feet.” (79)
- A “looming” to-do list that includes “gather black clothes,” during which she asks her sister: “Does this look funeral-y enough?” while Kelly Clarkson is blaring above. (80-82).
The illustrations support the narrative, and often add to its impact, but I feel like the words, and the ideas they convey, are really the heart of the book. In this passage, for example, she writes about the small bond she and her mom had shared around bowling:
It was one tiny part of her life, and an even teenier part of mine, but that didn’t stop the memory from aching. I was my first real taste of the shadow her death laid over every aspect of my life, even the totally unimportant ones.
My life was a glass of water and she was a single drop of food coloring. (124)
The accompanying illustrations show an array of fallen bowling pins and a drop of food coloring filling a glass. Highly effective, but their use should not detract from that writing.
The narrator is 19 for most of this book, but her experiences, and the ways in which she shares them, seem highly relatable to younger readers, including middle school ages. In her introduction, the author says that she is searching for a book that “cradles my grief without smothering it.” (8). I think she might have just written it.
ALL THIRTEEN: THE INCREDIBLE CAVE RESCUE OF THE THAI BOYS’ SOCCER TEAM by Christina Soontornvat
This book by the author of A WISH IN THE DARK is the one that has me most excited about the prospect of a nonfiction Newbery. The title pretty much gives the true story away: thirteen boys get stuck in a cave and they all make it out alive. But even knowing this, there wasn’t a moment that I wasn’t worried about them anyway. A lot of that comes from Soontornvat’s clear, perfectly paced explanation of the highly dramatic events. Moving mostly chronologically, she lays out the circumstances that resulted in the crisis, then looks at the wide variety of rescue strategies. She explains the workings of sumps and breathing apparatuses and other technology with just enough detail for the reader to understand and move forward. She also gives just enough background about the key players for us to relate to them as people, not just kids in peril or rescuers.
The suspense never lets up, though. That’s partly because this is just such a compelling real-life story. But Soontorvant tells it expertly, carefully imparting information, background data, personalities, and events to maximum effect. Midway she describes the boys’ increased hunger and notes that:
For the first couple of days, the boys had crossed the water that surrounds their gravelly perch to go to a bank of sand on the other side of the chamber to take care of “business.” Now they just pee downstream. Even so, the enclosed space makes it impossible to escape the stink of human waste.” (103)
That’s the type of detail that gives us a full picture of the experiences. But it’s also a plot technique. It sets up this highly dramatic moment when the divers have gone deeper than ever, but still haven’t found the boys:
He smells something awful.
Rick has been preparing himself for the odor of a decomposing dead body. But while the odor he smells is something that most of us would much rather not encounter, it fills him with relief: the smell of human feces. (127)
What a creative way to capture that triumphant moment. Throughout her narrative, the author provides readers with information that heightens the impact and importance of the dramatic events that occur. Here’s how she relates one of the most tense scenes at the end of a chapter, when the first boy finally emergences into a place of safety:
Time clicks by slowly. Every rescuer checks and rechecks their gear.
And then suddenly everyone’s attention is on the water at the edge of Chamber 3.
The rope is twitching. (195)
I might have expected a head to rise out of the water, or maybe a shout from one of the observers, but the twitching rope is perfect. Readers can visualize it clearly and the author has made sure that by now we know exactly what that movement will mean.
I’d love to hear if others share my excitement about the Newbery prospects of ALL 13 or DANCING AT THE PITY PARTY. I’m the right reader for these two books, and when that happens I always wonder how that might cause me to embrace all the strengths and overlook possible shortcomings. I’m also interested in hearing if the difference between “I love this book” and “this is a distinguished book” has been any part of anyone else’s reading so far this year.
About Steven Engelfried
Steven Engelfried was the Library Services Manager at the Wilsonville Public Library in Oregon until he retired 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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