Hero, Celebrity, and Nazi Supporter: The Newbery Medal Prospects of a Lindbergh Biography
Candace Fleming’s latest biography explores the complex and controversial life of Charles Lindbergh. Guest Blogger Olivia Tompkins explores the Newbery prospects of this thought-provoking nonfiction book for older readers:
The opening pages of THE RISE AND FALL OF CHARLES LINDBERGH strike a chord: something about this feels familiar. Almost too much so. And as I finished this biography in the final days of 2020 election season, the parallels were hard to avoid. This opening prologue depicts a wild crowd, a condemnation of the media, and the perspective of Lindbergh’s wife Anne, realizing that the crowd is only there for the man and not for what he has to say. It is perhaps a heavy handed way to open this biography of Charles Lindbergh, but I say that with the perspective of an adult and not as a younger reader.
In light of recent conversations on this very blog, I was also on the lookout for any didactic moments from Fleming; this is, after all, a biography of a beloved celebrity who believed in eugenics and became an avid Nazi supporter. On all counts, we know that Lindbergh is not a good person.
But THE RISE AND FALL doesn’t hit us over the head with it. That is where Fleming’s success comes from, because she lets the content speak for itself.
And boy is that content damning. Whether it’s that Lindbergh wanted to find a wife who “[came] from superior stock, genetically,” (110) or the section header to Part Seven, the first part of The Fall, quoting Anne Morrow Lindbergh on Hitler as “a visionary who really wants the best for his country” (207), Fleming lets us draw our own conclusions.
She accomplishes this by writing Lindbergh’s life as a narrative, starting from his early life as a boy who “developed what became a lifetime practice of asking himself unusual questions” (17). Young readers can grow up alongside young Charles and then begin to see where his childlike wonder turns into something darker, into what leads him down a path to becoming a controlling, pompous anti-Semite. We live through Lindbergh learning to fly, through his historical flight across the Atlantic, see how celebrity affected all aspects of his life, witness the kidnapping and death of his first child, and his descent into eugenics and White nationalism.
There is a lot of information packed into THE RISE AND FALL—a 6-page bibliography’s worth of information, with 28 pages of source notes. I don’t think I came across one page without a primary source quote. Yet it isn’t dense or unreadable. It was, after all, written for the younger audience. It does not speak down to the readers by oversimplifying or even shying away from the heavier aspects of Lindbergh’s life.
I will admit that it took me a while to get into THE RISE AND FALL because it has been a while since I read a biography (versus a memoir) catered toward a younger audience. The beginning chapters felt purposely naive in how lighthearted his childhood was portrayed. As I kept going, I realized that was the most intelligent part of how Fleming wrote this: it is a slow descent into the darkness of Lindbergh’s legacy.
But—is this a Newbery? I’m not sure. It’s one of the only ones out of the preliminary list that could, and probably should, be shelved as YA. It certainly doesn’t pull punches on dark elements (there were eugenics and animal cruelty sections I had to skip for myself), but it is something I wouldn’t hesitate to give to some of my stronger middle schoolers. I’m not confident that it would work for younger grades, though.
Olivia Tompkins (she/her) is a middle & high school librarian at a K-12 independent school in Connecticut, who switched to the LIS field after realizing the corporate life was not for her. She loves to read YA fiction, memoirs, historical fiction, or any book with strong, badass female protagonists. When not building LibGuides or teaching media literacy, Olivia is often trying to read and write while her cats demand lap space or reorganizing the tower of books that she cannot fit on her bookshelves.
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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