In the family of children's literature, nonfiction often ends up like the step-sister, the homely one with big feet.
People who write novels for young readers are the "creative" ones; they win awards and recognition. Writers of nonfiction for kids seldom get prestigious awards. Their names go unrecognized. They are not feted at autograph parties.
But writing good nonfiction is just as demanding, just as challenging, as writing good fiction. It requires imagination, wit, and skill to tell a story, whether the details of that story are subjective or objective. And the author can assume nothing, no prior knowledge on which to build. Too much detail, or the wrong kind, and the reader will find something else to do.
Lincoln: A Photobiography won its author, Russell Freedman, the Newbery Medal for children's literature, one of the few times this coverted prize has been awarded for non-fiction. "More books have been written about Lincoln than any other American," Freedman states and then goes ahead to prove that doing a book very well sets it apart from the pack. Rich details make an indelible impression: Lincoln was too long for the bed in which he died and had to be laid diagonally across the cornhusk mattress. This is a visually attractive book with an elegant layout and liberal use of old photographs and prints.
Experience counts. Well-known novelist and Newbery medalist Virginia Hamilton turns her considerable talents to biography in Anthony Burns: The Defeat and Triumph of a Fugitive Slave. Hamilton provides a historically accurate account of the arrest and trial of Anthony Burns, who escaped from slavery in Virginia to freedom in Massachusetts--until his owner tried to reclaim him, under the provisions of the cruel Fugitive Slave Act. On one level the story runs from the time of Burns' arrest on May 24, 1854, until his release is won 10 days later. But a second story is told in alternating chapters, when Burns goes "deep inside himself," flashing back to his childhood and the years that preceded his escape and capture. These are emotionally compelling scenes, Hamilton at her best.
Popular children's author Beverly Cleary, creator of such enduring and endearing characters as Ramona Quimby, Henry Huggins, and Ralph S. Mouse, is now in her 70s, and she recounts her own story, up to the day she leaves for college, in A Girl From Yamhill. Cleary has amazing recall of the minutiae of her life on the farm and later in Portland, Ore. Her description of the emotional and practical tolls of growing up during the Depression are especially vivid. From adolescence Cleary knew that she would become a writer, but she offers only snippets about how that talent was discerned, nurtured, and developed. Her fans, especially those nurturing a talent of their own, will want more.
In a calm, cool voice that lets the horror speak for itself, Miriam Chaikin describes the Holocaust in A Nightmare in History. She presents a short overview of European history and a history of the Jews to trace the roots of anti-Semitism. Then she describes what happened from 1933 to 1945, the rise of Hitler and the disappearance of 6 million Jews, each of whom, "starting with the number one, was a pair of eyes, a face, a living, vital human being." In that same calm voice, she describes life in the ghettos of Europe and the efforts to increase the efficiency of the "final solution," including details like the orchestra of prisoners who played classical music to soothe new arrivals in the camps. And she does not forget the lamed-vav-niks , those who tried to help.
The personal narrative of British explorer Robert Swan brings zest to Destination: Antarctica, Swan's account of his 900-mile trek to the South Pole re-creating the tragic expedition made in 1911 by Robert Falcon Scott in which all five explorers died. Like his hero, Swan and his two companions had no dogs, no radios, no machines--only a compass, a sextant, 353 pounds apiece of food and gear, and a tremendous amount of sheer guts. Text balances color photographs, but there are no captions and you're never sure who the ice-bearded people are, or what's happening.
The most timely of the lot that landed on my desk is a chattily written little volume called It's a Free Country! by Cynthia K. Samuels. Subtitled A Young Person's Guide to Politics & Elections, it explains effectively how politics works. Dressed up with photographs, the book includes short histories of how people like Mike Mansfield, Margaret Chase Smith, and Barbara Mikulski got to Washington and a good nine-page glossary defining terms in the text from Absentee ballots to Yellow-dog Democrat. Rather than an invitation to further reading and reflection, this is a "get out there and do it!" book, a valid message for any age.
Is the literary step-child showing signs of changing into a late-blooming beauty? Maybe. With a tremendous variety of non-fiction books to choose from, it's certainly worth a second look.