Monday, February 16, 2009

Non-Fiction Monday: Sibert 2009

I'm not sure yet how I feel about the Sibert Medal, which was first awarded for excellence in children's non-fiction in 2001. There's an eternal complaint that non-fiction doesn't get recognized enough with the Newbery, which, okay, is maybe true, if not as true as I think most people assume.

(I count about eight non-fiction books among the medalists, not including poetry and folktales, but including Good Masters! Sweet Ladies! which is sort of half non-fiction, and Amos Fortune: Free Man, which if we're being honest is as much or more fictional than The Witch of Blackbird Pond or Johnny Tremain (hmm, there's an interesting idea); come to think of it, it's not unlike Island of the Blue Dolphins--but Amos Fortune is shelved as biography. I haven't read all the honors, but there appear to be quite a few non-fiction books among them. Not a LOT, but I wouldn't call them rare.)

But does the existence of the Sibert just give us an excuse for continuing to leave non-fiction out of most Newbery discussions? Does it imply that non-fiction Newberys are an almost-lost cause and move on?

And then, much as I'd like to see more non-fiction among the Newberys NOW, I can't forget my childhood disappointment when Lincoln: A Photobiography and Joyful Noise were chosen, when what I wanted was a good story.

I'm also disappointed to see that history still seems to dominate the Sibert winners and honors (all the Newbery non-fictions and almost all the Newbery honor non-fictions are historical). I love history, but I'd like to know what the most distinguished books in other categories are, too.

Anyway, I only discovered the existence of the Sibert recently, so I'm not familiar with discussions about it--I'm sure this has all been chewed over.


I was surprised to discover this weekend that I'd actually finished all of this year's Sibert books already, so now I can round them up.

How do they choose the winners? I can't imagine, even after reading the criteria. There are so many good books, and they're so dissimilar... the same kinds of things people say about choosing any of the awards, but I really think it must be harder to make choices and comparisons on this one.

Winner: We Are the Ship: The Story of Negro League Baseball (Kadir Nelson).

I had hoped for a win here, because I really, really liked this book but didn't think it was right for either the Newbery or the Caldecott. As I was contemplating what I would say in this post, I wondered why, if I didn't think it was "good enough" for the Newbery, it should be "good enough" for the Sibert, because I don't think of the Sibert as being lesser or having lower standards. I think it comes down to this: I didn't find the writing, as writing, to be as distinguished as some of the other books we saw last year. But as non-fiction narrative, I think this book excels: Nelson didn't just research his subject, he digested it (a nod to Mr. Gaston for the distinction). The book has a feeling of authenticity that is rare in any kind of non-fiction; one could easily believe that it was written by actual members of the Negro Leagues who had gotten together to reminisce. The depth of information is incredible. It's those qualities that, I think, push this book to the top when we consider non-fiction for children.

Honor: What to Do About Alice? How Alice Roosevelt Broke the Rules, Charmed the World, and Drove Her Father Teddy Crazy! (written by Barbara Kerley, illustrated by Edwin Fotheringham)

I encountered this book when I was reading Caldecott possibilities, and I'm still sorry it didn't find a place on the Caldecott podium; the illustrations are lively, energetic, creative, superbly suited to the text. The distinguished quality I noticed about this one was that Kerley managed to sustain energy and interest throughout the entire story, even after Alice grew up and her rule-breaking had to take different forms. I've read a lot of children's biographies--granted, most of them were written before 1960--and I've often found that they're really interesting through the subject's childhood, but bog down once the subject grows up--as if the author isn't really sure how to make the person's actual adult accomplishments interesting. (This is probably why there was a whole series called Childhood of Famous Americans--the authors could skip that messy problem.) There's just enough back matter to interest but not overwhelm young readers.

Honor: Bodies from the Ice: Melting Glaciers and the Recovery of the Past (James M. Deem)

I would have read this once I heard the title, even if I hadn't decided to read all the Sibert books this year. This is exactly the kind of non-fiction I loved when I was a kid--lots of informative tidbits, connections made around the world, constant drama, a bit of gore. (I was big on paranormal accounts, survival stories, and amazing animals.) I enjoyed it a lot, but I'm not exactly sure what makes this one stand out from the pack. Maybe it's the way it balances along the ooky/tasteful line. I used to tutor struggling readers for a Learning System company, and Deem's earlier Bodies from the Bog never failed to captivate, even when we could only make it through one page each day. I'm sure this book will be equally popular with both boys and girls.

Thanks to the Sibert committee for choosing such great, enjoyable books. They're all recommended.

For more Non-Fiction Monday posts, see Jean Little Library.


Anonymous said...

Top nonfiction of 2008 from Bookends:

Mandy said...

I appreciate your insights about the Sibert Award and your thoughtful evaluations of this year's winners.

I run a Mock Sibert discussion and election program at the Allen County (Indiana) Public Library. You are welcome to join the discussion about this year's Sibert contenders at our blog (

Chris Barton said...

"Does it imply that non-fiction Newberys are an almost-lost cause and move on?"

I think so. I wonder why they didn't just name the Sibert award "the Newbery for Nonfiction" and at least give the award some built-in name-recognition.