MMGM and #IMWAYR: Cybils 2021 finalists in Middle Grade Nonfiction (plus a giveaway of The Genius Under the Table)!
Before I go any further, I do want to mention that I just saw the latest Pixar movie, Turning Red, which came out Friday on Disney+, and it was so good! It's not quite as good as Encanto (which is technically Disney, not Pixar), but it's still insightful, entertaining, and definitely a departure from some of Pixar's usual norms. (And it's only an hour and a half, so it's a quick watch!) For Domee Shi's first chance in the director's chair, it's very impressive.
Now for the post! Precisely one month after the Cybils winners were announced, I'm returning with the second half of the books I read while I was a Cybils judge for the first time—we tackled Elementary Nonfiction two weeks ago, and now we're on to Middle Grade Nonfiction! And not only do I have reviews for you all, but I also have a giveaway of one of the finalists, The Genius Under the Table by Eugene Yelchin! Read on for everything!
I'm going to paste some disclaimers from my last post: I cannot emphasize enough that although I am truly confident in our final decisions, each and every one of these finalists are truly, truly incredible, and the only reason I have so many critiques is because my fellow judges and I had to literally split hairs and decide precisely why some were a smidge better than others. If I had reviewed these on my own, I'd probably have no criticism—but when you stare at a book for a long while, write many notes on it, and then discuss it with a bunch of extremely-smart people, you're bound to notice some flaws! So I'm going to use a pro-con format so you can see what we loved and what bothered us about these overall-wonderful stories.
And also, a quick note before we dive in: All of the thoughts below are mine only, and they do not necessarily represent the views or opinions of my fellow panelists or judges, my category chair, or the Cybils Awards.
Now let's take a look at the books!
Classified: The Secret Career of Mary Golda Ross, Cherokee Aerospace Engineer
Written by Traci Sorell, and illustrated by Natasha Donovan
Publisher's description: Mary Golda Ross designed classified airplanes and spacecraft as Lockheed Aircraft Corporation's first female engineer. Find out how her passion for math and the Cherokee values she was raised with shaped her life and work.
Cherokee author Traci Sorell and Métis illustrator Natasha Donovan trace Ross's journey from being the only girl in a high school math class to becoming a teacher to pursuing an engineering degree, joining the top-secret Skunk Works division of Lockheed, and being a mentor for Native Americans and young women interested in engineering. In addition, the narrative highlights Cherokee values including education, working cooperatively, remaining humble, and helping ensure equal opportunity and education for all.
- I personally preferred this book to Traci Sorell's Elementary Nonfiction finalist We Are Still Here!. It still has a nice amount of depth—we see Ross overcoming sexism and racism and working to support the next generation of women of color in the engineering workforce, and we also see how her work ethic was influenced by common Cherokee values. But this story also has a more continuous narrative that I personally preferred.
- Also, unlike how I felt with We Are Still Here!, I loved the illustrations of Classified! Natasha Donovan (who was also nominated in the Graphic Novels category for illustrating Borders, which I can't wait to read) has created illustrations with vibrant colors, an eye-catching style, and varied layouts that bring to mind both Ross's hard work (papers, calculations, etc.) and the incredible results (motion, aircraft, etc.)!
- Now that I'm reviewing these books almost 2 months since I last read them, I can see pretty clearly which ones did and did not have staying power, and I'm afraid this one didn't really stick with me.
- I was personally frustrated that we didn't get to see much of the projects Mary Golda Ross actually worked on—a lot of it is still classified today, and I get that isn't in anyone's control, but it also makes for a somewhat lackluster story.
- And this isn't Classified's fault, but I'm not sure why this was categorized under Middle Grade Nonfiction—Unspeakable made more sense, because it's a picture book but about very heavy topics, but this is a picture book that's honestly easier to understand than Code Breaker, Spy Hunter, which was Elementary. So this book didn't really get to hold its own against the other finalists, unfortunately.
- The format of this book is enormously engaging—it's primarily split up into a selection of different biographies, with little mini-biographies scattered throughout to ensure as nuanced a perspective as possible. A few articles centered around documents or movements rather than people split up the biographies and ensure the book is never too monotonous. The biographies look at a varied selection of people as well—novelists, journalists, politicians, and many more!
- Overall, it's wonderful to see a book that captures through biography after biography of evidence how writing can be used to effect change in the world!
- There's also quite a bit of material to get kids interested in writing themselves. Each biography features at least one writing prompt—I personally felt the prompts varied in quality, but we discussed how teachers might find them useful in the classroom, picking and choosing them as desired. And the back matter explores topics like outlining and revising, giving readers even more helpful advice to draw from when they too change the world with their writing!
- I recall judges discussing how this book is another great one to have in a classroom for kids to periodically refer to—the biographies and writing prompts can be read in a once-a-day style or as needed. But also, this book is surprisingly engaging to read all at once (as I had to do so I could judge it)—a couple biographies aren't quite as flashy as others, but overall, the concise and readable style pulls you along from one page to the next!
- This wasn't a factor I considered in the decision, but I was personally delighted that, as the book moved into the present day, I saw familiar authors getting their own mini-biographies, like Lisa Bunker and Raina Telgemeier! Gene Luen Yang (rightfully) got a full-length biography, which I believe is the final one in the book.
- I sometimes wished the book was a little bit more visually engaging—there are illustrations, but not many, and the white backgrounds get a little stale after a while—but it's not a major issue and doesn't really affect one's enjoyment of the book.
- This wasn't my personal favorite book of the finalists, but I can see how its kid (and educator) appeal makes it absolutely the right choice as the winner for this category! And really, I can barely find any flaws with it—it was only by comparison that it wasn't my top pick anyway. So in short: it's great!
- I personally knew almost none of the details of how Tutankhamun's tomb was uncovered (or even how it was buried, which Fleming also discusses), and there were some fascinating techniques to learn about and some very eccentric (if problematic) people to observe! Fleming does an excellent job of pulling facts together into a story, complete with plot, tension, and flow that keeps you turning the pages. I read this a while back and am blanking on the more specific details, but I do want to emphasize that Fleming has done some impressive work researching and crafting this book.
- It's really hard to say if this book is interesting or not—which doesn't seem like it should be a hard judgment! But the thing is, I read this as a judge (so I had to read the whole thing), and I got through it pretty quickly and recall finding it pretty engaging, if a bit dense. But other judges found it to be pretty dry (especially considering the black-and-white images and drab book design). It spends much more time discussing the actual excavation and contents of Tutankhamun's tomb than anything we know about Tutankhamun himself, so you'll have to decide for yourself how intriguing that sounds.
- The book does acknowledge some of the ethical issues in digging up and unwrapping a body that was preserved in a way considered sacred and important by ancient Egyptians—but it still centers the perspectives of the white archaeologists who uncovered Tutankhamun, and digging more into other perspectives could have been valuable.
- My biggest gripe is with the sensationalistic discussion of the "curse"—a curse that Fleming admits (with convincing evidence) does not exist at the end of the story, but that she still references enough throughout the book to create stakes and tension that I imagine certain kids will come away from the book believing in the curse.
- This book ended up in my top 3 picks overall—we debated the kid appeal, considering how much of the story is subtextual, and it took a moment for the subtext to pull me in, but then I read the whole book in practically one sitting!
- This story is Eugene (or Yevgeny in Russian) Yelchin's memoir of growing up in the Soviet Union, and he captures some truly brilliant and nuanced themes in the story. The ways parents pressure you so they can try to give you a better life? Check. The danger of using the arts to actually speak the truth? Check. The ways in which secrecy can keep others safe in a dangerous environment? Check. Even anti-Semitism gets explored a bit—there is a lot to talk about with this book.
- Although this book obviously tackles some difficult topics, it has a whimsical quality (and as other judges pointed out, an old-fashioned quality) to it as well. There's a wry sense of humor that makes you laugh even at some of the painful things (which adds to the emotional impact as well). And Yevgeny's childlike perspective as his parents and the world around him display their complexities makes for a unique viewpoint that I think anyone who has ever been a kid can relate to.
- Yelchin's own illustrations exemplify Yevgeny's inner feelings in creative ways—I could say more, but I'll leave it all for you to discover!
- The ending is painful, but it's realistic—not every question is answered, but we reach a kind of closure that is very valuable.
- Again, really the only con in my book is that much of this book's appeal comes from its complex and semi-concealed themes (you could say the themes are under the table), and I'm not sure that every young reader will have the patience to understand those (although I can also see this book being one to grow with, as young readers understand things from Yevgeny's perspective and then understand the broader world over time). I think that's what ultimately knocked this book off the table in our discussions (or maybe...under the table!), but it's still a fantastic book that I absolutely loved! (And I'm done with the under the table jokes now—you could say they're under the table too.)
– Pandas are born bright pink, deaf, and blind.
– Dumbo octopuses flap their big fin-like ears to move around.
– A Narwhal’s tusk grows through its upper lip—ouch!
- OK, this book has the weirdest animals I've ever seen—anyone ever heard of the red-lipped batfish? (No? Honestly, you might prefer to keep it that way, because that creature is...something.) As you can see in the publisher's description, this book has found some enormously interesting animals and animal facts—and Bunting does an excellent job of picking out the relevant and interesting facts without drowning readers in boring details. I can imagine kids will adore this book!
- The brightly colored style and whimsical illustrations (all the animals seem slightly caught off-guard—perhaps by the snarky comments) lend this book quite the infectious energy.
- This book sparked a strong negative reaction from the other judges, so just keep that in mind!
- Many of us were aggravated by this book's wishy-washy boundaries between fact and fiction—the visual style of the snarky voice speaking with little handwritten annotations over the regular text should have served as a nice boundary, but then some of the animal facts that were actually true were conveyed through the snarky voice instead. It's a bit clunky.
- Also, the snarky comments did lose their allure pretty quickly—they were still fun, but not as groundbreaking after about 20 pages. And a few of them were either a bit dark or referenced (but did not use) some curse words, which might be a concern for elementary-age readers.
- And I don't mean to be rude, but that "message of celebrating diversity and differences" mentioned in the publisher's description is weak at best—they shouldn't have even attempted a moral, because there's really no moral to saying a bunch of rude but funny things about weird animals.
- Despite also being a picture book in an MG category, this book was my personal second choice, and it fared well among the judges—although perhaps more importantly, it's also a Caldecott Honor Book, a National Book Award longlist book, and the winner of the Coretta Scott King Book Award for Author and Illustrator! This is actually the only finalist in my category I had already read before judging (see my original review here).
- What I found very impactful upon my second reading is how this book reminds us that, as tempting as it can be to take pity on Black people for how they have been impacted by systemic racism, Black people themselves do not live in self-pity, and they are not defined by their oppression. Even as we discuss all the ways in which we have made success impossible for them, they nevertheless find ways to create incredible communities and to live in them vibrantly and confidently. This book makes that message crystal-clear, and I appreciate that enormously.
- The Tulsa Race Massacre has been discussed more often in recent months (in part because of its anniversary), but for young readers unfamiliar with the events, Weatherford's poetic writing style is informative but never clunky.
- Floyd Cooper (may he rest in peace) created absolutely beautiful illustrations for this story—some of them are as realistic as photographs, and they capture the beauty and anguish of this story quite well. While I personally felt some spreads could have been more impactful, I felt some were truly affecting, especially the final two-page spread.
- "Cons" is a pretty dramatic word to use for a book as groundbreaking and impactful as this one, but there are a few things worth noting.
- One thing fellow judges pointed out is that this book has no citations whatsoever—for a nonfiction book, especially one about a controversial topic in controversial times, not citing any sources or offering opportunities for further reading is frustrating.
- Also, for me personally, this is another book, like The Genius Under the Table, that takes a lot of energy to fully appreciate (even for me, many of the themes I liked most only came through on this second read-through). This isn't a flaw, but compared to my personal top pick, I felt like this book ran a higher risk of not fully getting through to young readers of all kinds. But that's a small quibble overall!
- One final thought that is difficult to explain: considering how impactful the theme of Black people's success was, there's something I don't love about ending on the note of the Greenwood community's destruction without a reminder that such awe-inspiring successes on the part of Black people are still possible. We obviously can't change the history for a happier ending, and the book may be trying to make the point that systemic racism keeps Black people away from those successes even as they are still achievable, but if that was the point, it needed to be reckoned with a little more rather than ignored. I don't know if that makes any sense at all, but I thought it was worth mentioning for interested parties to ponder.
- This was actually my top pick for the winner in this category, and although I agree with my fellow judges as to why this book was not the right final pick, I still think it is fantastic, and the more kids read it, the better!
- Nobody talks about periods. I know, because I'm male, and I had literally no idea about any of this stuff even though it really shouldn't be a secret—half of this earth's population goes through it! The problem with periods not being talked about is that the silence turns to stigma. What I love about this book is that it is Empowering with a capital E—not empowering in a subtextual kind of way that only some readers will perceive, but shouting-from-the-rooftops empowering in a way that will affect any reader (I felt empowered, and I'm not part of the target audience!). But also, this book isn't empowering in the sense that it wants readers to love their periods—it's totally fine if they do, but it's also totally fine if they don't! But what this book shows readers is how they don't have to be proud of their period to be proud of their membership in a community of people who share menstrual products, give advice, support each other, and generally rock! And that is a message I think anyone can get behind.
- Also, this book is so informative! How to use sanitary items, how to navigate real-life situations like school or sports, how to deal with clueless dads or uninformed people (to start, you can show them the "How to Be An Ally!" spread!), and of course, what's actually going on behind the scenes. The structure of the book means that readers don't have to go cover to cover—they can easily skip to whichever sections they need most in the moment!
- The book is also quite humorous—it's never medical or serious, and the whimsical and fun illustrations only add to the positive vibe!
- And there are diverse perspectives as well—quotes from many different individuals who menstruate give us a variety of ways to think about periods, and we also have inclusive advice for different groups (like those with varying gender identities). The inclusion within the illustrations of people in wheelchairs or with vitiligo further adds to this book's wonderful nature!
- So what's the con? Well, again, part of it is that this book just didn't compare as well to the other finalists in our deliberation. But primarily, the challenge with this book is that the Cybils are about kid appeal, and right now, kids aren't exactly keen to read about periods. We didn't conclude that we had the power to change that (I get the sense that the Cybils audience is mostly parents, educators, and other adults anyway), and so I think it was fair not to select this book in the end. But! If you have the chance to put this book in kids' hands, I implore you to do so, because I genuinely think that this book's positive, destigmatizing nature will have an incredible effect on the kids brave enough to actually pick it up!
- Entrants must have mailing addresses in the United States or Canada. Please enter using the Google Form linked below. Winners will be selected randomly.
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- The last full day to enter this giveaway is Wednesday, March 16, 2022, as I will close the form the morning of Thursday, March 17, 2022.