Thursday, May 25, 2006

A fascinating plunge into the mysteries of a Civil War sub

By Karen MacPherson
May 24, 2006

Librarians call them "informational" books. But the best non-fiction books for kids easily belie such a dull-sounding label. These books, filled with tales of courage and adventure, will inspire young readers _ not bore them.

In fact, non-fiction books often are a great answer for reluctant readers. Just like many adults, lots of kids prefer non-fiction. Unfortunately, well-meaning adults tend to equate "reading" with "reading fiction," and either forget or refuse to offer the choice of non-fiction to kids.

As one way to remedy that, children's librarians established a new award for non-fiction books five years ago. The annual award, called the Robert F. Sibert Medal, is given to the most distinguished informational book published in English during the preceding year. The award is sponsored by a Jacksonville, Fla., bookbinding company and named for its longtime president.

The winner is chosen by a panel of librarians and announced at the annual winter meeting of the American Library Association. The panel often names at least one honor book as well.

Although the Sibert Medal is overshadowed by the better-known Newbery and Caldecott medals, it is helping to raise awareness about the importance of non-fiction for young readers, librarians say. In addition, the medal has helped establish a core collection of well-written non-fiction for kids.

This year's Sibert Medal winner is "Secrets of a Civil War Submarine: Solving the Mysteries of the H.L. Hunley" (Carolrhoda Books, $18.95). Written by Sally M. Walker, the book is a fascinating, carefully documented look at how scientists are piecing together the story of the Hunley, which disappeared after it became the first submarine to sink an enemy ship, on Feb. 17, 1864. The book is filled with color photographs and maps that add further interest to the intriguing tale.

As Kathy Simonetta, chair of the Sibert Medal committee, put it: "Walker's unique integration of history and science will appeal to the natural curiosity of young readers."

In her book, Walker first tells the historical story of how and why the Hunley was built during the Civil War, and how Confederate officials hoped to use the sub to overcome the crippling Union blockade of the port of Charleston, S.C.

Walker then switches gears to recount how scientists have worked painstakingly to unearth the Hunley from the bottom of the sea and to learn her secrets. As the book ends, Walker notes that many questions remain, including why the Hunley sank. As she concludes: "The Hunley ... teachers everyone the value of a good story. And like the very best of storytellers, she spins her tale slowly, one chapter at a time. We're still waiting for her conclusion."

Although "Secrets of a Civil War Submarine" is published in a picture-book format, it isn't a book for the youngest readers. But kids ages 10 and up who love the idea of a real-life mystery will definitely enjoy this book.

"The Sibert winner will probably have to be introduced to young readers, but once that happens, well, they're sure to become caught up in it," says Maria Salvadore, who teaches children's literature at the University of Maryland. "One of the things that I most appreciated about 'Secrets of a Civil War Submarine' is the fact that it conveys the notion that even history evolves, that ... mysteries remain but there are clues to those who look and can see.

"That ...breathes life into dusty subjects," she added.

The 2006 Sibert committee also chose one honor book, "Hitler Youth: Growing Up in Hitler's Shadow" (Scholastic, $19.95). Written by Susan Campbell Bartoletti, the book also was named a Newbery Honor book this year.

In her book, Bartoletti shows how young people were an important force in helping Adolf Hitler rise to power. She focuses particularly on 12 young people: some were true believers, some were fearful of the consequences if they didn't go along, and some ended up defying the regime.

Filled with photographs, Bartoletti's powerful, thought-provoking book spurs young readers to ask themselves what they would have done if they had lived in Germany at the time of Hitler. (Ages 12 up.)



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