Wednesday, May 2, 2012

2013 Contenders: Moonbird, by Phillip Hoose

Take a close look at that bird on the cover of Moonbird. It's attractive enough, but hardly spectacular. Certainly, the first thought I had when I looked at it wasn't "there goes the finest avian athlete of all time."

And yet, this particular bird, a rufa red knot whose leg band bears the label B95, is one of the most spectacular survivors in the animal kingdom. It is at least eighteen years old, and migrates each year from the Tierra del Fuego to northern Canada and back again, logging a minimum of 18,000 miles in the process. In fact, B95's nickname, "Moonbird," comes from the fact that during its lifetime, it has flown at least the distance to the moon and halfway back, and perhaps further than that.

Phillip Hoose is a big name in juvenile nonfiction, having picked up a Newbery Honor and a Sibert Honor in 2010 for Claudette Colvin, as well as a Boston Globe-Horn Book Award for his previous book about endangered avians, The Race to Save the Lord God Bird. This is another winner, and I know that if someone had handed me this book as a ten-year-old boy, I would have thoroughly enjoyed it. For anyone with an eye on this year's Sibert, I'd really watch this one.

As for the Newbery, that's a harder question. Like I said in my discussion of Amelia Lost, children's nonfiction rarely hits the literary heights of the best adult nonfiction. I do think that Moonbird represents a greater contribution to literature than Amelia Lost does, and partly that's because of how it's structured. Phillip Hoose traveled to many of the important migration and feeding sites for these birds, and his own personal experiences are interspersed with vignettes of scientists who study red knots, a discussion of the birds' biology and conservation status, and a best-guess description of the life and journeys of B95 himself. This addition of the personal to the scientific is critical to the book's success; it's not just a book about birds, or even a book about a specific, exceptional bird, but a book about the interaction and relationship between the human world and the natural one, as seen through the author's own eyes.

Incidentally, most of the classic American nature authors -- Thoreau, Muir, Dillard, McPhee, etc. -- use this design, framing what they see through their own experiences. It moves the reader from the realm of facts to that of emotions and perceptions, from information to meaning, and I'd humbly submit that this is what gives a piece of nonfiction literary (as opposed to informational and scientific) value.

Is Moonbird good enough at that to win the Newbery? It's hard to say, especially because this is shaping up to be a crowded year. But it's closer to what I feel like a nonfiction Newbery winner should look like, and it's a book I very much am glad to have read.

Publication in July through Farrar Straus Giroux.

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