Thursday, October 16, 2014

2015 Contenders: The Family Romanov, by Candace Fleming

I have to make a confession. Though we diligently try to include at least one work of nonfiction in our Mock Newbery discussions, in my heart of hearts I rarely find it as distinguished as the fiction and poetry it's up against. There have been some very well-crafted works of narrative nonfiction in the past ten years, but, to my mind, none of them has displayed the alchemical combination of plot, character, setting, style, and theme that distinguishes the best fiction.

Until now. The Family Romanov: Murder, Rebellion, and the Fall of Imperial Russia is the first work of non-fiction that I would seriously defend as a Newbery frontrunner*. It would be difficult for me to say anything that was left unsaid by its six starred reviews, but I'll add my voice to the chorus of approval.

It seems to me that it must be very difficult to write clearly about the Romanovs; a century after their deaths, most portrayals are either fairy tales and (literal) hagiography, or demonic caricature. By shifting her narrative point of view between the claustrophobic lives of the Tsar and his family, and events "outside the palace walls," Fleming deftly walks the tightrope between these two extremes. We are privy to both tender moments between Nicholas and Alexandra and instances of their shocking callousness and indifference to the suffering of the Russian people. What emerges is a portrait of a flawed, sad, arrogant, but ultimately human set of characters.

Plot also presents a challenge in narrative nonfiction (especially when the foregone conclusion is well-known to most readers), but Fleming builds suspense through the use of expert pacing. She also immerses the reader in the setting with vivid details and primary sources - diaries, letters, memoirs - that remind of us what was at stake for every stratus of Russian society. Stylistically, she uses irony to wonderful/tragic effect - in one chapter, Nicholas plays dominoes and sips tea as Petrograd falls to mobs of hungry peasants.

I'll be recommending this one to Sam for our final Mock Newbery reading list, and I'll come to the table prepared to defend it. Whether or not our participants elect it Maryland's choice for the most distinguished contribution to American's children's literature though, I have little doubt that they will find it, along with Booklist (and me), "compulsively readable."

*Caveat: I never did get around to reading Bomb.

Published in July by Schwartz and Wade.


  1. This is an incredible achievement. But... two things worry me about it getting the medal. One is that I believe this is at the highest end of the Newbery age range. Doesn't make it ineligible, but could bring a few members pause. The other is Fleming's writing style - it can be polarizing. If too many committee members don't care for her method of using primary sources constantly to produce her paragraphs, they may vote accordingly.

    1. Oh, I think it's definitely a long shot for the medal. Nonfiction (especially informational) books don't win. But this is the first one I would champion anyway if I were on the committee, high end of the age range or no.... I think that people's assumption that Newbery books are always middle grade books should be shaken up anyway.