Susan Campbell Bartoletti

by Abby McGanney Nolan, Chair Nonfiction Award Committee

Susan Campbell Bartoletti, recipient of the 2009 Washington Post-Children's Book Guild Award for Nonfiction, is a remarkable researcher and interpreter of history who has given young readers keen insight into troubling times and experiences. From the widespread use of child labor in the 19th and early 20th centuries to the role of children in the Nazi era, Bartoletti has researched deeply, documented every word, and crafted narratives that are both informative and compelling for young audiences.

The Washington Post-Children's Book Guild Nonfiction Award honors an author or author-illustrator whose total work has contributed significantly to the quality of nonfiction for children. Nonfiction is written or illustrated work which arranges and interprets documentable facts intended to illuminate, without imaginative invention, the following fields of knowledge: science, technology, social science, history, biography, and the arts.

The criteria for the Nonfiction Award include:

  • Distinguished writing and illustration
  • Clarity and accuracy, as well as literary distinction in writing, and in the case of author-illustrators, excellence in artistic presentation in illustration that enhances or augments the total presentation
  • Presentation of ideas and facts that is likely to stimulate and challenge young readers
  • Reader appeal that includes lively writing and illustration leading to pleasure, curiosity, a sense of wonder, and further pursuit of knowledge by all readers

Susan Campbell Bartoletti's work more than meets the criteria. Along with the four nonfiction works described below, she has written picture books as well as novels that grew out of her nonfiction research. A native of Pennsylvania, she started teaching 8th-grade English after graduating from college and didn't stop for 18 years. "It felt good to see my students grow as writers," she says on her website. "They inspired me to practice what I preached. I joined a writer's group and got serious about my own writing."

In her nonfiction work, Susan Campbell Bartoletti's guiding principle has been bringing to light "stories from history that haven’t been heard and voices that have been silenced." Her first book of nonfiction, Growing Up in Coal Country (Houghton Mifflin, 1996), grew out of her research into the lives of her husband's parents and her interest in the experiences of children and the many roles they have assumed throughout history. She focused on the workers of northeastern Pennsylvania at the turn of the 20th century, and emerged with a detailed portrait of immigrants becoming part of the American workforce. Through oral history, archival documents, and black-and-white photographers, readers get a vivid sense of the long hours, low wages, and hazardous conditions of "coal country" as well as the dreams achieved and the strong spirits that emerged.

Bartoletti’s next book was a natural continuation of this research. "Seeing that kids went on strike in the coal mines," she says, "led me to investigate how they went on strike in other industries." Kids On Strike (Houghton Mifflin,1999) surveys youthful unrest of the 19th and early 20th centuries, from the "spinning-room strikers" of Lowell, Massachusetts to the New York newsies, whose strike spread far beyond Manhattan.

In Black Potatoes: The Story of the Great Irish Famine, 1845-1850 (Houghton Mifflin, 2001), Bartoletti explains the causes and consequences of a momentous upheaval through a fresh reexamination of the historical record. She conveys the historical record, documents every story, and shares eyewitness accounts, bringing to life the miserable conditions and choices that Irish families faced.

For her first three books, Bartoletti says, "Young people are political beings, just as adults are. I was interested in how young people used their powers for good and how they struggled to survive on a daily basis." With Hitler Youth: Growing Up in Hitler's Shadow (Scholastic, 2005), she says, "I had the rug pulled out from under me. These were children who banded together and bought into the ideology of the Nazi party. They gained power from it."

Bartoletti's latest book, about the Reconstruction-era Ku Klux Klan, is due out in the fall of 2009. Chronicling the first wave of the Klan, the work focuses to a greater extent on an older group, older teenagers and adults who joined the Klan and those who became their their victims. Bartoletti explains why such horrors are relevant to young readers: "The issues that led to the KKK and the Nazis are issues of prejudice, discrimination, arrogance, entitlement, and privilege. Kids experience these same issues in school and in the world all the time and much sooner than many adults would like to acknowledge. We need to give kids the tools they can use to understand these issues and combat them."

Members of the 2009 Nonfiction Award Committee included Deborah Taylor (emeritus), Mary Bowman-Kruhm and Kristi Jemtegaard. Find out more about Ms. Bartoletti at www.scbartoletti.com

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