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Man in conflict

Children’s nonfiction book of the year: One theologian’s struggle to understand God and defeat Hitler

Man in conflict

Dietrich Bonhoeffer (AKG-Images/Newscom)

Few “Christian heroes” attract the admiration of the modern age more than Dietrich Bonhoeffer. His courage in standing up to an obvious evil like Adolf Hitler and the Third Reich, his devotion to his family, and his musical and literary gifts are all virtues anyone, secular or religious, can appreciate. But our nonfiction winner presents a figure few secular readers can grasp: a man smitten by God from an early age. Perhaps the most sensitive treatment of this life can only come from an author or illustrator with similar leanings.

The Faithful Spy: Dietrich Bonhoeffer and the Plot to Kill Hitler (Abrams, ages 10 & up) by John Hendrix is a biography like no other. Author/illustrator Hendrix describes it as “a sketchbook or journal come to life”: words, pictures, and graphic word art combine in a singular blend framing a singular life. Chapter 1 begins with the words, “This is Dietrich. Our story begins and ends with him.” The small image of a bookish young man stands against a map of Europe, suggesting broader events that will soon sweep over our hero and his family. Sixteen pages in, another figure strides forward, “who was ready to grab the reins of power while the great German horse was without a rider. His name was Adolf Hitler.”

With the stage set, in 167 packed pages these two lives unfold against the drama, terror, and final resolution of the Third Reich.

Dietrich set out on his spiritual journey very young, smitten with the notion of divinity and the goal to become a theologian. While studying at the University of Berlin, he began to feel like “God’s zookeeper … making careful observations and measurements but always at a safe distance.” A visit to New York and encounters with the African-American church brought him face to face with a being much more dynamic, demanding, and forceful than Dietrich had ever encountered: a God who came near, shook up lives, and changed them forever. Just in time, for God would soon be shaking him. 

Bonhoeffer’s early pacifism, coming into conflict with his conviction that Hitler must be destroyed, receives graphic treatment that forces readers to question their own convictions. He endured periods of doubt and depression, never more so than during his internment at Tegel prison. But the visual narrative walks us through these days and out the other side: “for me, the beginning of life.” Throughout the book, an unusual color scheme of red and teal, sometimes in jittery juxtaposition, emphasizes the contrast between Hitler and Bonhoeffer, as well as the conflicts within both Germany and her faithful son.

Among the excellent biographies of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, The Faithful Spy stands out as economical but amazingly informative, factual but emotionally gripping, stunningly illustrated and beautifully written: a combination readers will not soon forget.

2018 WAS A GOOD YEAR FOR NONFICTION: not only The Faithful Spy and our four runners-up, but also a beautiful poetry book. Sing a Song of Seasons (Nosy Crow) offers a nature-related poem for each day of the year. The lively illustrations and verses from a variety of poets make it a keepsake for lit-loving families.

Short List

Countdown: 2,979 Days to the Moon

Suzanne Slack

January 1967: Apollo 1 sat on the launchpad at Cape Canaveral for a practice countdown in preparation for the first moon launch. Next moment, a spark from a frayed wire ignited the oxygen-filled cabin: Three astronauts died before their moon rocket even left the ground. But each Apollo mission after the tragedy pushed a little closer to the goal until the Apollo 11 mission left human footprints on the moon. The story gets full-page, oversize treatment with each mission presented in blank verse and lavish watercolor illustration. Chapters end with biographical sketches and photos of the mission. (Ages 6-12)

The Girl Who Drew Butterflies: How Maria Merian’s Art Changed Science

Joyce Sidman

In 1660 science was in its larval stages, a pastime mostly for the leisure class and entirely for men. Maria Merian broke the pattern—not only as a woman, but as one of the first systematic entomologists. Insects were considered a form of life too low to engage the interest of a respectable scientist, but Maria followed them passionately, even to sojourn in Suriname to catalog rare species. Her exquisite drawings and painstaking observation set standards for the discipline for centuries to come. This beautifully illustrated biography paces her life through the stages of butterfly development, giving due credit to Maria’s faith. (Ages 10 & up)

The Grand Escape: The Greatest Prison Breakout of the 20th Century

Neal Bascomb

During World War I, a pilot in the Royal Flying Corps faced scant odds of surviving beyond a few weeks at the front, and if shot down in enemy territory his problems had just begun. That didn’t deter flying aces Cecil Blain, Charles Rathborne, and David Gray from attempting a mass escape from Holzminden, the “inescapable” POW camp ruled by a sadistic commandant. Unlike the 1963 movie based on a similar WWII attempt, this account is entirely true, and the escape more successful—but equally suspenseful. Readers should come away with renewed admiration for the courage and resourcefulness of the men of 1918. (Ages 12 & up)

Spooked! How a Radio Broadcast and The War of the Worlds Sparked the 1938 Invasion of America

Gail Jarrow

When up-and-coming thespian Orson Welles wanted to produce The War of the Worlds for his radio drama series, the challenges of squeezing novel-length speculative fiction into a 50-minute audio format stymied him. Then someone proposed presenting the story as real-time news broadcasts and on-site interviews. The result, as any history buff knows, caused actual panic among Americans who tuned in late. After introducing the main players, Spooked! re-creates the broadcast on yellow-tinted paper with period illustrations, followed by audience reactions gleaned from letters. “Fake news” and hyper-journalism give contemporary relevance to an incident usually seen as a historical sidebar. (Ages 10 & up)

Janie B. Cheaney

Janie B. Cheaney

Janie lives in Missouri, is a columnist for WORLD, writes novels for young adults, and is the author of the Wordsmith creative writing series. She also reviews books at RedeemedReader.com. Follow Janie on Twitter @jbcheaney.