A hundred years ago, on April 15, 1912, the Titanic sank on her maiden voyage. Speaking for many, Don Brown concludes his account (see below) with these words: “Though gone from view, she remains fixed on the horizon of our imagination, where she steams endlessly, haunting us.” And for good reason.
Swirling around the disaster are issues of man vs. nature, class structure, irony, drama, and a host of what-ifs and what-might-have-beens. These elements are a writer’s dream. Add to them a natural trajectory with rising action (the first days of the voyage) climax (the iceberg collision) and falling action (rescue, or death), and you’ve got a perfect story. And many a one has been written.
But, in the truth-is-stranger-than-fiction department, fine dramatic nonfiction also chronicles the disaster. There are those books emphasizing the size (it was, after all, the maritime Tyrannosaurus rex) and features of the ship; the voyage itself; and survival.
Typically, books about the Titanic have come in spurts: immediately after the disaster; when Robert Ballard found the wreckage of the ship; and at various anniversaries, including this centennial. Each of these periods, like rock strata, reveal new information and changing interpretations. For example, initial accounts state that the iceberg tore a hole in the ship. When Robert Ballard first saw the wreckage, he suggested rivets failed under pressure and caused the boat to sink, while later scientists hypothesize that the weak steel failed and caused the disaster. But here’s the beauty of Titanic literature. Assuming that young Titanic enthusiasts will read more than one book, they will find many of the same players and some conflicting information even down to the number of individuals saved and lost. As a body, this literature gives youngsters a chance to evaluate sources, from the early newspaper articles (“Titanic’s Passengers All Rescued!”) to sometimes faulty eyewitness accounts (perhaps the ship did not sink perpendicular to the waterline) to outdated material. For example, in 1985 Robert Ballard believed that the ship and her contents would remain undisturbed on the ocean floor. But today there is an auction of Titanic artifacts. How could that happen? And that’s precisely the kind of question young people should be asking of the books and materials they read.
The books below are listed in order of reading difficulty.
Crisp, Marty. Titanicat; illus. by Robert Papp. Sleeping Bear Press. 2008. ISBN 978-1-58536-355-1.
It’s no surprise that a book for the youngest of listeners avoids the trip all together. Here, a young ship’s boy cares for a litter of kittens, and when one escapes at Southampton, he goes ashore to rescue it and thus misses the sailing. An interview with survivor Paddy Scott provides the basic story for this picture book.
Stewart, Melissa. Titanic. National Geographic. 2012. lib ISBN: 978-1-4263-1060-7; pb ISBN: 978-1-4263-1059-5.
Smart formatting makes this book particularly accessible to beginning readers. Clear photographs with informative, boxed captions; several numbered lists, such as “10 Cool Things About Titanic”; a timeline; and sidebars defining unfamiliar terms are nicely integrated with expository prose that describes the ship, briefly covers the voyage and disaster (with only two sentences about lost souls); rescue; and thoughts about how the disaster could have been averted. Also recommended for this age group is The Titanic Lost and Found (by Judy Donnelly and illus. by Keith Kohler. Random House. 1987. ISBN: 0-394-8866-9-0), which provides a straight chronological account beginning with departure from Southampton and ending with Ballard’s second descent to the site.
Brown, Don. All Stations! Distress! Roaring Brook. 2008. ISBN: 978-1-59643-222-5; pb ISBN: 978-1-59643-644-2.
Brown provides youngsters with a transition from the impersonal narratives for beginning readers to a rich account of the sinking and the survival of individuals who appear prominently in more sophisticated accounts, such as Margaret Brown; seventeen-year-old Jack Thayer, Archibald Gracie; Ida and Isidor Straus; White Star Line president Bruce Ismay, and wireless operator Harold Bride.
Brewster, Hugh. Inside the Titanic; illus. by Ken Marschall. Little, Brown. 1997. ISBN: 978-0-316-55716-0.
Marschall is the recognized artistic expert on the Titanic, and his giant cutaways give, in great detail, a sense of both the size and grandeur of the ship. Tying these illustrations together are the voices, which may be slightly fictionalized, of Frank Goldsmith (traveling in steerage) and Billy Carter (traveling first class) as they endure and survive the disaster. The first half of Barry Denenberg’s Titanic Sinks! Explore the Titanic’s Doomed Voyage in This Unique Presentation of Fact and Fiction (Viking. 2011. ISBN: 978-0-670-01243-5) reads like a travel brochure and with its period photographs also gives readers a wealth of information about the ship.
Brewster, Hugh and Laurie Coulter. 882 ½ Amazing Answers to Your Questions About the Titanic. Scholastic. 1998. ISBN: 0-439-04296-8.
The question/answer format, used in forty-three double-page segments such as “Sailing Day” and “The Titanic’s Passengers,” simplifies the reading act for many youngsters but provides a lot of well-organized detail. There’s generous use of photographs of the ship and artifacts, as well as numerous paintings by Ken Marschall. Simon Adams’s Titanic (Dorling Kindersley. 2009. ISBN: 978-0-7566-5036-0), with the hallmark DK treatment, makes a fine companion to this one.
Ballard, Robert D. Exploring the Titanic. Scholastic. 1988. Out of print.
Although there is much background material about the ship and its sinking, it is Ballard’s strong voice upon finding the wreck that makes this book outstanding. His initial jubilation is quietly tempered by reverence for the site. This account also covers his second visit, and gives a detailed explanation of how Ballard believes the rivets failed when the ship hit the iceberg. Detailed illustrations by Ken Marschall, as well as photographs of artifacts seen but not yet disturbed, enhance Ballard’s story.
Hopkinson, Deborah. Titanic: Voices from the Disaster. Scholastic. 2012. ISBN: 978-0-545-11674-9.
Yes, the narrative is familiar, but Hopkinson’s exceptional storytelling and inclusion of a multitude of voices creates a fresh examination. Without sensationalizing, she takes readers from construction to Ballard’s discovery. This compelling account also covers the subsequent inquiries about the sinking and asks some unanswered questions, leading readers on their own Titanic quests. Stephanie Sammartino McPherson’s more dispassionate account (Iceberg Right Ahead: The Tragedy of the Titanic. Twentieth First Century. 2012. ISBN: 978-0-7613-6756-7) covers many aspects of the disaster and even suggests, although in a slightly gossipy tone, that perhaps First Officer Lightoller withheld some information about Captain Smith’s actions that night.
Lawson, Julie. Ghosts of the Titanic. Holiday House. 2012. ISBN: 978-0-8234-2423-8.
What marks this middle-grade novel is that it deals with reclaiming the dead and returning to (and burying many in) Halifax, Nova Scotia. Modern day Kevin moves to Halifax and, in a heartbreaking experience, travels back in time with Angus Seaton, who helped recover the bodies.
Peck, Richard. Amanda Miranda. Viking. 1999. ISBN: 978-0-14-242068-3.
Events surrounding the Titanic suggest drama, but leave it to Peck to take that extra step and give readers a delicious melodrama. Privileged and narcissistic, Amanda Whitwell uses Miranda, her look-alike maid, in a complicated scheme that allows Amanda to continue her affair with chauffeur John Thorne. But when the two women set sail on the Titanic and Amanda is caught below decks during the disaster, Miranda seizes the chance to impersonate her now-dead employer.
Weyn, Suzanne. Distant Waves: A Novel of the Titanic. Scholastic. 2009. ISBN: 978-0-545-08572-1.
Many mysteries and unanswered questions surround the ship, the sailing, and its passengers. Weyn brings these to the forefront by introducing the spiritualist movement and what many consider a foretelling of events as five sisters meet different fates aboard ship.
Lord, Walter. A Night to Remember. St. Martin’s. 1985. ISBN: 978-0-8050-7764-3.
First published in 1955 and updated thirty years later, this account of the disaster is the gold standard against which all Titanic books are measured. The narrative moves swiftly and is personalized by Lord’s interviews with a number of survivors. Lord updates this classic, and clarifies some of the survivor stories, in a companion, The Night Lives On: The Stories and Secrets Behind the Sinking of the Unsinkable Ship, available only in a Kindle edition.
Wolf, Allan. The Watch That Ends the Night: Voices from the Titanic. Candlewick. 2011. ISBN: 978-0-7636-3703-3.
Brilliantly blending fact and fiction, Wolf creates a compelling novel in verse that includes voices from passengers (from first class to steerage), crew, the Iceberg, and a ship’s rat in an intimate portrait of life on the Titanic. Wolf begins with an undertaker retrieving the bodies and then flashes back to the beginnings of the trip and the finality of the tragedy. Explanatory character notes separate verifiable fact from fiction and address conflicting reports.
For Horn Book Guide reviews of the above books, search The Horn Book Guide Online by title, author, or subject “Titanic”. Additional Titanic reads are recommended in our “From The Guide” column in the March/April 2012 issue of The Horn Book Magazine.