Friday, May 20, 2016

Newbery Wayback Machine: Secret of the Andes, by Ann Nolan Clark (1953)

Secret of the Andes is one of those Tales from Faraway Lands books, the kind brimming with descriptions of the Majestic Vistas and Proud, Noble People that fill Places You're Unlikely To Visit On Vacation. In the early days of the Newbery, this was a trope that drove winner after winner (see: Young Fu of the Upper Yangtze [1933]; Dobry [1934]; Call It Courage [1941]; etc., etc.). However, as time went on, this kind of writing fell out of favor. Indeed, Secret of the Andes was one of the last of its genre to win the Newbery -- books such as The Bronze Bow (1962) and Shadow of a Bull (1965) certainly contain similar elements, but also are starting to move, however haltingly, toward the more modern, less exoticizing style of later winners set in foreign countries, such as Number the Stars (1990) and A Single Shard (2002).

At any rate, the Faraway Land in question in Secret of the Andes is Peru. The protagonist, Cusi, is a contemporary Incan boy who lives in an isolated mountain valley with his elderly guardian, Chuto. There is a mystery surrounding Cusi's birth and destiny, and Cusi will need to visit the outside world in order to discover who he is and what he really wants.

I'll confess that I didn't find Secret of the Andes a compelling read. The mystery around Cusi's identity felt more like a shaggy dog story to me than an intriguing puzzle. I also found the plot underwhelming -- events come out of nowhere and proceed to the same location, and far too much of the second half of the book depends on impossible coincidences. (Seemingly every secondary character seems to have a copy of Cusi's detailed itinerary.) And Ann Nolan Clark's unorthodox prose style is clearly aiming for the poetic, but often felt maddeningly circular instead. Here's a sample, from chapter 13:

"Cusi and his llamas were climbing again. Mountain peaks piled upon mountain peaks. They rolled and swelled and piled higher and yet higher. They encircled the world. They towered above the world. They enclosed the world within itself. Only a brown ribbon of trail wound in and out and around them. Only a boy and his llamas moved along the winding trail."

It's possible that other readers may like that more than I did; it's certainly unlikely that they'll like it less. Especially since it's not, as far as I can tell, aiming to imitate the language or literature of Peru, it seemed mannered and artificial, and it repeatedly pulled me out of the story.

The 1953 Newbery is widely considered the biggest mistake in the history of the award; indeed, if most readers have even heard of Secret of the Andes, it's because it's the book that kept Charlotte's Web from winning. It's difficult from this distance for me to figure out what that year's Newbery committee was thinking; indeed, one of the more plausible possible explanations I've heard is that the result had to do with the fact that Ann Carroll Moore, the former head children's librarian for New York Public Library, and one of the most toweringly influential figures in children's librarianship at the time, was involved in a bitter feud with E.B. White's editor, Ursula Nordstrom. Whatever the reason, Secret of the Andes is no Charlotte's Web, and no matter how creative I get, I can't find a good way to defend this particular win.

It's okay. Mistakes happen.

Wednesday, May 11, 2016

Newbery Wayback Machine: Carry On, Mr. Bowditch, by Jean Lee Latham (1956)

Carry On, Mr. Bowditch is one of those books that occupy the nebulous space between fiction and nonfiction -- the "lightly fictionalized biography" or "documentary novel." It's a genre that I don't think about all that often, but it has a long and bright history, from books such as Amos Fortune, Free Man (the 1951 Newbery winner), on to more recent titles, like No Crystal Stair (2012) and Africa Is My Home (2013).

Our hero in Jean Lee Latham's 1956 Newbery winner is Nathaniel Bowditch, a Massachusetts polymath whose book The New American Practical Navigator (1802) revolutionized the science of navigation. We meet Bowditch when he is only six years old, and follow his life through to his return from his last sailing voyage in 1803. This choice of time frame allows Latham to focus on Bowditch's navigation and nautical exploits; the second act of his life, in which Bowditch published a number of scientific articles, and worked as a noted actuary and investment manager, goes unremarked upon. I've complained before about biographical works that only cover part of their subjects' life (looking at you here, You Never Heard of Willie Mays?!), but I think Latham made the right choice; the narrative arc comes to a logical conclusion at the point where Latham elects to end the story.

I didn't really know what to expect from Carry On, Mr. Bowditch -- it's one of those more obscure Newbery titles, and I knew almost nothing about it except for the title. It started a bit slowly, but I ended up very much enjoying this one. Bowditch is a strong, interesting protagonist, and although most of the secondary characters don't get much screen time, they come across effectively enough. The setting also works well; I felt the excitement of Salem and Boston in the early days of the United States as I read. I was sorry to see Carry On, Mr. Bowditch end.

I will confess that I cringed during the descriptions of Bowditch's interactions with the Malay people in Sumatra; I have no doubt that it's an accurate depiction of how the American sailors thought about their trading partners, but given that nowadays, we'd call that "racist," it's a bit awkward to read. I've read much worse from the time period, however; even if those passages in the book would be frowned upon now, I certainly wouldn't call Latham a bigot in the context of her era.

Three Honor books were named in 1956, the best known of which is probably The Secret River, by Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings. The most famous eligible book that was shut out of that year's awards is almost certainly Harold and the Purple Crayon, by Crockett Johnson. Harold is a classic, but I don't think it works at all without the illustrations, and I wouldn't have supported it for the Newbery over Carry On, Mr. Bowditch.

Friday, April 22, 2016

Newbery Wayback Machine: Call It Courage, by Armstrong Sperry (1941)

I believe that I read Call It Courage, Armstrong Sperry's novel that took the 1941 Newbery Medal, when I was a child. However, I remembered almost nothing about it, and so when I went to read the book again for this review, I came at it with, at least for the most part, fresh eyes.

What I found within the pages was not, I don't believe, what Sperry intended to put there. In his acceptance speech for the Newbery (in and around the cringeworthy exoticism of the Polynesian Other), Sperry spoke about "that courage which, in one form or another, I have tried to communicate to the readers of my books." As far as I can tell, Sperry intended his tale to be interpreted straightforwardly: a boy is afraid, courageously confronts his fears, and through the process of overcoming them, becomes a man.

And yet that's not the way that Call It Courage comes across to me at all. It strikes me as a picture of a rigid, dysfunctional society, one that is largely unwilling to accept differences. Our hero, Mafatu, is a Polynesian boy with a deep fear of the sea. Really, he's probably a kid with PTSD -- when he was three years old, he was caught in a hurricane while out in a canoe with his mother. The storm destroyed the canoe, and Mafatu held onto his mother's neck for an entire night, surrounded by sharks and dark water, before the waves threw the pair of them up onto a nearby reef, whereupon Mafatu's mother promptly died. After all that, it strikes me as perfectly reasonable for Mafatu to be frightened of the ocean!

However, his people don't see it that way. Mafatu's father, the chief, treats his son with disappointed indifference. His peers openly mock and scorn him. Mafatu is still a perfectly useful member of society -- he becomes a skilled spear-maker and net-weaver -- but in a nifty piece of sexism, this is discounted as "woman's work." Eventually, the social pressure becomes so intense that Mafatu can no longer abide it; he takes a canoe and sails away with a half-formed plan to "win his way to a distant island." (Spoilers follow!)

What actually happens is that Mafatu runs into another storm, and is then wrecked on a quasi-deserted island. Here, he makes himself a home and another canoe, gets really good at killing things (a shark, a wild boar, a giant octopus), and, I suppose, conquers his fears. However, the sense of self-improvement seems secondary to me; Mafatu states over and over that what he really wants is the respect of his peers, and even more to the point, his father's love.

None of the larger issues that seem to me like they ought to be visible from space -- why nearly kill yourself for the love of someone who demonstrates no love for you? why is there no place within a society to work through one's problems, or to make a life for oneself that isn't within an extraordinarily narrow range of the acceptable? -- are ever addressed. No, Mafatu is able to wrench himself into being exactly what other people want out of him, which is presented to us as a triumphant victory.

My deep complaints about Call It Courage shouldn't be construed as a condemnation of actual Polynesian culture. Indeed, although Sperry actually spent a year in French Polynesia, I have a lot of questions about how well he actually understood the place on anything but a superficial level. I'm not a Polynesian studies expert in any way, shape, or form, but as far as I understand it, the actual attitude towards things like gender roles would have been much different than the way in which Sperry presents it. Frankly, the whole novel feels more like a Pacific-ized version of a snobby prep school than anything else.

Also, I haven't even mentioned the "eaters-of-men," the cannibals who threaten Mafatu (mostly through his utterly inexplicable decision not to just sail away in his fully prepared and stocked canoe when he realizes they're on the island, and instead try to sneak a peek at their ritual in progress). Suffice it to say that the "cannibal" parts of the book weren't what you'd call respectfully handled.

I should try to be fair here. The "island adventure" story dates back at least to Robinson Crusoe (1719), but most of the books in this vein haven't aged all that well; they tend to look too colonialist and imperial for a modern reader to enjoy them. Sperry's defenders, such as critic Joan McGrath, caution that "it is all too easy to lose the historical perspective that would credit him with enlightenment and objectivity, given [his books'] date of publication." I've made similar arguments myself on behalf of Laura Adams Armer and Hendrik van Loon. However, I'm not entirely convinced in Sperry's case, although maybe it's just that all of the attitudes espoused in Call It Courage rub me the wrong way, and so I'm unable to be entirely objective.

I don't know what would win the 1941 Newbery if we were to re-award it today. Four Honor books were named, the best-known of which is The Long Winter, by Laura Ingalls Wilder (which has its own issues around race and culture). Call It Courage might still take the award -- and it's certainly easier to read than some of the other early Newbery winners that I've read -- but it's a book that really doesn't appeal to me.

Wednesday, April 20, 2016

2017 Contenders: The Mechanical Mind of John Coggin, by Elinor Teele

Illustration by Ben Whitehouse 
As our regular readers know, we at For Those About To Mock have dedicated this year to reviews of past Newbery winners. However, the good folks at Walden Pond Press sent me a copy of The Mechanical Mind of John Coggin, and asked if we'd be willing to be part of the blog tour for the book's release. Now, WPP just happens to be one of my very favorite imprints; not only have they published a number of books we've loved over the past few years (Neversink, The Real Boy, The Fellowship for Alien Detection), but they're also responsible for printing my personal favorite children's book of all time, full stop (Breadcrumbs). As such, there wasn't really any question as to whether or not we'd agree to contribute to the blog tour!

Mechanical Mind opens in the dreary, miserable city of Pludgett, where eleven-year-old John Coggin crafts caskets for Coggin Family Coffins, under the overbearing watch of his Great-Aunt Beauregard. John is a talented coffin-maker, but he hates the work; he would much prefer to spend his time turning his ideas for inventions into reality. When Great-Aunt Beauregard attempts to force John to sign a contract that would not only bind him to the business for the next two decades, but also compel his younger sister Page to work as an undertaker, John finally reaches his breaking point. With the help of Boz, a circus performer of sesquipedalian speech patterns and questionable reliability, John and Page run away -- although Great-Aunt Beauregard is hot on the trio's trail.

The story of John and Page's resulting adventures reminded me of Roald Dahl, Daniel Pinkwater, and even the Mr. Toad portions of The Wind in the Willows. (Let's just say that John doesn't have much more luck with motorcars than that estimable amphibian.) The supporting cast is made up of highly-entertaining characters; my favorite was Miss Doyle, a sort of middle-aged, reptilian-looking version of Lara Croft. However, holding the whole thing together are John and Page, two children who come across as eminently authentic and believable. I appreciated the fact that John isn't some kind of Matilda-level prodigy, but rather a smart kid who still has a lot to learn, and who shows real growth over the course of the book. And I loved the relationship between the siblings -- sometimes strained, sometimes frustrated, but always full of genuine affection and loyalty.

Given that the only solid prediction I made last year was that no picture book would win the Newbery, I'm not even going to try and prognosticate this year's winner. I will, however, say that Mechanical Mind excels in setting and characterization (particularly of John and Page), and that I'd love to be a fly on the wall if the Newbery committee chooses to discuss it. I'd certainly recommend the novel for anyone who likes a fast-paced, humorous adventure story with heart.

Published in April by Walden Pond Press / HarperCollins

If you're interested in knowing what other folks are saying about The Mechanical Mind of John Coggin, check out the other stops on the blog tour!

Illustration by Ben Whitehouse
April 12 - Novel Novice
April 13 – This Kid Reviews Books
April 14 - Maria's Melange
April 15 - Unleashing Readers
April 18 - Next Best Book 
April 19 - Foodie Bibliophile
April 21Walden Media Tumblr
April 22 - Charlotte's Library
April 25Flashlight Reader
April 26 - Teach Mentor Texts
April 27 - Librarian's Quest
April 28 - Kid Lit Frenzy
April 29 - Novel Novice

Friday, April 1, 2016

Newbery Wayback Machine: Waterless Mountain, by Laura Adams Armer (1932)

I'm a day late in posting my review of Waterless Mountain. However, this one was laborious enough to get through that I don't really feel bad about my tardiness.

Waterless Mountain is, on its face, a sort of coming-of-age tale about Younger Brother, a Navajo boy who will eventually become a medicine man. The episodes, though, are loosely linked and largely uncompelling -- there's little real conflict, and Younger Brother's through line doesn't serve to create much of a plot. He discovers his destiny very early in the book, and there's never any chance that it won't come true; he's also a flat, uninteresting character, who learns new things but exhibits almost no change or development during the novel. The supporting cast isn't much better. Only Elder Brother's wife hints at any hidden depths, and she appears for only a few pages over the course of the book.

Very nearly the only times that Waterless Mountain comes alive are during the retellings of Navajo legends and the descriptions of the various ceremonies. Indeed, those sections are so much more compelling than any of the rest of the book, that the flimsy plot seems more like an excuse to include this cultural material than anything else. This being a children's book published in the '30s, there aren't any source notes for the stories or rituals, but I did a bit of research on some of them, and the ones I checked seemed to be more or less accurate. Laura Adams Armer spent a great deal of time on the Arizona Navajo Reservation, and she does appear to have done some homework.

This, nevertheless, brings us to another aspect of Waterless Mountain. At the time of its publication, the book was hailed for its sensitivity towards the people it portrays. A representative quote from the book's jacket, from a Dr. A.L. Kroeber who headed the University of California's Anthropology Department, claims that the novel "shows that we have entered a time when the Indian is no longer a dummy to hang our own romanticism on, but an interest and appeal in himself as he really is." Eighty-odd years later, however, what struck me was the uncomfortably paternalistic relationship between the Big Man (the white man who runs the nearby trading post) and the Navajos. Armer, who was ahead of her own time when it came to ideas of equality and race relations, reads as noticeably backward now. It would be churlish to blame her for that, but it does make for an awkward reading experience in the present time.

Famously, Armer had never even heard of the Newbery Award before winning it. She was primarily an artist and photographer -- Waterless Mountain, her first book, was published when she was 57 years old. She would write only six more books, and all of her work except Waterless Mountain and Farthest West (1938) is now out of print (including The Forest Pool, which she wrote and illustrated, for which she won a Caldecott Honor in 1939).

Six Honor Books were named in 1932. None of them are particularly well known now, although Rachel Field's Calico Bush is at least still in print. I will confess that I haven't read that one, and so don't know whether I'd argue that it would have been a better Newbery choice. I will say that I have a hard time categorizing most of the winners from the first decade or two of the Newbery -- even the rather dreadful ones -- as mistakes, given that American children's literature was very much a work in progress.

Now, on to the 1940s!

Monday, March 7, 2016

Newbery Wayback Machine: The Dark Frigate, by Charles Boardman Hawes (1924)

It's true that in March, we'll all be reviewing Newbery Winners from the 1930s. However, much like flappers, stockbrokers, and Calvin Coolidge, I'm not quite ready to leave the 1920s behind, and so I'm putting up a review of the 1924 winner, Charles Boardman Hawes' The Dark Frigate.

The Dark Frigate is a nautical yarn, the kind of book in which a fine young man -- Philip Marsham, our spirited protagonist -- accidentally falls in with a gang of scoundrels, and must take part in many thrilling adventures with them. This is the Robert Louis Stevenson formula, more than a little familiar from Treasure Island (1883) and Kidnapped (1886). Indeed, the pirates in The Dark Frigate are led by a charismatic antihero (Tom "The Old One" Jordan) who neatly fills the Long John Silver role, and the whole novel at times feels very much like a Stevenson pastiche.

It's also not as good as Stevenson; Philip Marsham is a colorless protagonist who's no Jim Hawkins or David Balfour, and few of the supporting characters can muster more than one personality trait. The nautical language is piled on so thick and heavy that for long stretches, the action is almost impossible to understand without a dictionary. And for a collection of notorious rogues, Tom Jordan's crew isn't actually all that good at their job; after they manage to take over Marsham's ship, the Rose of Devon, they don't accomplish much of anything for the rest of the novel.

Still, for all that it's a pale imitation of better books, The Dark Frigate isn't a terrible novel, especially by the (admittedly low) standards of 1920s American children's literature. The plot depends on some Dickensian coincidences, but is solidly constructed, and Hawes' obvious love for the nautical world invests the book with a measure of genuine charm. And -- although this is faint praise indeed -- I only counted one or two instances of obvious racism.

The Newbery eligibility criteria provide for a number of relatively unlikely circumstances, such as the author being a US citizen living abroad (e.g., at least at the time of her Newbery win, Sharon Creech); a foreign national living in the US (Neil Gaiman and Will James both fell into this category, although James' non-citizenship wasn't common knowledge at the time); and two or more authors co-writing a book (which, though it hasn't ever applied to the Newbery winner, has covered five Honor books over the years). Sadly, Charles Boardman Hawes remains the only beneficiary of the proviso that allows the award to be given posthumously; shortly after delivering the manuscript of The Dark Frigate to his publisher, he contracted pneumonic meningitis, and died before the novel was actually printed.

Even if sentimentality thus influenced the selection of The Dark Frigate as the Newbery winner, it was probably a solid choice; no Honor books were named for the 1924 award, and the only other "classic" title from the 1923 publishing year that I'm aware of is Bambi, a Life in the Woods, by the Austrian author Felix Salten.

And now, on to the 1930s!

Tuesday, February 23, 2016

Newbery Wayback Machine: The Voyages of Doctor Dolittle, by Hugh Lofting

Here I am! The slacker of For Those About to Mock with my 1920's review for the Newbery Wayback Machine. I have excuses, none of them great, as to why it took me so long to read this book, but look I made this cool gif, so hopefully you'll forgive me!

The Voyages of Doctor Dolittle is actually the second of Hugh Lofting's Doctor Dolittle books (there are 12 of them total!) and it was the winner of our illustrious Newbery medal in 1923. Lofting got the idea for Doctor Dolittle during World War I. He didn't want to write home about the brutalities of war, so he filled letters to his family with fantastic stories instead.

Voyages is told from the perspective of Tommy Stubbins, who is about 9 when the book begins and about 11 when the book ends. He lives in a quaint English town, Puddleby-on-the-Marsh, where his father is a cobbler. Stubbins is an interesting kid. His family doesn't make enough money for him to go to school, so he spends his days hanging out with his three best friends, "Joe, the mussel man," "Matthew Mugg, the cat's meat man," and "Luke the Hermit." Okay...

Stubbins has a fondness for animals which leads him to saving a wounded squirrel and eventually bringing that squirrel to renowned naturalist, John Dolittle. Dolittle is an animal doctor, and he's sort of the greatest animal doctor of all time because he can talk to animals, and by that I mean he has learned the languages of hundreds of animals and can actually converse with them. 

(Real talk: I chose this book as my 1920's selection because as a girl I was entranced by the Academy Award winning musical Doctor Dolittle starring Rex Harrison. Also whenever asked "If you could have a super power what would it be?" I always choose "The power to understand animals" because I've always wanted to talk with my dog. Although she'd probably just say "Are you gonna eat that?!?!" over and over and over again. Really I ought to rethink it... But getting back on track!)

But seriously... Are you gonna eat that?!?!

Stubbins asks his parents if he can live with Doctor Dolittle so he can apprentice with him and learn to become a naturalist and speak the languages of animals too. And they let him. Okay...

But the Doctor never stays in Puddleby too long, despite his many patients, and glorious garden, to occupy him. He prefers to be traveling, exploring new lands, meeting exciting animals. When he learns that his fellow naturalist, Long Arrow, son of Golden Arrow, has gone missing, and was last seen on the mysterious Spider Monkey Island, he and Stubbins, along with Bumpo, an African Prince and acquaintance of the Doctor, and a few of their animal friends, set sail to see what they can discover.

Here's all you really need to know about John Dolittle: He always sorts out whatever problem comes his way. He doesn't go about it in the most traditional way, but he always saves the day. For instance, he's never been classically trained in nautical arts, but he can get you anywhere you need to go on a boat. You never have to worry when Doctor Dolittle is around. If you have something that needs fixing, he'll do it, usually in the most unexpected way. 

The Voyages of Doctor Dolittle is delightful book for children. As an adult I personally found it repetitive. The Doctor gets a man off the hook for a murder charge by questioning his dog on the witness stand! The Doctor ends bull fighting on a particular Spanish island by wagering he can win a bull fight by simply communicating with the bulls! The Doctor saves an entire primitive native village from war, famine, and disease! I get it, the Doctor is incredible! Perhaps a little too incredible! As a child I probably wouldn't have been able to get enough of the Doctor's prolific adventures. As an adult I felt like they were overkill. In fact the adventure that is most foreshadowed in the book, that I looked most forward to, the Doctor finally coming face-to-face with the illusive great glass sea snail, felt so anti-climatic after all the other many adventures, that I just wanted to go back to quiet Puddleby and take a nap.

Also I really disliked the character of Polynesia, a hundreds-year-old parrot who travels with the Doctor and helps to educate Stubbins. Again, as a child I probably would have been besotted with this intelligent bird. As a cynical codger I found her to be a know-it-all, and a bit of an asshole (I asked Sam and Rachael if there was a nice way to say I thought the parrot was an asshole and they told me to just say it! So I have! Come at me Polynesia!)

I think the magic of Voyages lies with at what age you read it, and also what edition you get a hold of. It's pretty much impossible to read an original version of this book now. In fact this beloved Newbery winner went out of print in the good old U S of A for over a decade! When it was reissued, publishers chose to edit and omit parts of the book that were... well... racist. Some people may want to hold that against the book and the author. My 2 cents: Lofting was a guy in the 1920's, writing about a guy in the 1820's, and I honestly don't think he was a raging hate monger. He was a man of the times, and the times have changed, but so has the book now.

Was this the most distinguished contribution to American literature for children in 1923? Do you know the Newbery committee named ZERO honor books that year? So for all we know it was the only distinguished contribution to American literature for children in 1923! It is undeniably charming, and culturally significant, inspiring many adaptations for screen and stage. And really, if we could talk to the animals, what a lovely place the world would be.