Wednesday, January 13, 2021

Newbery Wayback Machine: Gay-Neck, The Story of a Pigeon, by Dhan Gopal Mukerji (1928)


Gay-Neck, The Story of a Pigeon begins, at least in my copy, with a brief dedicatory letter from the author to one Suresh Chandra Banerji, Esq. A portion of this letter reads:

"For a pigeon, life is a repetition of two incidents: namely, quest of food and avoidance of attacks by its enemies. If the hero of the present book repeats his escapes from attacks by hawks, it is because that is the sort of mishap that becomes chronic in the case of pigeons."

This is what I believe is called "giving away the game." The plot, such as it is, is mostly Gay-Neck (so named for the patch of iridescent feathers on his throat) flying, being attacked by something, and then escaping. To be fair, Mukerji does switch it up more than his note lets on -- for variety, Gay-Neck not only escapes from hawks, but also owls, a buzzard-hawk called a Baz, and WWI airplanes trying to shoot him down.

There is a sort of larger story, in which Mukerji, who tells this story as if it's autobiographical, hatches Gay-Neck from an egg, trains him in homing, rehabilitates him from injury, and finally sends him off from India to the European front in WWI to work as a carrier pigeon. This last part traumatizes Gay-Neck so that, after a particularly harrowing mission, he refuses to fly anymore, and is invalided back home, until he's cured of his fear at a Buddhist(?) monastery. 

The most interesting parts, though, have to do with Mukerji himself. His parents live in Calcutta, but spend part of the year in the Himalayan village of Dentam. Mukerji goes up there with them, but spends all of his time out in the jungle with a hunter named Ghond -- whose connection to Mukerji is never explained -- who teaches him to do things like hunt enraged water buffalo, hide from crazed elephants, and climb up to eagles' nests. Why is he learning to do this? Who knows! What do his parents think? They don't seem to think anything, until the very end when Gay-Neck comes back ahead of Mukjeri, and his parents worry that their son might be dead. I read the entire book, and I still have no idea why this city kid and pigeon fancier is spending all of his free time reenacting Kipling with this guy. 

Gay-Neck wasn't Mukerji's first book, and since one of the earlier titles is called Ghond, the Hunter, it's possible that this gets explained there. But in the form that Gay-Neck was published in...let's just say that I've read The Grey King, The High King, and Dicey's Song, and this might still be the Newbery that "stands alone" the least. 

Be that as it may, Gay-Neck was also a milestone in this history of the Newbery Medal. Dhan Gopal Mukerji, who had emigrated the US as a young man, would become the first person of color to win the award. (He would, alas, also be the only one to win the award until Virginia Hamilton in 1975(!); it's an unfortunate truth that sometimes progress happens slowly.) The one classic from the year, A.A. Milne's Now We Are Six, wasn't eligible, so Gay-Neck was probably a fair choice, as odd a book as it is.

Also, this is just a guess, but I think it's safe money that Gay-Neck is Bert's favorite Newbery winner.

"If you tell me more about this Ghond fellow, I'll show you my paper clip collection."

Tuesday, January 5, 2021

Newbery Wayback Machine: Miss Hickory, by Carolyn Sherwin Bailey (1947)

Rachael warned me before I started Miss Hickory that it was a "weird book," in a tone somewhere between amusement and caution. My friends, let me tell you -- she knew what she was talking about. My journey through the Newbery winners has led me through a society of superintelligent rats, onto a planet ruled by an Orwellian disembodied brain, past what might be the most surreal version of Kentucky possible, and right to the gates of a cemetery where a child is being raised by the dead -- and I'm not sure anything I've encountered has been half as bizarre as Carolyn Sherwin Bailey's 1947 medalist. 
Let me try to explain what goes on in this one. The titular Miss Hickory is, for the second time in Newbery history, a protagonist who's a sentient doll. But, where Hitty was just a normal doll, albeit one that possessed consciousness, Miss Hickory is perfectly capable of walking around, eating and drinking, and carrying on conversations. As the book opens, Miss Hickory's owner, a girl named Ann, has left for the winter with her family and abandoned Miss Hickory, meaning that our heroine is going to have to fend for herself. A crow friend of hers finds Miss Hickory an abandoned robin's nest to stay in, and from there, the novel proceeds episodically. Miss Hickory helps some hen-pheasants form a Ladies' Aid Society; rescues a frog who's stuck in the ice; and, after some dithering, joins animals from near and very, very far, living and dead, for a procession to the barn, where the kind of Christmas Miracle that your aunt might share a story about on Facebook is taking place. There's also an entire chapter in which Miss Hickory doesn't appear at all, in which Doe and Fawn do their best to reenact the first five minutes of Bambi

Up until about three quarters of the way through Miss Hickory, it's weird and not all that exciting -- but not much weirder or less exciting than, say, Rabbit Hill. The book keeps insisting that Miss Hickory is stubborn and hardheaded, but I didn't think the evidence was that persuasive -- at one point, she refuses to go with the barn cat to see the great entertainment of a cow being given medicine, and, because she doesn't think anything is going to happen until she sees the procession of the animals, she makes it into the barn, but doesn't get to actually see the Christmas Miracle. But then, just as winter is ending, she runs into a squirrel who's done a bad job storing enough nuts to make it through the winter.

At this point, reader, the squirrel, crazed with hunger, RIPS OFF MISS HICKORY'S HEAD AND EATS IT. As he chews, the decapitated head gives a soliloquy to her body, telling her body how selfish and stubborn she's been for her whole life. Once the head has been fully devoured, Miss Hickory's body, now free of all care, climbs up to the top of an apple tree, sticks her neck into a crack in a branch, and becomes fully grafted into said tree. Later, Ann comes back, and finds that Miss Hickory's body, now fused to the tree, has made it so this previously unfruitful apple tree is now flowering and growing again. Miss Hickory's body, which is also in full flower, resolves to grow an apple just for Ann. End scene.

I have no idea what prompted this mescaline-infused fever dream of a conclusion. I have even less of an idea why Carolyn Sherwin Bailey, her editor, or the Newbery committee thought it was a good idea. The committee named five Honor books, so it seems to me that the 1947 field wasn't considered a weak one, although I'm unfamiliar with all five, and none of them are considered "classics." The best-known eligible books from the year are probably a pair of picture books, Scuffy the Tugboat and The Little Fur Family, and The Littlest Angel, which is the kind of book that never makes any lists of critics' favorites, but which, according to Publishers Weekly, was the 15th-best-selling children's book of the entire 20th century.

I honestly don't know what to think of Miss Hickory. I don't think it's particularly good, or that it works in any meaningful sense -- but I'll be danged if it isn't memorable, a book that I'll have a much harder time forgetting than most of its peers. And I suppose that's its own kind of accomplishment.

Wednesday, December 16, 2020

Newbery Wayback Machine: Invincible Louisa, by Cornelia Meigs (1934)


An interesting facet of the experience of reading some of the older Newbery winners is the difference between their reception at the time of their publication and the way they come across now. When Invincible Louisa, Cornelia Meigs' 1934 winner was published, Children's Literature raved that it was a "graceful, well-written account," adding that Meigs "weaves in many evocative descriptions of Louisa's environment and feelings, thus creating a biography that seems more interesting and appealing than a more factual, unadorned work."

Reading Invincible Louisa in 2020, I found it a dull grind of a book. The tone, full of mawkish sentimentality and unconcealed hero worship, was off-putting and strange. In order to enjoy Invincible Louisa at all, one has to fully sign on to the theory that Louisa May Alcott was not only one of The Greatest Writers Ever, but that both she and every member of her family were some of the finest specimens of humanity that America has ever produced, worthy of the most profound respect and admiration. The hagiographic tone sits uneasily with me, and starts to feel downright defensive in places -- most notably when discussing Louisa's father, Bronson Alcott, the least practical of the New England Transcendentalists, and a man who, let's be honest, failed out of a lot of the things he tried to do. 

It also helps -- a lot -- if the reader already possesses a wealth of background knowledge on its subject. Invincible Louisa assumes that its audience has already read and is intimately familiar with the details of Alcott's most famous work, Little Women. Now, that book remains a classic, and there are still plenty of modern children who are familiar with the story -- if not from the novel, then perhaps from one of the four classic film adaptations of it. However, my guess is that the number of children who require no explanation as to the identities and importance of Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry Thoreau is miniscule, as are those who can tell you the entire plot and theme of Pilgrim's Progress -- which are additional things that Invincible Louisa takes for granted. Given all of this, it's hard for me to picture many children who would make much headway with the book, assuming they even picked it up.

Speaking of children picking Invincible Louisa up, I'm not sure I've ever seen a book issued with so many different covers with such little appeal. The image at the top of this article is the edition I read, which, with its severe black and white shot of Alcott in profile on a faded gold background, is almost confrontationally off-putting. But there's a whole wealth of other choices:

There's the original 1933 edition, where Louisa seems to be in the process of turning into a giraffe

A 1975 printing, in which Louisa is a knockoff Paul Klee drawing, and her soul is trying to escape from her puckered eyeballs.

The 1968 printing, with near-unreadable text on the blue cover, and an "insert image here" silhouette of Louisa

The "I did this in five minutes using royalty-free images and fonts" Kindle cover

The 1991 cover, which depicts the time that Louisa spent attending Sweet Valley High

And the 1995 "designed by grandma" cover, which, bizarrely, seems to still be the one the publisher is using.

Poor Louisa. An iconic writer deserves better than this.

Eight Honor books were named in 1934, which is tied with 1931 for the all-time high. The best known of them is Wanda Gág's The ABC Bunny, which is the book I would have chose for the Newbery, but which, as a picture book, probably didn't stand a chance of taking the top honor that year. At any rate, we still have Invincible Louisa, though it's clad in some of the worst packaging imaginable.

Tuesday, December 8, 2020

Newbery Wayback Machine: Thimble Summer, by Elizabeth Enright (1939)

Thimble Summer opens in the middle of a horrible hot and dry spell in rural Wisconsin. Nine-year-old Garnet Linden has gone swimming with her brother Jay in what's left of the nearby river. As she explores the exposed riverbed, she finds a silver thimble. That very night, the rains finally come, in a joyous, chaotic storm.

So begins Garnet's "thimble summer," full of joyous and exciting memories. They're memories fully grounded in the time and place of the Depression-era Midwest -- accidentally getting locked in the library with her best friend Citronella, taking in a starving teenaged orphan, winning a blue ribbon at the fair for a prize pig. All of this is described in sparkling, incisive prose, which is a delight to read. 

This is an episodic, low-stakes novel, but one that excels in its ability to conjure up a time and a place. The characters are also brilliantly executed -- I especially appreciated Garnet's quickly shifting moods, where sadness easily gives way to happiness, and vice versa. It felt grounded in the reality of being a child, in the way that the best children's literature does.

And, in all honesty, Thimble Summer may be my favorite of the '20s/'30s Newbery books that I've read. It's not perfect -- for example, contemporary readers will notice the book's handful of passages about Native Americans and may question the sensitivity of some of them (though, to be clear, as these things go, this isn't Caddie Woodlawn or Hitty). It does hold up better than most American children's novels of that vintage, and it seemed to me to be a particularly honest novel, both in its descriptions of setting, and in its emotional tenor.

Elizabeth Enright's storied career would, in addition to her 1939 Newbery win, net her an Honor in 1958 for Gone-Away Lake, the title she's probably most famous for now. That one was ranked #42 in School Library Journal's 2012 survey of children's novels, with two of her other books also showing up: The Saturdays (#75), and The Four-Story Mistake (#80). Five Newbery Honor books were named in 1939, the best-known of which is Richard & Florence Atwater's Mr. Popper's Penguins. It was a competitive year, which also featured Dr. Seuss's The 500 Hats of Bartholomew Cubbins, and Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings' The Yearling, which didn't make the Newbery list, but did win the Pulitzer Prize. Even in this storied company, I think Thimble Summer holds its own, and I'm glad for the time I spent with it.


Wednesday, December 2, 2020

Newbery Wayback Machine: The Twenty-One Balloons, by William Pène du Bois (1948)

Professor William Waterman Sherman has taught math at a boys' school in San Francisco for forty years. Given that this is his background, his dream in retirement -- to spend an entire year living in blissful solitude on a carefully constructed hydrogen-filled balloon, without ever touching down -- is eminently understandable. 

It also, sadly for Professor Sherman, is a dream easily disrupted by a suitably uncooperative seagull. A hole in the balloon the size of said seagull leads him to come down on the island of Krakatoa. The island is supposedly uninhabited, but turns out to host a secret group of San Franciscan exiles, who have stumbled upon the diamond mine to end all diamond mines. 

Most of the remainder of the plot of The Twenty-One Balloons, which won William Pène du Bois the 1948 Newbery Medal, consists of the good Professor learning about the society of the Krakatoan residents. Their fabulous diamond-given wealth has allowed them to stealthily import materials for opulent houses, each in the style of a different country. We learn about their form of government (which is, somehow, based on restaurants), their unusual names (each family is assigned a letter of the alphabet, which leads to the book's best joke), and their futuristic inventions (the bedsheet roll works much better than the electrified bumper car-style furniture). However, readers can put the year in which the book is set (1883) together with the location of Krakatoa, and guess that this society may be running on borrowed time.

All of this is narrated by Professor Sherman himself, in a frame story that involves his rescue, and his ensuing lecture before the Western American Explorers' Club. The novel owes a huge debt to Jules Verne (who is name-checked in the book), and a fair amount to Hugh Lofting, Mary Norton, and other authors in the "fantastic adventure" genre that was popular in the first half of the 20th century. The way in which The Twenty-One Balloons stands out may be in the narrowness of its focus. Unlike most of the other books in this style, it's not episodic -- despite traveling around the world, the Professor only visits the one exotic locale. Most similar titles also include at least one child as a traveling companion for the adult adventurer, but Professor Sherman emphatically does not. Now that I think about it, I believe there are only two children in the book who even have speaking lines, and neither of them emerge as a distinct character.

If I'd read The Twenty-One Balloons as a child, I'm pretty sure I would have thrilled to it, in much the same way that I did to Pippi Longstocking and The Mysterious Flight to the Mushroom Planet. As an adult, I found it quaint, but -- except for a paragraph featuring a Native American chief, and a handful of the kind of offhand remarks about "natives" that are nearly impossible to avoid in books of this vintage -- generally inoffensive, and sometimes charming. 

Pène du Bois illustrated The Twenty-One Balloons, and was well-enough regarded as an illustrator to make him one of a handful of people to figure in both Newbery and Caldecott history -- he took two Caldecott Honors, for Bear Party in 1952, and Lion in 1957. His 1948 Newbery win came in a year that featured an embarrassment of riches. Five Honor books were named, including one that's likely better known these days, Misty of Chincoteague, by Marguerite Henry. Other well-known books from that year include Betty MacDonald's Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle, as well as a whole bevy of classic picture books: Goodnight Moon, It Looked Like Spilt Milk, Stone Soup, McElligot's Pool, and White Snow, Bright Snow (which won the Caldecott). But, in its hydrogen-powered glory, The Twenty-One Balloons soared over all of them to take the gold medal.

Thursday, November 12, 2020

Newbery Wayback Machine: Maniac Magee, by Jerry Spinelli (1991)

I freely confess that I am probably the wrong reader for Maniac Magee. This book not only won the 1991 Newbery, but the 1990 Boston Globe-Horn Book Award, as well as enough regional and state book awards to fill a trophy case. It placed #17 on the 2010 Fuse #8/School Library Journal Top Children's Novels poll. Plenty of smart, careful readers love this novel. The weight of opinion is on their side. You should probably listen to them.

I...did not love Maniac Magee. It's not a long book, and the chapters are extremely short, but I still had more trouble finishing it than anything I've reviewed since Miracles on Maple Hill. My brain kept actively resisting the novel, partly for reasons that are possibly unfair, and partly for reasons that I think are genuine flaws in the book.

Let's get the unfair stuff out of the way first. The title character, Maniac Magee himself, is less an actual kid, and more of a figure out of a tall tale. The introduction frames him exactly this way, and big chunks of the book are spent describing his various feats of athleticism and bravery. We've established before in this space that child characters with near-superhuman abilities are a tough sell for me in books that are neither high fantasy (the Harry Potter exception), or intended to be larger-than-life comedies (which exempts the likes of Pippi Longstocking). I found the sections of Maniac Magee that focused on Maniac's legendary exploits tiresome, but a different reader could easily feel otherwise.

On a deeper level, Maniac Magee is really about the way that Maniac manages to bridge the gap between Black and White residents of the town of Two Mills. In an era where Antiracist Baby is a bestseller, and books such as Brown Girl Dreaming, P.S. Be Elevenand Patina and the rest of Jason Reynolds' Track series dig deeply into the entrenched causes and profound effects of American racism, Maniac Magee reads to me as almost unbearably naive. Maniac (who is White) "doesn't see color," and that's what lets him unite the two halves of the town. The American history of slavery, segregation, and discrimination doesn't seem to enter into it. 

Look, I was there in the 1990s, and I remember the dominance of the strain of thought where the main thing we needed to overcome racism was to see everyone as "a member of one race -- the human race." While I'd certainly agree that we need to see the common humanity we all share, there's a whole lot more to dismantling structural racism than the power of that brand of positive thinking. Jerry Spinelli certainly captured a moment in time, but it's a moment where the prevailing ideas were, in my opinion, overly simplistic. In its own way, thinking that Maniac could unite the town in the way that he does is just as fantastical as Maniac's running exploits and knot-untangling skills.

Certainly, Maniac Magee has its heart in the right place, and maybe I'm being too harsh on a book in the light of later developments -- which is something I've previously complained about when it comes to books like Waterless Mountain. I don't want to be unfair in my criticisms of a beloved novel. I don't think Maniac Magee has aged very well, however. 

Other notable American children's novels of the year included the only Honor book, Avi's The True Confessions of Charlotte Doyle; Caroline B. Cooney's thriller The Face on the Milk Carton, which scrapes the upper edge of the Newbery eligibility guidelines; Jean Craighead George's The Far Side of the Mountain; and Judy Blume's Fudge-a-Mania.  It's unusual for the Newbery committee to only name one honor book -- before 1991, the most recent time that that had happened was in 1980, and as of this writing, it hasn't happened since 1999 -- and so it's possible it was perceived as a thin year. But, given the many accolades Maniac Magee received at the time, it would be hard to argue that the book didn't deserve the gold medal. I'm still not sold on it, but again, it's entirely probable that I'm just not the right reader for the book. 

Friday, October 16, 2020

Newbery Wayback Machine: Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry, by Mildred D. Taylor (1977)

Cassie Logan lives with her family -- her parents, her three brothers, her grandmother, and a family friend, Mr. Morrison -- in rural Mississippi during the Great Depression. These are hard times and a hard place for a Black family, but the Logans have something that serves as their anchor -- four hundred acres of land, which they work and protect with fierceness and joy. However, neither the bonds of family nor the grounding of the land can save Cassie from a hard education in the racism of her surroundings. Incident after incident drives this point home, until a climatic summer night involving a robbery, a lynching attempt, and a fire that threatens everything the Logans have.

Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry puts the reader so firmly in its setting that I could almost feel the red dust between my toes. This also extends to the characters, each of whom seemed three-dimensional and real. Each of Cassie's family members, all the way from Big Ma to her youngest brother, Little Man, have their own hopes and fears, dreams and desires. The secondary characters also come alive, with even the worst of them, such as the odious White storekeeper Kaleb Wallace, remaining rooted in reality. It's hard to overstate how well Mildred D. Taylor describes the place, time, and people in this novel.

As legendary children's literature critic Zena Sutherland once wrote (in a positive overview of the novel), "[Roll of Thunder] is not an unflawed book, but it is a memorable one." There are, indeed, some places where it's possible to quibble with the plotting; most notable to me is Little Man and Cassie's reaction to seeing their race written inside their school readers, which felt to me like it happens way too early in the book, given the way the overall plot arc involves the children coming to a realization of how permeated with racism the world around them is. But overall, the book works so well that my mind didn't linger on any plot difficulties or other blemishes.

1976 was a strong year for American children's literature. The 1977 Newbery Committee listed two honor books, Abel's Island, by William Steig, and A String in the Harp, by Nancy Bond; other well-regarded titles from the year include Frog and Toad All Year, by Arnold Lobel; The Missing Piece, by Shel Silverstein; and Summer of the Monkeys, by Wilson Rawls. Even in that company, Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry stands as a worthy winner, and an enduring classic in the Newbery canon.