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.


  1. I enjoyed this book, it is not a bad read. But it is no Charlotte's Web.

  2. I read this book a few years ago, and loathed it. Honestly, though, I don't know if I went into it already chomping at the bit to hate it. After all, any librarian worth his/her salt knows it as The Book That Beat Charlotte's Web. So I often wonder if most of us go into reading the book already wanting to knock it.

    I wish there was someone from this committee that was still alive who could speak to the selection process (and if such a thing was even possible). In fact, I wish all committees would divulge their processes after a few years. It'd be really interesting, and might give some clarity and context to what we consider "mistakes".

    I've read the post you linked to here, and I largely agree with most of your opinions. I myself would absolutely add this past year's winner as a Mistake. And in ten or twenty years' time, I imagine it may join the ranks of Secret of the Andes, Dead End in Norvelt, Higher Power of Lucky, Wheel of the Shoool and Moon Over Manifest (which I actually quite love, just not as much as One Crazy Summer) as a Newbery WTF Moment.

    1. Last Stop on Market Street is my 2010s review to do, and I don't think I think much better of that selection than you do...

      It's almost impossible for a modern librarian, used to the enormity of ALSC and the variance of opinions in it, to understand the kind of influence that Ann Carroll Moore wielded, and she was a person who wore her grudges openly. I'm not aware of any committee members who said anything about the 1953 award, but given how well known Moore's loathing for Nordstrom was, I'm more surprised that Charlotte's Web picked up an Honor than that Secret of the Andes won.

      Did you take that ALSC survey about opening up committee notes after a few years? I did, and emphatically argued that that should happen.