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!