Wednesday, February 17, 2021

Newbery Wayback Machine: Tales from Silver Lands, by Charles Finger (1925)


The Newbery Terms and Criteria loudly proclaim, "there are no limitations as to the character of the book considered except that it be original work." And indeed, over the past ninety-odd years, we've had winners representing novels, poetry, nonfiction, picture books, graphic novels, biographies, and verse novels; nearly every form has taken home the gold medal at one point or another. This includes folktale-style short stories, which have won twice -- once for Arthur Bowie Chrisman's fakelore stylings in Shen of the Sea (1926), and the year before that, when Charles Finger's Tales from Silver Lands was named the winner.

The titular "Silver Lands" are Central and South America. Unlike Chrisman's "China" tales, Finger's have at least some authenticity to them. He lived and traveled extensively in those areas during his twenties, and this book comes across as having its genesis in those times. Though Finger doesn't provide the kind of source notes we'd hope for in a book of folktales today, he does at least provide the names of his informants and the place where he learned the stories for some of the tales. (Others are given no introduction at all, and the place and culture to which they belong remains opaque.) Finger does freely admit to having heavily edited some of the stories he was told in order to make them more readable; more than once, he interrupts himself in order to complain about the discursive, meandering manner in which his informants told the tales.

Questions about authenticity aside, the stories in Tales from Silver Lands certainly have the feel of folktale collections like those of the Brothers Grimm -- eerie characters, symbolism that would make Jung proud, and a general feeling that they proceed from that state between waking and dreaming. Highlights include the Sorcerer's Apprentice-style "The Tale of the Lazy People," the trio of tales involving a pair of brothers ridding the land of three destructive giants, and the closing story, "The Cat and the Dream Man," which features the most unsettling of the villains in the book, the Fox-Faced Man, as well as an ending reminiscent of Grimm 187, "The Hare and the Hedgehog."

Two Honor books were named in 1925, Nicholas: A Manhattan Christmas Story, by Annie Carroll Moore, and The Dream Coach, by Anne & Dillwyn Parrish. Left off the list was the book that would become the most enduring American classic of the year, Gertrude Chandler Warner's The Boxcar Children. There was probably no chance that The Boxcar Children could have won, given that "children having adventures without an adult" was actually sort of controversial at the time, and the Newbery was in its Tales From Far-Off Lands period -- the only winner from 1923 to 1933 that didn't spend at least part of its plot in some exotic locale was Smoky, the Cowhorse. However, Tales from Silver Lands is certainly better than some of the other early winners, even if it hasn't become part of the kidlit canon.

Friday, February 5, 2021

Newbery Wayback Machine: Dobry, by Monica Shannon (1935)


Dobry is a Bulgarian boy, who lives in a Bulgarian village high in the Bulgarian mountains. He and his Bulgarian mother and grandfather tend their Bulgarian fields, raising a bountiful harvest of Bulgarian crops. Dobry has his eye on Neda, a Bulgarian girl, and makes some Bulgarian sculptures for her, as he dreams of attending Bulgarian art school. We learn about some colorful Bulgarian customs, Bulgarian folk songs, and Bulgarian stories, in this tale that positively brims with Bulgarian descriptions of Bulgarian folkways. Bulgaria!

That's not even a particularly exaggerated description of Dobry, the Monica Shannon book that took home the 1935 Newbery Medal. The book has almost nothing in the way of plot or conflict; the closest it really gets is a two-page discussion between Dobry's mom and his grandfather about whether or not Dobry should grow up to become an artist. Mom doesn't think so, Grandfather argues in favor of it, and mom resolves not to worry about it anymore, and doesn't. End scene. Back to descriptions of Bulgaria.

Dobry's nameless village is populated by characters who are more or less colorful, but none of them are villains, or even real annoyances. Indeed, the only really frightening thing involves reading about what the villagers do for fun. As the book opens, everyone is looking forward to the arrival of the "gypsy bear," who gives massages. I assumed this was just some big, strong, hairy guy -- but no, when the Romani show up a few chapters later, they have an actual bear in tow, which they've trained to walk on people's backs and give massages. Later, Grandfather is excited to try and win the Snow-Melting Games. I don't know what I expected those to be, but I did not figure that they would simply involve lying down in the snow to see whose body heat would melt the snow the fastest. And near the very end, Dobry wins the village's equivalent of a scholarship by diving into the frozen river to retrieve a golden crucifix that the priest has thrown in there, because this is a contest they hold every feast day of St. John the Baptist (Feb. 7). I'm just saying -- if these were my entertainment options, I'd probably be excited to go to art school too.

The book was apparently partly based on the early life of its illustrator, Atanas Katchamakoff. It took the Newbery ahead of three Honor books: Pageant of Chinese History, Davy Crockett, and A Day on Skates. The most famous children's books of the year were by non-US authors -- P.L. Travers' Mary Poppins and Kenji Miyazawa's Night on the Galactic Railroad -- and so weren't eligible. Even if I can't think of a single modern child I'd recommend Dobry to, it's certainly evocative of its place, and that may be enough to justify its award. 

Monday, February 1, 2021

Newbery Wayback Machine: The Summer of the Swans, by Betsy Byars (1971)


Fourteen-year-old Sara Godfrey is having a difficult time, in a way that I think a lot of people her age -- or who have ever been her age -- would understand. She's hyper-conscious of what she considers to be her plain looks and unpopularity at school; her emotions are swinging wildly; and she's struggling in her relationships with her family. This family is a fragile unit -- Sara's mom is dead, and her beaten-down father works out of town, and only sees them on the weekends. The primary adult in Sara's life is her Aunt Willie, who loves her, but can be abrasive and difficult. Then there are her siblings, her attractive and popular older sister, Wanda, and her little brother, Charlie, who does not speak, and has some sort of intellectual disability -- his precise diagnosis, if he's ever been given one, is never stated in the book, but his symptoms as described might place him on the autism spectrum. 

All of this makes Sara self-centered, in a manner that nearly every teenager experiences at one point or another. But one morning, Charlie is missing, and Sara begins searching for him; in the process, she begins to challenge her assumptions about herself, her family, and the other people around her.

For a book whose main plot is "the race to find a missing child," The Summer of the Swans is strangely subdued. It's a character study, rather than a thriller, and the plot elements exist largely to bring out different facets of Sara and the people around her. I think the book succeeds wildly on those terms -- I felt like each person in the book was someone who might well exist. The change in Sara's character also felt plausible and right to me. It's the perfect blend of "enough, but not too much," especially given the book's compressed timeframe. (It's really more like The Forty-Eight Hours of the Swans.)

I also loved the lyricism of the language. The descriptions of the swans themselves, both on the pond near the book's beginning, and in flight near the end, are lushly poetic without becoming highfalutin. I was also struck by the passage near the end, in which Sara compares life to a series of steps, which are different for each person, and on which each person is making different progress. I wish I'd written it, which is the best compliment I know how to pay.

The Summer of the Swans is almost fifty years old now, and there are a handful of passing cultural references of questionable sensitivity, which it might be worth mentioning to a child reader before giving them the book. It's a beautiful jewel of a novel, though, one which may not be a huge crowd-pleaser, but which rewards a thoughtful, introspective reader. The 1971 awards drew from a crowded field (including not only the three Honor books, Knee-Knock Rise, Enchantress from the Stars, and Sing Down the Moon, but also Frog and Toad Are Friends, Runaway Ralph, and The Trumpet of the Swans). I think The Summer of the Swans was a perfectly good choice for the Newbery even in that company, which is high praise indeed.

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.