There's a recency bias to superlatives. We all want to say that something we've just seen is "the best ever" or "the worst ever." However, in my humble opinion, if we want to talk about the worst ever winner of the Newbery medal -- or, indeed, the worst year for American children's publishing in the Newbery era, we have to go back to the year 1926, which was capped by the awarding of the 1927 Newbery Medal to Smoky, the Cowhorse, by Will James, AKA, the man keeping Jack Gantos company in the Newbery Winners Who've Served Time club.
This can be done, and done well -- The Incredible Journey is a good example. But that book has a specific narrative arc, something that imposes structure on the silent life of animals. Smoky, a largely episodic novel with terrible pacing, has some kind of overall narrative involving Smoky and Clint, the human who eventually becomes his owner, but huge portions of the book have little or nothing to do with that.
It's also a highly problematic book in that the human villain is referred to as "a halfbreed of Mexican and other blood that's darker," or, for short, "the breed," and is given no redeeming characteristics of any kind. Overt racism is all too common in children's books from the 1920s -- there's a reason that you can't purchase an unexpurgated version of The Voyages of Doctor Doolittle, after all -- but it's extremely uncomfortable, especially since the book doesn't offer much in the way of compelling plot or characters that would give a reader reason to even try and overlook the negative racial aspects.
And yet. as truly dreadful as Smoky, the Cowhorse is, I'm hard-pressed to say what should have won the award instead. The one unquestioned classic children's book published in 1926, Winnie-the-Pooh, was written by A.A. Milne, an Englishman, and so was ineligible. Hugh Lofting churned out number eight in his series, Doctor Doolittle's Caravan, but even Lofting's fans don't remember that as one of the better titles. Margery Williams, in the stretch of her career between her 1922 breakthrough with The Velveteen Rabbit and her 1937 Newbery Honor for Winterbound, published The Apple Tree, but that's such a minor work in her career that it's all but forgotten. Most of the other major children's authors working at the time simply happened not to publish anything that year. Famously, 1927 was one of the three years in which no Honor books were named, and it appears that there may have been a good reason. (Rachael found a fascinating article that indicates that the Doctor Doolittle book and Smoky are the only two children's books published in '26 that a) were eligible for the Newbery, and b) were still in print in 2001. Given that one was still in print because it was in a famous series, and the other was in print because it won the Newbery, that's not much of an endorsement for the year.)
If I were forced to guess, I'd bet that The Apple Tree would have been a better choice for the award, simply on the theory that even a mediocre Williams title would be better than the dreck that is Smoky. But what I think requires no guessing is that there was a very real reason that the ALA thought an award to encourage publishers to print good children's books needed to be established, that reason being that American children's literature in the 1920s was Not Ready For Prime Time. The 1927 award is the one that best illustrates this point, but it's only the most obvious of several early examples. (I'm looking at you, The Cat Who Went To Heaven.)
Anyway, it's nice to be able to look back and see how far we've come, but that's about the only thing that can be said for Smoky, the Cowhorse. I can really only recommend it for people trying to read all the Newberys, and even then, I'd save it for the end.
Nice to read intelligent commentary about some of the old chestnuts. Smoky was actually published as an adult Western novel and Will James was unpleasantly surprised to win a children's book award. I doubt there was a very big pool if they had to go with an accessible adult book.ReplyDelete
One clarification: until 1958 an author couldn't win the Newbery more than once, so the Lofting book wouldn't have been considered. The rationale for this rule was they were trying to increase the number of children's authors. By 1958 they felt they had accomplished this.
's fascinating to know that Smoky was published as an adult novel! And doubly fascinating to know about that pre-1958 rule. If anything, that means that 1926 was even more depressing, with the Lofting book having been ineligible.Delete
Thanks for reading and commenting! I've been wanting to read From Cover to Cover, but Rachael has been hoarding our copy, and so I have to wait...
Surely it can't be as bad as The Story of Mankind! :)ReplyDelete
With Story of Mankind, since it's nonfiction, I figure that, no matter how I feel about the prose or pacing, there's a glimmer of hope that I might learn something. Smoky doesn't even offer me that ;)Delete
I like your blog!
LOL! Thanks, Sam!ReplyDelete