Monday, July 25, 2016
It also happens to be an excellent time to look back at the 1982 Newbery winner because for over thirty years it was the only book to have won both a Newbery Medal and a Caldecott Honor. This year, of course, Last Stop on Market Street duplicated that feat. Both books were total left-field choices for the Newbery, and both of them beat out some strong contenders for the gold medal (Ramona Quimby, Age 8, in the case of A Visit to William Blake's Inn).
I initially chose Visit as my 1980s selection because it's one of the few Newbery winners from the eighties that I hadn't read. Frankly, if it hadn't won the award, I wonder if it would have vanished into obscurity by now like so many other poetry books. In that sense, it's a winner very much in line with the original intent of the award: to encourage and reward excellence in American children's literature. It could be argued that it's the quirky books like this one that most need the signal boost that an award like this provides (though of course that's not a factor the committee would have taken into account).
And A Visit to William Blake's Inn is a strange little book, to be sure. It is a series of loosely connected poems about a child who goes to stay at an inn whose proprietor is the eighteenth-century poet (and painter and printmaker), William Blake. The inn is populated by the fantastical beings that Blake portrayed in his visionary creations. The verse is formal and metered, the imagery is vivid, and the tone swings back and forth between whimsy and melancholy.
Two things strike me as odd and gutsy about the idea of writing a book of children's poems inspired by William Blake. First: those are some big shoes you're trying to fill. Adult readers are necessarily going to be comparing your verse to Blake's, and that's daunting, to put it mildly. Second: it's going to be filled with allusions that your child readers will miss entirely. There is some chance the target audience (9-12-year-olds?) may have read "The Tyger," but it's unlikely they will have the familiarity with Songs of Innocence and Experience that would be required to fully appreciate this book.
And yet, it works. The poetry is not true Blake, but it's apparently good enough to have fooled a whole generation of teachers. As for the allusions? As we say so often in this field, the poems stand alone. You don't need to know the source material to appreciate these dragons, angels, tigers, and rats.
And so, though I am a huge fan of Beverly Cleary in general and Ramona in particular, I can't argue with the 1982 committee's choice. A Visit to William Blake's Inn is a rare jewel of a book, and it deserves its medal.
Friday, July 22, 2016
As you can see from the above list, M.C. Higgins, the Great was THE children's book of the year when it came out. No book had ever won the Newbery, the National Book Award, and the Boston Globe-Horn Book Award before; indeed, only one other book since then has managed that trifecta (Sachar's Holes, in 1998-99). The novel tells the story of two days in the life of its title character, a thirteen-year-old who lives in the wild, rural hill country of northern Kentucky, during which he encounters a nomadic young woman, a Lomax-style collector of field recordings, and the "witchy" Killburn clan, who live on a nearly-inaccessible plateau hidden in the hills.
Two things stood out to me as I read my way through M.C. Higgins. The first was its surreal, bizarre imagery, which almost felt like it would belong in an all-Appalachian version of Un Chien Andalou. Hamilton stated that the book's genesis was not in the plot, but in the initial, arresting image of Higgins greeting the sunrise, arms outstretched, with lettuce leaves attached to the rubber bands around his wrists. From there, the book moves to show us Higgins, perched on top of a 40-foot metal pole surrounded by abandoned cars; Higgins and the young woman, Lurhetta Outlaw, nearly drowning in an underwater tunnel filled with fish; the Killburn houses, connected at the second story by a gigantic cobweb of woven rope; and many more. These images are surrounded by strangely clipped, staccato prose. The total effect is misty and chimeric; the world of M.C. Higgins felt more remote to me even than that of The Bronze Bow or The High King.
I enjoyed that aspect of the book, even when I wasn't sure how well all of the images fit together. However, I didn't enjoy the book as a whole, largely because of the second thing I noticed: many modern readers are going to find some of the characters intensely dislikable.
Consider: much of the plot revolves around the interactions between M.C. and Lurhetta. However, the first time they meet is when M.C. sexually assaults her -- and if you think that's too strong a phrase, I'd like to ask what else I'm supposed to call a sequence of events in which M.C. stalks Lurhetta down in the woods ("He had lured her, like a deer caught by a delicious scent"), and then kisses her while holding her at knifepoint. I don't know how this read in 1975; in 2016, however, it struck me as a fatal error. It removed all sympathy that I had for the main character, and without that sympathy, the book simply doesn't work. Nothing that M.C. did for the rest of the book was enough for me to overcome or overlook that incident.
Additionally, the character of M.C.'s father, Jones, struck me as deeply problematic. To be fair, the relationship between M.C. and Jones is portrayed as an ambivalent one. However, Jones, with his personality that turns from charming to threatening in an instant, his unwillingness to move his family or otherwise prepare for the fact that his house is threatened with eventual destruction from a gigantic pile of waste leftover from a strip-mining operation, and his "games" that involve smacking his child in the face so that he can "make him tough," reads to me simply as a domestic abuser. Again, perhaps readers three decades ago would have thought of this differently, but I was unable to believe or accept the moment of father-son bonding that takes place at the end of the book, given what had come before.
In retrospect, the most influential book of the 1975 award year was probably Robert Cormier's downbeat classic The Chocolate War, which helped to shape the nascent YA genre. However, no one at the time that I'm aware of argued for The Chocolate War over M.C. Higgins, which possibly says something about the clarity of hindsight versus the cloudiness of the present. In the history of the Newbery, M.C. Higgins, the Great, is important. Virginia Hamilton was the first Black author to win the award, and the novel introduced underrepresented people and settings to the Newbery pantheon. However, I think M.C. Higgins has aged terribly, and I'd anticipate many young readers today finding it off-putting and odd.