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.


Wednesday, December 2, 2020

Newbery Wayback Machine: The Twenty-One Balloons, by William Pène du Bois (1948)

Professor William Waterman Sherman has taught math at a boys' school in San Francisco for forty years. Given that this is his background, his dream in retirement -- to spend an entire year living in blissful solitude on a carefully constructed hydrogen-filled balloon, without ever touching down -- is eminently understandable. 

It also, sadly for Professor Sherman, is a dream easily disrupted by a suitably uncooperative seagull. A hole in the balloon the size of said seagull leads him to come down on the island of Krakatoa. The island is supposedly uninhabited, but turns out to host a secret group of San Franciscan exiles, who have stumbled upon the diamond mine to end all diamond mines. 

Most of the remainder of the plot of The Twenty-One Balloons, which won William Pène du Bois the 1948 Newbery Medal, consists of the good Professor learning about the society of the Krakatoan residents. Their fabulous diamond-given wealth has allowed them to stealthily import materials for opulent houses, each in the style of a different country. We learn about their form of government (which is, somehow, based on restaurants), their unusual names (each family is assigned a letter of the alphabet, which leads to the book's best joke), and their futuristic inventions (the bedsheet roll works much better than the electrified bumper car-style furniture). However, readers can put the year in which the book is set (1883) together with the location of Krakatoa, and guess that this society may be running on borrowed time.

All of this is narrated by Professor Sherman himself, in a frame story that involves his rescue, and his ensuing lecture before the Western American Explorers' Club. The novel owes a huge debt to Jules Verne (who is name-checked in the book), and a fair amount to Hugh Lofting, Mary Norton, and other authors in the "fantastic adventure" genre that was popular in the first half of the 20th century. The way in which The Twenty-One Balloons stands out may be in the narrowness of its focus. Unlike most of the other books in this style, it's not episodic -- despite traveling around the world, the Professor only visits the one exotic locale. Most similar titles also include at least one child as a traveling companion for the adult adventurer, but Professor Sherman emphatically does not. Now that I think about it, I believe there are only two children in the book who even have speaking lines, and neither of them emerge as a distinct character.

If I'd read The Twenty-One Balloons as a child, I'm pretty sure I would have thrilled to it, in much the same way that I did to Pippi Longstocking and The Mysterious Flight to the Mushroom Planet. As an adult, I found it quaint, but -- except for a paragraph featuring a Native American chief, and a handful of the kind of offhand remarks about "natives" that are nearly impossible to avoid in books of this vintage -- generally inoffensive, and sometimes charming. 

Pène du Bois illustrated The Twenty-One Balloons, and was well-enough regarded as an illustrator to make him one of a handful of people to figure in both Newbery and Caldecott history -- he took two Caldecott Honors, for Bear Party in 1952, and Lion in 1957. His 1948 Newbery win came in a year that featured an embarrassment of riches. Five Honor books were named, including one that's likely better known these days, Misty of Chincoteague, by Marguerite Henry. Other well-known books from that year include Betty MacDonald's Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle, as well as a whole bevy of classic picture books: Goodnight Moon, It Looked Like Spilt Milk, Stone Soup, and White Snow, Bright Snow (which won the Caldecott). But, in its hydrogen-powered glory, The Twenty-One Balloons soared over all of them to take the gold medal.