Shen of the Sea (1926), and the year before that, when Charles Finger's Tales from Silver Lands was named the winner.
Wednesday, February 17, 2021
Friday, February 5, 2021
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
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.