Okay, so much for my theories about the Newbery Medal. Here's why I really wrote this column: I want to talk about my experiences reading the Newbery Medal books and what I thought of the titles.
The Books That Have Failed My Test of Time
The Story of Mankind, Hendrik Willem van Loon, 1922. This was the first Newbery Medal book. Even if you can overlook its blatantly white, Euro-centric point of view, it is a tedious read at best. My heart aches for every boy or girl who found this under a Christmas tree that year.
Smoky, the Cowhorse, Will James, 1927. Imagine Black Beauty told not from the viewpoint of the horse, which is the magic of Black Beauty, but from the third person narrative. Now transpose Black Beauty to the American west, throw in some Mexican desperados and some manly rodeos, and for good measure write the entire book in a folksy, "cowboy" dialect. I made it to the end of this novel, but I got awfully tired of hearing about Smoky's "hankerin'" for grass, or oats, or rest, about how every horse in the book was "a-poundin'" when it ran, and how his "mammy's" ears twitched at the least sound.
Gay Neck, The Story of a Pigeon, Dhan Ghopal Mukerji, 1928. Words fail me. The book is indeed the story of a pigeon, named "Gay Neck" because of the bright feather band around his neck. Narrated largely by a young man (the author in fictional voice) and set primarily in India, the book's style is not merely stilted; it is painfully twisted and hard to read. The chapters from the pigeon's viewpoint are equally laborious to wade through. Mukerji lived most of his short life in exile for advocating for a free India. This is clearly a book written by someone who knows he will never see his homeland again. The most moving part of the book is the author's heartfelt and now heartbreaking description of the sanctity and symbolism of Mount Everest, concluding with the firm assertion that Everest would never be trod upon by man. Mukerji killed himself in 1936, mercifully never seeing the successful ascent of Everest in 1953.
Daniel Boone, James Daughtery, 1940. This book lost me when I realized one of its themes was "the only good Injun is a dead Injun." Indians are vastly underrepresented in the Newbery list, but this was the worst depiction of all. I contrasted it with Waterless Mountain (1932, set in Navajo Nation in the late teens or early 1920s), which made a largely successful attempt at portraying a young Navajo boy navigating the modern world while remaining true to his spiritual values. Consider also Caddie Woodlawn (1936), The Matchlock Gun (1942), and Rifles for Watie (1957), all of which have Indians making cameo or supporting appearances. While the Indians portrayed in The Matchlock Gun are clearly the enemy, they are the enemy because they have sided with the French in the French and Indian War and are attacking the family in the story, and not because they are "bad" Indians. I cannot get past the clear bigotry in the work about Boone.
Strawberry Girl, Lois Lenski, 1946. What can I say about this book? Lenski has drawn a curious and harsh picture of life in rural Florida in the early part of the twentieth century, using years of research to frame the story of Birdie Boyer and her family's struggles as they establish a strawberry farm. Contrasted sharply against the Boyers are Shoestring Slater and his family, graphically representing the "poor white trash" of the day. I never found sympathy for Birdie, her family, the Slaters, or anyone else in the community. The edition of the book I read contained a forward explaining Lenski's research techniques and her desire to write an entire series of regional stories representing modern children in America. Lenski won great praise for her many contributions to American children's literature, but this is not a book I would eagerly recommend.
Shiloh, Phyllis Reynolds Naylor, 1992. I know, I know. I am the only person who doesn't like this book. It is a coming of age story, it features a boy and a dog (a surefire winning combination), it is full of pathos (the dog is brutalized) and triumph (the boy rescues the dog honorably), and it fits the "Appalachian Poor" niche. I found the characters unrealistic, with the bad guy drawn so stereotypically narrow that the only way I made it through this book was reassuring myself it was short and I was almost done. I have not read either Honor Book for that year, but this is one where I am thinking "Really? This was the selection? Really?"
A book which I am reluctant to consign to this list but must talk about is Rifles for Watie, the 1957 winner by Harold Keith. Set during the Civil War in the states and territories west of the Mississippi, this book is exemplary for several reasons, not the least of which is its fairly searing depiction of the realities of war (death, hunger, privation). It stands apart because an underlying story is a love story between Jeff, a young Union soldier, and Lucy, a young woman whose family supports the Southern cause. Romances come and go in any literary genre, but this one is unique because Lucy is the youngest daughter of a Cherokee family living in Talequah, today's capitol of the Cherokee nation. She gets to deliver the clearest explanation of why her family(and indeed many Cherokees) supports the Confederacy when she gives Jeff a strongly worded history lesson about Andrew Jackson and his violation of Indian treaties that resulted in the destruction of the Cherokee's community in the east. Lucy does not say the word "genocide," but in her description of the numbers who died on the trail, it is the unspoken word that hangs in the air.
So why am I struggling with this choice? Because despite his clear-eyed recounting of Cherokee history, the author cannot resist having his characters draws distinctions between the "preferred" Indians (those who conduct their lives like whites) and the "frontier" Indians who have backslid into "shiftless" ways, abandoning the white culture and businesses for subsistence farming and hunting. The frontier Indians even discard the white man's clothing, and while Harold Keith does not describe their undesirable dress, I strongly suspect the women would be wearing the tear dress that is now the national dress of the Cherokee nation.
There is another reason too that I hold back on Rifles for Watie. Someday, I may have a grandchild whose family heritage is an elaborately stitched quilt of many backgrounds, including the strong dose of Ojibwa (Chippewa) he or she will inherit from my daughter-in-law Alise. I wouldn't want to have to begin to explain to my grandchild the inherent bigotry behind the depictions of the good (white) Indians and the lazy (native) Indians. I couldn't do it.
Now, for the feel good part. These are the books that rose to the top of the list.
April's Cream of the Crop Newbery Medal Winners
Biggest Surprise Ending: Miss Hickory, Carolyn Sherwin Bailey, 1947. Early on, the Newbery Medal went to Hitty, Her First Hundred Years (Rachel Field, 1930). Hitty is a wooden doll who pens her memoirs from her now secure home in an antique shop. When I began Miss Hickory, I wondered whether I was in for another Hitty. Ha, was I surprised! Miss Hickory is a narrow minded, selfish, and self-centered sentient twig being who comes to not one but two unusual endings. Her first is when her head (which is a hickory nut) is eaten by Squirrel, who is starving at the end of a long winter. No, she does not redeem herself by sacrificing her head; he pulls it off her body and eats it. Miss Hickory's stream of consciousness reflection on her life and all of her shortcomings as her head is consumed is riveting. The second ending is when her beheaded twig body (which continues to walk and move, thus causing Squirrel to swear off his dissolute ways in a most convincing AA manner) is compelled to climb an apple tree, feeling tugged upward by the rising sap of the spring, and then plant herself neck first into small opening in the tree, where Miss Hickory's body takes hold and becomes a scion (look it up as a grafting term). Miss Hickory is one of the least pleasant title characters in the Newbery Medal books and one that is memorable in large part because of her shortcomings.
Most Beautifully Written: Hands down, I, Juan de Pareja, Elizabeth Borton de Trevino, 1966. There are lots of beautifully written Newbery Medal books, but this one leaps out. First runner up: Shadow of a Bull, Maia Wojciechowska, 1965.
Best Coming of Age: Up a Road Slowly, Irene Hunt, 1967. I've written about this book before. First runner up: Shadow of a Bull, Maia Wojciechowska, 1965.
Best Biography: Carry On, Mr. Bowditch, Jean Lee Latham, 1956. The Newbery Medal has been awarded five times for biography; this one was fascinating, lively, and left me with an appreciation of a significant American I had never heard of before.
The Book I Started Out Disliking and Ended Up Loving: The Hero and the Crown, Robin McKinley, 1985. I labored through this book until midpoint, at which time I suddenly found myself caught up in the mystical fantasy world that McKinley created.
Book Destined to Become a Percussion Performance: Joyful Noise, Paul Fleischman, 1989. This is another poetry collection, made to be read aloud. Each poem is told by a different insect. I read the first two, then went to find Warren, exclaiming, "This has to be set to percussion and performed sometime!"
Best Book About Accepting Death: Missing May, Cynthia Rylant, 1993. Just read it.
Realize, too, that there are several Newbery Medal books that I have read dozens of time, did not reread this fall, and would immediately put on my All Time Gold Star Favorites list. They include: Caddie Woodlawn, Carol Ryrie Brink, 1936; From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler, E. L. Konigsburg, 1968; A Wrinkle in Time, Madeleine L'Engle, 1963; Sarah, Plain and Tall, Patricia McLachlan, 1986; The View From Saturday, E. L. Konigsburg, 1997; Dear Mr. Henshaw, Beverly Cleary, 1984; Out of the Dust, Karen Hesse, 1998. I cannot say enough about these books. But when all is said and done, there is one book that stands alone as the best of the best. Out of the 90 books, and I can get away with this because I have read all 90, one is the very best Newbery Medal book of all. It is well written, the story is clever beyond description (I didn't figure the ending out until almost the very end, at which point I said aloud, "WOW!"), and, perhaps best of all, it is a beautiful tribute to A Wrinkle in Time, which itself won the Newbery.
KJ Dell'Antonia recently summed up the importance of reading (she was writing about reading real books and not electronic ones): A book - a real book - is one choice, taken from a pile, opened and entered as its own singular, separate world.
I couldn't agree more. Reading the Newbery Medal books was a deliberate choice that I would make over again in a heartbeat. 90 singular, separate worlds, and I got to be in them all.
********Special thanks are due: to Cindy, who knows why I started this quest, to Margo, who never failed to listen as I ranted or raved about the books, and who read When You Reach Me immediately on my recommendation so we could talk about it, to Katrina, whose response to my reading the Newbery Medal books was to cull her own children's bookshelves and start reading the ones readily at hand, and to my longtime reading buddy Scott, who is always up for a book discussion and because of whom I will always think of the 1944 Newbery Medal book as Johnny Deformed.