Sunday, July 3, 2016

The Newbery Challenge - 1920s

This year I challenged myself to read all the books that had won the Newbery Award.  The Newbery has been given out annually since 1922 by the American Library Association to the author of "the most distinguished book of literature for children," published that year.
I clearly underestimated how ambitious the project was until I got underway.  By the end of March I was only five books in.  That's when I knew I was in trouble.  Not exactly promising.  Nevertheless, slow and steady wins the race.  There is, quite certainly, no way I am going to complete the challenge in one year, as I'd proclaimed, but I'm not giving up on the idea, just prolonging the duration of the project.
1922 - The Story of Mankind by Hendrik Willem Van Loon
Oh, this first selection started me off on the challenge with a feeling of dread.  Its a 500 page history book.  Jeepers!  That isn't the sort of thing that wins the Newbery Award these days!  Still, I must say, I found it much more interesting than I anticipated.  As expected, it was rather dated in many ways though every now and then it would shock me with a progressive value that I'd not expect from a history book from that era.  The author wove religious and political history together in one narrative, which was interesting and not all that surprising.  The many charming expressions caused me to smile with delight while reading.  Take this passage on the discovery of writing:  "Without written documents we should be like cats and dogs, who can only teach their kittens and their puppies a few simple things and who because they cannot write, possess no way in which they can make use of the experience of those generations of cats and dogs that have gone before."  Or this one that describes the retirement of Sulla as follows: "He ruled Rome for four years, and he died quietly in his bed, having spent the last year of his life tenderly raising cabbages, as was the custom of so many Romans who had spent a lifetime killing their fellow-men."  I just had to laugh at that one.  Tenderly raising cabbages?!
1923 - The Voyages of Doctor Dolittle by Hugh Lofting
I really enjoyed this book.  It was a wonderfully readable follow-up to The Story of Mankind.  I also, to the surprise of many, had virtually no exposure to Dr. Dolittle before this.  I knew the premise--a doctor who could talk to animals--and I am pretty sure I saw part of the Eddie Murphy film version, but I was never much of an Eddie Murphy fan so I don't really recall.  I've never read or seen any of the Dolittle books before, so far as I know.  And I had been missing out!  The Voyages of Doctor Dolittle was loaded with fun, whimsical tales.  I wish I could converse with animals!  It made me think of a woman I know, Carol, who says she can talk with rabbits.  She says anyone can do it, if they just take the time to learn.  There were a few bits in the story that wouldn't be politically correct by today's standards, but I can take a book for what its worth in its place in time.  When I was growing up it was perfectly acceptable to say "sitting Indian-style" instead of "cross-legged" or "criss-cross-applesauce."  Its all part of the history, I figure.  Things change and while I am usually glad for it, I don't like seeing old books being sanitized for today's more politically correct readers.  To me it's part of our literary and cultural legacy, for better or worse.
1924 - The Dark Frigate by Charles Hawes
I thought this book about pirates and adventure on the high seas would be much better than it turned out to be.  Perhaps it was a language thing though.  Much of the book was written in that old King James, Shakespearean type language.  Lots of "thithers" and "thines" and so forth.  That just makes me have to concentrate more on the words which, to some extent, prevents me from just getting lost in the story.  In addition to the language, I think the author assumed I'd know a lot more about ships than I do.  He'd name a part of the boat with no description of it--say, "scuppers" sending up spray like a volcano.  I kept having to look them up which made the reading more tedious.  I guess, if nothing else, I learned a bit about the anatomy of a ship.  I didn't find the drama all that dramatic and was pretty much just glad to finish the book though.
1925 - Tales From Silver Lands by Charles Finger
This book is a collection of stories from South America.  All in all it was pretty unremarkable--not bad, just not all that memorable.  There was one story that quite impressed me however.  So much so that I shared it with several other people.  The legend was about a village of lazy people.  A sorcerer type fellow comes to town and makes small wooden dolls to do all their work for them.  Long story short the people end up bored and restless because they have nothing to do. They had a hard time sleeping because they didn't go to bed physically or mentally tired. They thought that having every thing done for them was what they wanted, but in the end, it backfires and they flee their village and start over again--doing the work themselves this time and finding it greatly satisfying.  It really struck me as parallel to our modern convenience-obsessed culture.  I've certainly found more satisfaction the more I do for myself.  There was a neat origin story about how hummingbirds got to be so pretty--they call it a pretty dress!  There were a lot of themes that were fairly commonplace for this sort of collection, such as evil witches lurking in the woods or magical strangers which may be part of the reason it didn't leave a strong impression on me.  It had really unusual illustrations.  They reminded me of the prints made from woodcuts, but quite colorful woodcut prints, these were.  The part that made them most unusual though was that they were fully colored, but all in shades of green, orange, and yellow.
1926 - Shen of the Sea by Arthur Bowie Chrisman
I enjoy origin stories and there were some neat ones in this collection, like the genesis of chopsticks and the discovery of fireworks.  I doubt they're at all true, but each of these great ideas did have to start with someone so....why not just make up a little backstory about it.  It reminds me of Ayla (from The Earth's Children book series) being the first person to domesticate the horse and use iron pyrite for starting fires, etc.  Someone figured this stuff out!!  The collection also seemed to have a fairly common theme of promoting proper behavior in children.  You know, the sort of stories where a lazy/lying/mean little boy or girl gets what is coming to them and learn a lesson about how to behave better.  Though, in the case of the fireworks, its laziness that brings about the great discovery.  So, at least sometimes, mischief pays off.
1927 - Smoky, the Cowhorse by Will James
While western fiction isn't exactly my bread and butter genre I was genuinely excited to read this book as it was written by Will James.  I don't think I've ever read anything by him.  In fact, I don't think that I knew who Will James was until I met Matt, who attended a middle school named in honor of James.  That put Will James on my radar.  Then I learned more about him--he was born in Montana in a wagon and was driving cattle from Mexico to Canada as a fully capable cowboy by the time he as thirteen.  I never cease to be amazed of stories like that.  I know a couple of teenagers who couldn't figure out how to change the time in a wall clock at Daylight Savings Time, let alone ride the range responsible for their own lives and lives of others.  I enjoyed the charming language the book was written in.  Its folksy and quaint, but easy to understand.  "Figger," instead of "figure" for example.  Or "et" instead of "ate."  I don't know why the King James dialects madden me and the ol' west dialects made my day, but there it is.  I was surprised that the first almost 60 pages was just about the horses running wild on the range.  Smoky's early years involved almost no cows or humans.  It was lovely.  The story take a real sad turn when Smoky gets stolen and ends up living a rough and tumble life for much of his adulthood.  It ends well though.  All in all I found it to be a very charming story.
This was a new bird for me--a Calliope Hummingbird.
1928 - Gay Neck, The Story of a Pigeon by Dhan Gopal Muckerji
Gay Neck was a really neat book.  It was exotic and full of history and drama.  It follows the life of a pigeon from India named Gay-Neck, on account of his pretty neck feathers.  Apparently, at one time almost every boy in India had a bunch of pet pigeons.  They'd take trips to the wilderness and let the birds go, training them to return home.  These adventures involved frantic escapes from predators and visits to the lamastaries, where the Buddhist lamas live.  (This was a new word for me, lamastary, which made me realize that monastery is based on the word monk, since its where monks live.  Interesting!)  Later Gay-Neck goes to France to serve as a message carrier during World War I.  He is injured and traumatized by his encounters with the German "machine eagles" (airplanes) with the result that he will not fly any more when he returns to India.  After time with the lamas meditating and praying for an end to their sickness of hate and fear, Gay-Neck recovers. While not being too obvious about it--at least until the very end-- the story is clearly a message of peace and harmony.  Of thoughtful kindness and respect to all beings.  That, of course, worked will with this reader.  I quite liked it.
1929 - The Trumpeter of Krakow by Eric P. Kelly
The Trumpeter of Krakow didn't get me fired up at first, but in the end proved to be a very nice tale from medieval Poland.  There is a sentence I never expect to write.  In Krakow there is a church from which a trumpet plays the same tune to each of the four directions every single hour.  They trumpeter was also the town's lookout for fires and invaders.  The book opens with the trumpeter sounding the alarm of an invasion and paying the ultimate price for his commitment to the oath taken by all those who play the trumpet from the tower.   The story centers around a family fleeing the loss of their home and all they hold dear--save for a secret family treasure and the clothes on their backs.  There is mystery, drama, magic, and adventure.  The father, and later the son, become one of the trumpeters.  I was surprised by how riveting the book was for me.  I wanted to learn about the secret treasure, the young scholar who was leading others to dabble in some dark ideas, and all the rest.  It was quite compelling and ended happily.  To this day a trumpeter plays from that tower in Krakow, though its more symbolic than anything else at this point.  Here is a recording from inside the tower and from below the tower, if you're interested.
And now we're on to the 1930's--Hitty by Rachel Field.  Eight books down, 86 more to go.
All photos from a birthday party I attended recently at my friend Jesscy's farm.

3 comments:

  1. what an amazing project! I want to do that!...You'll love Hitty!...one of my faves...

    ~Have a lovely day!

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  2. Good luck to you!! I took Hitty home recently from the library, but it just didn't have any appeal for me. It seemed a bit dry.

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  3. ooooh, we LOVE Hitty at our house! This is a fascinating project - please keep updating. I'm sure I will read some of these books based on what you say about them.

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Thanks for taking the time to share your thoughts and ideas. I value the advice and friendship that you share with me!