Nobody noticed, but in my quest to read and review all the Newberys starting from the award’s inception, I somehow skipped the 1925 winner, Tales from Silver Lands by Charles J. Finger. So here’s the review, a bit delayed. (Imagine how much worse it would if I only realized my omission after finally making it all the way to 2012!)
When Finger refers to Silver Lands, he means Central and South America. I won’t go into detail about the plot, because Tales is structured as a collection of 19 folk fables and myths that the narrator has collected on the ultimate backpacking trip through the Americas. Like Shen of the Sea or The Cat Who Went to Heaven, this is a book that you can pick up and put down anywhere without disrupting the flow. (But unlike Shen, you might actually want to pick Tales up again.)
While I can’t remember specifics from any of the tales, I was surprised by how much I enjoyed Silver Lands overall. Usually, unless the cultural nuances are written about as expertly as Nancy Farmer’s The Ear, the Eye, and the Arm or Grace Lin’s Dumpling Days, children’s books set in exotic locales leave me cringing, especially if they were written before a certain era. (You know, in the times when people didn’t travel at the drop of a hat, Imperialism still existed, and authors trying to be authentic about other cultures just came off as being insensitive.) When I’m reading those types of books, I usually go into hyper-critical mode, which doesn’t help the overall experience.
This time around, being ignorant about Central and South America (aside from a sixth grade Social Studies unit on the Mayans and the Incas) meant I couldn’t tell if Finger got it right or not. It’s hard to say whether it’s literary license or just part of Central and South American storytelling tradition for all the lads to be carefree, straight-limbed, and able to commune with animals, for all the maidens to be gentle, fair, and have a curtain of shiny black hair, and for all the villains to live in swampy abodes and keep toads or owls as pets. (Oh, and huanacos are always good guys. Huanacos are also llama-ish camelids.) Surprisingly, I didn’t mind reading story after story where the main characters seemed like similar reiterations of each other, but I would like to read books that present a more nuanced portrayal of Central and South American cultures. Anyone have any recommendations?