Posts Tagged ‘Newbery Challenge’

CallitCourageI’ve given up hope of making good on my goal/bet to read ten consecutive Newbery winning books this year. Call It Courage, by Armstrong Sperry, brings my grand total to exactly three. The 1941 winner is a familiar title from my childhood, back when I was very much into survival books of the My Side of the Mountain, Julie of the Wolves, and Island of the Blue Dolphins variety. It’s funny how my thoughts on the book have changed since my ten year old self last read it.

Written in the style of a legend, Call It Courage is a coming-of-age story about a Polynesian boy named Mafatu who is afraid of the ocean. Because he and everyone in the village is dependent on the sea, Mafatu gets a lot of grief for his fear. (Although to his defense, as a toddler he almost drown during a massive storm, while his mother, who saved his life, died.) Nevertheless, Mafatu is a source of embarrassment to his father, the chief, and a disgrace to his namesake, Stout Heart. So one day, fed up by the taunts of the other boys his age, Mafatu decides to conquer his fear of the ocean by sailing into the ocean. His plan: to set off for a distant island and live there among strangers until he has proven his bravery, and then return home in glory. Instead, he gets shipwrecked on a cannibalistic island (the cannibals visit periodically) with no food, shelter, weapons, or means of escape. (more…)

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thimble summerThe 1939 Newbery Award winner, Thimble Summer, by Elizabeth Enright, is bland in a charming and low-stakes kind of way. It’s still a better book than many of its distinguished predecessors.

When we are first introduced to Garnet Linden, age 9, she is waiting for rain. Her parents are farmers, the crops are wilting, and there are bills to pay. I thought this set the scene for a vintage version of Karen Hesse’s gripping Out of the Dust, but alas, no. A missed opportunity. Garnet and her older brother, Jay, go to beat the heat by the creek, which has the tint and temperature of tea. Garnet finds a thimble in the river bank and declares it is magic. That night, the rain comes.

Now that their troubles are in the past, Garnet goes on to have quaint adventures, including:

  1. getting locked in the town library past hours, which, to her credit, she finds absolutely grand
  2. hitchhiking to the “big” city while all in a funk because she feels overlooked and under-appreciated by her family (Garnet is the middle child.)
  3. raising a prize hog and showing him at the fair
  4. touring all the tame antique rides and attractions at the state fair

To end the book, Garnet concludes that she had such a great summer on account of her lucky thimble. Yay. The End.

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After stalling on the Newbery Challenge for quite some time (The White Stag of 1938 was an offensive read), I decided to dive back in with the 1940 winner, Daniel Boone by James Daugherty. Let’s just say it rivals its predecessor in terms of offensiveness.

Billed as a biography, Daugherty spins the yarns of Daniel Boone’s life with the artistic license of a tall tale teller. Or a biographer who lack objectivity. Boone’s arrival into this world, not to mention chapter one of this book, doesn’t even come with a date. (A quick visit to the History channel reveals Boone was born in 1734.) Instead, we get snippets of Real Historical Events (without context) at sporadic times. And an allusion that compares Boone’s boyhood home of Yadkin, North Carolina, to “the kingdom of a man in a world almost as new as Genesis.”

Indeed, Daugherty all but props Boone up as a god, or at the very least as someone instated by God to do whatever the heck he pleases. “The splendor and the brightness came upon his spirit like the rushing of mighty wings,” writes Daugherty, “and the voice of mighty thunderings [said], ‘Enter into a promised land such as no man has known, a new born creation all your own; drink deep, O Daniel, of the mysterious wine of the wilderness.'”

Even worse is Daugherty’s depiction of Indians as “savages,” “dogs,” and even “varmints.” When Boone uses deceit and treachery to outwit the Indians in one of their many violent conflicts, he is praised as clever and wily. When the Indians employ the same tactics, they lack common decency. Ironically–and I’m quite sure, unintentionally–one of the few first-hand accounts included by Daugherty shows the Seneca Indians to be one of the most reasonable and kind characters in this book.

I suppose Daugherty’s folksy writing style could be considered a plus, but that’s negated a hundred times over by his troubling content. And he structures his story with all the focus of a puppy teased by squirrels. Honestly, I’m completely baffled why the Newbery committee thought this book was “distinguished” enough to deserve a medal. I guess they didn’t learn from their epic failure (excuse the pun) in taste the year before.

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I was going to review the 1937 and 1938 Newbery award winners separately, but I was so unenthusiastic about these books that I can’t be bothered to write them individual posts.

roll1938: Roller Skates by Ruth Sawyer

When Lucinda’s well-to-do parents travel to Europe for a healthful vacation, Lucinda enjoys her newly “orphaned” status–and the freedom that comes with boarding at the Misses Peters’ house–by befriending the less rarefied folks of New York City she wouldn’t otherwise meet. Naturally, her transportation of choice–roller skates. While Lucinda is spirited and kind and bubbly and resourceful as she skates through the city, there’s no clear direction to her story. (Spoilers: instead, there’s an incredibly ill-handled murder resulting from domestic violence that Lucinda is witnessed to. The hotel manager’s advice: just pretend the victim went on a very long trip abroad and isn’t coming back. And that’s exactly what Lucinda does. At least the other death in this story is well handled.)

white stag1939: The White Stag by Kate Seredy

About the westward migration of a horde led by the forefathers of Attila the Hun, Seredy decided that a romanticized version of this people group’s history would be far more interesting than their actual story, so that’s exactly what she wrote. Like with The Story of Mankind, she was rewarded for her efforts. RUDE.

“Not so long ago I was leafing through a very modern book on Hungarian history. It was a typical twentieth-century book, its pages an unending chain of FACTS, FACTS, FACTS as irrefutable, logical, and as hard as the learned pens of learned historians could make them… Well, I closed the book and I closed my eyes….Those who want to hear the voice of pagan gods in wind and thunder, who want to see fairies dance in the moonlight, who can believe that faith can move mountains, can follow the thread on the pages of this book. It is a fragile thread; it cannot bear the weight of facts and dates.”   –Kate Seredy in the foreward

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I have been looking forward to reading Caddie Woodlawn ever since I started the Newbery Challenge almost three years ago. It was a favorite of mine growing up, and I dangled Carol Ryrie Brink’s book in front of me like a carrot to motivate myself through some of the less than stellar Newbery winners of the twenties and thirties. But when I finally reached 1936 on the Newbery list, I found myself unwilling to start. What if I started reading only to find a cherished book of my childhood just doesn’t measure up anymore?

Fortunately, I enjoyed revisiting Caddie, albeit for different reasons than my childhood self. Caddie Woodlawn, sandwiched between two brothers in a family of seven children, is as spirited a tomboy as I remember. When her family moved from Boston to western Wisconsin, her father struck a bargain with her mother: Mom can have her way bringing up all the other kiddies, but let Caddie run free for the sake of her health. It works, and Caddie is spared from womanly duties to go on all sorts of adventures. Along the way and without shoving this theme down our throats, Caddie learns that people can be much more than they first appear, whether it’s the bully with no regard for education that saves the schoolhouse from a brush fire; supercilious cousin Annabelle (she of the eight and eighty buttons) who’s a lot more resilient to Caddie, Tom, and Warren’s merciless pranks than they’d imagined; delicate fainting Kate who’s bold enough to touch the gruesome scalps on Indian Joe’s belt; Caddie’s father, who may just be English nobility; even Caddie, a tomboy who has the makings of a real lady.


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I haven’t exactly made a secret of how painful it’s been to read some of the early Newberys. So I must say how pleasantly surprised I was by Monica Shannon’s charming 1935 winner, Dobry. When young Dobry makes a stork kite for his dear friend Neda, he awakes his love for drawing and sculpting. Set in pastoral Bulgaria, this part Farmer Boy, part coming of age story–for Dobry wants to study art, to his mother’s consternation–masterfully avoids the pitfalls of earlier Newberys by not exoticising far away locations. Rather, Shannon bestows a lovely dignity to Dobry’s country life, folk customs, and cultural details. Here’s a sample:

“There is sense to your staring now,” Dobry told the moon. “Me–I should hate to just look on while somebody else at the first tomatoes of the year. Crisp, too, juicy and really cold. Perfect!” –Dobry, pg. 18

“When we eat the good bread we are eating months of sunlight, weeks of rain and snow from the sky, richness out of the earth. We eat everything now, clouds even. It all becomes a part of us, sun clouds, rain snow, and the rich earth. We should be great, each of us radiant, full of music and full of stories.” –Grandfather, pg. 46

[To Dobry’s mother, Roda] “But, Rhoda, people are not all the sdobryame, any more than the vegetables, fruits, trees and animals are all the same. A fox lives one way; the buck another way. Both have different needs. A pine tree will die where a poplar tree will grow. Grapes need sun; celery needs shad and more water. Some plants need to be moved; other plants die if you move them. There it is, Roda. To the devil with ‘easier’! What seems an easier life to you would be a harder one to Dobry. He needs to draw, to paint, and Dobry is going to be a great man just as his father said he would be.” –Grandfather, pg. 108


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It’s supposedly John Newbery’s 300th birthday today! How better to celebrate than by reading a Newbery Award winner or honor book?

I’ve been slowly doing the Newbery challenge chronologically. For fun, I’m rating them from a scale of 1-10. As you can see, the early years were rather rough, but things are looking up; the 1934 winner (Invincible Louisa) holds the honor of being the highest rated so far.

Newbery 1922-1934

click to enlarge

Rating System:

2 – if it weren’t for the Newbery Challenge, I wouldn’t keep reading it
4 – bearable
6 – enjoyable
8 – so happy this won!
10 – timeless! future generations will love this for years to come

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invincible_louisaI chose this book for the 48HBC as part of my ongoing Newbery Challenge (I did this last year as well, but with Smoky the Cowhorse.) Invincible Louisa, by Cornelia Meigs, won the 1934 Newbery Medal. I was pleasantly surprised to find this biography an enjoyable read, and I’m sure fans of Little Women will get even more out of this book.

While Invincible Louisa is filed under biography and author Meigs did mention her source names and titles, unlike the non-fiction of today, Meigs does not include a bibliography or cite her quotes. Please take these fun Louisa facts with a grain of salt.

  • even though Louisa May Alcott is associated with the towns of Concord and Harvard, she was actually born in Germantown, Pennsylvania.
  • Louisa’s father, Bronson Alcott, was an eccentric and principled man who believed in a model of simple living akin to the Shakers’, but without the separation of men and women, so the Alcotts never had much money and moved around a LOT
  • young Louisa listed “love of cats” as her worst sin
  • as a teenager, Louisa had a huge crush on family friend Ralph Waldo Emerson, and would leave little poems, wrapped around rocks, on his doorstep
  • Louisa was a nurse in DC during the Civil War. She wrote about the patients she met, and unlike other war writers, she did not romanticize any of it
  • as a nurse, Louisa caught typhoid fever and when she was ill, she had to cut off her floor length hair–her only vanity
  • Mr. Niles, of Roberts Brothers publishing house, first gave Louisa the idea to write about girls. She replied that she could only write about boys.
  • while most characters in Little Women are based on Louisa’s family and friends, Jo’s love interest, Mr. Bhaer, is based on……nobody.
  • when Mr. Niles read Louisa’s manuscript, he wasn’t sold on Little Women, so he gave it to his neice for her opinion. The rest is history.

And my biggest takeaway: it’s still uncanny just how much Little Women is basically just Louisa’s entire life.

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youngfuIt’s been three months since I’ve made any progress towards my goal to read all the Newbery award-winning books since the dawn of Newbery award-winning books. Admitted, I’ve been avoiding the 1933 winner, which I had read before and didn’t like. Two years later, I can say it’s actually worse than I remember. I don’t think I have the stamina to address all the indignities in this book, but here’s the lowdown:

Young Fu of the Upper Yangtze, by Elizabeth Foreman Lewis, chronicles thirteen year old Fu Yuin-Fah’s life after he and his widowed mother move to the city of Chungking (one of the big five in China) to make his fortune as an apprentice coppersmith. In a Ragged Dick manner, Fu learns to climb the ranks of Tang’s workshop and navigate city life during a tumultuous time of political upheaval, instability, and modernization. Lewis doesn’t state when, but with mentions of Dr. Sun Yet-sen and someone with vaguely Communist ideas, I’d say Young Fu’s story takes place about the same time Lewis was in China as a missionary and teacher, 1917.

When Lewis writes, she has a habit of telling, rather than showing. As a result, the story is a tedious mishmash of dialogue and exposition. Also, her characters tend to be caricatures and stereotypes: the nagging mother, the superstitious peasant, the wise unworldly scholar. And she has a habit of suddenly switching points-of-views during the narrative, effectively halting the flow to go into the mind of a side character we’ll never meet again. Worse, their perspectives don’t offer anything new, but echo the superstitious and pessimistic mentality expressed by almost every character in the book. (more…)

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h20mtI actually finished reading Waterless Mountain, by Laura Adams Armer, at the end of last year, but I’m still not sure how I feel about it, hence the delay in this review. Mountain, the 1932 Newbery Award winner, is a coming-of-age story about Younger Brother, a young Navajo (Navaho? Diné?) boy with the potential and passion for becoming a great medicine man. His path towards fulfilling his destiny is fairly straightforward. There’s no opposition from his parents or from his circumstances, so there’s not much of a plot. (I would have preferred one, nevertheless.) Mostly, Younger Brother’s story is comprised of moments and experiences: beautiful ones, dull ones, and ones that unsettle my 21st century PC sensibilities.

Waterless Mountain‘s mystical, almost religious tone seemed a bit too earnest for me, and Younger Brother’s respect for The Big Man, a white trader, bordered on hero worship. Now Armer, a photographer and painter, had lived in Hopi and Navajo territories before writing this book. She must have earned their respect, because extraordinarily, she’s the first white woman to have a sand painting made in her honor, and the first person to be given permission to photograph the paintings. I think it’s safe to assume she wanted to get the cultural aspects of Navajo life right, but I have no idea if she succeeded or not, and I wonder how Navajo people feel about this book.

Anyways, here’s what stood out to me, when I wasn’t bemoaning the lack of a plot:

  • Laura Adams Armer’s autobiography would have been a compelling story
  • “to walk in beauty” is very important to Younger Brother, and the impromptu songs he composes are actually quite lyrical
  • the water developer was a good guy in the story, which was an unexpected twist
  • Younger Brother tells stories about a woman with an unfortunate name: The Young Woman Who Tinkles. Her name refers to the deer hooves dangling from her clothes, not a weakness in her urethral sphincter muscles…
  • should a bunch of jackdaws invite you to play a game called “throw up your eyes,” the wise answer is no
  • apparently, Santa Claus is not so scary if you think of him as a big fat pale Yay

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