Newbery Thoughts – The Matchlock Gun

coverEdmonds (Winner 1942) – This is a horrid piece of racist, warmongering, xenophobic propaganda that won the Newbery Medal in 1942 as America launched itself into World War II. It is a study in fear of invasion and the terror of “the other”. This is a short fast read, the paperback I read clocked in at 62 pages, and the reading level is easy with little introspection or discussion of higher issues. This is a book about the women and children who are left behind and the innate danger that finds them when the menfolk are off.

The setting is update New York during the French and Indian Wars and our protagonists are a group of Dutch settlers. I will say that this Revolutionary War era fiction was MUCH more popular in the past and was very prevalent when I was a kid around the bicentennial. It is interesting to see a group of people and an era of American history that isn’t represented often. That is about the only redeeming quality of this book for me.

It’s pretty racist. The family who are our heros are, in fact, slave owners. They live in mortal fear of the “Indians” who are invading their valley. The illustrations throughout the book show these Native Americans as lurking, sneaking, watching from the woods while the good mama, boy, and toddler girl, all grow more and more fearful of their safety. There is no attempt to humanize the enemy, far from it, in fact they are described as:

They hardly looked like men, the way they moved. They were trotting, stooped over, first one and then another coming up, like dogs sifting up to the scent of food.

I guess that kind of thing was OK in 1942 but it seems hardly worthy of accolades and laurels, unless of course you are a nation caught up in the fever of war.

I also find the incredibly bad parenting hard to take. The father, Teunis, goes off to “hold the bridge” but you get the sense that this is a bunch of guys hanging out more than actual soldiers. The only “Indian” they kill is one that they find crippled and injured in a stream. When one of his friends goes to the farm to check on his family the one thing that Teunis asks to have brought back is his flask of schnapps. Gertrude, the mother, chooses to not take her children to her mother in law’s house despite the fact that it is made of brick and populated by armed slaves for security. She thinks that they are safer, her and her two children, in their tiny cabin. This decision nearly costs her her life and those of her children.


Perhaps the thing that is hardest to take in this regard is that in the end she makes her ten year old son pull the trigger on the Spanish gun that the book is named for. She sets herself up as a lure (which is really just a terrible idea) so that she can lead her attackers into the line of fire of what amounts to a portable cannon. She makes it so that her child kills three people and nobody blinks an eye at it. In fact:

Trudy grew sleepy, after a while, and lost her interest in the dead Indians. She was no longer afraid of them.

That’s the little sister who is about four or five who then falls asleep on her brother’s lap while they are warmed by the fire of their house burning down while their mother is unconscious from blood loss next to them.

I’m glad I read this one even if I did hate it. It’s not a badly executed book, just prejudiced and xenophobic. This is a Newbery which acts as a mirror to its age, an age when the nation went to war, even our kids.  

Newbery Thoughts – Rascal

coverNorth (1964 Honor Book) – This is a memoir which is unusual in the Newbery world. This is the first straight up personal memoir I have encountered in my Newbery reading. It’s a pretty great book, light, fun, accessible. The prose is easy to take and the characters are likable one and all. North starts off with the best disclaimer I have ever read.

All of my friends in this book, both animals and humans, were real and appear under their rightful names.

A few less lovable characters have been rechristened.

In other words, this is all true but if I didn’t like you then while I may have changed your name you are still in here.

North lives in a kind of early 20th century woodland boyhood idyll. He fishes, climbs, and explores all with his inquisitive companion Rascal, a raccoon that he raises as a pet. The book is actually a record of the year that the two spent together from when Rascal was a tiny kit that had to be fed by hand until North finally releases him back into the woods. They have a great friendship and Rascal is a delightful and irascible companion.

There isn’t much conflict and there is little overarching story. The narrative is more one of anecdotes and incidents than it is a convention start middle end story. North is a great writer and he allows a lot to come through his good midWestern prose. He misses his mother, he wonders about the changing nature of the world around him, he worried about his brother off fighting in WW I.

While North and Rascal’s freedom is a major point of discussion in the book (as in they portraitcan’t possibly get enough of it), there are some cultural shifts which make reading this book now quite shocking. Sterling North was frankly neglected by his father. This is hard to hear and he has a very loving attitude toward his father but we also see that his father leaves him alone in their farmhouse for weeks at a time. Food is delivered, the boy is not hungry, but he spends long periods of time alone and without adult supervision. At the time of the book he is 11 years old and yet:

My father sent a postcard from Montana saying he would not be coming home for another ten days or two weeks. Fortunately we ran a charge account at the meat market and at one of the groceries. But to raise money for staples and hinges I had to dig and sell two more bushels of my potatoes. I was somewhat lonesome and very grateful for Rascal’s companionship day and night.

The modern reader would also have trouble with the way that Rascal comes into North’s life. He and a friend dig him out of his den after scaring away his mother and take him away. It is tough to read for the 21st century audience. The raccoon has a perfectly good and healthy mother, indeed she tries hard to shield and protect the kit, but North, who has lost his mother himself, takes him anyway. Then, when it is clear that Rascal is a full grown adult raccoon North abandons him in the woods. Much of this book is a hymn to a much loved animal but there are parts of it that are hard for modern animal lovers to take.

It’s really interesting to see this book in the context of the larger Newbery ecology. This was an honor book the year that It’s Like This Cat by Emily Naville won the prize. It’s REALLY interesting to consider them side by side. Both works have a young male narrator who has a prized pet which leads them into young adulthood. That is about where the similarities end and that is what makes it interesting. One is very rural (farmland Wisconsinrascaltree) one is very urban (NYC, Manhattan no less). Sterling North’s parents are largely absent and David’s parents are very present. One is a memoir, one is fiction (written by an author of another gender).

I think that the greatest difference, and the one that makes me feel that the Newbery Committee made the right decision, is that
Rascal looks backwards (an early subtitle which is not now used as much is “A Memoir of a Better Era”), while It’s  Like This Cat looks forward. Rascal looks back to a distant past when boys wandered undisturbed forests and a horse and chaise could beat a Model T in a race at the County Faire. It’s Like This Cat looks to the future of young people engaged in the modern world around them. Rascal is focused on “the good old days” while It’s Like This Cat is a consideration of our bright new future.

Newbery Thoughts – Because of Winn-Dixie

winn dixieDiCamillo (2001 Honor Book) Because of Winn Dixie is all about making connections. It’s about finding friends in a new place but there is a lot more to it than that. It is about reconnecting to the family that you have and letting go of some ghosts and burdens you have been carrying. It’s about finding allies where you don’t expect them and about how even the people who are being jerks to you may very well have more to them than you expect. It’s about letting go of a mother who is a mystery and about finding the man who has been hiding inside your father for years.

It’s also about a dog and Winn Dixie is my favorite of the dutiful dogs of Newbery fame. He’s loopy and sloppy and silly and just generally great. He’s a friendly nonjudgmental meeting point for everyone in the book, a source of boundless and non judgmental love with a heart so big that it has room for everyone in the story. People make their connections to one another based off of their connection with him and he creates a common space of love. He is a most disarmingly charming dog.

There is some great magical realism going through this book and it is achieved in a way that is utterly enchanting. It’s subtle but this is more than just a town in the South…it is EVERY town in the South. There is a deliberate timelessness about the story too. There are no cell phones and technology isn’t really talked about. This story could be happening at any point in about a fifty year span, it could have been the 60s, it could have been last week (and nobody is using their cell phones). The Littmus Lozenge, a candy that tastes like melancholy is another part of this. In another book that little candy would be the entire conceit of the narrative (and it would be much more limited as a result). DiCamillo is weaving a much subtler tapestry than that though. This stuff adds to the mis-en-scène of the book but it never overpowers it. This is ultimately Opal’s story, hers and Winn Dixie’s.  
I reread this one right before I read The Great Gilly Hopkins and I thought it was pretty interesting to completely randomly chose two Newberys where the mother ran off. There are LOTS of dead mothers in Newbery books and dead parents about in children’s lit across the board. It’s an odd conceit, that you have to have to have a dead or absent parent to  give a story depth. It makes for a strong conflict and we all like to read about stuff that scares us. If you ever do any book talking to the YA crowd you know that sometimes the sadder the story the better it is going to move off your shelves (ie those horrid horrid books by Ellen Hopkins). I get it but there are times when I really want to just read a kids book that has happy well adjusted parents. It seems like it would be so refreshing.

Newbery Thoughts – It’s Like This Cat

NeviIt's_Like_This,_Catlle (1964 Winner) – This one is one of my absolute favorites. I think it is tone perfect and captures that wonderful/ delicious/ horrific/ awkwardness of adolescence. This is the 1964 winner so there is a lot of quiet rebellion without the full bore revolution of the later 60s. The narrator pushes back against the rules around him but he never really breaks any of them. It’s set against a background of middle class New York in the Sixties and the setting and extended cast of characters are so subtilly yet so vibrantly limned out that it reminds me of a watercolor.

For all that there is no dreaminess to this narrative. It is a clear cut story of a boy trying to make his way in the great big world with New York City as his local town. He talks about going over to Brooklyn and crossing the Staten Island Bridge, he sneaks his bike onto the beltway to meet up with a friend and makes calculations of his pocket change with bus fare in mind. He meets a girl and he is clumsy and charming and an idiot but never malicious or mean. Mary’s mom is a beatnik and it is hilarious to see the depiction of the alternate household of pre hippie Coney Island. Of course he also adopts a cat who is partly our surrogate and partly the walking incarnation of Dave Mitchell’s transition into adulthood.

It’s easy to make a comparison to good old bad old Holden Caulfield. Both are rebellious children of New York City, both are adolescent men. Granted Holden is older and much darker but they are only two years apart. Both stories are told in the first person and both of them are pushing back against the world that surrounds them. Davey is just so much nicer and kinder and less jaded. His parents are middle class and would never send him away to a boarding school when there is a perfectly good PS around the corner. He’s younger than Holden, sure, but he seems much more mature in a lot of ways and frankly the writing while less literary certainly is a far sight easier to take (and this from a Salinger fan from way back).  

cat1While this is one of my all time favorite Newbery winners it has the title that I like the least. I get the conceit that the cat is his outside audience for his inmost thoughts. I understand that Cat is his first foray into adulthood and the perils and hazards of responsibility that come with it. I get that Cat sums up that note of quiet rebellion that is the period tone undertone of the book. Cats are independent and go their own way, not like all those unnamed Dogs to duty of Newberys past. I get that in so many ways it is a perfect title for the book and that its very awkwardness is part of the appeal, part of what makes it unique and interesting. I guess I just think it is a clunker, I don’t like how it scans, and I feel like it is a phrase not a concept. I suppose I am the one trying to make the title, like the protagonist, fit into a box.

Dave’s relationship with his father is one of the main themes of this book and is also cat2emblematic of the theme of gentle rebellion that marks the book and puts it in the context of being forethinking in the mid sixties. It was a time of great change in America and that change was only picking up speed. The conflict between a demanding and strict yet ultimately deeply loving father and his son who’s gentle forays into independence are adventures fraught with stumbles is a classic conflict that Neville manages to make compelling and, again, uniquely subtle. Over the course of the book the two find deeper wells of respect for each other and in the process find their conflicts happening less and ending up with better results in the end.

JTZIt reminds me of a special few years I had with my dad whom I miss a great deal. Reading this book I think again how I knew everything there was to know in the world when I was 14 and how my Pops could always show me where maybe I was missing the bigger story. That there were people tied to those facts that I was so interested in and feelings that drove those people to take those actions that made those facts. There’s a lot of that in this book too. People do unusual things and turn up in unusual places and while it would be easy to call them “College Dropout” or “Crazy Cat Lady” or “Some Girl from Coney Island” that there is a lot more to everyone than you really might expect, even a lot more to a stray cat that you bring home partially to piss off your dad.

I got a lot of gifts from my pops, a great set of hair, a strong public speaking voice, but the greatest gift he gave me was empathy and he taught me a lot of lessons in that course when I was about the same age as Dave Mitchell. This book is all about empathy which is perhaps why I find it such a gem. It is, for me, a luminous pearl, a work with a quiet cool radiance. Nothing too flashy not much to grab your attention, just a steady pure light and the faint reflection of yourself upon its surface.

NB be sure to get an edition with the illustrations by Emil Weiss some of which are shown here. They are lovely and add nicely to the story.

Newbery Thoughts – The Hundred Dresses

Estes (194The_Hundred_Dresses4 Honor Book) – I just read this for the first time last week on my commute and I fell head over heels in love with it. It’s a fast read (I did it on one leg of my morning commute) and is very approachable and accessible for younger readers. There is a wide swath of reading levels that show up in the Newbery awards and I would put this one as one of the lower, faster, easier levels. It is still a rich narrative that has a lot to sink your teeth into and the illustrations by Louis Slobodkin are delightful and really add to the book.

This book gets at bullying more effectively than any other book that I have read and it did it before bullying even became a “thing”. For most of the book the girls in an elementary classroom tease a classmate mercilessly. I love how quickly you begin to dread the phrase “the fun” as in “that’s when the fun started” or “we started up the fun again”. In no time at all the phrase “fun” gives you a sinking and sick feeling in your stomach.

It’s a very wise look at bullying too. The narrator is well aware that what they are doing is wrong but she is desperately afraid of the pack turning on her. She is friends with the popular important girl but she knows that can change and she is afraid that doing the right thing will make her a target for the same abuse. There is a lovely moment when the bullying has run its sad course when she has to determine just what kind of a person her best friend is. I think that the phrase: Peggy was really all right, just as she always thought. Peg was really all right. She was okay. Is a wonderful commentary on the difficulties of friendship. Please be the person I thought you were, please, please, please.

I’m very interested in seeing how the Newbery books are reflective of their time in history. There is one section which places this one securely in a historical context.

She had stood by silently, and that was just as bad as what Peggy had done. Worse. She was a coward. At least Peggy hadn’t considered that they were being mean, but she, Maddie, had thought they were doing wrong. She had thought, supposing she was the one being made fun of. She could put herself in Wanda’s shoes. But she had done just as much as Peggy to make life miserable for Wanda by simply standing by and saying nothing.

This paragraph speaks to me of children whose fathers and brothers were off fighting a war that did not touch their shores. Why is your daddy far away? Why did your brother die? They did it because they are not cowards, they did it because it was the right thing, they did it because there are thousands of little Polish girls who need someone to stand up for them far away.


Newbery Thoughts – The Family Under the Bridge

Carlson (1959 Honor Book) Thifamily under the bridges is a short little page turner that can easily be read in an evening and makes for a deeply satisfying literary experience. It is hopeful, charming, and optimistic. This is a book that will genuinely make you feel good reading it.

Which is pretty incredible given that the topic is urban family homelessness. The family that is under the bridge is there because they have no place else to live. It’s not drugs or crime or any of that very dramatic stuff  that bring them there, just bad luck and difficult circumstances. They aren’t even really a family at the outset of the book and that is part of the charm of the narrative.

The protagonist of The Family Under the Bridge is actually not the children but an elderly vagrant by the name of Armand Pouly. This in itself is pretty fascinating. Yes there are children in the book, yes investment in them is a driving motivator in the narrative but ultimately this is a children’s book that is the story of an elderly man. How wild is that? Armand is an utterly delightful old codger, relentlessly optimistic and devoutly attached to his life without responsibilities and without work.

When he discovers the children hidden at “his” spot beneath one of Paris’ bridges he is immediately cautious lest the “little starlings” steal his heart. The children have a mother who works as a laundress and is desperate to make it clear that they are NOT tramps despite the reality of their situation but it is Armand who quickly takes over care of them while she works in the day.

Poor Armand, three small children and a stray dog change him utterly as a armand foodperson. There is a MAGNIFICENT moment at the end of the book where he has transformed into a figure of great gravitas engaged in seeking employment and housing for his new family:

Monsieur Brunot noted his hesitation. “We really want a family man,” he said.

That brought Armand’s mind back to the needy Calcets. “Oh, I’ve got a family all right monsieur,” he said, “Three children and their mother. You should see my grandchildren. They would steal your heart away.”

At this point in the book if you are not crying your eyes out then you have no soul and are a horrible horrible person.

The Family Under the Bridge also has lovely gentle little illustrations by Garth Williams who also did the very famous illustrations for Charlotte’s Web and Stuart Little. It’s pretty amazing that he can create images of children literally sleeping on the streets of Paris and still have them be charming and easy on us the reader.

sleeping under the bridgeWhile the Newbery books often deal with poverty it is usually rural poverty. People are tenant farmers or sharecroppers or on the road after the farm fails. This is the first Newbery that I have encountered that deals with child poverty in an urban environment particularly a text that is based on family homelessness. It is interesting that this book which is a product of the golden era of American prosperity and conformity (the 1950s) deals with poverty and individuals on the fringe of society in such a gentle and generous way.

Armand’s transformation is an inspiration for us all. Who knows what small act will freight us with great responsibilities? I think that what we do for those who have been entrusted to our care is one of the great measures of mankind. Armand, the shabby, drifting, Parisian tramp, is a literary hero for the ages.

Side note: I will be looking at a LOT of the honor books here. The winners of the Newbery are, of course, amazing but a lot of really fascinating books ALMOST got the prize as well and a lot of them have fallen out of favor or been forgotten over the years.


Newbery Thoughts – Trumpeter of Krakow

Cover of the Trumpeter of Krakow by Eric P
The Trumpeter of Krakow by Eric P.

Kelly (1929 Winner) – Fun historical fiction dominates much of the Newbery Awards and this is a great example of what the genre can do. This book does that great thing that good historical fiction books do of illuminating the mysteries of the past, taking a thing that is foreign and remote, and then weaving a story around these mysterious and different things that you (and especially a kid) can get a hook on.

The scene is Poland in the late middle ages and it is a space of magic and discord. There is alchemy and political discord, there’s a treasure, and a family secret and a hidden message in the music of a trumpet. If you want to hear the actual call of the trumpet just click here.

These early Newbery winners from the 20s are just great to me. They are straight up  inspiring stories for boys and girls. There are no narrative tricks or frills, just clean accessible storytelling. The good characters are very good, the bad characters are evil incarnate, and everyone in the book pretty much falls into one camp or the other.

It is interesting to hear the author speak of a Krackow of long ago when his view itself is, in many ways, from long ago. Written in 1926 this Poland has seen nothing of WW II, the holocaust, the Iron curtain, or Solidarnosc. This is a Poland which still seems innocent like so many of the characters in this book.

I love the gentleness of this era of the Newbery Award winners. They are not tricky, there are lessons in them but they speak to basic behavior and good values without being preachy or saccharine. They are books that respect the kids who read them and value them for the adults that they will be, not the adults that they think that they are when they are still very young. Sometimes it seems like kids in the 21st century are adults in miniature. These early winners speak to when kids were still allowed to be children and discover the world at a gentler pace.