Since the beginning of the year, I’ve been participating in the Newbery Challenge, in which I am reading the Newbery Medal award winning books from 1922-present. To date, I’ve finished with the 1920s. An understatement, but, wow, how literature for children has changed! Children as central characters are largely absent from these books, which seems foreign when you read the very “kid-focused” chapter books of today. Children with very particular interests, such as world history or ranch horses, might be drawn to these books, but overall, with the exception of Doctor Dolittle, I don’t think these books would have good shelf appeal by today’s standards. I also noticed that, with the exception of Smoky the Cowhorse, all of these stories largely take place outside of United States. Was this a reflection of the time? Where people looking for stories and insights on a world that was becoming smaller with advances in exploration, travel, and communication? I’m sure there is an entire research paper on that, but it’s something I’ve been thinking about.
Each week, the two organizers of the Newbery Challenge, Mr. Schu and Colby Sharp having been posting the most amusing video recaps of their Newbery reading. Check out their YouTube channels for those videos which are often commercials for books they actually would want you to read!
Here’s my brief wrap up of each title:
1922: The Story of Mankind by Hendrik Willem Van Loon (Goodreads rating: 2/5)
This is essentially an annotated world history recap from the origins of man to 20th century events. At first, I thought this was truly awful, but then I read the other 1920s Newbery winners. In hindsight, while I don’t think many kids will be drawn to this one, it is readable, sometimes funny, and often interesting (at least to this history buff).
1923: The Voyages of Doctor Dolittle by Hugh Lofting (Goodreads rating: 3/5)
This title was my favorite of the 1920s books. Of all of them, it by far had the greatest kid-appeal and I could easily see recommending this title to a child today. It seemed to drag on a bit too long at the end, but overall the funny human-animal interactions were entertaining.
1924: The Dark Frigate by Charles Boardman Hawes (Goodreads rating: 1/5)
Ugh. I really disliked this story and it is clear winner as my least favorite Newbery of the 1920s. Repeatedly, I’d find myself reading several pages and having no idea what I had just read. The language is very old fashioned and full of chopped dialect (sailor talk, I guess) that was too challenging to read. I gave it about seventy-five pages but finally and reluctantly, I abandoned it. Supposedly it has some drunken pirate fight scenes in it that are pretty amusing, but then again, this is a kids’ book, right?
1925: Tales from Silver Lands by Charles Finger (Goodreads rating: 2/5)
This is a collection of folk tales from South America that often explain how animals or landscape obtained certain characteristics. Not horrible literature, and I did like the familiar tone presented by the narrator as he recounted the stories. This definitely is one that I’d have a hard time selling to today’s readers when there are so many other enjoyable folk tales out there to read.
1926: Shen of the Sea written by Arthur Bowie Crisman and illustrated by Else Hasselriis (Goodreads rating: 2/5)
You know it’s a bad chapter book when you find the most redeeming element to be the illustrations. Hasselriis’s lovely woodblock print illustrations that accompanied these Chinese folk tales were indeed nice but certainly not enough to make up for the text. Some stories were more interesting than others, but overall I found them dull and often the writing was horrible. Here is a fine example of some bad writing “…a moment before the explosion, old man Low Moo was milking his cow.” Yes, it’s that bad.
1927: Smoky the Cowhorse by Will James (Goodreads rating: 3/5)
I tried to keep in mind that at the time of it’s publication, America was obsessed with cowboys and cowboy life, so perhaps the book had a ready-and-waiting young reader audience. It is the story of a wild horse from birth to old age. Very early on, it becomes clear to the reader that Smoky is a smart, talented, and strong-willed horse. I’m not certain it would appeal to many readers today, but perhaps someone eager to learn about cowboys and horses, or maybe even someone heading to a ranch to experience a cattle roundup as a tourist. I must admit I was rooting for Smoky at the end of the book as he encountered events such as a horse-napping and mistreatment.
1928: Gay Neck, the Story of a Pigeon, by Dhan Gopal Mukerji (Goodreads rating: 3/5)
I alternate between 2- and 3-stars on a rating. I liked the writing and thought many of the descriptive images of the Himalayas and jungle were lovely. I also found the chapters of Gay-neck as a war carrier pigeon were interesting. It must have its appeal in the Indian community residing in my area however. Our library system had dozens of copies available, and the one I checked out was nearly brand new. Long-live Gay-Neck?
1929: The Trumpeter of Krakow, by Eric P. Kelly (Goodreads rating: 3/5)
It took me a while to get going with this adventure story about medieval Krakow. I found it pretty bearable once the true heart of the story began to evolve with a mysterious crystal and several attacks on the good guy by the bad guys. Knowing that there is plenty of other modern day books with a similar plot and more enjoyable setting, I doubt too many would pick this one up today. The former teacher in me does think there might be passages in it that would be great to share with a history class studying medieval life.
1930 Medal winner, Hitty: Her First Hundred Years, by Rachel Field.