I’m going to expand the boundaries of this feature a bit and talk about a whole bunch of books, rather than just one.
At the start of 2012, I joined a two-year challenge to read, in chronological order, every winner of the Newbery Medal, from 1922 (when it was first awarded) to present. As Newbery time draws near once again (the 2013 award will be issued in January), I find myself thinking back to the earliest winning books. Here they are:
I’ll admit, there was no book in the award’s first decade that really wowed me. But it was interesting to see what was recognized as the cream of the crop so long ago.
One major difference I noticed between these and much of contemporary kids’ books was that of pacing. Excepting the short story collections, Tales from Silver Lands and Shen of the Sea, the early winners were extremely heavy on description, chock-full of meticulously cataloged details. It certainly made for dreary reading in a lot of cases — though personally, I loved the detail brought to Trumpeter of Krakow by Eric P. Kelly, whose training as a newspaperman surely shows in his descriptive skill.
I was surprised at how much attention was paid to non-American cultures in this group of books — though unsurprised at the judgment leveled at these cultures, especially when it came to “primitives” and “savages” (as they were so jarringly described). Across the board, these books were written in such a way that assumed that the audience would already share the opinion that white/Western culture was inherently superior.
If I had to recommend one book out of the group, it would either be Gay-Neck: The Story of a Pigeon, or Trumpeter of Krakow. (From a pure storytelling perspective, The Story of Doctor Doolittle was likely the best book — but the random and disturbingly casual use of the “n-word” in that book really makes it so that I can’t recommend it.)
Also, if you’re going to dig into one or more of these books, I highly recommend doing it in the way that I did: by visiting a public library, taking the book to a table, and reading it right there. Turning the process into something almost ceremonial made the worst passages of these books bearable.