Showing posts with label Newbery Medal. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Newbery Medal. Show all posts

Sunday, 15 July 2007

A Thimble Summer and the Winter of a Reviewer’s Discontent

Elizabeth Enright’s Newbery medal-winning Thimble Summer is very much a book of its time — but please don’t take this to mean that I think it any sort of literal or reliable picture of farm life in the thirties, or indeed of life anywhere, at any time. This book isn’t so much a reflection of its time as a reaction to it. It’s a simple, sunny book. A ten-year-old Wisconsin farm girl named Garnet Linden cavorts through a summer and some mild adventures on her family farm. Garnet finds a silver thimble while playing by the river. A short drought is broken by rainfall. Garnet visits her friend Citronella’s grandmother and hears her stories of olden times. A migrant orphan boy, Eric, appears on her farm and finds work and a home with the Lindens. Garnet and Citronella get locked in the town library overnight. The Lindens get a government loan or grant to build the new barn they need. Garnet runs away from the farm to go to a nearby town for the day. Garnet’s family attend the local fall fair, where Garnet exhibits her pet pig and eats a lot of ice cream. And Garnet sees the finding of the thimble as the catalyst of all this and claims that it’s magical.

I was going to complain about the utter lack of depth in this book, but then when I began to think about the era in which this book was published, read and lauded, the very simplicity and the facility of the plot, theme, and characterizations began to take on a new meaning. After all, Thimble Summer won the Newbery Medal in 1939, the same year as the premiere of The Wizard of Oz, a movie in which another ten-year-old farm girl (or as Hollywood would have it, a sixteen-year-old actress in a chest-flattening corset) has magical adventures. The thirties, as everyone knows, were a time of widespread unemployment, bankruptcies, drought, poverty, hunger, war, and escalating international tensions. The American film industry did very well in the thirties because everyone wanted to escape from their problems for a few hours. And then too, although grim social realism had become a considerable force in contemporary literature, it had not yet breached children’s books. Adults of the thirties may have been reading Of Mice and Men (published in 1937), or The Grapes of Wrath (published in 1940), but they were giving their children Thimble Summer, or at most Laura Ingalls Wilder’s Little House series (published in the thirties and forties and five times named Newbery Honor books).

Thimble Summer, accordingly, might have seemed a very pleasant bit of escapism to a city child who never got enough to eat nor had any place to swim. To a child on an actual, drought-ridden farm the book might seem like something best dropped in the path of the nearest combine. All right, perhaps I am exaggerating. A farm child aware of the schism between this book and his or her own reality would not have dared risk damage to the family combine.

Elizabeth Enright’s “authenticity” was praised in reviews. The New York Times Book Review claimed the book had “the flavor of real life… expressed with charm and humor.” I will go so far as to say that the setting does have a certain naturalness and realism. The Linden family’s standard of living is somewhat true to what a successful farm family’s would have been in the thirties. Garnet more or less lives in a single pair of overalls chopped off above the knee, and her pleasures are very elemental ones. Enright includes descriptive details of weathered mailboxes that lean upon each other, and of 20–year-old Ford trucks that go 15 miles an hour, and sensual descriptions of rain and heat. The larger, grimmer reality is acknowledged only fleetingly. Eric, who has lived a knockabout life travelling in boxcars and supporting himself by whatever work he can find, tells the Lindens they don’t know what real drought is and that he wants to stay in fertile Wisconsin and someday buy his own farm there.

Everything works out for the best in Garnet’s little world. When the crops on her farm are badly in need of rain, they get it just in time to avoid failure. When her brother chastises her for causing an (easily correctable) mishap during threshing, she runs away for the afternoon to have fun by herself. When she accidentally spends her bus fare, she hitchhikes. When she hitchhikes she is picked up by kindly strangers. It’s not surprising that Enright should have had this idyllic, superficially realistic concept of farm life. She did spend her summers on a farm in Wisconsin, but the farm was owned by her uncle, Frank Lloyd Wright. Farming may have been a financially viable proposition for Lloyd Wright, but it certainly didn’t need to be.

Enright’s idealized notion of farm life is even evident in the illustrations, which Enright also drew. They are simple (and dismayingly amateurish for a professional illustrator who studied at New York’s Parsons School of Design) line drawings, and the coloured illustrations are in pastel and bright colours without shading or perspective. Garnet’s body is impossibly streamlined, and her little friend Citronella, who is described as fat, is only slightly more realistically curvy. In one picture which shows Garnet and her brother Jay running through a cabbage patch, their feet don’t appear to be touching the ground, and the cabbages look more like very large roses.

I’m certainly not saying that every novel should be grimly realistic, because that is one bleak prospect, especially for children’s books. Good books in the romantic tradition, and books that are just fun, are something to cherish. But this book is somehow not enjoyable enough to be really fun. It’s just… blandly pleasant and conventional in a way that is no longer admired in literature. There’s really nothing remarkable about it, and in trying to figure out how it could have been upgraded to stellar, I’ve settled on picking at its lack of depth and realism. L.M. Montgomery defended her romantic style of fiction by saying that rose gardens are just as real as pigsties, and she was perfectly right, but a novel that is too sweet and light is just as flawed as one that is too monotonously dreary. Enright could have learned a few things from Laura Ingalls Wilder and her daughter — and unacknowledged co-writer — Rose Wilder Lane. The Wilders fictionalized Laura’s childhood, and they had to take out some details that would have made the book too dark, but one of the best things about the Little House books is their sure balance between realistic portrayal of some extremely harsh situations and the positive aspects of Laura’s life. The books never gloss over the horrendous dangers and privations of frontier life, but the realism doesn’t weigh too heavily on the book. A child reading these books can enjoy Laura’s tilts with Nellie Oleson, and feel her pleasure in a new calico dress or ripe plums, and also her feel her fear of wolves or worry about Pa being missing during a blizzard. An adult reading the series can enjoy these things as well, but also has a deeper awareness of narrowness of the margin of survival for the Ingalls family. When you’re a child it sounds like fun to wake up with a foot of snow on your bed. When you’re over 30, not so much. An adult has a much better appreciation of what it would have meant for Charles Ingalls to leave his wife and children with little money and food and walk several hundred miles in worn-out boots to search for work, and of the courage Caroline Ingalls showed when she spent a three-day blizzard playing games with her little daughters knowing full well that her husband (and sole economic support) could be lying dead out in the storm.

I still enjoy the Little House books almost as much (if in a different way) as I did as a child. I probably would have enjoyed Thimble Summer if I’d read it when I was seven or eight and hadn’t grown up on a farm. But this kind of limited appeal is the hallmark of a limited book, not of a good one.

Sunday, 8 July 2007

A Bridge Between Children and Adults

At one point after the movie My Girl came out, I heard a radio announcer quip that for him the movie was just so much more enjoyable after Macaulay Culkin’s character died. I don’t think anyone who reads Katherine Paterson’s novel Bridge to Terebithia, which won the Newbery Medal in 1978, will be inclined to say that of the death of a child character in the book. I’ve read Bridge to Terebithia twice, and the second reading was almost harder to bear because even pre-tragedy I felt such a sick dread of the passages that lay ahead. Paterson wrote the book after her son David's eight-year-old friend Lisa was struck and killed by lighting. David Paterson is now an adult and married with children of his own, but still finds Bridge to Terebithia difficult to read. I am not surprised. Bridge to Terebithia will never become one of the books I read and reread because it tears me up — and all my childhood friends are alive and kicking and posting to Facebook.com.

The main character, Jess Aarons, is a ten-year-old farm boy who feels, and indeed really is, something of a thwarted misfit in his own life. He has a passion for drawing and painting and dislikes sports, which doesn’t exactly win him a lot of respect among the other boys at his rural school. There seems to be no art instruction whatsoever at his school (was this really ever the case in public schools during the seventies?) and the only teacher who doesn’t discourage him by telling him not to waste time or paper is the music teacher, with whom Jess is secretly in love.

At home Jess is the only boy of five children. One of best things about Bridge to Terebithia is the Aarons family dynamic. Jess’s four sisters are especially well drawn. We can completely understand and sympathize with Jess’s irritation with his sisters, and with how they make him feel marginalized in his own family, but at the same time see that they seem like perfectly ordinary girls with both good and bad qualities. Jess’s older sisters, the high-school-aged Ellie and Rhonda, fuss a lot about wanting clothes and makeup, shirk their share of the chores, and complain about Jess being smelly. Four-year-old Joyce Ann throws a lot of tantrums as a way of holding her own with her much older siblings. Jess likes six-year-old May Belle, who adores him and shows promise of developing into a good companion for him a few years down the road, but in the meantime he doesn’t always want her tagging around after him.

Jess’s mother and father are trying to raise too many children on too little money. Under the stress of this his mother becomes sharp and quick-tempered, and his father’s long work hours mean he is absent much of the time, and absent-minded when physically present. They’re too overworked to have much time or energy to cater to Jess’s non-physical needs, and on many days their efforts to communicate with him consist of their asking if he’s done the milking yet. Jess must draw in spare moments, and in his room, with the door shut, because his mother considers it a waste of time and his father doesn’t think it a suitably masculine activity for his only son.

In an effort to carve out a better place for himself in his world, Jess spends all the early morning hours of the summer between fourth and fifth grade in the cow pasture, training himself to run. He dreams of winning the lunchtime races at school and thinks if he can become the fastest runner he can win the liking and respect of the other kids and of his family. And then on the first day of school his new neighbour, Leslie Burke, shows up and wins all the races easily. But Jess soon gets over this disappointment because something better arrives on its heels.

Leslie Burke is another especially well-done element in this novel. Paterson has managed to create a little girl who is intelligent and imaginative without being precious. I don’t think Paterson did quite as well with Leslie’s parents. Judy and Bill Burke are successful and well-to-do writers who have moved to a ramshackle farmhouse in the country to “reassess their value structure”. Yes, they use those words. Their daughter calls them by their first names, and they have “a lot of hair”, stacks of records and books but no television set, speak French and talk a lot about world issues and drive a small, dusty yet expensive car. In thinking over Paterson’s characterization of the Burkes I thought the only thing missing was the yogurt, and then while paging through the book I came across the fact that Leslie had yogurt in her lunchbox for her first day at school. But then I’m reminded of someone I knew who used to criticize her sister for “being cliché” because her sister wore her hair long and parted in the middle, scorned makeup, sported tie-dyed clothing, ate health food, and visited a naturopath, as though owning a house in the suburbs, wearing sweaters with cats on them, and doing counted cross stitch projects were any more original, or as though anyone’s life is. By the same token Jess’ family, with their double negatives, double names and beaten-up pick up truck are just as cliché as the Burkes in superficial terms, but we see more of them and get to observe the inner workings of their family in a much more intimate way, and so they transcend the material features of their lives and seem much more real. We don’t see enough of the Burkes, and they seem too idealized, to come across as convincing.

But the same cannot be said of Leslie, though we don’t get to know her nearly as well as Jess. Leslie’s parents treat her more as a companion than as a child, and this combined with her own considerable natural aptitude has made her very advanced intellectually. She does brilliant schoolwork, and is a gifted athlete, and in general is the kind of child adults cherish. But we get to see how these very qualities make her an outcast at school, where the other children show the intolerance of difference that is usual in homogenous kid culture. The boys at school might have come to accept that a girl wants to run in their recess races, but they can’t adjust to the fact that she wins every race so easily that it takes all the suspense out of it. The girls don’t care for the fact that Leslie wears tank tops and cut-offs and looks like a boy. And the Burkes’ lack of a TV demolishes whatever social prospects Leslie might have had left.

Jess and Leslie become friends partly through proximity and self-preservation, but their friendship soon becomes more about their natural affinity. Leslie and Jess create a magical imaginary kingdom called Terebithia, and build a “castle stronghold” (which to adult eyes is a lean-to) in the woods, and stock it with water, nails and elastics, and crackers and dried fruit in case of siege. Together they are king and queen, rulers of Terebithia, and Jess discovers both the transforming and sustaining powers of friendship and imagination. Leslie, being quite a well-balanced girl, has no inclination to stay in Terebithia all the time, and draws Jess out by talking to him about current events, concocting and enacting a diabolically elegant plan of revenge for a mean seventh grade girl who steals May Belle’s Twinkies – and by later showing compassion for the seventh grader. Jess’s friendship with Leslie does so much for him he doesn’t care what anyone at school or home says about him hanging around with a girl. I find it more than a bit of a stretch that a 10-year-old farm boy would say that he can’t capture “the poetry of the trees” in his drawings, but at the same time it was just the kind of thing he could say to Leslie knowing that she would understand. And when tragedy strikes, Jess, with all his grief, finds his friendship with Leslie has given him what he needs to go on. The adults of his world prove that they are perfectly capable of being sensitive to his needs when roused from their own concerns, and Jess is able to respond to them, and to begin to see that May Belle needs his friendship as much as he ever needed Leslie’s.

I’ve read two of Katherine Paterson’s other novels: The Great Gilly Hopkins (which was a Newbery Honor Book in 1979), and Jacob Have I Loved (for which I have very mixed feelings, but which I’ll be reviewing sooner or later because it won the Newbery in 1981). Although all involve significant character growth, I wouldn’t call any of them coming-of-age novels. In all these three books Paterson’s characters grapple with very grim and rather grown-up issues. The problems they deal with and the emotions they feel are not those which they will laugh at in 20 years’ time. When Jess’s father says to his grieving son, “Hell, ain’t it?” he is relating to him not as father to child but as one human being to another, and his few words contain the recognition that such things keep happening to you and tearing you up all your life, and that they cannot be fixed, only endured. Paterson has made her books about universal human experience rather than about definitively childhood experience, and has laced her work with the kind of rock-bottom honesty that is the best ground on which to meet grief. And it is exactly these qualities that makes her novels both so difficult and so powerful to read.

Sunday, 1 July 2007

A Minstrel of the Thirteenth Century and an Author for All Time

Of all the Newbery-winning writers, I am definitely most knowledgeable about the author of 1943’s Adam of the Road, Elizabeth Janet Gray, or Elizabeth Gray Vining as she would later be known. I can’t claim to have read everything she wrote, as with some other authors, and despite my having taken it upon myself to enlarge the partial bibliography for Vining’s Wikipedia page substantially, I am not even sure I know about all her books.

I own just a dozen of Vining's books, all bought in thrift shops or from eBay (and still remember the shock of utter joy that hit me when I came across a copy of her 1972 novel The Taken Girl in the former Goodwill at Toronto’s Adelaide and Jarvis when I didn’t even know the book existed, or that Vining ever had changed her professional name). Besides the books that I own, I have borrowed a number of others from the library, among them The Quiet Pilgrimage, Vining’s characteristically unassuming autobiography. She fascinates me on a number of levels, not only for what she accomplished, but also for the remarkable person she was. And let me just say that there may be more talented writers on the Newbery list, but I’ll hazard a guess that there aren’t any other former tutors to the Crown Prince, now Emperor Akihito, of Japan.

Vining is an almost forgotten author these days, which seems a shame. Of all her (known to me) 24 books of fiction and non-fiction for both adults and children, only Adam of the Road is listed on Chapters.Indigo.ca, and even it is described as “temporarily unavailable”.

I’m not going to campaign to have all Vining's books reprinted, because as much as I’ve loved her work over the past 20 years since I first discovered it, some of them truly are dated and a few are not very good. But surely at least some of her children’s novels could find readers and buyers today. Besides Adam of the Road, I’d suggest as the best candidates for reprinting Meggy MacIntosh, set in the 1770s, in which a plain, witty orphaned Scottish girl runs away from her Edinburgh home and indifferent aunt and uncle and beautiful cousin to go to America in an effort to meet her heroine Flora MacDonald only to find the country on the eve of revolution; and also The Taken Girl, set in the 1830s, in which another orphaned girl finds a home with a Quaker family in Philadelphia, falls in love with the young and dashing John Greenleaf Whittier (though being a Quaker he is dashing in the quiestest and most restrained of ways), and begins to do her bit in the movement to end slavery.

Vining’s books would be named as Newbery Honor Books three times before she won the medal for Adam of the Road in 1943 — for the novels Meggy MacIntosh, in 1931 and Young Walter Scott, in 1936, and for the biography of William Penn Penn in 1939. With the possible exception of Meggy MacIntosh, the Newbery committee chose well in determining the medallist among those four books.

Adam of the Road is a historical novel, set in thirteenth-century England, and concerns 11-year-old Adam Quartermayne, son of Roger the Minstrel. It’s very much an adventure novel in which Adam, in his travels along the roads of England from Oxford to London and Winchester and then back again, becomes separated from his beloved spaniel Nick and his adored father Roger, and must make his way alone until he can find his father and his dog again.

One of the best currents in Adam of the Road is Adam’s strong sense of vocation. In those days people generally had to do whatever line of work their parents did. Adam naturally is being taught the craft of minstrelsy by his father, and is expected to perform along side Roger and help earn their food, clothing and shelter, but he also has both the talent and the ambition to become a good minstrel himself. Even in his hardest moments, even when he is alone, penniless, hungry, and walking along wintry English roads barefoot, the knowledge that he is a minstrel, that he has skills to develop and work to do, is the one thing that never deserts him. He composes songs to sustain himself when most discouraged, and so long as there are people around him, he will set about entertaining them.

Vining wrote a number of historical novels—of her fifteen novels (twelve for children, three for adults), at least nine are set in the long past—and so obviously did her homework in terms of meticulous research into whatever period she used. The settings in her historical novels are always wonderfully well done. Adam of the Road is fabulously evocative and packed with details. The characters in it quote the proverbs of Alfred, tie a bit of red worsted around their cows’ tails to keep the witches away, and enjoy their meals of fat partridge or pottage according to their means. The reader can smell and hear and taste thirteenth-century England. The dialogue is probably not so authentic, but I can definitely cut Vining some slack for that, as truly historical accurate dialogue would probably be almost incomprehensible to contemporary readers. She does infuse the dialogue with as much thirteenth-century idiom and as many figures of speech as she can. I’m no historian, but it seems to me her characterizations are very definitely twentieth century. Adam thinks and acts much like an 11-year-old boy of these days would if plopped down on a thirteenth century English road (barring the panic and culture shock engendered by the sudden time travel, of course). And this is true of all Vining’s historical children’s novels. Eighteenth century Meggy MacIntosh’s psychological makeup is very much akin to The Fair Adventure’s Page MacNeil or Sandy’s Sandy Callam, who were girls of the 1940’s.

I’m not sure this “modern-style” characterization is a flaw. I don’t think we can ever really enter into the psychology of another time, and even if Vining had been able to do so through exhaustive research and strenuous imaginative effort it doesn’t seem likely that she would be able to make a thirteenth-century facsimile mindset comprehensible to her readers. It’s also possible that Vining, in her children’s books, deliberately decided to forego creating historically accurate characterizations. Her John Donne, the main protaganist in Take Heed of Loving Me (which is, due to availability, the only one of her adult novels that I have read), seems much less contemporary. Either way, Vining, intentionally or not, settled for concentrating on making her juvenile characters true to human nature as she understood it, and as her insight into human nature was excellent, this was a happy compromise because it makes her books so readable for twentieth and twenty-first century children.

I said above that some of Vining’s work is too dated to reprint, but I do not mean by this that her thinking or values are dated. On the contrary, Vining had the true historian’s long view of human behaviour and events. Born in 1902, she wrote in her 1970 autobiography that she had no objection to the long hair of the young, because there was nothing sacred about short hair. Men, she commented, had only been wearing their hair short for a few hundred years. The Puritans had cut theirs short as an act of defiance and been sneered at by the establishment. By way of comparison with a more typical contemporary of Vining’s, my grandmother was born in 1905 and, though she had many excellent qualities, this kind of tolerance (and especially tolerance born of erudition) was not among them. I distinctly recall Grandma, circa 1988, tartly asking one of my brothers if we had lost the scissors at our house.

If I have a favourite among Vining’s books, it is The Fair Adventure, the story of an almost seventeen-year-old girl’s summer following her high school graduation. It may not be the best of Vining's books, but it’s the funniest and Page’s efforts to find her own equilibrium in the midst of a large, talkative, active family all too absorbed in their own concerns to pay much attention to their youngest member makes for a good light read. But, stripped of its 1940 cover (which features Page in a polka-dotted swiss dress with puffed sleeves and a large hairbow) and put into a cover with a more contemporary design, I think it would merely bemuse today’s readers as it’s neither fish nor fowl, neither historical novel nor a passably contemporary one. They’d wonder why Page has to ask her father for permission to get her hair permed and why, when she does not get the scholarship to the college she dreams of attending and her parents tell her they cannot afford to send her, Page does not get a summer job and apply for student loans.

It is only Vining’s contemporary novels that have dated in this way, while her historical novels are almost without exception ripe for reprint. And while her characterizations and dialogue might make a historical purist wince, anyone else who read her books would be too busy enjoying them to care.

Sunday, 24 June 2007

A Good Song Among Many

The 1983 Newbery Medal Winner Cynthia Voigt’s Dicey’s Song, like Robin McKinley’s The Hero and the Crown, is one of the Newbery award winners I have read and re-read it until my copy of the book is much the worse for the wear. I’ve loved and collected Voigt’s work for nearly twenty years, and she is not only one of my favourite young adult writers but also the one who most inspires me. As I work on the manuscript of my own young adult novel I often think of her, and aspire to her level of excellence, measuring my work against the standard set by hers. That the very fruitlessness of this aspiration leaves me ready to pound my head repeatedly against my keyboard is neither here nor there.

It speaks volumes about the quality of Voigt’s work that Dicey’s Song, though it is certainly very good, is not even what I would call the best of Voigt’s 30 books. Voigt is a consistently excellent writer and a number of her other books are comparable achievements: Homecoming, The Runner, A Solitary Blue, Tell Me if the Lovers Are Losers, and especially David and Jonathan are all at least as good if not better. A Solitary Blue in particular is one of Voigt’s books I love most. A Solitary Blue was a Newbery Honor Book in 1984, but lost the medal to Beverley Cleary’s Dear Mr. Henshaw. I haven’t read Dear Mr. Henshaw yet, but it had better be damn good.

Dicey’s Song is the second of what became the Tillerman Cycle novels, a series of six novels about a family named the Tillermans. There are four books that involve Dicey and her three siblings James, Maybeth, and Sammy, one book about Dicey’s uncle, and two more focusing on the lives of two of Dicey’s friends. In Homecoming, 13-year-old Dicey and her three younger siblings are abandoned by their mother, Liza Tillerman. The four children spend a summer making their way (mostly on foot and without adult assistance or money) from Provincetown, Massachusetts to the grandmother they have never met in Maryland. Of course this is plot enough for two novels and so Dicey’s Song is much less eventful. The four children gradually settle into life at their grandmother’s farm and try to cope with their grief for their mother, who lies in a catatonic state in a Massachusetts hospital mental ward. They also deal with the usual strains and pains of growing up and their own individual problems: James’s suppression of his superior academic abilities so that he will be liked by his classmates, Maybeth’s difficulties in learning to read, and Sammy’s pitched battles with other boys at school.

Cynthia Voigt has said that Dicey is the child she wishes she had been and that Dicey’s grandmother, Abigail Tillerman, is the old lady she hopes to become. And indeed the two characters really do seem like older and younger versions of each other, with their fierce independence and intelligence. It’s to Voigt’s credit that these idealized versions of herself became their own selves and are so realistically and unsentimentally drawn. Dicey especially is an accomplishment. Growing up is an inherently a sporadic and uneven process, and although Dicey may have a more than adult level of determination and self-reliance, she is also very much just a kid, and even a backward one, in some other ways.

I’m trying to decide what I think about the fact that although Dicey, who is bored with school, is an excellent student in every class but home economics, where she refuses to make a more than minimal effort. Dicey thinks Miss Eversleigh isn’t “teaching anything Dicey needed to know, or wanted to know. Who wanted to memorize food groups or talk about seasonal buying or how to store food while conserving energy? Not Dicey.” Are we to believe that Dicey, who is (and has to be) very practical, does a fair share of the housework required for a family of five people and seems to love to work with her hands, truly would not see the value in knowing how to make nutritious meals or sew on buttons? This seems like a contrived conflict. Surely if Voigt wanted to have Dicey learn that there is value in a field of knowledge she’d scorned, another less practical subject would have been a better choice.

I did really like the way Voigt portrays the dynamics of the classroom and the hurly burly of the school hallways and playground (these are always unmistakably authentic in Voigt’s books, perhaps unsurprisingly, as she is a former teacher). Voigt also does quite well with her rendering of the Tillermans’ poverty. Abigail Tillerman had only made a subsistence living from her farm and in order to be able to keep the four children, she must apply for welfare benefits, and even then be careful with every penny. Between the Tillermans’ love for one another and their financial straits, this is a family that could have come perilously close to resembling the Waltons’. My rereading of the book for this review reminded me of both George H.W. Bush’s declaration that “America needs more family like the Waltons”, and Jay Leno’s surprisingly sharp rejoinder that “America already has too many families like the Waltons. They live in shacks and have no jobs and no health care.”

No, the Tillermans don’t scratch and hustle around and show a steel-spined independence and ingenuity and manage to stay off welfare. If anything, Dicey and Abigail learn that self-reliance and pride can be carried too far, and that reaching out to other people can involve having to learn to accept kindness in the form of material assistance. They take the government benefits as well as some tactful gifts from their friends, and though this outrages Abigail’s pride the children only care that it upsets her. Then they all scratch and hustle around to make and save a few dollars here and there to put food on the table and the fewest possible items of clothing on their backs, as well as those few luxuries that are really necessities: piano lessons for musically talented, shy Maybeth who is humiliated by her slowness in school, and a quietly beautiful dress for Dicey who hates that is she is physically maturing into a woman. Their poverty may circumscribe what they can do and how they must live, but only in the same way bad weather would. It doesn’t inform who they are or how they relate to one another. It’s simply an incidental fact of life to be dealt with so they can get on with doing the things they need and want to do, and there are definitely no ridiculously systematic good nights called along the hallways of their Chesapeake Bay farmhouse.

Voigt’s depiction of the eventual tragic fate of Liza Tillerman and of Dicey and her family’s resulting grief is one of the most heartbreaking passages I can think of in children’s or young adult’s fiction. The Tillermans, as always, get on with the business of life, but Voigt skilfully weaves their emotions into everything they do – into Dicey’s Christmas shopping, into Dicey and Abigail’s train ride home from the hospital in Massachusett’s, into Maybeth’s choice of music, into Sammy’s unintentionally and poignantly funny comments, into Abigail’s showing the children old family photographs for the first time - until we know just how deep and far reaching their loss is.

And much the same thing can be said of Voigt’s entire body of work. Her characters are always too proud and active and intellectually curious to merely emote or wallow. They keep moving through their lives, doing mostly ordinary things, but always learning a little more, doing a little more, becoming something slightly more. And because Voigt’s sensitive, moving work always feels so real, her readers get to feel they have done the same.

Saturday, 23 June 2007

Tales as Beautiful As They Are Good, Though They Are Neither One

The 1925 Newbery winner, Charles J. Finger’s Tales From Silver Lands, is a collection of nineteen folktales, gathered by Finger during his travels in South America. And, I might as well say this up front – I found these stories so uninteresting that I’m having difficulty finding anything to say about them.

I adored fairy and folk tales as a child and read all I could find. I loved finding stories from different countries, and comparing, say, the French Cinderella to her sisters of the hearth elsewhere in the world. Witches in especial fascinated me and I could never get enough of the Russian Baba Yaga. Now that I’m nominally a grownup, my tastes favour the grown-up version of the fairy tale. I love the fleshed-out retellings which feature actual character development instead of lines such as “she was as beautiful as she was good”, plots which have been beefed up to something far beyond the usual skeletal heroic quests and courtings, and the kind of sensory detail that makes fiction truly come to life. Some of my favourites are those written by Robin McKinley, who has done novel-length versions of "Sleeping Beauty", "Donkeyskin", and "Beauty and the Beast" (twice) as well as several short-story versions of a number of other well-known fairy tales; or Gregory Maguire’s sophisticated (and, for a pre9/11 novel, amazingly prescient) allegory of political terrorism Wicked: the Life and Times of the Wicked Witch of the West. Incidentally, if you like this kind of grownup fairy tale, you might like to check out this Ask Metafilter thread for titles to check out and add to your reading list.

When I read Tales from Silver Lands I wondered if the stories were really as dull and wooden as they seemed to me or if I were simply too old and blasé to enjoy them. Discovering “The Hungry Old Witch” in the collection helped settle the question, because I did read that story as a child and never cared for it. I distinctly remember rooting for the witch rather than “Stout Heart” and his “maiden full of winning grace”. To my considerable irritation Stout Heart won the day, and his fair maiden became his wife, who was supposedly loved by all the people of his land “as the fairest woman among them”. (Riiiiight.)

There’s something annoyingly didactic about these stories. Liars are always punished, the lazy meet with some disastrous consequences, the brave always win the day, those who eat too much are destroyed in some spectacular way by their sheer consequences of their own gluttony. The Hungry Old Witch drowns because of the weight of the turtles she has eaten. El-Enano, a sort of monstrous wild child who demands an unending supply of food from a village, dies because he mistakes hot coals for hot baked potatoes. In the “Bad Wishers” a childless woman is punished for wishing to have a strong boy and a girl with keen eyes when she gives birth to a blind, strong boy and a crippled, far-sighted girl. In “The Tale of the Lazy People” a tribe is overrun by magical carved wooden figures with long tails who do their work for them, and who eventually become monkeys who spend the rest of their existence laughing at mankind. In “A Tale of Three Tails”, the rat, the deer and the rabbit lose the beautiful long plumed tails they originally had for acts of treachery. It’s interesting, isn’t it, that in the creation myths humankind has invented over the past millenniums physical characteristics and laws of nature are so often set as they are for punishment? Not only do we humans need reasons for why things are the way they are, we also seem to be wired with the need to believe the reasons are just.

I suppose the Tales from Silver Lands are the kind of stories that a group of well-meaning librarians thought would teach children the value of love and loyalty, bravery, hard work, and kindness, but instead they impress me more as a pill of questionable medicinal value in some very inferior jam. I’m sceptical that such overtly moralistic fiction has ever improved anyone’s character – at least, I question if it does more for the development of character and virtue than non-preachy fiction. And certainly there is little that is character-building about equating beauty with virtue and worth and making ugliness synonymous with evil, which these stories, like most folk and fairy tales, also continually do.

Perhaps Charles Finger simply didn’t manage to carry off the transposition of these stories from oral tellings to the written form. Stories that would probably be quite entertaining when told by one of Finger’s picturesquely described cigar-smoking old ladies at a communal fireside won’t play as well when dutifully typed word for word on paper. Folktales that have been told verbally for a century or more have a certain economy of language; they employ broad sweeping descriptions rather than fine detail, and rely on crowd-pleasing action and fast moving plots to give interest. There are limits to the human memory, and also to the time allowed before one’s audience wants the storyteller to wrap it up so they can go to bed. Literature, on the other hand, is for a different kind of audience, one that is putting a more concerted effort and time into the story and therefore expects more from it, such as the more contemplative pleasures of character development, inner conflict, and complexity of theme.

I wondered too if there might be some sort of cultural divide, and if Charles Finger should have also provided more societal context for his stories in order to make them more intelligible to North American readers, but I think not, despite Finger's cringeworthy references to the "worthy and simple people" he met in his travels (people are never simple to anyone but a condescending ass). After all, I have a Complete Fairy Tales of the Brothers Grimm in one of my bookcases and have never read more than a third of its 727 pages for much the same reasons. These are elemental stories of the human experience and can be understood by anyone from any culture. And that’s a good thing. But they are also too elemental and simplistic to be interesting or to capture and engage the imagination, and this is not a good thing.

Monday, 18 June 2007

Real Fantasy

Robin McKinley's The Hero and the Crown is one of the books on the Newbery list I have most dreaded reviewing. When it comes to qualities that make a book the hardest to review, this novel has all the bases covered. I have read and reread it so many times over the past 20 years that it’s difficult to dredge up any even quasi-objective thoughts or fresh impressions about it. I love it and pretty much everything else McKinley has written, and I’ve already covered one Robin McKinley book in an earlier review, so my reserve of non-groupie-like praise for her work has already been exhausted. However, I am in a reviewing mood today and this review has to be written sometime if I’m ever to get through the Newbery winners list, so here we go.

I first read The Hero and the Crown 20 years ago, at the age of 13. I never related to Aerin, never felt I was like her, never wanted to be her nor even to be friends with her (even supposing that she would, theoretically, have wanted to be friends with me), never imagined myself a part of her world as so often did with my favourite books. All I knew was that she and Damar sucked me in and roared and clashed and happened all around me.

The Hero and the Crown, to try to sum it up briefly and without spoilers as per the reviewer’s rule book, is about Aerin, the daughter of a king of a country that is half magical fantasyland and half medieval. Aerin a bit of a misfit, though I hate to use the word, because it might lead to my using “ragtag” and “lovable” and because it smacks of Disney movies involving bands of lovable, ragtag misfits and I don’t want Disney or anything it spawns even that close to anything McKinley ever wrote.

So I’d better say that Aerin is somewhat at odds with her environment because her mother was a commoner who was suspected of being a witch and because Aerin has the kind of crankily independent personality that would pretty much guarantee her being at odds with any environment, anywhere. The people of her land and most of the royal household look askance at her, and she looks askance back. Aerin grows up in a melee that never knows what to make of her, and so she has to take matters into her own hands and make something of herself – retraining a lamed war horse of her father’s and inventing a new way to ride, learning how to use a sword, discovering a formula for dragonfire-proof salve, exterminating dragons, becoming a saving presence for her cousin and heir to the throne Tor, and eventually mustering all these acquired skills in defense of her country and people at a time of great dangers.

McKinley is probably incapable of creating a princess that is anything like the popular storybook conception of one. For Aerin’s world McKinley even ditches the word princess in favour of her own original royal hierarchy and terms. Aerin and her cousins are all ranked as first and second sols and solas and there are some political manoeuvrings and attempted sola climbing. Aerin, by the way, was born with more than her fair share of her father’s political acumen, though mostly she can’t be bothered to use it. Galanna, Aerin’s cousin, is more of a fairy tale stock character (specifically in a nasty stepsister sort of way), but even she is has some intelligence and depth and her tussles with Aerin are satisfyingly evenly matched, bring out the worst in both of them, and usually end in some kind of draw. McKinley shows the same inventiveness when it comes to Aerin’s heroic actions. Aerin's achievements are never unproblematic, and never win her the unqualified adoration of her people as it might in a lesser book. Luthe, the mage whose help she seeks (a mage being a sort of wizard with advanced training), finds his magical practice a complicated and troublesome thing and is just as subject to mistakes and impulses as any else in the book.

The last review I wrote and another one I am working on now have left me pondering the role of fantasy in our lives, and the qualities which make it satisfying. It seems to me that the more richly detailed and nuanced a fantasy is the more absorbing it will be. A princess may be as beautiful as she is good, but that won’t make her interesting. A reader doesn’t know – or want to know – Princess Goodie Gum Drops the ways she does Aerin, with her badly darned stockings and her rueful take on life. The paradox of fantasy is that the more real it seems, the more completely one can escape into it. A good fantasy world must be as rich in detail and as multilayered as the real world we inhabit. McKinley understands this, and that is why The Hero and the Crown and all her other books are unfailingly a world in themselves.

Saturday, 17 February 2007

Sailing on The Dark Frigate

The 1924 Newbery medalist, The Dark Frigate, is about a young sailor named Philip Marsham, and his adventures and misadventures on land and sea. His father, a sea captain, has lost his life at sea, and nineteen-year-old Philip shortly thereafter loses what money he inherited when forced to flee his dead father’s promised wife’s pub after a mishap with somebody else’s gun. Penniless but undaunted he wanders the roads of England, thinks of becoming a farmer, falls in with a kindly Scottish smith, a madman, and then a couple of vagabond seamen. He glimpses his estranged grandparents, becomes engaged to a pretty bar maid, and duels with a gamekeeper before signing on to a ship called the Rose of Devon. And this is only in the first seventy pages. Crewing on the Rose of Devon means more adventures involving storms and pirates — which as one would expect leads in turn to more adventures yet.

Lloyd Alexander, in his 1971 introduction to The Dark Frigate, wrote that Charles Boardman Hawes “learned the sailor’s life from seafarers in Boston and Gloucester; from incredibly detailed research into ships’ logs, curious old volumes, and accounts of long-forgotten days” and also that Dawes considered the King James Bible “the greatest literary achievement of all time”. I haven’t a doubt of either statement. Both Dawe’s depth of research and biblical literary aesthetic are readily apparent from every page of this book.

The dialogue, the descriptions, the characters and the narrative all come across as authentically gritty and evocative with never a single nod to any popular conception of what seventeenth century seafaring life was like, such as a pirate-uttered “Yarrrr!” In writing The Dark Frigate, Charles Boardman Hawes managed to create that rarity in historical novels — one that is remarkably free of elements that date its actual time of writing. When I reviewed the 1923 Newbery winner, The Voyages of Dr. Dolittle which is set in the 1840s, I claimed that it was unmistakably a 1920s novel. The Dark Frigate, which is set in the 1650s, is a different animal altogether. If I did not know that it was originally published in 1923 I would have been at a loss to guess its publication date. I would definitely have known that it was a historical novel and not written in the seventeenth or even eighteenth centuries, but my estimated date of its writing might have fallen anywhere between 1850 and 1970. I can only hope I would at least have placed it in the twentieth century.

The Dark Frigate also does indeed echo the King James Version of the Bible in its literary tone. The KJV, originally published in 1611, would have made a fantastic resource for someone trying to recreate seventeenth-century diction and prose. But The Dark Frigate resembles the KJV Bible in another way that I am not convinced is so positive — in a certain spareness of its narrative. There is little if any exploration of characterization or internal conflict. The Dark Frigate is strictly a “by their works ye shall know them” affair. Characters are sketched out with flat, one-line descriptions such as “the woman had a bitter temper and a sharp tongue” or “Tom Jordon was an ugly customer when his temper was up and hot, but no man to nurse a grudge” and by what they say or do. Granted, there is so much action and the pace of events is so fast Dawes could barely have found room for things like internal monologues or extended conversations even if he had wanted to. And the characterizations are quite good so far as they go. Dawes paints no sentimental portraits of any of his cast, whether they be pirates and barmaids or gentlefolk and judges. There are no simple jolly souls or purely evil figures, his ruthless pirates do not have hearts of gold, and almost all share the rough humour and shrewdness a brutish environment engenders in all those who survive it.

However, as good as The Dark Frigate is as a story of adventure and as an evocative historical novel, I can’t help feeling that it lacks a certain depth that would have come from better characterization and more internal conflict. Though this may just be my contemporary sensibilities or personal tastes getting the better of me. Perhaps this only means Charles Boardman Hawes was better at entering into another time than I, but it could also mean that he failed to take me with him.

Monday, 5 February 2007

Getting Taken to a Place We've Been Before

Lynne Rae Perkins’ Criss Cross, the 2006 Newbery Medal winner, is a novel about a group of teenagers in a small town called Seldem, and takes place in what seems to be the late seventies. The main characters are Debbie, Hector and Lenny, but there’s also Dan, whom Debbie likes and who is in Hector’s guitar class; Phil, who is friends with Lenny and Hector; Patty, who is Debbie’s friend; Rowanne, who is Hector’s sister; and Peter, who is the grandson of Mrs. Bruning, for whom Debbie works. Almost all of these characters know one another and are connected in ways it would take too long to describe. The small town dynamic social web is among the many things this novel gets exactly right and that suits so perfectly its themes of connecting and the force of coincidence and happenstance that shapes our lives. Here in Toronto or in any urban centre your hairdresser is only your hairdresser. In a small town your hairdresser is also your niece’s Sunday School teacher and her husband is your boyfriend or girlfriend’s older brother’s best friend. And those are only the connections you happen to know about.

There is no real plot. I’m not even going to bother being careful about not including a spoiler as I usually am. These characters move through their days and a series of ordinary events. Debbie loses a necklace, and it passes hands, gets lost again, and is finally returned to her. Hector takes up the guitar and writes songs that aren’t very good but that may or may not lead to better things. Debbie, Lenny and Phil hang out in Lenny’s father truck to listen to the radio on Saturday nights. Hector likes a girl named Meadow. Debbie gets her own room and pores over her mothers’ old photo albums and yearbooks. Inspired by a Mamas and Papas song, Hector decides he wants to take Meadow somewhere she's never been before, and goes in search of such a place in Seldem. Everybody hangs out at the Tastee-Freez. It sounds banal, and it is banal, and that’s the point. The reader has to sift the meaningful from the chaff just as the kids do.

I’ve never read a novel that captures and evokes the adolescent day-to-day experience better. Although perhaps I’m assuming my own particular experience of adolescence was more general than it really is. Do you remember the long, meandering conversations with your friends that seem so tedious now but that at the time were by turns so riotously funny and so exciting because you seemed to have gotten hold of some profound truth together? Do you remember wishing something would happen, and gazing forward into a future you couldn’t imagine because you didn’t know enough about what you wanted or what specifically would be possible, although everything seemed possible? Do you remember how mundane or everyday things like a casual hello from the school golden boy or girl, a project that involved hours of work for a result that wasn’t what you envisioned, or wearing pants of exactly the right length seemed to assume an incredible importance? Do you remember the half-assed life theories you explained to your friends, and the way you tested them, together or alone? Do you remember how sensory experiences like that afternoon spent reading and getting sunburnt in the backyard or eating junk food at the fair with you friends seemed to soak into your bones? Do you remember talking to a guy or a girl and how something almost seemed to happen? Do you remember the deepening of your friendships, how for the first time you became aware of others your age as more than just kids to play with? And can you trace a lifelong passion back to its nascent beginning during, say, an evening out with your older sister and her friends? Lynne Rae Perkins evidently does, and her Debbie, Hector and Lenny and all their friends will know what I mean in 20 years if they don’t now.

Yes, adults have meandering conversations, get consumed by trivia, feel sunlight on their skin, and know what it’s like to have new passions flower into being from overlooked germinations. But these experiences aren’t the same for an adult as they are for a teenager. Adults file and discard new impressions more readily. They’ve seen something of the kind before, they know more about what will be of use to them and where they’re going — or think they know — they’ve developed a psychic shell that repels some experience. For teenagers it’s all almost entirely new, they might use anything, they need to explore more, test more, ponder more, and laze around in the backyard or on their beds with a copy of Popular Mechanics or Wuthering Heights or Seventeen and process it all.

Reading this book felt less like reading than like looking at pictures someone had secretly taken of me and high school era friends and our small town. I looked at it all, half amazed, half not, and thought, yes, yes, that’s the way it was, I remember this, I recognize this, I know this. I just didn’t know that it could ever be documented so perfectly.

Thursday, 1 February 2007

Fast Forwarding Through History

The first-ever Newbery award-winner, The Story of Mankind, written and illustrated by Hendrik Willem van Loon, is difficult to review not because it isn’t flawed (flaws being meat to any reviewer) but because of the general conclusion I keep reaching that at least one of its main flaws were inevitable. The Story of Mankind begins its tale in the very dawn of the existence of our planet, when what we now call Earth was a ball of flaming matter, and ends with a chapter about the turn of the millennium, which tries to forecast the impact such forces as the internet, Dolly the cloned sheep, and ozone pollution will have on our future. The mere thought of the intellectual task it must have been to condense all of human history into less than 700 pages makes me feel in need of a lie down. Add to this goal van Loon’s intention to make this comprehensive history a book that children could not only read but would enjoy reading and you have a project overwhelming in its sheer magnitude. Reading the book can be a bit like being a passenger in a car the driver insists on driving too fast. The passenger calls out, "Slow down! I want to get a better look at that!" and the driver yells back, "Can't! We've got a lot of ground to cover before the perfect bound spine exceeds its page count limit!"

Hendrik van Loon wrote that he had but one rule in selecting material for his book: “Did the country or the person in question produce a new idea or perform an original act without which the history of the entire human race would have been different?” This is certainly a good rule, but van Loon’s application of it is somewhat problematic. His concept of the “entire human race” seems to have a definite bias towards the members of western civilization. As a result his idea of the defining events of history seems to be those events that shaped specifically western civilization, and so the book is Eurocentric. When I read The Story of Mankind I got a definite sense of a long funnel of events ever narrowing in scope until its last chapters (updated by various other people since Hendrik van Loon’s death in 1944) become unapologetically absorbed with purely American history. I cannot see how anyone using a “definitive events only” rule can possibly justify the mention of John Lennon’s murder or even of Watergate when the book includes nothing of the development of China’s ancient civilization. However, I will concede that it would be very difficult, if not impossible to write such a book without some sort of bias. And at least, when aiming for impartiality and a narrative schema, van Loon did not go to such desperate lengths as the producers of the 1957 movie, “The Story of Mankind”. The movie uses the premise of an outer space tribunal meeting to decide the fate of humankind, with the Devil (played by Vincent Price) and the Spirit of Mankind (played by Ronald Colman) arguing opposite sides of the case and providing evidence in the form of flashbacks from different eras of history. It all sounds so generally terrible in an enjoyable sort of way that I'm tempted to see it.

Another, less qualified, criticism of the book is that the updates added to the end could have been better done. The book is no Newbery winner in its current state. As well as I can trace the history of the updates, The Story of Mankind, originally published in 1921, was updated in 1926 by Hendrik van Loon, at some indeterminate point by van Loon’s son Willem van Loon, in 1972 by the publishers and several New York University professors, and in 1984 and 1999 by John Merriman of Yale University. I don’t know how much revision has been done to the original text of the book, but the added chapters feel very patchy and disruptive for the reader. If the reader comes across the phrase “forty years ago” and has to stop and use the copyright dates and updating information in the publisher’s note to figure out from which date to subtract the forty years, it’s time the book was better integrated. I can certainly understand why this wasn’t done. If the publishers revise the book to make it seamless they will risk losing the charming, grandfatherly voice and personal asides of Hendrik van Loon. But the present, jarring, juxtaposition of the original text with the updates is a bad compromise, and surely a better one can be found if the publishers and authors will dare to be less reverential. It would also be a good idea if the last part of the book were far less focused on the U.S., and I’m not just saying that because Canada’s name only appeared in the book eight times (only two of which mentions the indexer saw fit to note). I will say, though, that the line drawings added to the book by Dirk van Loon are if anything better than his grandfather's - they are as charming in their rough, amateurish way, and funny as well, which Hendrik van Loon's weren't. The sketch of a scientist squeezing identical sheep out of what looks like a large cake decorating cylinder (and which is marked "CLONING") is the wittiest of the entire book.

Reading back over what I’ve written so far, I feel I haven’t done justice to this book. So I will say that The Story of Mankind is truly is a notable achievement, and I so wish I had read and re-read it as a child. As I made my way through it I could feel my scattered bits of knowledge of the past slotting themselves into place in the framework Hendrik van Loon so ably built for us, and I wondered how much more historical information I would have retained if I’d the sense of its place and relation to the human timeline that this book could have given me.

Tuesday, 30 January 2007

Dr. Dolittle's Voyages Through Time

Although I have read the very first Newbery Medal winner, The Story of Mankind, by Hendrik Willem van Loon (and am, er, working on the review), it was the reading of 1923’s Newbery Award winner, Hugh Lofting’s The Voyages of Doctor Dolittle, that made me feel as though I’d really begun on my Newbery review project. Perhaps this is due to the fact that it’s fiction while The Story of Mankind is non-fiction. No matter how readable The Story of Mankind was, it still made me feel like a child dutifully eating her literary vegetables in order to get to the dessert. For The Voyages of Dr. Dolittle is definitely dessert. Actually, perhaps it’s more accurate to say Dr. Dolittle is pure candy. Even the illustrations in my library edition have a certain confectionary quality — everything is in bright bubblegum colours of pink and blue and red, the shapes are round, the lines soft, the characters delectably chubby.

Novels are usually as indelibly time-stamped by the psychology of their era as pre-computerized library cards used to be. Victorian novels were generally stern and spoke of morals and duty; today’s novels are about personal growth and personal problems (and those often of a nature a Victorian would blush to hear acknowledged). Dr. Dolittle is very much a novel of the nineteen twenties, with a twenties spirit of irrepressible optimism, fun, and adventure.

The story’s narrator is a small, animal-mad boy named Tommy Stubbins who meets the famous Dr. Dolittle. Dr. Dolittle is a naturalist who travels all over the world and has learned to speak to animals in their own languages, although he is frustrated in his attempt to learn the language of the shellfish. Dr. Doolittle’s home is a wonderful menagerie of animals, and it is kept by a perfect duck of a housekeeper (yes, literally). Tommy Stubbins manages to convince his parents to let him live, study and travel with Dr. Dolittle, and he and Dr. Dolittle (and a dog named Jip, a parrot named Polynesia, and and an African prince named Bumpo) voyage together around the world to the floating Spidermonkey Island.

A twenties-era exuberance permeates this book. This was a decade in which people believed that dramatic self-improvement could come from the constant repetition of the mantra “Every day in every way I know I am getting better”. Dr. Dolittle doesn’t know how to navigate or sail a ship, but he always gets safely to wherever he wants to go, even when shipwrecked. He can get a friend acquitted for murder in a courtroom scene more dramatic and sensational than the Law & Order writers can ever dream of staging, and tame five mad bulls at once. Though he hates war he can fight heroically and effectively in the war between the two Spidermonkey Island Indian tribes (referred to as the Great War, involving injuries but no deaths, and followed by a seemingly endless peace – the twenties strike again). And when Dr. Dolittle’s ready to return to good old England (this is a very English novel for an American award winner), he and his entourage voyage homewards across the sea floor inside a transparent snail shell. And yes, he can ultimately learn to speak the language of the shellfish.

The age of this novel shows itself in more regrettable ways as well. Even when I know it’s not at all fair or useful to critique an old literary work by contemporary standards of what constitutes racism, it did make me wince when the African prince, Bumpo Khabooboo, Crown Prince of Jolliginki, appeared on the scene, announcing that he’d left the Oxford "quadrilateral" because the shoes and the algebra they tried to force upon him there hurt his feet and his head, respectively. Also cringeworthy was the depiction of the Spidermonkey Indians, who are described as "child-like" and who, under Dr. Dolittle’s tutelage, progress from the discovery of fire to the construction of an opera house in something less than two years. They gratefully crown Dr. Dolittle king, and it is with a guilty reluctance that he eventually leaves them to return to England and his "more important" work among the animals. And I really doubt it would possible now to publish a child's novel in which a young boy meets a strange man in a rainstorm and accepts the man's invitation to go home with him and "get those wet clothes off".

I keep calling The Voyages of Dr. Dolittle a twenties novel, but the more I consider its spirit of limitless possibilities, the more I begin to realize that it does, as all lasting works of fiction must, touch modern chords as well. Perhaps we’ve lost our sense that we could collectively be wise enough to permanently end war, and we don’t have that particular brand of happy-go-lucky optimism, but we’re still optimistic. Our faith has undergone a seismic shift and currently is rooted in our ability to solve problems through technology, rather than in wisdom and goodwill. But optimism, like wanderlust, like the age-old child’s fantasy of escaping parental control and school, and like the fantastic appeal of travelling in a transparent snail shell, is still very much with us, and so The Voyages of Dr. Dolittle is as well.

Wednesday, 3 January 2007

The Newbery Project

I’m contemplating a large, ongoing project for The Orange Swan Review: to review all the Newbery Medal winners. To give you an idea of the scope of this project, check out the list of award recipients. Yes, at the time of this writing there are 85 past recipients. And I would only do two Newbery books a month as I don’t wish to either make this site entirely about kid lit or to wind up having to spend the coming year reading almost nothing but children’s fiction. For one thing, many of the kind of readers I would like to attract wouldn’t frequent such a site. And then, as much as I enjoy children’s and young adult fiction, it would feel a little too much like subsisting on a diet of milk and cookies. I'd soon crave steak, strawberries, baked potatoes, croissants, raspberry tarts, avocado and tomato sandwiches, lentil soup, brie cheese, Reese peanut butter cups, and so on.

According to my math it will take me nearly four years to accumulate reviews for all these books (and those that will be added to the list in that time). Yet I have a fatalistic feeling that this is what I intend. I’ll never have a better excuse to read all the Newbery books as I have long wanted to do, and a comprehensive collection of Newbery reviews would be a plum feature of any book review site.

Why have I chosen the American Newbery Medal when, say, the Canadian Governor General’s Award for Children’s Literature or the Canadian Library Association Book of the Year Award for children’s or young adult fiction might make be a more obvious choice for me as a Canadian as well as being less punishing in terms of workload? I hate to say this, but I chose the Newbery list because, overall, its winners are superior to my country’s award winners. No, I have not read all the books on either list so I should not make such a sweeping claim. But among those titles I have read I see none on the Governor General’s or CLA’s lists that can stand beside Katharine Paterson’s Bridge to Terebithia, Joan W. Blos’s A Gathering of Days or Cynthia Voigt’s Dicey’s Song. I see Janet Lunn’s The Root Cellar, which is a solid and entertaining but not distinguished piece of work. I see Jean Little’s 1985 CLA Book of the Year for Children award-winner Mama’s Going to Buy You a Mockingbird, which is another good book, but which wouldn’t have won any sort of direct competition with 1985 Newbery Medalist, Robin McKinley’s The Hero and the Crown.

I know this painful contrast exists because Canada has a smaller population than the U.S.A. rather than less talent per capita, but I still wince to see the same few authors winning the awards again and again, and the overlap between the two awards. Have we really so very few good home grown books to choose from that no one can give Kit Pearson, Janet Lunn, Jean Little, and Tim Wynne-Jones a run for their money?

I definitely will make an effort to read and review Canadian books, and to write about at least the current Canadian award winners and contenders, but my passion for stellar literature overrules my (very real, and vested) loyalty and concern for the Canadian publishing industry, and so it is the Newbery Medalists that will become the main focus of my mission. Look for the first essay within the next few weeks.