Over a year ago, Colby Sharp and Mr. Schu started the Newbery Medal Reading Challenge, encouraging people to read all of the books that have won the Newbery Medal (awarded every year since 1922 “to the author of the most distinguished contribution to American literature for children.“) I love many of the Newbery winners, so I decided to accept the challenge.
Here are some of my favorite Newbery winners, as an example:
When I started, I was four or five books behind. I just checked. Colby Sharp and Mr. Schu recently reviewed Kira-Kira, the 2005 winner. What about me? Oh, well, I’m happy to announce I’ve finished all of the winners from the 1920s!
Which isn’t even a full decade of winners.
Why has it taken me so long to read eight children’s books? Because, honestly, the early winners just aren’t very good. I’m not an expert on children’s literature, but a lot has changed in attitudes and the style of writing for children since the Newbery Medal was first awarded.
So, in order to spare you all from early Newbery-induced boredom, here is a brief summary of what you’re missing (or not).
The Story of Mankind
by Hendrik Willem van Loon
Winner of the 1922 Newbery Medal
The Newbery Medal gets an inauspicious beginning with a non-fiction book: The Story of Mankind. The version I read was 704 pages. Now, I usually like history. But reading this was like having a very intelligent but condescending grandfather sit you down on a rainy day and give you a seven-hour speech on history, at time giving little asides on how now we should understand how important history is and why would we ever want to read a novel (gasp) when history is so interesting.
The Voyages of Doctor Dolittle
by Hugh Lofting
Winner of the 1923 Newbery Medal
Do you remember the Doctor Dolittle movie with Eddie Murphy? Yes, I try to forget about it too. The book has very little in common with the movie. A very well-behaved boy goes on a journey with Doctor Dolittle, who has learned to talk to animals, and various animal friends to save Doctor Dolittle’s friend/colleague Long Arrow. Some kids might actually enjoy this one.
The Dark Frigate
by Charles Hawes
Winner of the 1924 Newbery Medal
“Yay! Pirates!” was my initial reaction when I read the description of The Dark Frigate. That was probably the most exciting part of the whole reading experience. Seriously. I fell asleep a lot while reading this book. In fact, I can’t really tell you what happened in this book.
Tales From Silver Lands
by Charles J. Finger
Winner of the 1925 Newbery Medal
The curse of the condescending, grandfatherly narrator continues. In this book, we have a bunch of folktales collected from Central America and South America. The stories were interesting, but not written to be engaging at all.
Shen of the Sea
by Arthur Bowie Chrisman
Winner of the 1926 Newbery Medal
We move from a collection of real South American folktales to a collection of made-up Chinese folktales written by an American. There might have been a bit more variety in the stories compared to Tales From Silver Lands, but they come off stereotypical and seem written to teach a lesson instead of tell a story.
Smoky the Cowhorse
by Will James
Winner of the 1927 Newbery Medal
I don’t really like Westerns. I never went through a horse-loving phrase as a kid. In fact, I avoid inspirational horse movies, which seemed like its own genre for awhile. So, a life story of a cowhorse narrated by the horse himself in a strange dialect never had a strong chance of impressing me. The story ranges from Smoky’s idyllic childhood, time under a loving owner, through a variety of challenging and abusive situations. Will he ever get escape?!
Gay-Neck: The Story of a Pigeon
by Dhan Gopal Mukerji
Winner of the 1928 Newbery Medal
Just as Smoky was a horse telling his life story, Gay-Neck is the story of a…pigeon. Yes, a pigeon. I went into the book with very low expectations and was pleasantly surprised. Gay-Neck is a carrier pigeon in India who has various adventures and serves as a messenger in World War I. Mukerji shared several interesting tidbits about Indian cultures, Buddhism, and raising carrier pigeons. This is also the first of the Newbery books set in other countries where the author is actually from the country he’s describing (India), which means less painful stereotyping.
The Trumpeter of Krakow
by Eric P. Kelly
Winner of the 1929 Newbery Medal
The Charnetski family escapes to Krakow after their home is attacked by Tartars, bringing with them their family heirloom–a pumpkin (okay, the actual heirloom may be hidden inside). They find a home with the help of a local scholar, and essentially adopt the girl who lives upstairs with her uncle when he becomes fixated on the study of alchemy. This book definitely has the most interesting plot of all the Newbery Medal winners so far, but everything that happens in the book is just too convenient and simple. Also, the children are too sickeningly well-behaved, polite, and smart to be believable.
These first eight books have made me appreciate how much children’s literature has changed and, in my opinion, improved. Of these books, The Voyage of Doctor Dolittle is the only one I can imagine handing to a child. I maybe would give Smoky the Cowhorse to a kid if hypothetical kid was really interested in horses and westerns, but it would hurt a bit.
On to the 1930s! First up is Hitty, Her First Hundred Years, which appears to be the memoirs of a doll. I’m sure you can appreciate how enthusiastic I am to begin.
Wish me luck. I think I’ll need it.