I’m starting a new series/reading goal: reading every book awarded with the Newbery Medal! While I will not be sticking to straight chronology, I do plan to go as chronologically as possible. Each book I review will have [Year] Newbery Medal before the name in the title of the blog, and I will have a separate page just of the Newbery Medal books I review. I have read some Newbery Medals already, so I will add to their titles.
The Voyages of Doctor Doolittle, by Hugh Lofting, was first published in 1922. I read the Illustrated Junior Library version published in 1998.
Doctor Dolittle, the veterinarian who can actually talk to animals, sets sail on the high seas for new adventures with Polynesia the parrot, Jip the dog, Chee-Chee the monkey, and young Tommy Stubbins. Together they travel to Spidermonkey Island, brave a shipwreck, and meet the incredible Great Glass Sea Snail.
Dr. Doolittle is a series that I read a lot when I was younger. For a story about a man who can talk to animals, it’s surprisingly mature and lacking in silliness. The Voyages of Dr. Doolittle is very much a seafaring adventure whose main character also happens to have the ability to speak to animals. The only thing lacking that would make this a standard adventure novel are pirates and buried treasure, and Lofting replaces those with a shipwreck, a battle, and politics, all of which make for sometimes funny, sometimes serious adventure that is much more mature in terms of language and plot than I remember it being.
Now, having been written in the 1920s, all the things you might expect an author from that time period to include that would be different from today are there. I definitely don’t think either Bumpo or the natives of Spidermonkey Island are portrayed in a negative light, but it would not surprise me at all if there was some essay or argument out there explaining perceived negative stereotypes. Bumpo is an intelligent African prince studying at Oxford, who does use language incorrectly but only for comic relief (although some people might have a problem with even that initial premise). As for the natives, Long Arrow, in particular, is described many times as a great naturalist and while the terminology to describe the natives are not terms we would use nowadays, I feel like Lofting dealt with them with a great deal of respect. Perhaps you disagree, and that’s okay.
The Voyages of Dr. Doolittle is technically the second Dr. Doolittle book, but it is absolutely not necessary to have read the first. It’s a fun little adventure about a naturalist who can talk to animals and his adventures with his assistant, his friend, and the animals who accompany him (Polynesia is the best). It also says some good things about duty and responsibility, curiosity, and helping others. It brought back a lot of fond memories for me and was an auspicious start to my Newbery Medal reads!
Recommended Age Range: 10+
Warnings: Includes what some people today would probably deem “cultural insensitivity” at least.
Genre: Historical Fiction, Fantasy, Children’s
“From what the purple bird-of-paradise tells me, Long Arrow’s knowledge of natural history must be positively tremendous. His specialty is botany—plants and all that sort of thing. But he knows a lot about birds and animals too. He’s very good on bees and beetles. But now tell me, Stubbins, are you quite sure that you really want to be a naturalist?”
“Yes,” said I, “my mind is made up.”
“Well you know, it isn’t a very good profession for making money. Not at all, it isn’t. Most of the good naturalists don’t make any money whatever. All they do is spend money, buying butterfly nets and cases for birds’ eggs and things. It is only now, after I have been a naturalist for many years, that I am beginning to make a little money from the books I write.”
“I don’t care about money,” I said. “I want to be a naturalist.”