The Story of Mankind, by Hendrik Willem van Loon, was published in 1921 by Liveright. I read the updated version that was published in 1972.
Hendrik Willem Van Loon’s renowned classic charms us once against with its warmth, simplicity, and wisdom as it unfolds its tale of the history of man for both adults and children. Reaching back into the beginnings of man and sweeping forward to illuminate all of history, van Loon’s enthusiasm breathes life into the characters and events of other ages.
There’s no surprise that The Story of Mankind won the first Newbery Medal ever awarded. It’s history retold almost as a story, in a fairly simple manner and covering a great deal of time in relatively few pages. However, unlike many Newbery Medal winners, this book does not age well—no wonder, considering its nature as a history book first and foremost.
The original edition of The Story of Mankind stops after World War I, while the updated version tells of history up until the Korean War (actually, I’m not sure how far it goes—my edition was missing about 20 pages or so at the end, so it could also have covered the Vietnam War). While van Loon gets many things correct about history, there are many other things he gets extraordinarily wrong, owing both to the time the book was written and what his voice as the “narrator” of history reveals.
It’s not surprising that someone in the 1920s would get some aspects of previous history wrong, since today we’ve had 90+ extra years to study and get things right, and van Loon got more things right than I expected. But he does get some things wrong, such as the birth of modern science and his hilariously incorrect story of “Joshua, whom the Greeks called Jesus.” Van Loon seems to be highly contemptuous of all religion, for even his story of the beginnings of Islam is brief and told in an irritatingly patronizing tone.
This patronizing tone is present throughout the entire novel, really, but particularly worse in areas where religion or archaic ways of doing things are concerned. He tells of particular moments in history in a pretentious, “those silly, ignorant peasants” tone that is almost unnoticeable at first but starts to build and build as the book progresses. In addition, TheStory of Mankind is, in actuality, The Story of Western Mankind, as Eastern thought and culture gets only a handful of pages devoted to it, and no history of China or Japan is given until it relates to a war or a particularly global moment in history. Perhaps I’m expecting too much of van Loon, however, or perhaps it’s only natural that someone who seems as contemptuous of certain cultures and times in history as he is would leave out a few things here and there.
The only reason I’m not giving The Story of Mankind a lower rating is that, as fed-up as I was with his pretentious tone, van Loon does get some aspects of history correct that I wasn’t expecting, such as the emphasis on the Middle Ages as a time of great development rather than being “Dark” (although, according to van Loon, they were still ignorant peasants who weren’t nearly as intelligent as the people who came after them) and the fact that no one during Columbus’s time actually thought the world was flat. But despite van Loon’s accuracy in some areas, he is wildly inaccurate in others, especially in the ones he clearly thinks are beneath him. This condescension of tone made The Story of Mankind, ultimately, an unpleasant read.
Gay-Neck, The Story of a Pigeon, by Dhan Gopal Mukerji, was published in 1927 by Dutton.
The heartwarming and sometimes almost heartbreaking story of the training and care of a carrier pigeon. Writing out of his own experience as a boy in India, Dhan Mukerji tells how Gay-Neck’s master, an eager, highly-sensitive lad, sent his prized pigeon to serve in World War I, and of how, because of exceptional training and his brave heart, Gay-Neck served his new masters heroically.
I found Gay-Neck, The Story of a Pigeon, the most interesting of the early Newbery Medal’s I’ve read so far, barring The Voyages of Dr. Doolittle. That’s not to say it enthralled me, but it was better than the dense and confusing The Dark Frigate and a much better story than any of the myths in Tales from Silver Lands. It was also a very quick read for me, which I’m citing as a positive since I was beginning to fall behind in my reading when I started Gay-Neck.
Much of the interest of Gay-Neck, for me, was not the story of a pigeon and his adventures leading up to and during World War I. It was the description of India and its culture. I always enjoy it when an author so clearly knows a culture different than the one I do, and, since Mukerji grew up in India, he’s even more qualified to describe it and make it approachable for American readers (I say American since the Newbery medal is an American award). And since this was written during a time when lots of people were traveling abroad and the British still occupied India, it’s nice to get a glimpse of the mountains, valleys, and jungles of India through the eyes of an Indian.
So, yes, the culture part of it interested me. The actual story of Gay-Neck, not so much. I’ve read better animal books before, and let’s face it, I’m more into horses than pigeons. The pages-long descriptions of Gay-Neck flying to avoid the claws of an eagle may be riveting to some, but I found myself skimming a lot of it. There’s also only so many times Gay-Neck can disappear and his owner wonder if he’s dead before all the suspense is drained out of the event entirely.
Gay-Neck is definitely a step up from previous Newbery Medal winners, but despite its lavish and loving descriptions of India and Indian culture, it’s not particularly exciting or enthralling. It’s a good look at how carrier pigeons were used, and, of course, as I’ve already mentioned, its depiction of India is beautiful, but it falls apart a little in terms of mechanics and holding the reader’s interest.
Recommended Age Range: 12+
Genre: Children’s, Historical Fiction
But this [bird] was coming straight, like an arrow. In another two minutes my doubts were dispelled. It was a hawk making for little Gay-Neck. I looked up and beheld a miraculous sight. His father was tumbling steadily down in order to reach his level, while his mother, bent on the same purpose, was making swift downward curves. Ere the terrible hawk had come within ten yards of the innocent little fellow, both his flanks were covered. Now the three flew downwards at a right angle from the path of their enemy. Undeterred by such a move, the hawk charged.
“Jacob have I loved, but Esau have I hated….” With her grandmother’s taunt, Louise knew that she, like the biblical Esau, was the despised elder twin. Caroline, her selfish younger sister, was the one everyone loved. Growing up on a tiny Chesapeake Bay island in the early 1940s, angry Louise reveals how Caroline robbed her of everything: her hopes for schooling, her friends, her mother, even her name. While everyone pampered Caroline, Wheeze (her sister’s name for her) began to learn the ways of the watermen and the secrets of the island, especially of old Captain Wallace, who had mysterious returned after fifty years. The war unexpectedly gave this independent girl a change to fulfill her childish dream to work as a waterman alongside her father. But the dream did not satisfy the woman she was becoming. Alone and unsure, Louise began to fight her way to a place where Caroline could not reach.
Jacob Have I Loved is written by the same author as Bridge to Terabithia, a book I still vividly remember and another Newbery Medal winner that I’ll be reading at some point. Another of her books, The Great Gilly Hopkins, won a Newbery Honor. So, basically, Katherine Paterson’s books are good and she won a lot of awards for them.
However, I must say, I was disappointed by Jacob Have I Loved. I think it was because the underpinning of the novel, the perceived favoritism of Caroline that affects pretty much everything Louise does, seemed more like Louise was overreacting to small things than actual favoritism. To me, Louise seemed overly melodramatic in places, such as when Caroline would say something normal and Louise would suddenly start yelling or storm out of the house. I understand that they’re teenagers, but Louise didn’t really do much to make me sympathize with her feelings of jealousy and invisibility.
It got a little better once more solid things than Louise’s perceptions were involved, such as Call and Captain Wallace, and Paterson better communicated Louise’s sense of always being overshadowed, but still, several times during the novel I thought Louise was being more ridiculous than Caroline and certainly was more unlikeable.
Perhaps that was Paterson’s point, though, that Louise was ultimately unhappy with her own life and was blaming it on whoever or whatever was in reach, such as her sister. In which case, Louise’s behavior makes more sense, I suppose.
There were also several parts of the book I found inexplicably strange, such as Louise’s infatuation with Captain Wallace (??) that had virtually no explanation and then dissipated into nothing, used only as a vehicle for Louise’s grandmother to say mean things and scare Louise, and the ending, which I sort of understood when I read it, then read someone describing how bittersweet it was, and then read the ending again only to wonder from where in the world that person was getting any of his descriptions. Either the ending communicated something that I clearly missed or the person inferred a whole lot from two pages that wasn’t actually there.
I can see why Jacob Have I Loved won the Newbery; it’s exactly the sort of adolescent coming-of-age novel that these sorts of awards seem to attract. But I didn’t quite buy Louise’s characterization and for a lot of the book I barely sympathized with her, seeing her instead as a melodramatic teenager who needed to stop blowing things out of proportion. It got a little better by the end, but overall I barely enjoyed Jacob Have I Loved. Mostly, I think it’s strange and not something I would immediately recommend.
Recommended Age Range: 12+
Warnings: Swearing, some nasty insinuations made by the grandmother
Genre: Middle Grade, Realistic
“I’d want to pay you something,” the Captain said. My ears stretched practically to the top of my head, and I opened my mouth to utter a humble thanks.
“Oh, no,” said Call. “We couldn’t think of taking money from a neighbor.”
Who couldn’t? But for once in his life Call talked faster than I could think, and the two of them snatched away my time and energy and sold me into slavery before I had breath to hint that I wouldn’t be insulted by a small tip every now and then.
The Dark Frigate, by Charles Boardman Hawes, was first published in 1923. I read the Little, Brown and Co. edition from 1971.
In seventeenth century England, a terrible accident forces orphaned Philip Marsham to flee London in fear for his life. Bred to the sea, he signs on with the “Rose of Devon,” a dark frigate bound for the quiet shores of Newfoundland. Philip’s bold spirit and knowledge of the sea soon win him his captain’s regard. But when the “Rose of Devon” is seized in midocean by a devious group of men plucked from a floating wreck, Philip is forced to accompany these “gentlemen of fortune” on their murderous expeditions. Like it or not, Philip Marsham is now a pirate–with only the hangman awaiting his return to England. With its bloody battles, brutal buccaneers, and bold, spirited hero, this rousing tale will enthrall young listeners in search of seafaring adventure.
Aside from The Voyages of Dr. Doolittle, I’ve found the early Newbery Medal-winning books to be dry and boring. The Dark Frigate adds “hard to follow” to that list. The vocabulary Hawes uses, while perhaps echoing reality, makes the plot dense and convoluted, with viewpoints switching frequently with no warning and very little of the character connections explained well enough to ward off confusion.
There is much mention of characters “knowing” one thing or another, or doing things that are never explained that apparently the reader is supposed to know about. For example, what was the bundle that Philip tossed overboard? Who was it that Will was signaling? Are the innkeeper and Martin’s brother two separate people, and if so, why was Martin hiding from the innkeeper and how did Nell know his brother? What is the connection between Mother Taylor, Tom Jordan, and Martin? Perhaps Hawes does explain this in the book, or at least infer it, but if so, I found the book so muddy and confusing that any meaning failed to make an appearance to me.
Lloyd Alexander gushes over the book in the introduction, and while The Dark Frigate may have been the perfect book to read in the 1920s, it is now certainly dated, with little in it of substance, besides the promise of pirates, to tempt young readers today. I can see why it would win a Newbery, especially in the award’s early years, but the book has not aged well and there are much better non-Newbery books about pirates out there.
Recommended Age Range: 10+
Genre: Children’s, Historical Fiction
So Phil waited; and the broad hat that hung on the bulkhead scraped backward and forward as the ship plunged into the trough and rose on the swell; and Captain Candle remained intent on his thoughts; and a sea bird circled over the wake of the ship.
After a long time the master turned about and walked into the cabin and, there espying Philip Marsham, he smiled and said, “I was remiss. I had forgotten you.” He threw aside the cloak that lay on the chair and sat down.
“Sit you down,” he said with a nod. “You are a practiced seaman, no lame, decrepit fellow who serves for underwages. Have you mastered the theory?”
“Why, sir, I am no unacquainted with astrolabe and quadrant, and on scales and tables I have spent much labour.”
Tales from Silver Lands, by Charles J. Finger, was first published in 1924. I read the original from Doubleday.
Tales from Silver Lands is a collection of nineteen folktales, which Finger collected during his travels in South America. In them an assortment of animals, magical creatures, witches, giants, and children struggle for a life in which good overcomes evil. These fast-moving and adventuresome fantasies provide insight into the values and culture of native South American peoples. They stress the importance of close relationships, hard work, bravery, gentleness, and beauty, and contain colorful explanations of natural phenomena.
Tales from Silver Lands is a quaint, interesting book of fairy tales and myths hailing from South America. I can see why it won a Newbery; the language echoes a story-teller/oral tradition voice, the myths are varied, and there is a discernible message that I would assume would be important to the 1920s audience, when obvious morals in literature were still in vogue.
However, the myths are not as enchanting or as memorable as other collections of myths, and after the fifth or so they start to run together and sound the same. The latter half of the book I ended up skimming, not particularly on purpose, but because my mind wandered to other things—never a good sign when reading a book. In addition, while some of the myths were connected (“sequels,” in a way), they were given a rather odd order. The first two were back-to-back, while the third was five or six stories later.
Tales of Silver Lands would be good reading if one wanted to know more about South American myths (although I wonder if there is not a better source out there). I think these in particular are best suited to reading out loud. However, the myths themselves are not particular memorable or remarkable, and although I wasn’t bored while reading, I certainly didn’t get much enjoyment out of the book as a whole. These sorts of books should ignite a curiosity to learning more about a different culture than one’s own, and unfortunately, Finger fails to do so.
Recommended Age Range: 10+
Genre: Children’s, Fantasy/Myth
Again old Hunbatz flew through the air to the father and tried to set him against the boys, and again that night, when the boys were home, their task was set for the next day twice as much as the day before.
It was the same the third day, and the fourth, until at last the boys came to a point where by the mightiest working they could not move a stick or a blade of grass more. And yet, because of old Hunbatz, the father set them a task still greater.
On the fifth day things looked very hopeless for the boys, and their hearts were sad as they looked at the forest and saw the task that their father had set them to do. They went to work feeling for the first time it would be impossible for the sun to go down on their finished task, and the heat of old Hunbatz was glad.
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.”