THE BRONZE BOW (1962)
Elizabeth George Speare
Palestine during the Roman occupation. Daniel bar Jamin is an 18-year-old Galilean living with a band of rebels who seek to overthrow the invaders and restore Jewish rule and justice. He encounters a charismatic rabbi, Jesus, whose radical approach to bringing about the kingdom of God upsets every notion Daniel holds. Speare’s context is the social/historical setting rather than the Sunday school/theological setting, showing us what everyday life was like.
(I question a conversation between Daniel and a Roman soldier. One spoke Aramaic and the other spoke Latin. How did they understand one another? I also noted a misprint (“soldeir” for “soldier”) and wonder if that error is perpetuated in subsequent editions. [The library copy is 13th printing, acquired in 1975.])
This is a charming tale about a Japanese artist who lives in poverty with his housekeeper and a calico cat. The artist receives the commission of a lifetime: to depict the death of the Buddha, a painting that will hang in the village temple. He begins with the Buddha and adds all the animals who came to receive his blessing: an elephant, a horse, a buffalo, a deer, a monkey . . . but not a cat, because in legend the cat had refused to accept the Buddha’s teachings. When the little calico patiently and persistently persuades the artist to include a cat who looks like him, a miracle occurs.
With 63 pages, this is surely the shortest Newbery winner, but one of the most thought-provoking.
GAY-NECK: THE STORY OF A PIGEON (1928)
Dhan Ghopal Mukerji
Based on his own experience in Calcutta in the early 20th century, Mukerji writes about a Brahmin boy and his pet pigeon, Gay-Neck. Mukerji’s friend Ghond, the animal trainer, took Gay-Neck to the Western front in WWI. The plucky pigeon carried vital information over the lines.
This Newbery winner does not wear as well as others, partly because of the title. Mukerji anthropomorphizes the pigeons, referring to nesting pairs as “husband and wife” and the offspring as “children,” and telling part of the story in Gay-Neck’s voice. (I looked it up, and learned that pigeons do mate for the long term. )
The strongly graphic black-and-white illustrations by Boris Artzybasheff range from elephants and snakes in the jungle to a WWI aerial firefight.
Mukerji did not have a very happy life. His father sent him to Japan and then to the U.S. for education. As a student at Berkeley and Stanford he was part of a dissident group seeking to liberate India from British rule. He wrote some 20 books, more than half for children, and was one of the first Indian writers of popular reading in the U.S. He committed suicide in 1936.