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Thursday, June 11, 2015

Newbery Reviews

By Hendrik Willem Van Loon

TSOM was the first book to win the Newbery Medal..  I had been aware of it for years, and I had seen it on library shelves, but I had never read it. I approached it with skepticism.  Its age and authorship surely meant white, male, Eurocentric, Western.   He does acknowledge his viewpoint.  “I was born and educated [in Holland] in an atmosphere of the old-fashioned liberalism which had followed the discoveries of the pioneers of the 19th century.”  To write this sweeping history he considered, “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 be different?”  So, yes, the emphasis is on classical , European, and American history with a glance at Asia, Africa, and Latin America. Though much was left out there was a tremendous lot to cover.  I learned and re-learned a lot.

The book has been updated several times.  Van Loon wrote about the rise of Communism, Nazism, and Fascism. His son wrote a chapter about World War II and the Cold War, emulating Van Loon’s charming style. The concluding chapters go up to 1984, written by other historians, with the impression of compressing a tremendous amount and adding some political correctness.

The 1984 edition I read was a photographic reprint of the original with Bodoni bold typeface (including some broken pieces of type with at least one hand-corrected).  The illustrations, originally color lithographs, did not reproduce well and are somewhat blurred black-and-white.   The absence of footnotes or bibliography (omitted in the reprint; Van Loon refers to the bibliography several times)  is a shortcoming – they would provide needed context. 

I enjoyed TSOM very much, making my own adaptations and exceptions for Van Loon’s bias.

By Hugh Lofting

The 1923 Newbery winner, VODD is the second of twelve books in the series.  I read most of them when I was in grade school. I remembered the pushmi-pullyu. (And my husband promptly said, “Oh, Dab-Dab the duck.”)  The fantasy is fun, but appreciated best by kids.  I kept thinking about the improbability of some (most) of the story.

I was interested to learn that Lofting was a civil engineer who studied at MIT.  The Dolittle stories began as letters to his children when he was in the British Army during WWI.  After the war he moved to Connecticut.

By Charles Finger

These Latin American folk tales pit the forces of evil (witches, giants, wicked monkeys and other monsters) against the good (quick-witted boys, girls, men, and women, and the animals who are on their side). The formulas and situations are similar to folk tales from other cultures. The buildup is lengthy and the resolution is swift.   I am one of those readers who wonders, “What happened to them after ‘happily ever after’?”
I didn’t know what the “silver lands” referred to until I read the blurb on the jacket flap. Had the book not had a jacket I would have had no idea. That is, no context is provided: no foreword or afterword, no author biography, no bibliography.  (A contemporary volume of folk tales would include supporting references.)  The author says, “In Colombia a man told me this tale…” and he writes, “My friend Pedro of Brazil told me his tales when we were in the midst of the snows of Tierra del Fuego…we were gold digging.”   Pedro left their hut to find food “and it was not until five days had passed in search that I found Pedro. And he was frozen.”   How tantalizing – and how frustrating not to learn anything more.

The Wikipedia entry for Charles Finger is short. “He was born in Willesden, England….He traveled extensively as a young man, visiting North America, South America, and Africa. He eventually settled in the United States in Fayetteville, Arkansas.”   The dedication of TFSL is “to the golden hearted Carl Sandburg and his friends, my children Helen and Herbert.”  His autobiography, Seven Horizons, was published in 1930. I'll need to look it up. 

P.S. TFSL is illustrated with wonderful woodcuts by Paul Honore. I didn’t know anything about him, either.  Here is more information: (
Painter, illustrator, writer, and lecturer Paul Honoré was born in Little Cooley, Pennsylvania, in 1885. He studied at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts in Philadelphia and subsequently apprenticed for a year with Frank Brangwyn at his studio in England. For much of his career, he made his home in metropolitan Detroit, Michigan. Honoré accepted a number of important mural commissions throughout the area for educational, public, and private clients. In addition, he was an accomplished woodcut artist and illustrated a number of books for various publishers. He died at Philadelphia in 1956.

1 comment:

  1. I enjoyed your reviews. Do you plan to write more each week? I imagine I would love reading the Dr. Doolittle stories. I was an elementary school librarian for years. I loved reading kids books. My library is small and so is its budget. I should be keeping up with new kid's books but I really don't. Although the grands always get books as part of their presents. Happy Travels.


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