Print Friendly and PDF With Strings Attached: Newbery winners from near and far

Monday, August 7, 2017

Newbery winners from near and far

I’m in the midst of another round of reading Newbery Medal books. Two summers ago I set out to read or re-read all of them. I got sidetracked – so many other books I wanted to read! – and my progress has been sporadic.  The books themselves aren’t long.  It takes time to compose my thoughts and write a review of each one.   

Walk Two Moons (1995), by Sharon Creech

I found a copy of Walk Two Moons on the library book sale rack. It was classified as Young Adult, which it really isn’t; there’s a copy in the J Fiction section.  In 1995 my reading and library interests were on other things than elementary-grade books and the Newbery Awards so I completely missed this one.  Salamanca and her father move from their rural Kentucky home to Ohio after Momma (wife) leaves them and goes off to Idaho.  Gramps and Gram take Sal on a road trip to find Momma and bring closure for all of them.  The grandparents’ long-standing devotion to one another includes endearing sayings and little inside jokes. To while away the hours on the long drive they ask Sal to tell them about her classmate and neighbor Phoebe Winterbottom.  Adult readers familiar with magical realism might think that Phoebe and all the Winterbottoms are made-up but in the end they’re not.  And in the end Sal finds out what happened to her mother. 

This is a serious story effectively disguised as a quirky tale.

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The Matchlock Gun (1942), by Walter D. Edmonds

Trip a trop a troenje;
De varken en de boenjen . . .*
These words, set to music, are my Pavlovian response to The Matchlock Gun (thinking about the title or seeing the book).  They are the first two lines of a Dutch folk song that figures in the story. In the mid-70’s I heard them sung frequently.  I was the librarian at the public library in Brenham, Texas. The children’s collection included a set of filmstrip/cassette adaptations of Newbery books, including The Matchlock Gun. There was a self-contained projector so kids could sit at a table to watch and listen. The filmstrip and tape were coded so that the filmstrip advanced automatically.  TMG seemed to be played every day during the summer. 

The story is based on an historical incident in the Dutch territory in the Hudson River valley during the French & Indian War.  The Teunis Van Alstyne has gone off to stand guard against the Indians.  His wife Gertrude and children Edward and Trudy are alone on the farm.  The Spanish matchlock gun came to the Colonies with Gertrude’s family.  When the Indians make a raid Edward manages to fire the gun and save the family.   Edmonds’ writing style is very measured and even the exciting passages (Indians nick Gertrude with a tomahawk!) don’t make the reader catch his (her) breath.

This is the only one of the audiovisual set that I recall. I have no idea why it appealed to those young library patrons for whom the setting and the situation were far out of the realm of anything they’d know about. Maybe it was just the first filmstrip in the box?  

*It’s a baby-bounce song:  Up and down on a little throne (parent’s knee), the pigs are in the beans…

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Original cover 
New cover, but old illustrations 
Amos Fortune, Free Man (1951), by Elizabeth Yates   

Another 18th-century story, this time a biography (or biographical novel). Amos Fortune was born in West Africa about 1710. In 1725 he and others from his village were captured by slavers and taken to the United States.   He was purchased by a tanner in Boston and later sold to a tanner in Woburn. In 1760 he bought his freedom and relocated to Jaffrey, NH, where he set up a tanning works. He was a respected member of the community until his death in 1801.

The narrative refers to the miserable conditions on the slave ship and the indignity and degradation of slavery, but the story is not mired in the awfulness. The title, Free Man, indicates that better things will happen and indeed they do.  The writing style is dated – turns of phrase that wouldn’t be used today (“In all his long years as a tanner, Amos was never more glad than he was during the first months in Jaffrey that so much of what he needed for his trade was at hand…”)

The Amos Fortune Forum ( was established in 1946. It hosts speakers on a variety of subjects.

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Island of the Blue Dolphins (1961), by Scott O’Dell

For more than 50 years I haven’t liked Island of the Blue Dolphins because I didn’t like the cover art that depicted the disembodied head of a girl who looked as though she was going to be sick.  (The artist, Evaline Ness, was a Caldecott medal-winner. She was married to Eliot Ness, I learned from Wikipedia.)  Current editions have very different covers. 

 Now that I’ve re-read it I appreciate the tale of a real-life Robinson Crusoe.  “The lost woman of San Nicolas” lived alone on the outermost of the California Channel Islands from 1835-1853.  
When Russian and Aleutian otter-hunters threatened their security, the native islanders agreed to let missionaries from California take them to the mainland. Karana’s young brother missed the boat, literally. She jumped overboard to save him and in turn also missed the evacuation.  The sister and brother began a survival existence. He was killed by wild dogs, leaving her to fend for herself for nearly 20 years.  A sea otter hunter rescued her and took her to Santa Barbara.  Alas, she did not live very long afterward.

Archaeological research on the island in 1939 located her whale-rib hut.  In 2009  two native-made boxes containing artifacts  were found and in 2015 the cave where it is believed she took refuge was found. 

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Daniel Boone (1939), by James Daugherty

James Daugherty both wrote and illustrated the biographical novel Daniel Boone.   His artistic style is distinctive: people (and animals) are roundly-muscled, clothing is pleated and wrinkled, backgrounds are busy, attacking Indians are fierce.   Daniel Boone was a heroic pioneer who played a tremendous role in the white settlement of Kentucky.  He was always ready for a new opportunity – fur trapping, settling Missouri, serving in Congress --  though he was not financially successful.   The endpapers are vivid Daugherty-drawn maps that show the rivers, hills, and frontier towns.   In 1939 it was acceptable to portray the Indians as savages – and boy, Daugherty did so.  This Newbery winner has not aged well, but the pictures are memorable.   

For more about Daugherty's art (in this case, a controversial mural):


  1. Nann, I'm a newer follower. I love this post. We homeschooled for a couple of years when my son was younger. I spent time re-reading a lot of these Newberry winners while my son enjoyed them for the first time. Sweet memories. Have a great week! Andrea

  2. I've read quite a few of the Newberry winners from before 1970 for a college class. It was a fun project. We read certain ones off of the list and made the larger note cards to remind ourselves of the stories. (We were studying to be elementary teachers.) Thanks for the reminder.
    Loved the Island of the Blue Dolphins!

  3. As always I enjoy the research you add to the books background. I've kept up with Caldecotts but not these. Most I haven't read. I have to admit I haven't read any of these. Thanks for sharing them.

  4. Thanks for sharing these! It's always interesting to see what books wear well and what becomes dated because of language or style. It's been a long time since I have read much children's lit there are some surprising stories there.


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