Tuesday, December 09, 2008

The Great Newbery Debate of 1953

Over the Thanksgiving break, I read Secret of the Andes, the 1953 Newbery Medal winner, and reread Charlotte's Web, which received an honor citation. There are always discussions and disagreements over every Newbery winner, but the 1953 decision seems to be the biggest debate. Charlotte's Web has had fantastic popularity, while Secret of the Andes is pretty much all but forgotten.

Sharon McKellar and Nina Lindsay at Heavy Medal challenged their readers to read/reread both books over the Thanksgiving break. Sharon and Nina have opened the blog up for discussion and debate over the books, and they've both written terrific posts and have received great comments.

Judging by its writing alone, Secret of the Andes definitely deserved the award. The writing is dense and poetic, while the setting is expertly placed.

The characterization of the animals in Charlotte's Web is sensitive, humorous, and masterfully written. Balancing humor and pathos is extremely tricky, especially in children's novels. E.B. White creates this balance perfectly.

The weakness in Charlotte's Web lies mainly in the characterization of the humans, particularly with Fern. The other humans in the book only make brief appearances from time to time, but with a few major exceptions, Fern is usually not far from the story. At the beginning of the story, Fern is your average eight year old, full of energy and a real love for animals.

Fern matures rather quickly when the county fair rolls around (the novel spans only one year). Suddenly, she shows more interest in a particular boy, Henry Fussy, than is usually normal for an eight year old. Sharing a ferris wheel ride with Henry apparently makes a big impression, because she's still thinking about it some time after the fair. It's a very awkward and unbelievable transformation for an eight year old. If Fern had been ten, it would have been more believable. But not at eight, and certainly not for an eight year old farm girl in the 1950s. At least, that's what I'm guessing. I could be totally wrong, but it seems unrealistic.

Anne Carroll Moore, the influential children's librarian at the New York Public Library, called Fern's mother (and I'm paraphrasing) one of the dumbest mothers to ever appear in children's literature. I'm not certain that Fern's mother *is* the dumbest mother, but she's annoying enough for me to agree that she's up there. She doesn't really *say* anything that's super stupid (except for one part, which I'll get to), but she just ANNOYS every time she opens her mouth. None of the adults in the book are particularly bright, save for Mrs. Zuckerman, who is the only adult to suggest that Charlotte, the spider writing the words in the web, is the miracle, rather than Wilbur.

Mrs. Arable (Fern's mother) annoys to the extreme when she sees Fern and Henry sitting in the Ferris wheel cart. "Henry Fussy. My, my!" is her thought. Come ON. She'd already bugged Fern about Henry and had mentioned him to Fern's doctor. Now, she's practically acting like they are engaged. Yes, women did start thinking about marriage at an early age in the 1950s, and rural women perhaps even so, but this is sooo stupid. Laura Ingalls Wilder mentions an acquaintance who gets married at 13-I can't remember which book. But her parents are rather shocked, and she thinks it's a bit weird too. And this was at a time when teenage marriage wasn't unusual. This is a rather lame aspect of Charlotte's Web, and completely unnecessary. Sure, White might have meant Fern to be a coming of age character. It just doesn't work. If she had been even two years older, it probably would have worked. In addition, the reader is much more invested in Charlotte and Wilbur at this point, and Fern is really of no consequence anymore, as she was at the beginning of the book. The interest and level of care about Fern has significantly decreased by this time.

Charlotte's Web still has one of the most poignant and honest portrayals of death in children's literature. Charlotte's death is still achingly sad, but it's not overwrought and overplayed. There is a clean break between her death and the exciting arrival of her children.

E.B. White is brilliant in evoking the undertow of normal emotions, whether it's over the wistful sadness of summer's end, the thrill of a rope swing, or the unsettled feeling that comes over you the day after a big event like a county fair (or wedding, graduation, etc).

Did the committee make the "wrong" decision? I cannot say that they did. Judging just on the Newbery criteria, Secret of the Andes deserves the medal.

But I absolutely trudged through the book. It was like pulling teeth to get me to finish the book. In contrast, Charlotte's Web was a joy to read.

Perhaps the committee thought Charlotte's Web was childish and unsophisticated compared to Secret of the Andes. Perhaps the Peruvian setting was more interesting and unique than an American farm setting. Or there were too many members who felt, as Anne Carroll Moore did, that Charlotte's Web was written by an author who had no clue about farm life (E.B. White was born in Mount Vernon, NY, not far from the Bronx border and is just as well known for his New Yorker pieces as he is for his children's literature). Who knows.


Wendy said...

I'm confused, Jennifer--you think the writing in Secret of the Andes was distinguished, and yet you still had to plod through it? To me those are basically mutually exclusive, especially for children's books. (There are some dense, old-fashioned works aimed at adults that I might say that about, I think.)

I don't like to belittle anyone's taste, so I've tried not to be TOO pushy about this, but I just don't get how Andes has distinguished or even GOOD writing. To me, there are so many mistakes and awkward things in it. I point to someone else's review for a particular passage: http://newberryproject.blogspot.com/2007/08/secret-of-andes-1953.html (read down to the passage she quotes). And my own favorite example, which I already mentioned on Heavy Medal, is how Cusi thinks of Chuto as "the old Indian"--how could he, when he's never known anyone else, old, young, Indian, Spanish, white, etc?

I would love to hear some examples in Andes that struck you as being truly distinguished. I promise not to tear them apart!

Jennifer Schultz said...

Hello, Wendy. Thanks for your thoughtful comment. I write this blog at work, so I can't fully respond to your comment right now (putting finishing touches on a Saturday program). I'll take home Secret of the Andes and point out some passages for you tomorrow.

There are several children's books that I think are distinguished, but yet I had to "plod through" them when I read them. Olive's Ocean, and more recently, Bird Lake Moon come to mind (not to pick on Kevin Henkes, though). I just have absolutely no interest in them, would not care to read them again, yet I understand why others would say that they are distinguished. Perhaps "plod through" wasn't the best way to describe it.

Jennifer Schultz said...

Well, not tomorrow. Our copy of Secret of the Andes is checked out, so I had to request another branch's copy. So, by Thursday I'll have some examples. I apologize-didn't think it would be checked out.