Ah, what can I say about the winner of 1923’s Newbery Award, The Voyages of Doctor Dolittle? Certainly not that it was mind-numbingly boring like I said about 1922’s The Story of Mankind. So wide was the gap of contrast between these books, that I think reading The Story of Mankind actually made Doctor Dolittle seem even better than it actually was, and I would gladly give it a generous 3.5 out of 5 stars.
My copy of the book was 316 pages, but, like a pie that looks too thick to finish but surprisingly goes down tasty and smooth, the story flew by. It was separated into many short chapters (rather than a few long chapters), which is just the way I like it, and its main character was extremely loveable. Rotund (the jolly sort of rotund) and usually in good spirits, Doctor Dolittle’s ambition is to learn how to speak the languages of all animals, many of which he already knows, and he takes the story’s narrator, a nine-and-a-half year old boy with a desire to sail the seas, on his ship, The Curlew, along with many other loveable characters.
Although these characters don’t literally teleport from one world to the next, this book had that mystical feeling one gets from reading The Chronicles of Narnia, the boy living a normal, rather dull life in England, yearning for adventure, then suddenly finding it in the acquaintance of the very peculiar doctor. One might say that young Tommy Stubbins is the eager Lucy and Dolittle the wise and trustworthy Aslin.
The only thing the book suffers slightly from is a small problem that is really no fault of its own. As old it is and as late as I am in reading this book in my life, it doesn’t have the same luster as it might have had had I read it at a younger age. Having already read so many adventurous books such as this one, many of the shock-worthy moments failed to shock me. In many ways, the fantasticness of this story has now been outdone by recent, more fantastic books, much in the way a drawn-out viewing of the three-hour Ben-Hur would fail in comparison to the more recent Braveheart.
What I liked about this book:
As opposed to the 1922 book, this is a book that I think children would actually enjoy. You can tell that it was published in 1922, the language is a little archaic, but a good children’s book will appeal to children for many, many years. There are funny parts, there’s lots of adventure and there are talking animals! What’s not to love?
What I disliked about this book:
Not much, really. As mentioned before, the language is a bit archaic. Some words which may have been acceptable in 1922, that are not now were used (like the “n word” ) and the speaker’s meaning was unclear or shocking to contemporary readers. There really isn’t a whole lot for me to criticize.
Did it deserve the Newbery?:
After reading The Story of Mankind (the 1922 pick) this was refreshing. It was good to see the committee picking a book that children would actually want to read.
I think the fact that there were no Newbery Honor books in 1923 (there were five in 1922) shows that either, there wasn’t much else to choose from that year or that Dr. Dolittle was a unanimous pick. The only other children’s book of note that I can find that was published in that year is The Velveteen Rabbit, but that would have been more of a Caldecott contender if it had been around then. Dr. Dolittle is a very good Newbery pick.
Sara’s Review: Another Newbery from the 1920s! When I started reading The Voyages of Dr. Dolittle, I was extremely relieved almost instantly because it was so much better than Story of Mankind. I also had an exciting spark of childhood recognition when the book began describing Dr. Dolittle’s animals. I just KNEW I had read that book as a child. As I continued reading and little else became familiar, I realized I had probably read the other Dr. Dolittle book, The Stories of Dr. Dolittle instead.
In The Voyages of Dr. Dolittle, young Tommy Stubbins, who is also the narrator of the book, meets Dr. Dolittle and wants to be trained by him as an animal scientist. After meeting all of his animals, they discover that the (human) son (Long Arrow) of one of Dr. Dolittle’s friends is missing. Dr. Dolittle and Tommy begin their voyage to find Long Arrow, making stops along the way. One of these stop is Spain, where Dr. Dolittle attempts to stop bullfighting. Finally, they arrive at Spider Monkey Island. They find Long Arrow and solve a conflict for the island’s inhabitants. The natives are so grateful that they make Dr. Dolittle king, and never want him to leave.
I’ve heard that some of the early Newbery books are horribly racist, and this book is not without its issues. Having a white British man come and solve all the problems of an island full of people of color just screams of racism. However, at this time in history, the sun had not yet set on the British Empire, so this imperialism fit into the historical time period. By the descriptions I’ve given, I also know there are other much more insensitive (and blatantly insulting) Newbery-winning books. In terms of readability, I found the book to lag at times, and felt like I was ready for them to “get off the island.” I give The Voyages of Dr. Dolittle 2.5 out of 5 Newbery pies.