The Story of Mankind



Jake’s Review

I would imagine that when the Oscars awards were first created, there was a lot of confusion over what constitutes a movie as a nominee for Best Picture – what makes a movie good and, therefore, potentially being worthy of being called “the best” and so on? Likewise, at the beginning there was probably much puzzling among the award-givers in trying to figure out what makes a book worthy of winning a Newbery Medal, the award given to “the best” children’s book of the year. Such befuddlement is evident when reading The Story of Mankind.

Let me explain it like this: if I were to somehow erase the glamorous, golden medal from the cover of this book and give it to you to read, you might respond by saying, “Okay, so it’s a boring history textbook – so what?” And of course, you would then be very surprised to learn that it was once actually considered a book for children and, in fact, the winner of the best children’s book award in the year of 1922.

The introduction, which is actually the best and most interesting part of the book, sets a wonderful stage for the book, the reader finding himself transported to a cozy living room, lying on a rug before the warm fire in the hearth, grinning up at his sweater vest-wearing grandfather as he opens a book and begins to read a wonderful story. When this gentle gramps begins to read, however, the reader suddenly finds himself in a smelly public school classroom, early in the morning, listening to his teacher and classmate volunteers read from a worn-out history textbook.

The task of setting forth the most important details of the world’s history from the beginning of existence until present day (at that time, 1921) is, inarguably, an altruistic task. Yet, nothing can save this novel from being the boring, mostly-just-facts book that it is.

It suffers from a lack of interesting transitions. One sentence may be talking about Napoleon Bonaparte and the very next may be mentioning something about Russia, and you’re wondering how the two connect, not wanting to take the necessary hours of reading and re-reading certain sentences it takes to understand. So what do you do? Well if you’re like me and you’re wanting to join the elite who can say they’ve actually read all ninety Newbery winners, you read the book as quickly as possible, comprehending, at best, 30 % of the information you’re reading and, like a man wishing to suffer a painless and quick death, surf along the rigid waves of these words as swiftly as you can.

Due to a couple of sparsely-spotted, wonderful quotes and a few interesting sections, I would at least give it 1.5 out of 5 stars. In fact, copying Benji copying me, I will give it 1.5 out of 5 Newbery Pies.

Bottom line: the book is very informational but not written in such a way that a child or even a twenty-four year old, such as myself, will remember it affectionately…save in the knowledge that you are holding in your hands the very first winner of such an awesome award.

Benji’s Review

My journey through the Newbery winners begins here with the Story of Mankind. I’ve never been a great book review writer. It’s hard for me to talk about a book without giving too much away to those who haven’t read it, so I think I will stick to a format. I will answer the following questions:What did I like about the book? What did I dislike about the book? Did this book deserve to win the Newbery? Why or why not?

What I liked about the book:
Imagine that your grandfather was a retired history professor, and he was in town for a week. You ask him,”Grandpa, why is the world the way it is now?” His eyes light up. He taught history for years, and no one has ever bothered to ask him a question like that. So every night that week, he sits you down and tells you the story of the world and how mankind got to be where it is now. That’s the sense I get from this book, yes, it is very flawed. This is the history of the world with no sources cited. It is very biased, (the author acknowledges this) but it is exactly what you would get if you asked your history professor grandpa for a fireside lecture and I think that aspect of the book is very charming.

What I disliked about this book:
Yes, there were boring parts, but I have always believed that’s not a reason for a book to be reviewed poorly. What is boring to one person could be extremely interesting to another, depending on his or her interests. What I didn’t like about this book is the fact that I don’t know a single kid who has or would read it. It is the winner of the most prestigious award for children’s literature, and honestly, I don’t know what the first Newbery committee was thinking. I don’t have a single middle schooler in a school of over 700 that I could get to read this whole book through. There might be a chapter (like the one on Napoleon) I could get them to read, but as a whole work, I think it is a book written for adults. Maybe the children in 1922 had less to choose from,or they were better readers, but I don’t think they read this book either.

Did this book deserve to win the Newbery: No

Why not: Well, I’ve gotten into this question already. This is not a book I think many children would read. I can see why the world needed history books at this time. In 1922, World War I (or the Great War as it’s still called in this book) was just ending. The world has just gotten through fighting the worst war it had ever seen. Naturally, people were stepping back from the situation and asking “Why did this happen?  How did we get here? How can we keep this from happening again?” Of course, history holds the answer to all of these questions. I understand that the Newbery committee was thinking about the children, our future leaders. If they could understand why a war like this happened, maybe in the distant future horrors like this could be prevented. I just think that this wasn’t the best book for the first Newbery. It set a bad precedent for future Newberry committees. Instead of picking the book that children are reading and enjoying, they picked the book that they thought children should be reading. This has happened time and time again with the Newbery Medal, not every time, but quite frequently.

Closing thoughts: I liked the book. I really did. Just not as the first Newbery Winner, ever.

Next up: The Voyages of Doctor Dolittle by Hugh Lofting
Since Jake is giving star ratings, I will too. Hmmm I’ll give it 2.5 out of 5 Newbery Pies.
Sara’s Review:

Oh boy, where to start? First of all, are we sure this was a children’s book? It didn’t read as one. Secondly, I felt like it was bipolar. It started by giving very detailed information about every part of history. I actually enjoyed the chapter about Egyptian hieroglyphics, finding it interesting and informative. I thought, “Maybe this book will not be so bad after all.” Oh dear readers, I have never been more foolish.  As the book moves closer and closer to modern times (modern meaning 94 years ago when this book was published), the author started discussing different themes, like imperialism. I wonder if he had a book deal and could write no more than three hundred pages because he said many times that he wished the book could be longer, even one time mentioning a thousand pages! :shudder:

Another thing that irked me was Willem van Loon’s treatment of American History. The American Revolution gets  only TWO sentences!  He justified this by saying something like, “Well, America has only been around 150 years, which is a tiny amount of time in the history of man.” This would be valid if he doesn’t then go and spend several chapters going on incessantly about a time in French History that was less than 30 years! This time period he focuses on begins with the French Revolution. What was the inspiration for the French Revolution again? Oh yeah, that time we totally ousted the British from the American colonies and started our own country.

Willem van Loon admits that he has a bias toward French history/culture. Why not write that book then? The best part of this book?  THE END.

I give The Story of Mankind 1 Newbery Pie, which deserves to be thrown into the face of every committee member who chose this book for the award. Okay, that’s harsh, but seriously, what were they thinking?