I kind of feel like reading through the Newbery is like hiking the Appalachian Trail. If you only stick to the white blazed trail you’re gonna see some cool sights, but in order to see a lot of the breathtaking views, you have to take some side trails, sometimes even a whole day’s hike away. Yeah, it’s going to make your whole AT hike a bit longer, but it’s going to also make it more memorable because you saw that amazing view that you wouldn’t have seen if you had just stuck to the trail.
If you just read the gold-stickered Newbery winners, of course you’re going to read some good books, but you’re not going to get a clear picture of what Children’s lit was like at that time. You’re going to miss the Charlotte’s Webs and the Because of Winn Dixies. Lots of the time, the real gems are the honor winners or even the books unmentioned by the ALA Youth Media Awards (Wonder and Okay for Now anyone?) With this in mind, I’ve decided that I want to try to read at least one honor from each decade. Hopefully, one that I’ve heard of or read before, or one that has gotten great reviews. For the 20’s I decided to pick up Downright Dencey by Caroline Dale Snedeker.
I picked it because I had read somewhere that Beverly Cleary really loved this book growing up, and I’m super glad that I did. If I had just read through the winners as planned, I would have totally missed this treasure of a novel. First, let me say that I have been really disappointed and a little confused by the winners of the 1920’s so far. With the exception of Dr. Dolittle, maybe, they have all been kind of dry, boring, and not at all kid friendly. There were two that I will probably hate for the rest of my life (The Dark Frigate and Smoky the Cow Horse). I was confused because I know that I’ve read kids books published before 1920 that I really liked. (Little Women, Anne of Green Gables, all of Nesbit’s books) So why are most of the 1920’s Newbery winners terrible? Then I realized that most of my favorite pre-1922 books were written by women, and for some reason, not a single woman won the Newbery in the first decade. A few got honors, such as Dencey, but not one woman won the gold. I don’t know if it’s just outright sexism, or if the committees were confused by the man on the medal, and thought that it had to go to a man, but yeah. No women won, which is a shame, because, even though I haven’t finished Gay Neck yet, the book that won in 1928, I can promise you, it’s probably not nearly as good as Dencey.(maybe I’ll eat my words next week, but I really doubt it) Downright Dencey is better than any of the previous Newbery winners, including Dr. Dolittle. The setting is terrific. Not only did it make me want to live in 1812ish Nantucket, but it kind of made me want to go live in a Quaker community now. The thing that upset me so much about Smoky the Cow Horse, the narrator’s contempt for the “half-breed” Mexican, is totally reversed in this book. There is an interracial character, who the community as a whole despises , but not only does the author redeem him, she makes him a focal point of the story in a positive way. It makes me feel better about the past that there were people like Caroline Snedeker out there to balance out the Will Jameses.
The language might be a little tough for some kids, since the Quakers had to use Thees and thous, but I got over that really quickly. The only question for me is, can I get my students to read this book? I’m definitely going to try!
Next Up: Gay Neck, the Story of a Pigeon (for real this time)