Hey, guys! Guess what? Jake’s back for a book or two! I’ve spent the last few weeks slogging through the 1920 winners, and now that summer has arrived, Jake has a little more time to read, and we’ll be skipping around taking some titles out in a hodgepodge manner. This week, it’s Onion John the winner of the 1960 Newbery. Fun fact, the author Joseph Krumgold is the first Newbery author two win the medal twice. It has happened three times, I believe, since then, most recently this year when Kate Dicamillo won again for Flora and Ulysses. 960 is also the year that My Side of The Mountain, one of my favorites as a child, won a Newbery Honor. I talk about that much more in my review.Enough trivia. On to the reviews!
Update: Sara just finished Onion John, so I’m adding her review today.
Published in 1959, Onion John was the winner of the 1960 Newbery Award, and despite the fact I haven’t read every Honoree, it seems well-deserved. A first-person fiction, the main character, Andy, writes as he would talk, a style that is often semi-grammatically correct yet with a southern edge. The story moves quickly, yet focuses only on a few months in Andy’s life, when he first meets Onion John, the strange man who lives on the outskirts of town in a makeshift house and speaks his own language. It would seem that Onion John’s peculiar language and superstitious beliefs (for example: that hanging rocks from a tree will make the apples decide to fall) are a mixture of mental disorders and the fact that he is an immigrant, unsavvy of normal 1950s American living standards.
Long story short, Andy becomes the only person who can understand Onion John’s strange language and, thus, also becomes his only friend. When Andy’s dad gets involved, however, things worsen. His dad insists on “domesticating” Onion John by ridding him of all his superstitions and building him a “proper” home, thus also doing away with Onion John’s entire way of life. The town gets behind this idea and builds him a new house, but when Onion John, not used to a normal stove, tries to start it with newspaper, the house burns down, and Andy pleads with his father not to rebuild the house. Likewise, Andy’s dad is always trying to prove to Andy that he, Andy, is incapable of making his own life choices and must, therefore, depend upon his father, who has Andy’s entire future mapped out.
I give this book four out of five Newbery pies, because it does two awesome things: 1) it reveals 1950 society’s belief that “father knows best,” and 2) it tells the story of a boy who seems to subconsciously want to rebel against his father’s wishes but because of his love and loyalty for his father, befriends a man that no one cares to take the time to understand. Like Andy, Onion John is surrounded by people, led by Andy’s father, who want to improve his life without ever even asking him what he wants. The way Andy’s town tries to “help” Onion John by deciding his lifestyle for him is a mirror for Andy to look into, reflecting the way his father tries to “help” him. Andy sees in Onion John the same desire and hope he has: a desire and hope to make his own decisions, torn between listening to the people who wish to help him and running away from them all at the same time.
In Onion John, we are reminded of the power of choice, how anything done against one’s will, even if some loved one has the best intentions for making you do it, will never be done with passion but rather begrudgingly. We’re reminded that free will is what allows one to not only choose a path but blaze it with a sense of purpose and, thus, find fulfillment in life. Due also to this book’s unique storyline, I’m going to have to give this novel at least a good 4 out of 5 Newbery pies and could possibly be persuaded to give it 4.5.
I went into this book feeling skeptical. As a kid, one of my favorite books was My Side of the Mountain, which got an honor in 1960, the year that Onion John won. My Side of the Mountain is still being read by kids all over the world. A kid is probably reading it right now as I’m typing this. I’d be willing to bet that there aren’t 50 kids in the world who have read Onion John this year. I hadn’t even heard of it before a month ago, and yet the 1960 committee thought it was better than My Side of the Mountain. I had my doubts.
Despite my skepticism, I really liked this book. I didn’t love it. No, it’s not better than MSOTM, but I can see how it fit the time period better. It was published in 1959, and the world was changing. You can even see it in the book. It has a Leave It To Beaver small town kind of feel. But the father in the book is talking about the space race, and how men will be on the moon in less than two years, (It really took 10 years, but people of the late 50’s were optimistic) and he’s constantly encouraging his son, Andy, our main character to be part of this change. Andy, though, seems to want to hang on to the 50’s, and his home town Serenity. He starts hanging out with the town eccentric Onion John, a much older man, who has some crazy ideas, but is still well-beloved by the people of the town. To Andy, Onion John has always been a part of Serenity, and he kind of sees him as a sort of stability in a fast changing world.
Andy’s dad notices this, and decides to try and modernize Onion John by having the town build him a new house to disastrous results. Onion John just can’t be changed by simply getting a new house with modern appliances. It’s an odd, sometimes sad book, but it’s no doubt a pretty good book.
So, the big question needs to be answered. Why did the 1960 Newbery Committee chose this book over a book that would go on to become a well-beloved classic of children’s lit? (I really do think this is 2nd biggest miss in Newbery history. It’s only behind Charlotte’s Web losing the gold to Secret of the Andes) I think there are a few answers. The first is, Joseph Krumgold was, at the time, a huge name. He had already won a Newbery Medal (no one else had ever won it twice before this book) and people were probably excited to read a new kid’s book from him. Jean Craighead George wasn’t yet such a big name as she is now, and the committee had no way of knowing how big MSOTM was going to be. Sometimes if an author, who has already written an excellent book and has a big fan base puts out another decent book, people are impressed with her overall talent and good things happen. You can see it with this year’s winner, Flora And Ulysses. It might not have been the best book of the year, but it was decent, and Kate Dicamillo has done great work all of her career, so her book took home the gold when maybe there were more deserving titles out there. I think that’s partly what happened here.
Another reason I think the 1960 committee chose Onion John over MSOTM is because it fit the time period very well. 1959 small town life is depicted perfectly in Onion John. It probably had lots of readers in the 60’s, but when the world turned and time passed, people moved away from this book just like they eventually moved from My Three Sons and the Dick Van Dyke Show. MSOTM is a timeless book that fits in with any time period, but the 1960 committee saw how well Onion John described their current world, and they chose that one.
Anyways, what happened happened. I would have never read this book if it had just won an honor instead of a medal, so maybe it’s good that it won. I really enjoyed the books theme of contentment vs. aspiration. Being happy with what you have vs. striving for better, you see it in Onion John’s desire to keep his life like it is, even though the town is trying to force him into a new house and in Andy’s desire to stay in Serenity and run the hardware store after his dad, even though his dad is trying to send him to the moon. I liked that the main character was a kind person. That always makes a book more enjoyable for me. I would give it 3 and a half Newbery pies.
My favorite quote from the book: “A bathtub was a beautiful statue, Onion John told me, of a hole in the ground.”
Onion John is a weird, eccentric person, who is friends with 12-year old Andy. He lives in a run down shack with no electricity. He is a well-known, accepted part of the community. Onion John is happy with his life until the townspeople, led by Andy’s father, insist on building him a new house. I found the whole storyline to be very weird, and could not relate to it at all. The best I could come up with is The Andy Griffith Show; I live about 45 minutes from the town that is the inspiration for the show. The lesson is rather obvious: when you help someone, make sure you are doing what’s in their best interests, not what you think is best.
The part of the book I enjoyed most was the storyline is the father-son conflict based on Andy’s life plan. He wants Andy to attend MIT, become an engineer and astronaut and be the first person to walk on the moon. It is as if his father is living vicariously through Andy, pushing his son to do things that he missed out on doing. However, as a parent, I could relate to the sense of pushing your child to achieve bigger and better things than you did. Of course, this plotline connects back back to giving Onion John the house he doesn’t want, and the overall idea of the historical time period in which the 1950s “Father Knows Best” patriarchy is beginning to break down.
I didn’t find the writing particularly spectacular, and I am a little perplexed on why it won the Newbery. I give Onion John 2.5 Newbery Pies.
Next up: I think we’re skipping to Shadow of a Bull the 1965 winner.
Here are a few Onion John extras.
Here is the 90-second Newbery video for Onion John http://vimeo.com/31891421
Here is Travis Jonker’s New cover for Onion John in his “Covering the Newbery series.” http://100scopenotes.com/2012/01/16/covering-the-newbery-39-onion-john/ Nice, right?