New Reviews

Dust off the Gold Medal: Rediscovering Children’s Literature at the Newbery Centennia

Dust off the Gold Medal: Rediscovering Children’s Literature at the Newbery Centennial. Eds. Sara L Schwebel and Jocelyn Van Tuyl. New York: Routledge, 2022. 280 pages.

Dust off the Gold Medal: Rediscovering Children’s Literature at the Newbery Centennial presents discussions revolving around not only the history of the Newbery Medal specifically, but also the wider philosophical debates surrounding the prizing of children’s books and the impact of this recognition on canonicity and value. The picture that emerges is complex and nuanced. Editors Sara L Schwebel and Jocelyn Van Tuyl, in their introduction, confront the question of whether a study of what is essentially a narrow selection of elitist, and at times racist, titles is necessary or appropriate in the current climate. They argue however, that it is a worthwhile exercise to look at these books through a new lens in order to trace the development of American children’s literature and to uncover in the process the incipient and hitherto unacknowledged approaches to issues that are so vital to current debates around ‘race, class, gender, disability, and nationalism’ (8).

Each of the fourteen chapters takes a different approach to the subject and uses one particular medal-winning book as a focus for its discussion. The resulting collection covers a broad spread of themes, genres and topics, including discussions around social and cultural identity. The thread tying these disparate explorations together is their historical grounding, and the setting of the books within their contemporaneous contexts. Although the full spread of the twentieth century is covered, particular attention is paid to the hitherto overlooked period between 1920 and 1940. The book is full of fascinating nuggets of information: only one Newbery winner in its history has gone permanently out of print (James Daugherty’s Daniel Boone, winner in 1940) (10). Gay-Neck: The Story of a Pigeon by Dhan Gopal Mukerji won the medal in 1928: as Poushali Bhadury points out in Chapter Two, it would be ninety years before another Indian American took the prize (Veera Hiranandani, for Night Diary in 2019).

The collection is also effective in the way in which, whilst each chapter takes a specific winner as its focus, it also provides the reader with a sense of the Medal’s historical trajectory. In Chapter One, for example, Paul Ringel discusses the controversy behind the choice of The Dark Frigate (Charles Boardman Hawes, 1924 winner), an adventure story set in the seventeenth-century England. The book’s selection was deemed to be the result of an over-reliance on ‘young readers’ approval over critical acclaim’ (17). The adventure story genre was not valorised by the members of the ALA (American Library Association) and the book’s victory with the popular vote (the second year in a row that this had happened) prompted a rethinking of the voting process. For Anne K Phillips and Gregory Eiselein (Chapter Four), Cornelia Meig’s winning of the Medal in 1934, for her biography of Louisa May Alcott, reflected an active shift away from what had been a male-dominated list of winners, in answer to a call not only for female authors, but also for female protagonists. Other chapters illuminate the impact of political events on the selection of winners. In Chapter Five, for example, Beverley Lyon Clark discusses the selection of Daniel Boone (Daugherty, 1940) and why such an overtly racist text was deemed an appropriate winner. Lyon Clark suggests that it reflected the national vulnerability marking the period in which it was published, and rewarded a ‘masculine Americanness’ (83). It was ‘a book by a man, about a man, focused on adventurous exploration, with a good measure of pulse-quickening fighting thrown in’ (84). The book’s selection ended a decade-long run of female winners. Fifteen years later, Meindert Dejong’s The Wheel on the School won the Medal. As Anna Lockhart argues in Chapter Eight, the prizing of this deeply nostalgic book ‘represented a national longing for a simpler, less fearful time as Cold War-era anxieties found expression in concerns about education and childhood’ (134).

Perhaps unsurprisingly, it is in its exploration of the depiction and representation of race that the book is most thought-provoking. Poushali Bhadury’s discussion of Gay Neck: The Story of a Pigeon in Chapter Two highlights the complexity of Mukerji’s novel: its portrayal of his birthplace ‘largely free of the intrusive British presence’, and his exploration of India’s contribution in World War I, points to his ‘anticolonial sympathies’ (37). However, his high-caste status and the way this influenced his portrayal of his characters and setting betrays what Bhadury claims is ‘a deeply prejudiced account of the hierarchies of Indian society’ (38). This problematic element of Mukerji’s work must be acknowledged. Bhadury urges us to read and analyse Gay-Neck, and other books on diverse topics by diverse authors which fall within the ‘Own Voices’ movement, ‘with contextual awareness and a critical mindset’ (47). Another example of this need for critical reading is found in Chapter Thirteen, where Giselle Liza Anatol discusses Kira-Kira, the 2005 winner by Cynthia Kadohata. The book, which tells the story of a Japanese American family after World War II ‘simultaneously rejects a model that lumps all people together, calling for a recognition of distinct experiences in the collective fight against racism’ (219). Anatol interrogates the obligation of authors to ‘craft predominantly historical narratives and fiction set in the time periods and places associated with their ethnic or racial identity groups’, for example African American novels featuring slavery or the Civil Rights movement, urban or Deep South settings (221). Although this novel is set in the post-war period, it refuses to explicitly address the issues facing the Japanese American community, or its exoticised folktales, opting for a more subtle, nuanced approach that is a more accurate reflection of ‘a historically substantiated generational response to internment’ (221).

The book contains many more examples of such fascinating complexity, not only around race but also about other issues such as the portrayal of disability (Chapter Ten, Sara K Day and Paige Gray). The introduction acknowledges a certain uneasiness that cannot be neatly resolved: the book is both ‘a homage’ to the Medal and an expression of the ‘contributors’ collective ambivalence about its legacy’ (12). Dust off the Gold Medal provides an excellent platform for discussion of these knotty, complex issues at a vital juncture for children’s literature.

Liz West
University of Reading