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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 and London: Routledge, 2022. 263 pages.

The edited volume Dust off the Gold Medal: Rediscovering Children’s Literature at the Newbery Centennial comes just in time to commemorate the one hundredth anniversary of the Newbery Medal, one of the most distinguished literary awards given to a children’s book by the American Library Association (ALA). With fourteen contributions from renowned scholars, this work quickly reveals its goal: to amend the ongoing neglect of award-winning titles by literary scholars. The book is a theoretically diverse analysis of fifteen medallists from every decade since the creation of the prize, crossing a diversity of genres, themes, and trends in American children’s literature, allowing for a social, cultural, and historical portrait of each selected winner.

To remove the dust and shed new light on some of the forgotten Newbery winners, the book starts with an introduction by the editors, Sara L. Schwebel and Jocelyn Van Tuyl, where a brief history of the prize is presented, followed by some considerations regarding its complex plot: the triad of prestige, popularity and profit, which in turn nurtures the relations among children’s book publishers, children’s librarians, and literary scholars – the latter frequently being excluded from the debate. If one of the reasons for the creation of such an award was to establish a canon of national children’s literature, this was achieved through marginalising diversity and emphasising concepts of ‘excellence’, which often hid discriminatory content, such as racist and sexist ideologies, especially up until the 1970s. Maybe because the Newbery medal did not pay attention to these issues, and because nowadays it continues to value solely children’s literature printed in physical form (forgetting about other relevant digital formats), literary scholars have also not paid much attention to the medallists. Nevertheless, the book vows to sweep away the dust and clear the air by looking at some of the earliest and understudied winners to make a case for diversity and shed light on issues of class, gender, race, disability, and national identity.

Dust off the Gold Medal is divided into fourteen essays, following the chronological order of the winners. Each essay represents a winner from each decade – apart from the decades of 1920 and 1940, which are the target of a longer scrutiny since they were the most neglected years in children’s literature scholarship.

Reading the essays enables one to understand how the social, political, and historical context of America has shaped the choice of the winning children’s books. Despite good intentions, some medallists still failed to achieve trustworthy and reliable portrayals of people and place, mostly because their representations were framed through exclusively American ideals. Nevertheless, it is still possible to find good examples concerning representations of gender, national identity, disability, and race. Regarding gender, unlike Daniel Boone (1940 Newbery medal), by James Daugherty, the only out of print and most despised medallist of all time for its exaggerated masculine pictures and racism, The Dark Frigate (by Charles Boardman Hawes’s, 1924 winner), a pirate adventure and masculine story, helped emerging female children’s librarians of the time to officialise both the prize and their own credibility. As for Cornelia Meig’s Invincible Louisa (1934 medallist) and Nancy Willard’s A Visit to William Blake’s Inn (1982 winner), they both rely on their authors’ feminist ideals. Gay-Neck: The Story of a Pidgeon (by Dhan Gopal Mukerji, 1928 medallist), The Trumpeter of Krakow (by Eric Philbrook Kelly, 1929 winner), Armstrong Sperry’s Call it Courage (1941 award), and Meindert DeJong’s The Wheel on the School (1955 medal) emphasise issues of national identity. While Gay-Neck fails to present a broader vision of India, since the pigeon’s trainer is a boy from an upper-caste, the book makes no reference to the British presence in the country, making a clear political stance. The Trumpeter refreshes a Polish legend, while focusing on Poland and the Polish national identity. Although it does so according to American frames of exceptionalism, it is still viewed as one of the most important children’s books about this country. Courage is a retelling of a traditional Polynesian tale which must be read carefully for its allusions to cannibalism and racism associated to the Fiji Islands and its people. The Wheel takes place in a pleasant Dutch village, but its one-room red schoolhouse is clearly American. King of the Wind, which won the prize in 1949, approaches the subject of Otherness, through an eighteenth-century story of Sham, the horse, and Agba, a voiceless Moroccan stable boy. Even though Agba is empowered and no longer in a subaltern position at the end of the book, the concept of Otherness is approached as existing in a distant time and place. The Summer of the Swans and The Westing Game (1971 and 1979 winners, respectively), two stories about disability, reflect on how the disability rights movement influenced literature for children and gave visibility to this theme, despite the portrayals being not completely accurate. Regarding diversity, ethnicity and race, The View from Saturday (1997 medallist) includes Jewish characters, although it does not pay enough attention to Jewish heritage; Kira-Kira (2005 medallist) talks about the experience of a Japanese American family in the 1950s and 1960s, but remains silent about Japanese relocation and internment during WWII in the U.S., and The Crossover (2015 winner) focuses on Black boyhood through the story of the life of twin Josh Bell. The latter, however, does not address racism and racial inequality explicitly but makes use of hip hop and basketball to draw attention to police brutality, stereotypes of criminality, and biased healthcare for Black people.

Dust off is an impressive work, unfortunately with no conclusion or afterword. Since the first century of the Newbery medal was full of ambivalent subjects and portrayals, entering its second century, and given the fact that the award is still associated with the question of canonicity, I would suggest it should now be concerned with keeping the bookshelves dusted off – from matters of politeness, “quality”, and political correctness – and making room on the shelves for equity instead.

Liliana Santos
University of Coimbra