Until a couple of years ago, I had never read a book simply because it had a Newbery Award seal on the cover. However, I had begun to notice, as I happened upon Newbery books, the uneven quality of the winners.
I looked into the founding of the award and the stated goals, then discovered that there are people who commit to reading through the list of every Newbery Winner and Honor Book since the award was established in 1922. I’m not going to do that. I’ve read enough of them to know that many of them have outlived their appeal or relevance.
I did go back and read several of the earliest winners, because I was curious to see if I could identify what the selection committees over the years were really looking for. My conclusions, or perhaps better termed suppositions, may be the subject of a separate article. My point in mentioning my research here is that, though I had known that one of my favorite books, Rascal, by Sterling North, was a Newbery Honor Book in 1964, I had never thought to see what book won the medal that same year.
I have loved Rascal since the first time I read it, twenty-five years ago, I suppose. I made my own kids read it when we were homeschooling. When I was teaching in a Christian school, I read it aloud to my classes, and made sure there were several copies on the classroom bookshelf. Most of my private students have also read it, and I shared a study guide with you all here. I assumed that the book that beat out Rascal for the Newbery Medal must have been an amazing book.
The 1964 Newbery Winner was It’s Like This, Cat by Emily Cheney Neville. I read it, and enjoyed the narrator’s style in spots, though I’m not a fan of the first-person point of view. Some of the scenes were interesting, and it was definitely eye-opening to read about a young teen with the kind of freedom this boy has to walk, bike, and ride buses and subways all over New York City. But when I finished reading and thought about how it might compare to other Newbery Winners and Honor Books, my first thought was, This was, ‘the most distinguished contribution to American literature for children’ that year?
The narrator of Cat, Dave Mitchell, is fourteen years old. He lives in an apartment with his parents. He argues with his Dad a lot, and his Mom responds by having asthma attacks.
Dave opens with the statement, “ My father is always talking about how a dog can be very educational for a boy. This is one reason I got a cat.” He goes on, “My father talks a lot anyway. Maybe being a lawyer he gets in the habit. Also, he’s a small guy with very little gray curly hair, so maybe he thinks he’s got to roar a lot to make up for not being a big hairy tough guy.”
One of Dave’s friends and mentors is “Crazy Kate, the Cat Woman.” Against his Dad’s wishes, Dave adopts one of Kate’s cats. This cat is supposed to be the thread that holds the story together. It’s a fairly thin thread.
I read several positive reviews of the book trying to learn what others see in it. I found phrases like, “slice-of-life realism,” “coming-of-age,” “breath of fresh air.”
One reviewer of It’s Like This, Cat on goodreads.com, “The Captain,” references an article discussing the background of the book that states, “in the author’s Newbery acceptance speech, ‘Out Where the Real People Are,’ Emily Neville defended this new genre for teens: ‘The real world, with its shadings of light and dark, its many-toned colors, is so much more beautiful than the rigid world of good and bad. It is also more confusing. I think the teen-age reader is ready for both.’”
I couldn’t find that article or Cheney’s speech, but in searching for them, I did find another relevant article. This writer, Sara Beth West, notes that the Newbery Award winner and the Caldecott Medal winner (Where the Wild Things Are) for 1964 were both brought about by the same editor, Ursula Nordstrom. West says:
“Nordstrom gave us what she called ‘good books for bad children,’ indicating that we are, all of us, bad children. She argued for books that ‘make any child feel warmed and attended to and considered,’ noting that ‘not many children’s books make children feel considered.’”
If that statement is true, are we then to understand that until the early 1960s normal children couldn’t enjoy and appreciate books written for children? Children didn’t feel considered by Louisa May Alcott or George MacDonald? Neither Laura Ingalls Wilder nor Ralph Moody attended to children? No child was warmed by the stories of Eleanor Estes, Carol Ryrie Brink, or Lois Lenski? Perhaps these authors were too rigid about the concept of good and bad.
As iconic as Where the Wild Things Are may be, I’m afraid it may indeed have been ground-breaking. Children’s authors began jumping on Sendak’s success train, and the tone of children’s books took a decided turn downward. The attitude came to be that, rather than children’s literature edifying readers, books should stoop to the level of childish nature. We’ve slid far enough down that slope that it seems that if you want to write a successful children’s book in this century, all you have to do is start by including words for bodily fluids and functions in the title, and make sure the illustrations are hideous.
“According to Neville’s Newbery acceptance speech, It’s Like This, Cat was originally a short story, and Nordstrom insisted it could be something more. So Neville worked and tugged and fussed and added, like a mother bear licking her cub into being (a reference to Michel de Montaigne Neville makes in her acceptance speech) and brought forth the episodic It’s Like This, Cat, which owes something to Salinger and something to Capote and a lot to the city of New York.”
Describing Neville working and tugging and fussing a short story into a book actually explains a lot. It feels like it was fussed with and tugged out of something not meant to be more than it was to begin with. It’s as though Cheney cherry-picked episodes with nothing more in mind than proving she could illustrate realism.
The realism extends to a random incident of unwarranted gruesomeness. I’ll add the scene to the end of this article. There seems no purpose to this other than shock.**
Is the Newbery Award for children’s literature or books for teens? While celebrating a fourteen-year-old boy’s freedom to roam about New York City, we are also supposed to be pleased that his cat helps him pick up a girlfriend his parents know nothing about.
In the end, “one thing this cat business seems to have established is that me and Pop fighting is the main cause of Mom’s asthma. So we both try to do a little better, and a lot of things we used to argue and fight about, like my jazz records, we just kid each other about now. But now and then we still work up to a real hassle.”
My purpose here is not to tear this book apart or tell anyone not to read it. I’m simply pondering on paper. The popularity of pedantic books with hit-you-over-the-head morals tends to be short lived. However, when I choose books to recommend for children, I lean toward stories where a character or two matures, gains wisdom, finds truth, or learns something of beauty. By the end of Cat, it doesn’t seem that Dave has learned much other than how to try a little harder not to upset his mom. Admirable, in a way, I suppose, but there is little evidence of character building.
The other Newbery Honor book for that year was The Loner by Ester Wier. I had never heard of the book or of Ester Wier. Though it’s a decent enough story of a young boy’s search for family and a place to belong, it feels formulaic. I would guess that’s why it hasn’t endured as a classic.
I understand that we need a tragedy in the beginning in order to set up the main character for what follows. Though the tragic incident is brief, for children with imagination, it may still be a bit too vivid. You may read the scene below. ***
I continue to ponder: What elements must combine to make great literature? Is the list of elements finite? Why are some stories nearly great, but not quite? What makes a book timeless?
People have been trying for generations to come up with formulas to answer these questions. As you choose books for your family, keep in mind that the experts have their own points of view and agendas. Award stickers on the fronts of books can be helpful as a starting point. Lists by trusted mentors are great. Read, listen, learn, consider, and measure books against your principles. But when it comes to choosing books for your children, YOU are the expert.
** Kate the Crazy Cat Lady receives a large inheritance, and a reporter goes to her house to take pictures. He accidentally stomps on a kitten. “The scream freezes us all, except Kate. She shoots out of her corner, knowing instantly what has happened. The kitten is jerking slightly now, and bright, bright blood is coming out of its mouth. With one violent, merciful stroke Kate finished it. She picks the limp body up and wraps it neatly in a paper towel and places it in the wastebasket.”
*** The boy and his only friend, a girl about his age, are picking potatoes behind a digging machine. “She screamed. Leaping forward, he saw that her yellow hair was caught in the whirring moving parts of the machine. Powerless to help, he stood and watched in cold horror while the machine ripped and tore.” She is taken away, and everyone goes back to work.
If you would like to learn more about this book, check it out at biblioguides.com.