1931: The Cat Who Went to Heaven (that was then, this is meow)

VERDICT: Treasure

Sally’s Rating: 4/5

Legend has it that among all the animals, only the cat refused to bow down to Buddha and listen to his teachings. She alone of all creatures was not blessed by him. Thus, it was rumored that no cat could enter heaven. And therein lies the seeds for conflict in Elizabeth Coatsworth’s The Cat Who Went to Heaven.

A story that will pull on the heart strings of any cat lover, The Cat Who Went to Heaven tells the tale of an artist who is commissioned to paint a picture of Buddha’s last days, surrounded by the animals he had met throughout his journeys. As the artist reverently draws each creature, he reveals how each animal came to meet Buddha while his housekeeper and calico cat listen to him. As the bond deepens between artist and cat, he comes to the terrible realization that he cannot paint the cat into the portrait.

The titular cat, named Good Fortune, is the best part of the book. The author perfectly captures a cat’s unpredictable personality – one day snooty and prickly, the next day loving and loyal. Good Fortune’s bond with the artist is true to life, and it’s easy to take offense on her behalf when she realizes that the artist is intentionally going to leave the cat out of the painting. The cat’s subsequent silent treatment is felt both by the reader and the artist.

The story ends with a touch of melancholy, but it is still heartwarming, nonetheless. The Cat Who Went to Heaven can appeal to all age groups since children may not understand all the nuances within the narrative. If nothing else, The Cat Who Went to Heaven is a charming and thoughtful story that depicts the growing bond between a man and his cat.

1931: The Cat Who Went to Heaven (Buddhism 101)

VERDICT: Treasure

Laurinda’s Rating: 4

Cover of The Cat Who Went to Heaven

The Cat Who Went to Heaven, the 1931 Newbery Medal Winner, is a surprisingly charming story. It’s also, at 60 pages, by far the shortest offering thus far. Basically, an impoverished Japanese artist’s housekeeper brings home a cat instead of food. Although the artist is initially skeptical, the little cat, named Good Fortune, wins him over with her daintiness and reverence for Buddha. Shortly thereafter, the artist receives a commission from the local temple to paint the death of Buddha. He meditates deeply, immersing himself in the life and death of Buddha. The cat watches closely as he paints, particularly when he depicts the animals who came to pay homage to the Buddha. The artist explains to her that “the cat refused homage to Buddha…and so by her own independent act, only the cat has the doors of Paradise closed in her face” (17). He thus initially refuses to paint her into the scene. Good Fortune, saddened by this, stops eating. The artist, fond of Good Fortune, decides to add her to the painting. When she sees it, she dies of happiness. The priests who commissioned the work are livid at the addition of the cat and threaten to burn the whole canvas. Miraculously, while the painting is left unattended overnight, the cat figure moves from the end of the line of animals into Buddha’s arms, representing Buddha’s forgiveness.

Fundamentally, this is a retelling for children of the Buddha’s story, presented in very simple terms. However, the richly drawn cat and the accompanying illustrations elevate this story from a simple moralistic tale to a rather engaging, cute one. I would highly recommend this for the early elementary school crowd as a read-together book or for slightly older children as a book for them to read on their own. After all, who doesn’t love cats?

1930: Hitty: Her First Hundred Years (a haphazard history lesson)

VERDICT: Treasure, mostly

Laurinda’s Rating: 3

Hitty: Her First Hundred Years is an episodic look at a doll’s first hundred years of “life”. Hitty, short for Mehitabel, begins life as a chunk of magic mountain ash carved by a peddler for a young Maine girl. Many adventures ensue. Hitty is picked up by crows, lost overboard when a whaling vessel catches alight, worshiped by Pacific Islanders as an idol, made assistant snake charmer, chucked into the Mississippi, and sold at several auctions. The story is written from the doll’s perspective and provides a straightforward narration of Hitty’s wide travels. The pacing is excellent, one adventure after another. It’s a refreshing change of pace from many of the earlier Newbery Medal books, which focused heavily on description to the detriment of actual plot development.

That said, Hitty rated 3 stars for a reason. The author’s choice of historic periods in which to place Hitty is extremely episodic. It really feels like she picked either her own favorite periods or tried to cram as much ‘diversity’ into the story as possible. The setting shifts between various parts of the United States, India, and the Pacific. We see the Early Republic, Civil War, Reconstruction, and the advent of automobiles. Hitty’s owners include Quakers, spoiled New York brats, an African-American former slave, a seamstress, an artists, and others. Because of this structural choice, no one chapter – story of an owner – is particularly well developed. I’m left wanting a deeper narrative of the people who owned Hitty, which Hitty, once she moves on to a different location is no longer able to provide.

Like the 20s books, the portrayal of the “Other” is also problematic. While less explicitly racist than some of the 1920s selections, the language used to describe any non WASP person is very much of its era. Hitty comes complete with bad “dialect” written in German, Irish, and African-American accents. There are also descriptions that emphasize commonly caricaturized traits of minority groups, like the gleaming white teeth, tight braids, and extreme religiosity in African Americans. The Irish family is poor, slovenly dressed, and violent. So on and so forth. The author mitigates some of this by showing a variety of interactions between characters of different groups, but Hitty is still very much a book of its time.

On a side note, the depictions of fashion in the book are detailed, so if you’re in to costuming and period garments, it’s a fun read. As a knitter, I definitely appreciate how much time Mrs. Preble, of Hitty’s original family, put into those 12 pairs of socks she sent along with her sea captain husband and the depth of effort to creating a realistic wardrobe for a doll. The illustrations also show Hitty’s various clothes, though, fair warning, some of the pictures are quite cheesy.

In general, I’m fairly neutral on this book. While I wouldn’t read it again, it would be a cute read for children, particularly ones attached to their dolls and/or imaginary friends. Hitty the doll has a strong voice, and there is sufficient action to engage even those with short attention spans. Because the chapters are pretty much discrete, it would also be perfect for bedtime reading – one chapter a night or whatever you can fit in before you fall asleep.

 

1930: Hitty, Her First Hundred Years

VERDICT: Treasure

Sally’s Rating: 3/5

Hitty: Her First Hundred Years is a story of knowing one’s place in the world and letting fate take you where it will. Hitty, a doll sitting in an antique store, writes her memoirs while fondly remembering the days when her life was more adventurous. From riding on a whaling ship to being worshiped as an idol in the South Seas to living with the Quakers and meeting the famed Charles Dickens, Hitty has seen it all.

Author Rachel Field writes the novel in a way that lets children experience the 1800’s from a unique perspective – a doll’s eyes. The book reads very quickly, with each chapter encompassing a different time in her life with a different owner. The doll travels everywhere – Maine, the South Sea Islands, India, and the Mississippi River. Each chapter shows a different aspect of the eastern Americas (for the most part) throughout the time period. While the book is fictional, it is written to be educational as well, and children with a love for history may find this a compelling book to pick up.

The parts that rang the most true to me were the moments when Hitty was lost. From being forgotten in the sofa to being misplaced in a hay wagon or being lost in a field, Hitty has gone through as much displacement and loss as a doll possibly experience. Every child can understand the fear of losing their favorite toy and the dreadful feeling of separation. At one point, a girl stuffs Hitty down into the creases of a sofa because she is embarrassed of the old, ugly doll. Years pass and the doll is found in the attic by a new family. The author’s use of these mundane situations makes the story feel more real since we have all been in situations where we have lost a toy or got rid of one because a new one replaced it. Yet Hitty doesn’t really question or get angry that these things happen; she is simply along for the ride, hoping that one day she’ll get an owner who will take care of her.

The book is very eventful and a decent read. Yet, since Hitty can only be an observer, she is very passive towards the events that are going on around her. While not the most exciting book, I could see myself enjoying it as a child, especially if I was into historical fiction. Despite having an interesting premise, this book is definitely a much more juvenile and tame book than the Newbery winners that came before it. While this isn’t a bad thing, the book still lacks that spark that makes for a great read.

1930s: It Can’t Get Any Worse, Right?

We are finally done with the 1920’s Newbery books. This week, we will begin reading the next ten winners. In an earlier post this week, Laurinda detailed the major trends of the past decade of Newbery winners.

The 1920’s were not the best decade for Newbery books. Most of the novels did not age well, and I’d be wary of recommending any of them to children nowadays. Our combined average rating was 2.03 out of 5 stars. None of the winners got a higher rating than a 3.

Hopefully, the Thirties will be a more exciting and enjoyable read than the last batch. Historically, the 1930’s are bookended with the tumultuous events of the Wall Street Crash of 1929 and the outbreak of World War II in Europe. We’ll see if any of the books we read are influenced by the surrounding events.

Here are a couple of things that could make the 1930’s better:

  1. Characterization. The 1920’s featured a cast of characters that were bland and forgettable. Characters did not grow throughout the novel; instead, they were static individuals who had no personality.
  2. Female protagonists. The first winners featured no female main characters, except for a few short stories. From looking at the next ten titles, it looks like this will not be an issue in the next decade.
  3. Modern language. The previous winners’ writing style was burdened down by dense language and a reliance on old dialects.

Looking forward to the 1930’s, here are the next books in our queue:

1930: Hitty: Her First Hundred Years by Rachel Field
1931: The Cat Who Went to Heaven by Elizabeth Coatsworth
1932: Waterless Mountain by Laura Adams
1933: Young Fu of the Upper Yangtze by Elizabeth Lewis
1934: Invincible Louisa: The Story of the Author of Little Women by Cornelia Meigs
1935: Dobry by Monica Shannon
1936: Caddie Woodlawn by Carol Ryrie Brink
1937: Roller Skates by Ruth Sawyer
1938: The White Stag by Kate Seredy
1939: Thimble Summer by Elizabeth Enright

And don’t forget to check out our featured quotes and pictures on our Tumblr account, found at http://newberyreviewers.tumblr.com/.

1929: The Trumpeter of Krakow, a Tale of the Fifteenth Century

Verdict: Trash

Sally’s Rating: 2/5

Eric Kelly’s The Trumpeter of Krakow follows the adventures of Joseph, a young boy who gets caught up in a plot of intrigue, mystery, and magic in fifteenth-century Krakow. After getting accosted by a stranger, Joseph uncovers a family secret that is dangerous, powerful, and desired by others. This secret puts him face-to-face with danger, as his family must find a way to keep a mysterious crystal out of the wrong hands.

Despite having an intriguing plot, the story moves at a snail’s pace. Burdened by lots of description, especially in the action scenes, the book lost my interest about half way through. The Trumpeter of Krakow had the potential to be an exciting adventure, but its cast of characters were dull and lackluster. The one redeeming factor, though, was that the main female character got a chance to shine as the hero in one chapter of the book before getting relegated to the sidelines again as a supporting character. The problem is that the characters fail to drive the action, and, as a result, the story loses its sense of urgency. While it’s perfectly fine to have a plot-driven story, it’s hard to feel anything for the characters because their only purpose is support the plot rather than develop along with the story.

The city of Krakow is the true heart of the book. The author highlights every aspect of the city, writing his own little love letter to Poland, page by page. It was easy to imagine the trumpeter standing on top of the church tower, ready to play his melody, and envision the duel that happened on the street of pigeons. By the time the fire rages through the city, you feel as though you have walked through the ancient streets and alleys. Kelly is able to infuse his work with a sense of timelessness, which is further shown through the sketches by Polish artist Angela Pruszynska. For those who want to step back into fifteenth-century Poland, this book allows your imagination to whisk you away to that faraway world.

While The Trumpeter of Krakow falls prey to the weaknesses of the other 1920’s Newbery winners, it is one of the better ones of the decade – especially if you like historical fiction with a dash of intrigue.

1920s Newbery Medal Winners

1920s Newbery Books

We survived the 1920s. And let me tell you, it was an accomplishment. I think Sally and I are both hoping that the ensuing decades will go considerably faster than this first one.

Overall characteristics:

1. Lots and lots and lots of description. Did I say lots of description? Nearly every story described things to the point of pain.

2. Racism. Some more blatant than others. Only Gay-Neck basically had none. Dr. Dolittle was probably the worst, though terming Mexicans “breeds” for half-breeds in Smoky the Cowhorse was right up there.

3. Author diversity. Of the 8 authors, only 3 were American. Sadly, this first Newbery decade, with 5 non-American authors, equals the entire rest of the Newbery list. There have only been 5 non-American authors since 1930.

4. Male authors. Every single one of the authors was male, the only decade for which this is true. Overall, female authors outnumber men something like 60/40.

What I would read again/recommend:

I’d only recommend two of these books, The Voyages of Dr. Dolittle and Shen of the Sea. While both have problematic parts, which should be discussed with kids if you let them read these, the pacing problems which plague most of the rest of the selections are absent for these. They’re both fast, amusing reads.