1922 Honor: The Golden Fleece and the Heroes Who Lived Before Achilles

VERDICT: Meh

Sally’s Rating: 2.5/5

Padraic Colum’s The Golden Fleece and the Heroes Who Lived Before Achilles, the runner up to the 1922 Newbery Medal, tells the epic tale of Jason and the Argonauts as they venture out on a quest to find and retrieve the mythic Golden Fleece.

The book is divided into three distinct, varying-in-quality sections. The first part covers the introduction of the heroes and the gods, the second part narrates the finding of the Golden Fleece, and the last segment meanders along with random tales of what happened to the heroes after their voyage. The main quest was entertaining enough to read with a prominent cast of legendary characters made up of Jason, Heracles, Atalanta, and Orpheus, but the final section questionably breaks away from the main quest to focus on random stories featuring the secondary characters who are not as interesting to read about when they are off on their own.

The writing style is very similar to what I’d call textbook-style mythology: it’s a straight up narrative with little character introspection. The language might be a little archaic for modern readers, but its very simplistic plot makes it accessible to those who may struggle with the style. It reads like a young person’s version of the mythology textbook that would be read in college, and its long page count makes it a chore to get through.

I’d only recommend this Newbery Honor for those who love epic quests and bigger-than-life characters. Lovers of Greek mythology will find some merit in this book as the tale is one for all ages.

1922 Honor: The Windy Hill

VERDICT: Trash

Sally’s Rating: 1.5/5

The Windy Hill by Cornelia Meigs was anything but a breezy read. Oliver and his sister, Janet, spend the summer with their cousin, Jasper, but end up solving a mystery that is connected to their family history. When Oliver finds that somebody is harassing his cousin about property claims, he takes an interest in the local area’s history and befriends the local storyteller, the Beeman.

The Beeman’s stories are interspersed throughout the novel, and surprisingly, are some of the best parts of The Windy Hill. If this book was just a selection of folklore, I would of graded it less harshly as the author has some skill in relating these stories in a colorful and meaningful way. The most interesting story tells of an Indian boy who is curious about what lies beyond the ocean despite his people’s distrust of the sea.

No doubt this was a thrilling adventure in the 1920s, but nowadays, this novel is a fairly slow and tedious read. The writing style feels outdated and the plot moves along at a leisurely pace. The main characters, except for the Beeman and his daughter, lack vibrant personalities.

If interested in reading The Windy Hill, you can find it for free on the internet. While I wouldn’t recommend it to young readers, it does give you an interesting glimpse into what was considered an entertaining book in the 1920s.

1925 Honor: The Dream Coach (The Kind With Horses)

VERDICT: Treasure?

Laurinda’s Rating: 3/5

The Dream Coach was one of the 1925 Newbery Honor book. It’s a series of loosely connect stories told in folktale/fairytale style. In it, the Dream Coach, pulled by a team of horses, brings dreams to four children, who each need dreams for different reasons.

The dreams are mildly entertaining. Each is fairly original and disconnected from the others. In the first one, a lonely princess receives a funny dream to cheer her after a celebration of her birthday which fails to actually include her. A Norwegian boy dreams life into the objects around him, including a snowman that comes alive. Interestingly, the snowman is evil when his mouth is attached as a frown but jolly when it’s a smile. The Little Emperor of China is keeping a wild bird caged in his chambers, so an angel delivers dreams in which the Emperor is similarly confined, increasing the child’s empathy and leading to the release of the bird. In the final story, a French peasant boy, enticed by his uncle’s stories of exotic travels, imagines each of his family members as elements: grandma is water, grandpa is snow, uncle is wind, etc.

The stories themselves are imaginative and at least slightly amusing. They also address some of the key fears and insecurities of young children: being left alone, being trapped, etc. However, being from 1925, there IS some casual racism, primarily in unflatteringly stereotypical descriptions of characters. These primarily refer to Chinese characters (cartoonish physical description, spoilt emperor, fat advisors) and black ones (always cast as hulking servants/slaves). Some of the illustrations display the same qualities.

This wasn’t a bad read, particularly considering when it was written. The narrative moves along at a decent pace, interspersing prose narrative with verse interludes. For people interested in narratives with a traditional feel but new content, the book is an interesting read. I’d say it’s best for kids in mid elementary school, though the themes are perfectly accessible to younger children. If you can’t find a physical copy of the book, a public domain copy of The Dream Coach is available here. The formatting is a little funky, but the main content is there.

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.

1929: The Trumpeter of Krakow (Shiny Objects are Dangerous)

VERDICT: Trash

Laurinda’s Rating: 2

The Trumpeter of Krakow, Eric Kelly’s 1929 Newbery Medal Winner, falls into the genre of (a)historical fiction. The story opens in 1241, with the sacking of Krakow by the Tartars. During the attack, a youth kept his oath to sound the Heynal (trumpet song) at the Church of Our Lady Mary; it cost him his life. Ever after, the Heynal ended where the youth’s song was broken by a Tartar arrow. Although the practice itself is ancient, Kelly’s is the first written version of this particular story. Whatever. Kelly does a good job selling the story.

The main narration begins in 1461. We meet a family fleeing to Krakow from their estate in Ukraine. They carry only a pumpkin. It must have been a very special pumpkin, considering that pumpkins are native to the Americas and hadn’t yet been introduced to Europe. Details. On the road into Krakow, the horseman attempts to divest the Charnetski family of their pumpkin. The son Joseph’s quick thinking helps the family avoid that fate. After discovering that the family with whom they hoped to take shelter had been forced out of the city by a mob, the Charnetskis change their name and take up residence with a scholar/alchemist. The father, Andrew, takes the oath at the Church of Our Lady Mary and becomes the night trumpeter. Joseph makes friends with the alchemist’s niece, Elzbietka, and enrolls in the college.

The stranger they met on the road, Peter the Button Face (so named for a scar, not because he was cute), finds the family by chance and attacks their dwellings. The alchemist, Kreutz, helps repel the men through the application of Greek fire (though it’s really because the men think he’s a demon). However, in the kerfuffle, the gem hidden in the pumpkin is “lost”. The Charnetskis assume Peter has it, while he assumes the opposite. Thus, they suffer his attentions once more, when he and his men bottle them up in the tower from which they play the Heynal. Joseph signals Elzbietka by adding notes to the Heynal. She, in turn, braves brigands and summons the Watch to help them. As always, Peter slips away.

That crystal? Turns out that Kreutz, overcome by the powers of the Great Tarnov Crystal, kept it. The crystal supposedly holds the secrets to everything. Kreutz’s apprentice takes over his mind and forces him to seek the key to transforming brass to gold. The process doesn’t quite go as planned. Instead, they blow up the house and start a fire that destroys a third of the city. A befuddled Kreutz reappears after the blaze dies down and is immediately snagged by Pan Andrew when he sees the gem. The whole cavalcade present the gem to the King, telling him its entire history. In the meantime, the King’s guard had captured Peter, who reveals that the crystal was to be the Golden Horde’s price for overrunning Ukraine (Polish territory at that time). Crazy Kreutz grabs the crystal and hurls it into the river. The end. Ok, not quite. Joseph gets a degree, marries Elzbietka, and returns to his father’s restored estate to manage it. The end? Nope. The author sticks in an epilogue, in which he feels the need to provide a detailed description of Krakow in 1926.

Like most of the 1920’s books, this one was tediously over-described. In this instance, I suspect the author was trying to cram as much of his research into the book as possible. If you were so inclined, you could probably use the descriptions to map out 1461 Krakow and draw pictures of the buildings, people, Tartar wolf-dogs, fake Armenia wool merchants etc. I’m not, so the language just slowed down the pacing of the book. Also, the author clearly had a complicated view of magic/alchemy and the muddled depiction limits the power of it as a plot device. Ex: The Great Crystal has X, Y, and Z powers. Oh, but it’s probably just caused by hypnosis like that practiced today. Fine, but the characters believed in the supernatural/magic, so the author’s injection of explanations is completely unnecessary and weakens that plot point.

I didn’t hate the book. The overall plot existed. It wasn’t extremely riveting, but it certainly beat Smoky and Gay-Neck. The use of a pumpkin drove me nuts. THEY AREN’T ON THAT CONTINENT YET. Ahem, sorry. The moral of this story? Avoid shiny objects. The Great Crystal of Tarnov brought only pain to its owners and almost triggered the destruction of an entire nation.