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2022 will mark the 100th anniversary of the Newbery Medal. In honor of this momentous event, I launched a project to read through each award-winner, starting with some background on the award and with commentary on the first medal winner: The Story of Mankind by Hendrik Willem van Loon. Today I take up the 1981 recipient: Jacob Have I Loved by Katherine Paterson.

L: the 2020 edition

Below: the edition I owned as a child

In 1980, the year Katherine Paterson's Jacob Have I Loved was published, the Rubik's Cube, CNN, Post-In Notes, and Pac-Man all made their debut. The average house cost $68,700. John Lennon was shot, and Mt. St. Helens erupted. Regarding the Newbery Medal, the details are as follows:


Jacob Have I Loved by Katherine Peterson (Crowell) Honor Books:

The Fledgling by Jane Langton (Harper)

A Ring of Endless Light by Madeline L'Engle (Farrar)

Members of 1981 Newbery Medal Selection Committee: Chair Ginny Moore Kruse, Mary P. Aiken, Joan E. Cole, Barbara H. Fischer, Paul Heins, Bradley Sue Howell, Clara O. Jackson, Sara L. Miller, Alice P. Naylor, Naomi Noyes, Susan Roman, Shelton L. Root, Jr. Diane M. Thompson, Thalia-Manon Tissot, L. Frances Ware.*

The problem with beloved older books is that, well, we tend to forget they are old. Place them on a shelf next to Pac-Man and a fifty cent loaf of bread, and it becomes more clear. Without those reminders, the books we read as children can hang around, feeling evergreen even though our memory of them is spare and clouded by nostalgia. Understanding that tendency, I picked up Jacob Have I Loved with caution because it was one of my very favorites as a young reader. Would it hold up? The answer, for me, is yes. And also very much no.

Almost violent in its portrayal of sibling jealousy and comparison, this book rang true for me as a young reader perhaps because, like the protagonist Louise, I was (am) the older sibling to a golden younger sister. What Paterson gets so very right in this book is the scraping woundedness that can be a part of adolescence. Twin sisters Sara Louise and Caroline are growing up on a fairly isolated island in Chesapeake Bay, and readers get to know that place and its people through the eyes of Louise (or Wheeze as her sister dubbed her early in life). Countless readers and the author herself have noted the apt connection between the isolation of an island and the loneliness that often accompanies young adulthood; for me, however, the sea is the better metaphor -- this time, mirroring the overlapping constancy of sisterhood.

Caroline is not evil, she does not torment her sister or gloat about her successes. She is kind and understandably beloved. Even when we see her through Louise's bruised eyes, she is no villain. But when Caroline begins to receive all the things Louise wants for herself - praise, boarding school, the friendship and patronage of the Captain, Call's affection - Louise is hurt, untethered, and convinced of her own insignificance. In truth, most of what Louise wants (and Caroline gets) is freedom, a sense that she can move independently through the world, away from the cloying familiarity of the island and out of the shadow of her sister.

So, yes, Jacob Have I Loved is about jealousy and sibling relationships and the painful intimacies involved. But it is really about growing up. What Sara Louise wants is what every young person wants: the freedom to become fully who you are, to be wholly visible and loved. Throughout the book, Louise is nagged by a need to claim or own things. What could seem merely natural first-person narration about "my mother," "my island, "my skiff" becomes pronounced as you get to know Louise and see her perched on the edge of so much wanting. She wants to be the star of so many stories, and when she isn't, it is often Caroline who is. When the twins were born, the story goes, it was Caroline who was weak and needy, and sturdy Louise was left alone in the basket as they tended to her twin. Where it is Call and Louise who sneak on their bellies to spy on the mysterious stranger and make friends with The Captain and discover Auntie Braxton collapsed on her floor surrounded by her many cats, it is Caroline who swoops in and manages to get all of the cats adopted around the island while Auntie Braxton recovers in the hospital.

When the last cat was placed, we went back to Auntie Braxton's. The Captain had put chairs on top of tables and was beginning to mop the floor with hot water and disinfectant. Call told him the whole story of Caroline's feat, house by house, cat by cat. They laughed and imitated the befuddled women at the door. Caroline through in imitations of the happy, drunken cats while the Captain and Call hooted with delight, and I felt as I always did when someone told the story of my birth.

Again we see Louise wanting to shine, wanting someone to see her as the hero of the story. Which is, of course, what Paterson has done. By giving Louise full voice, all the other characters shrink to fit her field of vision. So we see Louise's longing, and we recoil at her attraction to the much older Captain; we see her hatred of her grandmother, and we cringe at the naive missteps she takes along the way. We see all of Louise, and it is not always lovely. In her acceptance speech, Paterson says,

Novels, I have learned, tend to come out of the struggle with the untamed beast

and this wild quality is shown in Louise and her wrestle into adulthood.

If this book were published today, it would likely be classified as YA, and while books on the older end of the Newbery range ("up to and including fourteen") can be singled out with great success, today's award trends in the 10-12 range. Jacob Have I Loved, with its adult narrator looking back at herself as a teenager and tracing her story through to adulthood, marriage, and family, would not likely be included in the Newbery discussions. Another possibly limiting factor is the undercurrent of Christian faith in this book. Paterson, daughter of missionaries and active in her faith, makes the Methodist beliefs of the islanders a central character in the book, perhaps most pronounced in the figure of Louise and Caroline's grandmother who spits Bible verses at her family, often in anger and judgment.

Paterson's website includes an FAQ section with a question about the "presence (or lack) of religious content, specifically Christian, in recent children's literature (say the last 15 years or so)." Not knowing when this question was written, that timeframe can be interpreted in many ways, but many would assume it is born out of an increased desire in the world of publishing to swing wide the doors of welcome for books that do not feature WASP narratives. Whether there's been an actual decline in Christian content might rightly be doubted, but Paterson offers the following response:

Self-consciously Christian (or Jewish or Muslim) writing will be sectarian and tend to propaganda and therefore have very little to say to persons outside that particular faith community. The challenge for those of us who care about our faith and about a hurting world is to tell stories which will carry the words of grace and hope in their bones and sinews and not wear them like fancy dress.

Is this true? What does it mean to be "self-consciously" faithful? As a WASP girl raised in the Methodist church, I am the opposite of "outside" the community of Paterson's novel, so it is no surprise it might have much to say to me. But what does it say now -- and perhaps the more important question, what did it say then -- to readers "outside that particular faith community?" What did the 1981 Newbery committee have to overlook or set aside to land on these three titles, all featuring white girls, written by white women, two of which wrote openly about their Christian faith? Or perhaps it is a question of what the publishing industry failed to produce, leaving the committee no choice?

A 2008 report revealed that there were fewer Black or Hispanic protagonists in Newbery medal winners from 1980-2007 than there had been from 1951-1979. Then ALSC president Pat Scales is quoted as saying children deserve a more "global" view reflective of their experiences. Though the shift in attention is certainly appreciated, today's readers are left wondering about all the stories that we missed celebrating in those years.


* 1981 was the first year since the 1937 establishment of the Caldecott Award that separate committees were formed for each award. Thus, this committee was only responsible for the Newbery selection.

One word, weekly. Found in a book. Shared with you.

Word: Prink

Definition: (v) primp

Origin: prob. alternative of prank - to show oneself off, to dress or adorn gaily or showily [prob. from D pronken to strut; akin to MHG gebrunkel glitter of metal]

Source: "Consolation to His Wife" by Plutarch, collected in Phillip Lopate's The Art of the Personal Essay

I was told by those who were present and found your conduct remarkable that you did not put on mourning nor induce any uncomeliness or unseemliness in yourself or in your servants, that there was no preparation for extravagant solemnities at the grave, but that everything was done decently and quietly with only the family in attendance. For my part I was not surprised, for you would never prink for the theater or processions, but even for pleasurable outings thought that extravagance was useless and maintained your sensible moderation even among people who looked askance at it. It is not only in bacchic celebrations that a virtuous woman must remain uncorrupted, but in sorrow too she must remember that excess is to be avoided and that transports of emotion require to be controlled; it is not her love, as the many think, that she must fight against, but the incontinence of her soul.

Let's pause for just a moment to address three things about this word:

  1. Who knew that prank had a secondary meaning associated with strutting and glitter?

  2. Urban Dictionary indicates this word may also now refer to the portmanteau of pre and drink, such as what one might do in one's apartment to calm one's anxiety before going to meet up with friends for the first time since a dreadful pandemic forced us all to stay home.

  3. Urban Dictionary also suggests this word can be a mild derogative similar to (but "cleaner" than) prick.

With that established, I think we can all (except, I guess, Phillip Lopate) agree that Plutarch was a first-class prink always prinking himself before the mirror of his small fame, leading me to want to day-prink just to get through this essay. Lopate quotes classicist and translator Moses Hadas on Plutarch's "unexampled reverence for womanhood, a touching tenderness for little children . . . his humanitarianism." Lopate piles on the praise, claiming that this essay, as translated by Hadas, "displays all of Plutarch's sympathetic tendencies" and is "often considered the most attractive example of the [consolation] form, because of its genuineness of feeling and touching directness."

This piece appears to be a letter written by Plutarch to his wife upon learning of the death of their young daughter. It is possible that the version that survived was revised by Plutarch for a public audience due to its didactic tone of moral instruction though there is no evidence of an earlier version. Readers, including Lopate, often refer to the intimacy achieved by Plutarch, achieved by his willingness to balance that public instruction with personal details and anecdotes from his life. There are also those who commend this letter as one that shows him to be generous and loving, especially toward his wife, the supposed recipient of this letter.

I cannot agree. He may have been all those things, but I do not see how this letter provides proof of it. Imagine, please, that your toddler has died while your partner is away. Imagine that you have managed the household in his absence, made all the arrangements for the funeral and other public observations while dealing with your own considerable grief upon this most terrible loss. Imagine, too, that you've perviously lost not one but TWO children, and that your partner was also absent on the occasion of at least one of them. Imagine sending him news of your child's death and then hearing nothing in response for an unreasonable amount of time. Your absent partner neither returns home nor writes in response to this loss as you continue to manage the aftermath.

Now, imagine you finally receive a letter from him, which opens with the excuse that the messenger "apparently missed me" and the assumption that the funeral has already taken place and then offers this warning:

if I find your grief exceeds due measure I shall be more greatly distressed than by the misfortune itself.

There's nothing you can do to change the response you have had to your child's death. This is not instruction to you for how to proceed. This is the promise of judgement upon your actions; this is a threat. Did you catch it? If you haven't handled yourself just exactly as I expect, I will be more upset by that than by the death of our child.

You can argue Stoicism to me until you are blue in the face. You can explain to me the philosophical underpinnings or demonstrate the countless ways grief displays were overblown during Plutarch's time. You can argue that Plutarch's wife agreed with these views, even led the way on them, and I will still think this is a reprehensible response to loss.

Scholars will argue that what Plutarch does here so well is demonstrate all the ways Plutarch and his wife are special, exceptional, worthy to be held up as exemplars in grief as in happiness. And that he does. He celebrates his wife's great response to grief and contrasts others who have not met their tragic moments as admirably. He has heard of how quietly she has performed her grief, aligning her status as a "virtuous woman" with her ability to control her emotion. He urges her to "take no account of the tears and lamentations of visitors who follow the tiresome custom of paying condolence calls" and to remember that all those people envy her. He commends her in all these things, but only because she has - he assumes - behaved in a way he would agree with. His praise of her is really praise of her adherence to his views. He spends all this time setting her apart, but it always feels to me that it is himself he's elevating.

And then, in the final paragraphs, he shifts to the abstract, discussing the soul and its varying states determined by how long it had been "caged" in the body before closing with a more general exhortation regarding traditional laws and usages. Plutarch shifts to the 1st person plural, calling upon a collective we and referring to our laws before ending this letter -- a letter to his grieving wife -- with this:

And now inasmuch as it is harder to reject our traditions than to trust them, let us comport ourselves outwardly as the laws prescribe, and let our inward conduct be even more untainted and pure and sensible.

Imagine knowing that your partner has exploited the death of your child to grow his influence in the public forum. Imagine reading this letter and feeling the eyes of all the world reading over your shoulder and knowing it is really to them he is writing. Imagine.

If prink means primp, and primp means to conscientiously prepare oneself for the public eye, I am comfortable making the argument that this whole letter is an encouragement to prink, and all these centuries later, I just hope that poor woman didn't live her whole life in fear of her husband. I hope she got to grieve, to tear her hair, to scream into the void, to wear sackcloth and ashes, or to rent her garments in the Public Square as she cried out to the universe, Why? Why? Why must my child be gone?

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