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 1964 recipient: It's Like This, Cat by Emily Cheney Neville.
Winner: It's Like This, Cat by Emily Cheney Neville (Harper)
Rascal: A Memoir of a Better Era by Sterling North (Dutton)
The Loner by Ester Wier (McKay)
Members of the1964 Newbery Medal Selection Committee: Chair Helen R. Sattley, Augusta Baker, Florence W. Butler, Laura E. Cathon, Sarah Dickinson, May H. Edmonds, Sara I. Fenwick, Ruth Gaglliardo, Christine Gilbert, Isabella Jinnette, Helen Kinsey, Frances Lee, Rosemary E. Livsey, Margaret McFate, Marilyn Miller, Barbara S. Moody, Faith T. Murdoch, Joan Osowski, Margaret Poarch, Elsa Posell, Helen Renthal, Spencer G. Shaw, Arlene H. Thorp.
Published first as a serial from 1945-1946 and then as a novel in 1951, J.D. Salinger's Catcher in the Rye shocked the world with its groundbreaking narrative voice and the meandering style that opened Holden's world to readers in such authentic detail. In 1961, the film version of Truman Capote's Breakfast at Tiffany's introduced the world to the inimitable Holly Golightly and the cat whose only name is Cat. And then, in 1964, Emily Neville's It's Like This, Cat was awarded the Newbery Medal by the same committee who selected Maurice Sendak's Where the Wild Things Are to receive the Caldecott Medal. For the first time, both medal-winning books had been brought to the world by the same editor: Ursula Nordstrom.
Listening to the audio recording of the ceremony, you can hear committee chair Helen Sattley giving the introduction to the award presentation, describing the wave of reactions that occurred as the committee realized what they had done. Ultimately, however, they landed on "So what? We have been thinking about the books. The publisher doesn't matter." The recording does not reveal the hint of a smile that must have been on Sattley's face, but it does record the roll of laughter that moved through the room in the pause immediately following. Laughter, for everyone in the room was aware of just how much a publisher can matter, especially when that editor is Ursula Nordstrom.
Even if you've never heard of Nordstrom, you know her work and the writers she worked with: E. B. White, Laura Ingalls Wilder, Meindert DeJong, Ruth Krauss, Margaret Wise Brown, Shel Silverstein, Louise Fitzhugh, John Steptoe, Maurice Sendak, and many more. Nordstrom was often light years ahead of her peers, pushing children's literature to move beyond the saccharine morality of those stories preferred by adults. When Anne Carroll Moore asked her "what qualified her, a nonlibrarian, nonteacher, nonparent, and noncollege graduate to publish children's books?" she famously replied,
Well, I am a former child, and I haven't forgotten a thing.
I suppose I should admit here that I am an unabashed, full-throated fan of Ursula Nordstrom. 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." 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.
The book is about Dave Mitchell, an ordinary boy living in New York City with his somewhat anxious mother and his lawyer father who "is always talking about how a dog can be very educational for a boy. This is one reason I got a cat." As these opening two sentences reveal, Dave and his father do not see eye to eye. Dave tells his own story from his own perspective in his own voice, a true 1st-person narrative which reads like Holden Caulfield but less . . . Holden-y. The rest of the book has a plot, but barely -- also like Salinger. Dave meets people who teach him things about himself and his family, loses Cat and finds him again, and gets to know Mary, a girl who likes Cat, which is just one of the things Dave likes about her. There is so much that feels real and true in It's Like This, Cat, a feeling of authenticity, like Dave is a kid you could have overheard on the subway any day of the week. And perhaps that is because his New York City feels so alive and real. Besides that narrative voice, it is the setting that sets this book apart.
Dave is all the time walking or riding his bike or taking the subway or bus (if he has the money for the fare) around the city, and Neville is able to make it feel familiar and fully lived-in, even for those readers who might never have visited New York. Like Holden Caulfield, Dave Mitchell gets into odd bits of trouble and like Holden, he meanders his way around the city, sharing scenes and images in bright, gleaming snippets, like this perhaps too-obvious nod to her librarian audience:
Along the way I walk through the library, the big one at Forty-second Street. You go in by the lions on Fifth Avenue, and there's all kinds of pictures and books on exhibit in the halls, and you walk through to the back, where you can take out books. It's nice and cool, and nobody glares at you unless you either make a lot of noise or go to sleep.
Neville wanted to write a story about New York, and she has done it. She also, like Nordstrom, believed that there should be books for older children, books that recognize that teens are growing and stretching and can no longer live in the easy worlds where parents are always perfect and the "villains are ogres in modern clothes." She explains that books like that are safe because the reader need never see themself as the villain. They can say, "it has nothing to do with us" and move on, safe in their conviction that they are good. But "what an author can do," Neville insists as she concludes her speech, "is show the ways and moments where lack of humanity can seem overwhelmingly attractive and show also the shimmering moments when real people actually fulfill the miracle of being a human being." Instead of staying in the comfortable world where good and evil occupy opposite sides of the story, she urges her readers to "stay out where the real people are."
It's Like This, Cat is not one of my favorite Newbery winners. The voice and setting are strong though a bit derivative, and the vignette style leaves the reader feeling like nothing much happens, even as the Civil Rights movement and Vietnam and everything else should have been falling in heaps around them. But then again, that's what real life is like, is it not? Days on days of ordinary events, where nothing much happens, or so it seems. And even though it is now largely ignored when the history of the genre is recounted, It's Like This, Cat was still a landmark achievement, an important step in the emergence of Young Adult literature as a distinct genre.
Despite my misgivings and current readers' indifference, that 1964 committee was doing something remarkable. As K. T. Horning explains beautifully, writing in The Horn Book in 2015,
They were risk-takers who were able to embrace a changing world, even if they were unsure of what that terrain would be like, out beyond the library shelves of sunny, happy stories published in the Golden Age of children's books, out here in the future, where the wild things and the real people are.