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A Century of Distinguished Books for Young Readers - the John Newbery Medal Challenge

Here's how it started. At the 1921 ALA convention, Frederic G. Melcher proposed a new award, an annual medal named for pioneering publisher John Newbery and granted to the "most distinguished contribution to American literature for children." Melcher's idea was approved, and for the first honoree, the ALA sought nominations from its membership. 212 votes were cast, and a vast majority of them (163) suggested Hendrik Willem van Loon's The Story of Mankind. The next nearest title only received 22 votes. Obviously, this book had set itself apart, had shown itself to be truly distinguished. Here are the full details from that first year:

1922 Medal Winner: The Story of Mankind by Hendrik Willem van Loon (Liveright) Honor Books:

  • The Great Quest by Charles Hawes (Little, Brown)

  • Cedric the Forester by Bernard Marshall (Appleton)

  • The Old Tobacco Shop: A True Account of What Befell a Little Boy in Search of Adventure by William Bowen (Macmillan)

  • The Golden Fleece and The Heroes Who Lived Before Achilles by Padraic Colum (Macmillan)

  • The Windy Hill by Cornelia Meigs (Macmillan)

Members of 1922 Newbery Medal Selection Committee: Chair Clara W. Hunt, E. Gertrude Avey, Effie Lenore Power.

This year marks the 100th anniversary of this award, and in honor of the occasion, I am attempting to read (or reread) all the winning titles, reviewing them with a contemporary eye while providing relevant historical context. I'll start here at the beginning, with van Loon's 400+ page history text, but I have no intention of proceeding in order.

First, let's interrogate that annotation from ALA. According to John T. Gillespie and Corinne J. Naden's Newbery Companion, the popular vote method was overturned in favor of a selection committee three years after the award's inception, so who are these supposed committee members? Hunt was the 1921 Chair of ALA's Children's Librarian's Section (representing at that time only 4% of ALA's membership). Power was the Superintendent of Work with Children in the Cleveland Public Library, and Avey served as Head of the Children's Department of the Cincinnati Public Library.

These spaces devoted to books for children were relatively new as was, frankly, the idea of publishing books specifically intended to bring children joy. These women were the elected officers for the Children's Librarian's Section for 1922, so they oversaw the process. Irene Smith's excellent A History of the Newbery and Caldecott Medals explains that should there have been a close result in the voting process, "the final choice of the winning book would be left to a jury composed of the officers and four other leading children's librarians." As noted above, no such selection was necessary as van Loon absolutely walked away with this one.

The Modern City line drawing
illustrations by van Loon

As the title so boldly proclaims, this book is an attempt to regale youngsters with The Story of Mankind. It is surprisingly delightful. Well, most of the time. It does drag in spots. And then there's the issue of Africa and her people. Written in the years before 1921, van Loon is almost completely blind to the destructive racism that is present throughout history but hardly mentioned in this history. I will not minimize his blindness. Nor will I defend against the times he describes African people as little more than animals. These times are thankfully few, but the greater issue sits in his silence on (or perhaps his ignorance of?) the many contributions of Africa to our shared global history.

The reason I can still celebrate his book to the extent that I do is that I am certain he would view his work through the same critical lens and be heartbroken. Could he have found himself on the other side of this conversation and looked back along his omissions and condescension, he would roundly condemn them. I believe that because of the book he wrote and all the ways he showed us. I will highlight only a few.

At its most basic, this book claims to be a comprehensive (though shallow) review of humanity, from "the first living cell float[ing] upon the waters of the sea" to The Great War. Late in the book, he offers the following explanation to those who claimed he left out important figures such as the Mongols or Ireland:

There was but one rule. "Did the country or the person in question produce a new idea or perform an original act without which the history of the entire human race would have been different?"

Immediately thereafter, however, he explains that historians have as great a degree of specialization as doctors and should be chosen with the same type of attention. He describes his influences ("old-fashioned liberalism," Darwin, Montaigne, Erasmus, Bach, and others) and clarifies:

I state these few facts deliberately that you may know the personal bias of the man who wrote this history.

Over and over again, van Loon tries to be transparent about his bias. He insists upon ambiguity and uncertainty over pomp and pronouncement. He values science and acknowledges his own weaknesses, when he can see them. But he essentially ignores Africa except to discuss the many ways that continent and its people have been colonized, abused, or exploited. He does condemn slavery but does not acknowledge the ongoing pain for formerly enslaved people in the United States. He understands that slavery was the cause of the U.S. Civil War (unlike my high school history teacher in TN) and that countless colonizers have exploited "the natives" of many lands. But he doesn't grant the humanity of those African people or of the Indigenous people displaced and destroyed time and again.

So why am I convinced he would stand against the omissions of his former narrative? Because he rejects so many of the other elements of power and status that seduced his contemporaries. He mocks the "modern" fascination with being the "biggest" and (unlike other "little histories") gives significant time and space to the superiority of the ancient civilizations of Asia and the myriad things Europeans learned from them. And he writes this:

But when history is something more than a series of flattering speeches addressed to our own glorious ancestors, when to use the words of the German historian Ranke, we try to discover what "actually happened," then much of the past is seen in a very different light.

And this:

I want you to learn something more from this history than a mere succession of facts. I want you to approach all historical events in a frame of mind that will take nothing for granted. ... Try to discover the hidden motives behind every action and then you will understand the world around you much better and you will have a greater chance to help others, which (when all is said and done) is the only truly satisfactory way of living.

It is his writing about the idea of history and how to approach it that shows this book to still be valuable. That he has failed as others before and after him have similarly failed is no surprise. He threads throughout his narrative these moments where it is clear that what is important isn't this history but the study of, curiosity about, and reckoning with history. And for me, that is the heart of its success.

The book opens and closes (at least, the original as composed by van Loon; it was amended a few times over the years, including an addition made by his son) with images of perspective. The Foreword offers an extended story of the author as a boy of 12 or 13 being taken to the top of the tower of Old Saint Lawrence in Rotterdam. In itself, this story is wonderful, but as a metaphor it excels. Van Loon explains that history is like that tall tower, not easy to climb, but offering the grandest of views. He says, of his book,

Here I give you the key that will open the door. When you return, you too will understand the reason for my enthusiasm.

And at the end, he suggests that understanding the past can only take you so far. It is also valuable to cast your mind forward and imagine those humans thousands of years from now who will read of your era as but a page or two in their history texts. So much of what feels vital to us will be a mere glimmer if it is mentioned at all. This, too, is a type of perspective.

Van Loon wrote a history. For the most part, it is wry and wise and gentle. Sometimes it is unbearably dull. At times, it is deeply hurtful. It is not a book I could recommend without reservation, but should it now be cast off as unreadable? I do not know. I would recommend it over Gombrich's similar Little History of the World, which takes a much more Eurocentric stance, and I am glad to have read it, here, at the start of a very long journey indeed.


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