Two more Newbery’s down. After these two, I am ready for some that do not feature animals as their main characters.
Book: Gayneck: The Story of A Pigeon
Author: Dhan Gopal Mukerji
Something about the author: This is one where I find the story of the author much more compelling than the book itself. Mukerji, born in India in 1890, was destined to be a high caste priest. He took himself out of that tract, however, travelled to America, went to Stanford, and began lifelong relationships with freethinkers and radicals of the day. He became very involved in the movement to bring independence to India and was a friend of Gandhi. Mukerji became the first successful Indian author in the United States – a claim certainly boosted by the Newbery award. He was a harsh critic of what he saw as mindless cultural trends of the times. In a lecture in New York, Mukerji blasted the popular novel of the day, Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, by stating, “It is much better to take opium and put your brain to sleep than to put it to sleep with such nighmares as this. The curse of cleverness is a blight on the English language.” [NYT 2/6/28] Mukerji wrote several other works during his life, but sadly hanged himself in 1936 at the age of 46 after a prolonged bout of mental issues.
What it’s about: This was a tough one for me. It was less than 200 pages, but it was incredibly slow paced. Gay-Neck (yeah, I know), is one of the pigeons raised by a young Indian boy. The book is the life trajectory of the bird as it loses it parents, recovers from various traumas to become one of the bravest and smartest pigeons around, and ultimately becomes a carrier pigeon in World War I. There is a lot in here about the connection between man and animal and the outrageous atrocities that are inflicted on both. It is a rather slow ride and I was particularly not into the long sections told in the pigeons voice.
Year it won: 1928
Somethings about that year: The first television station started broadcasting daily programming in Schenectady, New York. In Chillicothe, Missouri, the first machine-sliced and wrapped loaves of bread came off the line and were sold. This was a long time ago, folks!
Favorite part: There are some really cool woodblock type illustrations by Boris Artzybasheff. Isn’t that a great name for an artist?
Favorite character: During periods when he is troubled and unsure, Gay-Neck falls in with a bunch of swifts. I really liked those swifts. They built cool nests and just seemed to want to hang out and stay out of trouble.
Book: Mrs. Frisby and The Rats of NIMH
Author: Robert C. O’Brien
Something about the author: Robert C. O’Brien was the pen name of Robert Conly, a writer for magazines such as Newsweek and National Geographic. He started writing children’s books after he developed glaucoma and couldn’t drive anymore. He moved closer to his office and the time he saved in commuting, he used to write children’s books. Conly wrote under a pseudonym because National Geographic did not approve of its writers doing outside writing.
What it’s about: Mrs. Frisby is a widow field mouse living with her children in a hole in a farmer’s field. Shortly before the spring plow, her son gets sick and despite being cured by the medicine provided by a local mouse MD, he cannot be moved to the summer house for fear of relapse. This all leads to Mrs. Frisby becoming acquainted with the rats of NIMH. This is a remarkable colony of rodents possessing human-like abilities such as reading, machine building, and all things logical. NIMH, it turns out, stands for the National Institute of Mental Health, where the founders of the colony were trained as lab rats, experimented upon, and ultimately escaped. The book is full of adventures and ahas!
Year it won: 1972
Somethings about that year: In 1972 Richard Nixon was re-elected and the Watergate debacle came to light. People also started sporting awesome digital watches and taking photos with the Kodak 110 Pocket Instamatics.
Favorite part: Of course, I very much liked the description of the lab at the NIMH and the experiments that the rats went through. The idea for the book came from the experiments conducted at the real NIMH by J.B. Calhoun, and seem very true to form.
Favorite character: Justin, the plucky rat who rescues Mrs. Frisby after she was caught by the farmer’s child and put into a cage. There are a lot of close calls in this book!