And the Newbery Goes to…Red Sails to Capri?!
History overturned! Recently the infamous decision of the 1953 Newbery committee—to award the medal to Ann Nolan Clark’s llama snoozer, Secret of the Andes, instead of two E.B. White’s transcendent Charlotte’s Web—was voided.
What actually happened was this: A group of graduate students in the Simmons College Center for the Study of Childrens Literature master’s-degree programs loosely reenacted the decision with me as facilitator, as is done every year. The "committee's" decision to withhold the medal from Secret of the Andes was not particularly shocking - it happens every year - but its ultimate winner was: For the first time, Charlotte's Web did not win handily. The committee, in what was clearly something of a contrarian gesture, chose to award the medal to Red Sails to Capri, by Ann Weil.
Contrarian or no, I was delighted. Mind you, I adore Charlottes Web. But in readying myself for this yearly project, I have read and reread all six of the books named by the 1953 Newbery committee as winner and honors, and I find it tragic that the only ones we remember are Secret of the Andes and Charlotte's Web. (And the only reason we remember Secret of the Andes is for the ignominy of its elevation above the universally acclaimed classic.)
Eloise Jarvis McGraws Moccasin Trail paints a powerful picture of the American West at the moment of its taming. Jim Keath, 19, ran away from home with his trapper uncle at the age of 11 and shortly thereafter was adopted by Crow Indians after a near-fatal tangle with a bear. Restless, he has left the Crow for the solitary life of a trapper, but the beavers are just about gone. He is reunited with his younger siblings on the banks of the Columbia; they are heading to the Willamette Valley and need Jim to sign the claim. McGraw's sympathetic prose describes Jim's internal struggle between his white and Crow identities and creates in this lost American West an objective correlative for that conflict.
Alice Dalgliesh’s The Bears on Hemlock Mountain sends a much-younger her - eight-year-old Jonathan - over Hemlock Mountain, where, his mother insists, there are no bears, just as winter begins to give way to spring. Jonathan's mantra - "There are no bears on Hemlock Mountain, / No bears, no bears at all, / Of course there are no bears on Hemlock Mountain. / No bears, no bears, no bears, no bears at all" - propels him up and over the titular mountain and prepares readers for what they and Jonathan knew all along: "There…are…bears!" Dalgliesh’s simple, folkloric rhythms make this story a glorious read-aloud as well as a delightful chapter book for newly independent readers.
Genevieve Foster's Birthdays of Freedom—well, to be honest, I don't find its erasure from our collective memory particularly tragic. It's a game attempt to chronicle the early moments in history that led to the United States’ independence, starting with the discovery of fire and speech and moving through benchmark moments in Egyptian, Chinese, Middle Eastern, Greek and Roman history. Foster's viewpoint is hopelessly dated - the section on Moses’ liberation of the Israelites never uses the words "Jewish" or "Judaism" and elides the Torah into the Old Testament—and her argument flags at points. She has a little trouble justifying the overrunning of Rome by the Gothic hordes as a birthday of freedom, for instance, but she does, so insistent is she on her thesis. It is out of print, and likely to remain so.
And Ann Weil’s Red Sails to Capri, with its tale of young Michele Pagano, the innkeepers’ son, who befriends the three foreigners who sail into the harbor of Capri on their boat with red sails? Every time I read it, I am charmed. Weil’s themes - that "we never look at the things we see most often" and that one must always be open to discovery - play themselves out in events large and small throughout the book. Dialogue paints endearing portraits of its speakers; each character comes to life as a person readers would love to meet. Fisherman Angelo’s consideration of time is just the first of many jewel-like moments scattered through the book:
"Listen to the boy! He speaks as if minutes grew on trees - thousands at a time. Minutes are like that. Theyre all strung together in a straight line, holding hands, and if you lose one, it is gone and - but no,…now that I think about it Im not so sure. Theres your minute, and my minute, and our good friend Salaro over there, he has a minute which is different from ours. You know, I never thought about it before, but perhaps minutes are all spread out around us, like leaves and grains of sand."
And it's funny. Signora Pagano's strike to protest the rank stupidity of her husband, son and guests in their insistence on exploring the forbidden cove on the other side of the island is nothing short of hysterical: "By the end of the week they had all learned to sleep in Lord Derby's lumpy beds, to eat Monsieur Jacques’ impossible cooking, and not to look at Herre Nordstroms half-washed dishes. They learned, too, to smile sweetly at Signora Pagano when she walked through the inn or in the patio. She herself, when the others were out of the way, slipped into the kitchen and fixed herself all kinds of wonderful-smelling food. And this was the hardest of all to bear."
Was Red Sails to Capri really "the most distinct contribution to American literature for children" of 1953? Well, our informal "committee" thought so, and I am thrilled we were able to give it some belated recognition, however tiny. Weils’ tale is a thoroughgoing delight.
Vicky Smith is the Children's & Teen Editor at Kirkus Reviews.