Dear, Mr. Henshaw
by Beverly Cleary (1984)
(Coach J’s Choice)
The 63rd winner of the Newbery Award, Dear, Mr. Henshaw is a story of a sixth grade boy named Leigh Botts. Leigh has just moved to a coastal California community with his mom, following her split with Leigh’s dad, a cross-country trucker. This one-sided view of a child’s letters, and ultimately diary, is a reflection of author Beverly Cleary’s deep connection with the thoughts and psyche of our youth.
“Maybe it was the broccoli that brought Dad to Salinas, but he had come the rest of the way because he really wanted to see us. He had really missed us. I felt sad and a whole lot better at the same time.”
This book gets my first favorite spot for a number of reasons, not the least of which was the connection I felt with Leigh when I first read this story as a child. One of Cleary’s greatest strengths is how quickly she was able to develop a character from someone you just met, into a character in which you can see yourself. This book won’t wow or dazzle you with some of the art of recent winners, but many of us can relate to Leigh who is your average sixth grade pessimist: shy, stubborn, serious, and certainly emotion-evoking in his interpretation of the world as he sees it.
Last Stop on Market Street
by Matt de la Peña (2016)
(Books Awarded Between 1972 and 2021)
The 95th winner of the Newbery Medal, Last Stop on Market Street is the only book to win both a Newbery Award AND the Caldecott Award, the annual award given for children’s picture books; add a Coretta Scott King Award, and a #1 New York Times Bestseller to complement the award list. In this children’s story, CJ and his grandmother take the bus to the last stop on Market Street, where his grandma teaches him to see beauty in the world. She encourages him to be grateful for what he has, and to help those who may have less.
“Sometimes when you’re surrounded by dirt, you’re a better witness for what’s beautiful.”
This book is beautifully illustrated, and has a hopeful storyline where CJ is learning the lessons the world has to offer by taking the time to stop, look, and listen to his surroundings. For every wish or desire CJ has in the story, the grandmother uses words that professionals from Fortune 500 CEOs, to Buddhist Academics, might find in Marshall Rosenberg’s Nonviolent Communication: A Language of Compassion. Instead of seeing opportunities for conflict and begging for needs/wants, seek out those who you can help, and who can in turn help you. People are generous, and want to support each other. Let them, and go out of your way to help make other people’s dreams come true.
Shen of the Sea
by Arthur Bowie Chrisman (1926)
(Books Awarded Between 1922 and 1971)
The 5th winner of the Newbery Award, Shen of the Sea is a collection of short stories written and published in the United States. Each of the stories is focused on a key theme or moral, much like Grimm’s Fairy Tales. One example is “Buy a Father”, a short story about an emperor who disguises himself as a beggar while on a quest to find a son worthy to inherit the throne.
“You must learn that I, being without heir, dressed as a beggar, wandered the streets to find me a son as brave as Meng, as pure as Pao Shu, and as devoted as Wei. Such I found in you.”
While the collection appears themed in some grounding of Chinese folk tales, the author was born in Virginia and according to the dust cover traveled the Pacific-American coast and “…made the acquaintance of a genial Chinese shopkeeper [in California] who…greatly enriched Mr. Chrisman’s appreciation of Chinese customs and folk tales.”
Reviewing some of these “First Fifty” books will be better considered as historical glimpses into the mainstream cultural acceptance of the 1920s. The theme of this blog isn’t to take strong stances on cultural appropriation; however, it is certainly an important topic to consider with any historical literature. There will be instances of things written and awarded that would not necessarily be published today due to the increasing diversification of the United States, and more importantly, the ability for diverse groups of Americans to gain political and social positions to shift what we do consider appropriate and inappropriate in the 21st Century.