Dover Newbery Library

These books were received from the publisher for review consideration. No other compensation was received, and all opinions expressed are my own.

A while ago, I posted about some of the wonderful reprints available from Dover Publications. I’ve had several more sitting on my shelf for some time, and now I’ve finally gotten around to reading them. (Thank you for your patience, Dover!) These are all older Newbery Award or Newbery Honor books that are not so well known today, but worth a look.

The Windy Hill, a Newbery honor book by Cornelia Meigs (better known as the author of Invincible Louisa) is a brief but enjoyable tale of Medford Valley, a New England farming community that’s come under threat due to a family feud. The mystery is slight, the villain’s redemption too sudden and unfounded, but the teenage protagonists are engaging and the setting attractive. Readers must have patience for the interpolated historical tales that interrupt the main narrative, but their relevance does eventually becomes clear, and they provide much of the atmosphere and depth in the story.

Next I read It’s Like This, Cat, the Newbery winner for 1964. Oh, for the New York of yesteryear! A fourteen-year-old boy, alienated from his lawyer father, roams the city along with his alter ego, Cat. It was great fun to follow him from Coney Island to the New York Public Library to the Fulton Fish Market, while watching him grow up and find his own voice. Nostalgia was obviously not the main attraction when this was first published, but it’s a big part of the appeal now — although young readers may be perplexed by many of the outdated cultural references. Still, let them read the terrific opening line and see if it grabs them:

My father is always talking about how a dog can be very educational for a boy. This is one reason I got a cat.

I then leaped into sixteenth-century Portugal with Spice and the Devil’s Cave by Agnes Danforth Hewes, one of her four Newbery honor books. This is a historical adventure story based around the search for a sea route to the Indes, set in the Lisbon of Ferdinand Magellan, Vasco da Gama, and other famous explorers. Hewes’s leisurely, florid style hearkens back to a bygone age of historical fiction, but the tale is lively and colorful overall, and allows readers to enter into a fascinating, highly volatile era. Clashing cultures were a key feature of the age of exploration, and there are some interesting perspectives on that story here, though some groups are treated more sympathetically than others. When seen as individuals and not as racial types, the characters have so much energy and passion for their quest that it pulls us along as well.

Finally, the gorgeous Newbery honor book The Heavenly Tenants brought together the mundane and the transcendent, in a simple but lyrical story of how some visitors from the heavens come to take care of a Wisconsin farm while its family is away. This is a lovely introduction to the constellations of the zodiac for children, and readers of all ages will be enthralled by the evocative scratchboard illustrations. The Dover production is a high-quality hardcover on heavy, slightly glossy paper, a beautiful book to treasure for many years.

Once more, thanks to Dover Publications for bringing these gems from the past to my attention. I’ll be looking for others in their “Newbery library” to enjoy in the future.

New Reprint Review: The Winged Girl of Knossos

Erick Berry, The Winged Girl of Knossos (1934)

Ever since Betsy Bird put this long-lost Newbery honor book from 1934 at the top of her list of underrated middle grade books I’ve been dying to read it. And lo and behold, sometimes dreams do come true! Three years later, it’s back in print thanks to the fantastic folks at Paul Dry Books, with an afterword by Betsy herself.

Set in ancient Crete, The Winged Girl of Knossos starts out with a thrilling scene in which our heroine, Inas, goes deep sea diving for sponges — just for the fun of it, not because she needs the work — and the action doesn’t let up from there. She also takes a dramatic turn in the bull ring, helps out her friend Princess Ariadne who has inexplicably fallen for one of the boorish Greek captives, and comes to the rescue of her father Daedalus who is causing a stir with his outlandish inventions (including hang-glider-style wings that permit humans to soar with the birds). Danger abounds, but so do moments of beauty, artistry, and lyricism.

Having just done a reread of Mary Renault’s Theseus books it was interesting to revisit the mythical Crete and Knossos from another point of view. The discoveries at Knossos were quite new when the book was written, and Berry clearly enjoyed coming up with ways to put the fragments together into a cohesive and compelling narrative. She crams in more incidents, characters, and details than would probably fit in a soberly factual story, but her storytelling verve might well inspire young students to learn more about the truth behind the tale. And in the wonderfully energetic Inas, she’s created a heroine for the ages, one of the first and most memorable self-determining girls in the Newbery canon.

As an adult reader, I found myself sometimes missing a more introspective side to Inas’s adventures, and more character development than action, but at the target age range of around 9 to 12 I probably would not have sensed anything lacking. I think I would have been enchanted with this vision of a magical time and place, and would have simply loved flying, diving, sailing, adventuring, and intriguing with Inas.

Erick Berry was a pseudonym of Allena Champlin Best, who trained as an artist and illustrated most of her own books as well as those by her husband, Herbert Best. For this book, as well as several dramatic full-page illustrations, she created charming decorations drawn from Minoan artwork, all of which greatly enhance the text. The Paul Dry edition preserves these, while re-setting the text in an elegant and appropriate style. Overall, this is a rediscovery that no fan of children’s historical fiction, myth-inspired adventure stories, or Newbery-award books should miss.