The Windy Hill

Well, as I finished this book a few days before Thanksgiving, it’s really time I reviewed it, no?

Firstly, how great is it that it didn’t take the Newberry committee decades to honor a woman writer? Cornelia Meigs won the Newberry Honor a few times, and finally the Medal in 1934 with Invincible Louisa (which I cannot WAIT to read, as I probably read Little Women a fifty times over as an adolescent).

The Windy Hill is, firstly, a mystery. Young teenagers Oliver and Janet stay with their cousin Jasper for a summer, and befriend Polly and the Beeman. Jasper behaves strangely and erratically when a stranger intrudes on Jasper’s house, and Polly is determined to find out why. Through the Beeman’s fantastical stories and Oliver’s dogged curiosity, the siblings solve the mystery and save the town. It’s all very neat and adorable, but I must admit I was quite taken with The Windy Hill. Perhaps it was because Meig’s narration was far less stiff than her 1922 medalists’ counterparts. Perhaps it was because her story seemed more contemporary and far less historical. But I think it was more because the storytelling was good. The Beeman’s stories (chapter-length stories within the story) were simply transportive. The setting was quaint and the drama engaging. And yes, the story ended neatly and didactically, but isn’t that an expectation of literature written for children? We’re supposed to teach the little buggers a lesson, aren’t we? And somehow, Meigs manages this gracefully.

Why don’t grown-up people tell us things? It is miserable to be old enough to notice when affairs go wrong but not to be old enough to have them explained.

1922 Winners

Here we go! I’m going to try to read the Newberry and Caldecott Medal books chronologically if I can, starting with the book that won the medal, and then moving on to the honor books. Since the Caldecott award wasn’t given until several years after the Newberry, it’ll be all Newberry here for a while.

What I’ll be reading:

The Newberry Medal winner of 1922, the very first Newberry Medal-winner, was The Story of Mankind (from which this project gets its name!) by Hendrik Willem van Loon. The honor books are:

  • The Great Quest, by Charles Hawes
  • Cedric the Forester, by Bernard Marshall
  • The Old Tobacco Shop: A True Account of What Befell a Little Boy in Search of Adventure, by William Bowen (what a title!)
  • The Golden Fleece and The Heroes Who Lived Before Achilles, by Padraic Colum, and
  • The Windy Hill, by Cornelia Meigs.

The 20s were a time of enjoyment and excess, and I’m expecting the winners from early in this decade to reflect the kind of “top of the world” feelings many Americans enjoyed. I was really excited to see a woman medalist so early on in the winner’s list. But I’ve already run into my first bit of trouble–some of these books are out of print and not easy (or affordable) to find! I’ve only been able to find 2 of these titles at the library, and one other is available as a Kindle book, even though it’s been out of print for a few decades. Not my favorite way to read a book (especially since I don’t actually have a Kindle–I’ll have to read it on my phone or laptop), but it’s better than spending a fortune on an out-of-print book. Anyone know where I can get a copy of Cedric the ForesterThe Old Tobacco Shop, or The Windy Hill? I’ve been struggling with those!

The Newberry Medal is given to a book published the year prior, so all the 1922 winners were published in 1921. So what did 1921 in America look like? (I’m not a historian by any measure, so help me out!

We were still coming off the Great War, and even though WW1 ended in 1918, we didn’t formally end the war with Germany until 1921. The war with Europe–still regarded as one of the most bloody and brutal wars the earth has seen–was still fresh in everybody’s minds.

Sacco and Vanzetti were found guilty for murder in a highly contentious trial fueled by the shaky state of American race relations:

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Flapper girls and cloche hats hadn’t quite taken off yet, but flapper styles were growing in popularity. Little kids looked a lot like they do now, only with cooler skates.

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Sears houses were popular, and many looked like this:

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Alcohol was illegal, which of course means people drank a lot of it.

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And women had only been voting since August, 1920.

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The Jazz Age, the Golden Twenties, the Roaring Twenties. It was a time of Babe Ruth and music, dancing and gin. It was a revival–both economically and socially–after the destruction of WW1.

How do you think the Newberry Medal winners will reflect the early 1920s?

“It was my first glimpse of the big world.” -HWvL

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Since 1922, the author of the best American children’s book of the year earns the Newberry Medal. A similar honor, the Caldecott Medal, is given to the illustrator of the best picture book, and has been awarded since 1938. Many of the Newberry and Caldecott winners live in our memories as our favorite childhood books. Many of them may be entirely new to us.

I want to read these books. All of them. Including the runners up.

I’ve been a bookworm since I began reading. And even as an adult, children’s books have remained my favorite books. And why not? Books written for children are magical. Beautiful. Devastating. Honest. Humble. Fun. And they teach us something (which is not always the same thing as educational).

The first winner of the Newberry Medal was Hendrick Willem van Loon’s The Story of Mankind, an illustrated “history of the world” book. In that book’s forward, van Loon writes about climbing “to the top of the tower” of St. Laurenskerk church in Rotterdam, the Netherlands (xix). Climbing to the top, and taking in the city from that height “was [his] first glimpse of the big world” (van Loon xxi). And isn’t a good children’s book just that?  They take us to the top of something, and we understand better.

After his first visit to the tower, van Loon went back to the top of the tower at every opportunity. He writes that understanding history is like climbing that tower. “It is no easy task,” he wrote “to reach the top of this ancient structure and get the benefit of the full view. There is no elevator, but young feet are strong and it can be done” (van Loon xxii).

It is not history I am trying to understand, though children’s books often teach us aspects of history that other books cannot. But I do not doubt that I will “get the benefit of the full view” by reading these medal-winning books. The world is big, but my feet are young, it can be done.

Read along with me, and “When you return, you too will understand the reason for my enthusiasm” (van Loon xxii).