Decoding the Newbery is a monthly column in which Newbery Medal winners are examined and deconstructed by regular contributor and author Catherine Faris King. This month, Catherine examines three books with a similar theme…
It’s a simple story, seen time and again: a child grows up through their apprenticeship. The Giver, The Midwife’s Apprentice, many characters in Good Masters! Sweet Ladies! Today’s task is to take advantage of this simple setup to help us see how Newbery winning books can reflect the times and the prejudices of their publication. In short, readers, it’s time for… *Pacific Rim voice* A TRIPLE EVENT!
Welcome, readers, to the year 1932! The stock market is down… way, way down. It is, in fact, the Great Depression. Jobs are scarce and the world is grimy. Across the seas, unrest stirs in Germany and Japan is muscling its way onto territories in Korea, Manchuria, and China. With such a grim landscape, there’s never been a better time to get lost in a good book.
Looking at the roster of Newbery honorees and medalists for 1930’s, “getting lost” seems to have been a priority. Nearly every book is set someplace far away from Anytown, USA — places like New Finland and the ancient Yucatan, Nigeria and Alaska, Japan and China.
Young Fu of the Upper Yangtze, by Elizabeth Foreman Lewis, is meant to serve as a child’s introduction to China, in addition to being a bildungsroman. It is set in the 1920’s (according to the Western calendar), and Lewis drew material for the book off of her experience as a missionary in China. The work hasn’t aged all too well, and not just because China itself has changed so drastically.
This book feels like a work of the Great Depression, just as Johnny Tremain (by Esther Forbes, 1944 winner) feels distinctly like a work of the Second World War. Furthermore, Young Fu never quite shakes its outsider’s perspective into Chinese culture, which makes for — take a shot — some problematic elements. Some seventy years later, Linda Sue Park’s A Single Shard demonstrates what an immense difference it makes when its author does not romanticize the culture in which she sets her book, but writes with practicality and humanity.
Let’s get to that in a minute. First, the Breakdown. As a relatively early Newbery winner, Young Fu showcases a few recognizable elements, but the Newbery Formula has not yet crystallized.
Our protagonist, Fu Yuin-Fah, at the age of thirteen, is a Kid Hero, a newcomer to the big city of Chungking (anglicized nowadays as “Chongqing”). Shortly after moving into his new home he meets a Wise Soul, a classically educated neighbor named Wang Scholar. Wang Scholar has the good fortune to survive the book to the end, as does Young Fu’s friend, Li, and Master Tang, Young Fu’s other mentor. So this book lacks a proper Doomed Catalyst, and there is also no Death by Newbery Medal.
Young Fu becomes an apprentice to Master Tang, a coppersmith. This apprenticeship provides the book’s Hands-On Activity. Young Fu develops some artistic acumen before the novel ends, but smithing is not the focus of the novel.
The novel spends much more time with its Social Issue (or Social Awareness, rather), as it captures China in a moment of change and instability – the 1920’s. China no longer has an Emperor, and within the Republic, central authority is weak. Bandits scour the highways and rivers. Within the city walls, local militias behave little better. Opium changes hands in the shadows. And even Chungking, deep within the Chinese mainland, feels more and more the presence of the “foreign devils.” In a world like this, it pays to be clever and observant, and to be able to navigate between the clashes of opposites — law versus banditry, proper versus foreign, old versus new.
Young Fu, as he grows up, gets into one scrape after another, and although he always ends up on top, Lewis makes clear the threat of poverty that awaits Young Fu and his mother, Fu Be Be. Within the shadows of Chungking’s hills lurks “poverty such as only an overpopulated Chinese city can know” — just in case the reader forgot that this book is set in China (Lewis, page 4). Before Young Fu grows up to become the man of the house, his mother has to do menial labor to make ends meet. Fu Be Be’s spiritual dread of leaving debts unpaid at the start of the New Year is no less real than the emotional debt when Wang Scholar begins to teach Young Fu to read and write. Poverty, diligence, debt and responsibility — these words carried great impact, even to young readers, during the Great Depression. This may not have been deliberately part of the Newbery committee’s selection decision, but it probably does help account for Young Fu’s comparative longevity, as opposed to many of the other 1930’s medalists and honorees.
Just as Young Fu of the Upper Yangtze expresses worries and ideals of the Great Depression, Johnny Tremain by Esther Forbes clearly reflects the anxieties of an America ten years older, engaged in war in the East and West. Johnny Tremain tells the story of a young silversmith’s apprentice, named — you’ll never guess — Johnny Tremain. Johnny’s career as a silversmith (and, later, a newspaper boy) receives even less attention than Young Fu’s career as a coppersmith. Johnny Tremain, set in 1770’s Boston, is a story about war.
Esther Forbes (writing in prose as crisp as the first apple of fall) focuses her energies on the misery of a city living under occupation, the nobility of secret resistance movements, and the great cultural kinship between the United States and England. Despite the looming war, the Redcoats and the American colonists treat one another, more like old friends who are tragically doomed to fight thanks to a sad misunderstanding about taxes. The characters that Forbes vilifies the most are those who take no side in the conflict: the wealthy Lyte family travels back and forth between England and Boston, and profits off of both; the loathsome Dove tries to suck up to both parties and is despised by both.
Getting back to Johnny Tremain, it’s very hard to read it and not apply World War II’s realities to the book’s action. Swap out Paris for Boston, and read the adoring respect given to England as a call to little readers on the Home Front, that their besieged Mother Country needs them!
Where Young Fu’s mind is on poverty and how to stay alive in a competitive and changing world, Johnny Tremain’s mind is on war, and occupation, and maintaining a noble, upright spirit. Johnny Tremain also ends on a powerful note of sacrifice: Johnny’s all-too-sterling best friend falls to the Death By Newbery Medal, and his death is illuminated with the light of valiant martyrdom.
I might have to extrapolate to read Great Depression subtext into Young Fu, but Forbes nearly stamps the Second World War into her text. In a secret revolutionaries’ meeting, an extra named Joseph Warren says, “We are lucky men… for we have a cause worth dying for. This honor is not given to every generation.” The final page of Johnny Tremain has the line “Please God, out of this New England soil such men would forever rise up ready to fight when need came. The one generation after the other.”
Dulce et decorum est pro Patria mori – now with a Newbery sticker to endorse the idea!
Young Fu of the Upper Yangtze and Johnny Tremain both indicate their historical context within their stories. They take a similar premise but then go in very different directions, telling stories that are shaped by the zeitgeist of America at that time.
As a critic, I think it’s fascinating to examine a work in light of its historical setting and literary predecessors. But I’m not going to neglect the matter of the setting within the work, and how the writer creates that setting within the reader’s head. I’m talking, in short, about worldbuilding. And Young Fu of the Upper Yantgze has some problems with its worldbuilding.
The very first scene is an amalgamation of images that the West codes as Chinese. As soon as Young Fu and his mother reach their home on Chair-Maker’s Way, Fu witnesses two “coolies” get into a fight. They begin to hurl insults about one another’s ancestry, of which “grandson of a two-headed dog” is the pithiest. Suddenly, a bridal procession breaks up the fight, complete with a scarlet palanquin, its mysterious bride shrouded within.
Young Fu’s mother, Fu Be Be, complains about their tiny apartment. The narrator tells us that she has bound feet. Next, Wang Scholar introduces himself. His light teasing of Young Fu is hindered by the fact that he keeps talking in “thees” and “thous.” The narrator tells us that Wang Scholar keeps his fingernails six inches long.
As the chapter draws to a close, Young Fu gets his first, distant glimpse of a foreigner, carried in a sedan chair. Young Fu’s neighbors shriek “foreign devil!” and hide themselves away from the menace.
This is Elizabeth Foreman Lewis’ worldbuilding. Now, every writer must create their story’s world — even the author of the most grounded-in-reality fiction. But this is not an opening to inspire confidence in how humane and thoughtful the writing will be. Its focus is on how Chinese the setting is.
Contrast this with the opening scene of our third book, Linda Sue Park’s A Single Shard, set in twelfth-century Korea, in a village close to modern-day Seoul.
It opens with dialogue — and incongruous dialogue, at that: “Eh, Tree-Ear! Have you hungered well today?”
Park describes Korean terms such as jiggeh, and cultural norms such as asking “Have you eaten well today?” But she does not spend the first chapter dwelling on the Korean setting. Rather, she emphasizes that Tree-Ear and his foster father, Crane-Man, are homeless. Tree-Ear has to think on his feet, navigating his own survival, living on the fringes of the village while avoiding punishment, while at the same time living up to the standards of honor and morality that Crane-Man has instilled in him. All of this is deftly conveyed in an incident involving a farmer carrying a jiggeh full of rice, with a hole in one corner, and rice leaking out onto the dirt — rice that could be Tree-Ear’s for the taking, if he can justify it to his conscience.
The plot of A Single Shard is more continuous and less episodic than that of Young Fu. The action focuses intently on Tree-Ear learning every detail of the craft of pottery, and the conflicts “Will Tree-Ear earn Potter Min’s respect?” and “Will Potter Min earn a lifetime commission from the king?” It has a shorter list of characters than Young Fu does, but they’re drawn with greater life and spirit. Tree-Ear himself is a viewpoint character who is more than just a camera. His actions indicate how he is shaped by his environment and Crane-Man’s teachings.
(A frustrating corollary to this: as much as I love A Single Shard, it has exactly one named female character. We don’t even really know her name; she asks Tree-Ear to call her Ajima. Elizabeth Foreman Lewis wins this round, then.)
A Single Shard is not overly concerned with asserting how Korean its setting or characters are. Instead, it focuses on their humanity. Linda Sue Park herself is Korean-American, and this earnest, human insight into her characters is just one in a long, long list of reasons why diversity among creators is as important as diversity within the content.
It probably won’t surprise anyone to learn which of these books I prefer and endorse the most. A Single Shard, although it checks almost every box in the Newbery Formula, is my favorite by far, an engaging, human adventure that celebrates kindness and beauty. A Single Shard shows how a book can fill out the Newbery Formula almost perfectly, but still be an excellent read. But endorsements aside, each of these books serve as interesting historical reflections of their era. Read Young Fu in company with other works set in China – don’t let him be your only guide. And I think Johnny Tremain is best enjoyed in contrast with more pacifistic literature.
So much for that…. What’s next?
Johnny Tremain captures the peril and opportunity of a world at war. But in a few years, the world would be at peace again. And as Jonathan Larson said, “The opposite of war isn’t peace… it’s creation.”
William Pene du Bois’ fantastical romp The Twenty-One Balloons, winner for the year 1948, captures all of the delights of a newfound peacetime. Next month, I’ll go into detail – get ready for food porn, hot air ballooning, and, you guessed it, problematic relationships with multiculturalism. The usual. Until next time, happy smuggling – and welcome to summer!
Catherine Faris King is a Los Angeles based writer who studied English with an Emphasis in Creative Writing at Whittier College, and French Literature at the Sorbonne, in Paris. The Ninety-Ninth Bride from Book Smugglers Publishing, is her publishing debut.