A Gathering of ZZZZ's

My competitive nature draws me to book lists.  I challenge myself to read as many of the listed books as possible.  I even keep a list on my computer of the 1001 books to read before you die (as decided by some dude, who wrote a book about it), because even if I don't read them all (and I won't, because I've tried some of them and hated them with a hatred that was more than hate), I still get good ideas for more obscure books, especially when it comes to pre-19th century literature.  That's how I found Moll Flanders, for example, which is about ten thousand times more interesting than Robinson Crusoe.  I actually think Defoe wrote women better than he wrote men.  But I digress.

As you might imagine, I love the website listchallenges.com.  There's one on there for all of the Newbery Award Winners.  I can't remember whether I've expressed my opinion on book awards before, but it is that these awards, while mildly useful in locating well-written literature, approach the scope of books published from a very limited viewpoint.  Basically, it's a committee of a few people deciding what the "best" children's book written that year was.  I tend to generally disagree with these choices, especially when the winner has an obvious agenda that the committee can hold up and say, "See!  We picked a book that talks about racism!  We picked a book that talks about abuse!"  While those are certainly worthwhile and important topics, sometimes the writing or characterization in that particular title is seriously lacking, thus making me wonder whether it was the issue that won the award, not the book.

And now, of course, we have the giant misstep made by ALA in their rules for being on an awards committee.  You can read Roger Sutton's take on it here and the awesome Kelly Jensen's discussion here.  I won't go into it too much because they've expressed my point of view much more eloquently than I ever could.

All of this rambling comes down to this: I generally do not enjoy the Newbery Award winners, and often I question why, in fact, they were chosen as winners.  However, I also believe that as a librarian, I should be professionally aware of these books and make them available to young patrons without bringing in my personal bias.  Therefore, Friday, I snagged our copy of A Gathering of Days because it was short and it was in journal format, which I really like for kids literature.

Whenever I read a book that chronicles life in the 1800s, I can't help but compare it to Laura Ingalls Wilder's books.  I grew up reading those books and they'll forever shape how I view accounts of farm and prairie life in the 1800s.  While Laura Ingalls Wilder's books contained lush, detailed descriptions (especially of food!  Oh, the food scenes!), Joan Blos' A Gathering of Days is Spartan and, well, dull.

I am struggling to comprehend how this is held up as one of the best of children's books.  I don't see any kid appeal in this volume.  If you are an insomniac, you should read this book. 

A Gathering of Days consists of short diary entries written by a Catherine, a girl living in rural New England.  She's happy with her father and younger sister Matt (Matilda), being the woman of the house since her mother and baby brother died four years ago.  There are some vague story arcs, all of which are revealed in the jacket blurb.  So, if you read the summary, you pretty much know everything that happens in the book.  The first mini-plot involves the theft of Cath's school workbook.  It's later returned with a poorly spelled note in it that says something like, "Pleez Miss Am Cold" or whatever.  Cath and her friends, who are utterly forgettable and named Asa and Cassie (brother and sister), leave one of Cath's mother's bridal quilts out in the woods.  They assume that the writer of the note was either a runaway slave or an escaped indentured servant.  Then there are various exceedingly-thinly-veiled discussions of how everyone is human and deserves rights and to be free and so forth.  This is evidently intended to show the reader a) how progressive Cath is and b) that slavery is wrong.  Okay, maybe if you were a kid in the seventies whose parents supported segregation, I could see how this might Teach You A Lesson.  Maybe. 

The second mini-plot involves Cath's father remarrying a woman named Ann.  Cath is very happy for her father and then inexplicably resents her stepmother as soon as she arrives. She won't even refer to her by name--not even in the diary--and only uses "her" and "she," which, when there are multiple females involved in Cath's narrative, is excessively confusing. 

The third part involves the death of Cath's friend Cassie, which is not a spoiler at all because it says so right in the summary.  Also on the first page of the book.  It's the least dramatic death I've ever read.  For all Cath's insistence that Cassie is her best friend, the instance of her death is pretty much like, "Cassie died this morning.  I am sad." 

I was also under the impression that Cath liked Cassie's brother Asa, but she helps him give a lock of his hair to another friend named Sophie, and doesn't really mind that he likes Sophie.  I am so confused!

I wonder if the author was trying to evoke some sort of "Puritanical restraint" with the entries in this book.  Yet, Cath's writing is so bland that it's robotic.  Even if you're taught to be stoic, you still have feelings. 

Since I didn't learn anything from this foray into past Newbery winners, I am currently reading the very first Newbery Winner ever: The Story of Mankind.  It is by turns hilarious, bizarre, and ridiculous.  At least it is not boring.


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