Friday, October 30, 2015

Ginger Pye: or, Was the Newbery Committee Actually Alive That Year?

Yesterday, I was describing the agony of reading Ginger Pye to one of my coworkers, and she asked, me, "Why did you torture yourself and keep reading it?"  I told her, "So that I can write a cranky review at the end of it, and save others from unintentionally picking it up."


Cranky reviews have nothing to do with the author (usually, unless we are talking about someone who said something very unintelligent online, in which case I make an exception).  Ad hominem blaming is not my thing.  I look at the book: is it worth reading or not?  Did I enjoy it or not?  Would a kid or a teen at my library enjoy it or not?  Of course, my conception of "worth reading" varies from everyone else's, which is why it's so important to read lots of book reviews, especially if you're a librarian who selects teen books.  But that would be another post over on Teen Services Underground.

Was that a shameless plug?  You betcha!

So, back to Ginger Pye.  Pye is the surname of the woefully banal family central to the book's "story." No, those quotation marks are not sarcastic.  The Pyes live somewhere in between Boston and New York, in a town where they have very tall rocks and a reservoir.  Living the American Dream.  Papa Pye doesn't show up much in the story, but we are reminded at every turn that he is a passionate ornithologist.  Only, this book being for children who can't read good and wanna learn to do other stuff good too, he is called "a bird man."


There is an interesting phenomenon I've observed in children's books of decades past.  Either they treat children as very short adults and toss in some Latin and obscure historical references, or they assume that children are exceptionally stupid and can only handle reading about the most basic of emotions.  Ginger Pye is one of the latter.

Jerry Pye really wants a puppy.  Unfortunately, the farmer's wife who is selling them is charging a dollar, which Jerry hasn't got, and certainly won't ask his hard-working parents for, because that's not The American Way.  The American Way is to pull oneself up by one's boostraps and make it in the world.  Spoiler: this pretty much never happens, so don't count on it.  But because this is fiction, Jerry and his younger sister Rachel are asked by the town's Cool Guy to dust the pews at the church for a dollar, since he has to go into town to purchase a natty new suit.  They accomplish this with the assistance of Uncle Bennie, whom we shall discuss in a moment, receive the dollar, and rush over to the farm to get Jerry's puppy before someone else does.  Yes indeedy, someone else wanted the exact same puppy as Jerry, and by golly, wasn't it grand that Jerry got him first?

This is basically how the narrative goes.  Grab a double shot of espresso to make it through.  Again, I have no idea how children read books at this extraordinary level of dullness years ago, or if they even did.  Book award committees (I have Thoughts on these) tend to pick what adults think would be "appropriate and wholesome literature" instead of what kids really like.  As a child and teen, I would go out of my way to avoid award winners because my experience with them had been, on the whole, rather awful.  The Newbury committee clearly has a thing for tragic stories about abused animals, for instance.

Back to Ginger Pye.  Mr. Pye is married to Mrs. Pye (one should hope, anyway), whom he married when he was around 35 and she 17.  They met in New York City, when Mr. Pye decided to run up the down escalator and crashed into the would-be-Mrs. Pye.  Nothing creepy about that in the least bit.  They subsequently had two exceedingly boring children, Jared (Jerry) and Rachel (Rach).  Since Mrs. Pye's mother is still quite young, the children have a three-year-old cousin named Uncle Benny.

Of these children very little can be said other than that they are exceedingly dull.  It was tiring just reading about them because I didn't care.  They get this puppy and don't even remember that they have to name it until their mother asks what its name is.  How do you not remember to name your dog?  "Here, pup" is sufficient for you?  The children, after having accepted Mother's suggestion of "Ginger," realize that someone in an ugly yellow hat is stalking them, trying to steal Ginger.

Clearly, a monkey just isn't sufficient. 

But nobody really puts much stock in the idea until Thanksgiving, when Ginger goes outside and never returns.  The children are convinced that Yellow Hat took Ginger, who they describe as the smartest dog in the world, and enlist the aid of their neighbors to find him.  When that doesn't work, they go to the police, complete with a sketch of a mustachioed villain-type that they dreamed up.  The police chief accepts the drawing as Gospel, and surprisingly, no one matching that description can be found.

After Christmas and New Year's and Easter roll around (the Pyes have an odd notion that Ginger is a "holiday dog," i.e. having been stolen on Thanksgiving, he will show up on another holiday, because dogs keep track of that sort of thing when planning their escape from a dognapper), the children seem to give up on the idea of finding Ginger.  The rest of the novel is taken up with various activities that seem excessively exciting to the Pyes, but which, to a normal person, are about as amusing as watching paint dry.

For example, one child among their acquaintance swims "vertically," i.e. swims to the bottom of the pool and then back up.  This is deemed extraordinary and worthy of special notice.  Another time, the Cool Football Dude who is also Captain Wholesome McModesty takes the kiddos to climb some large rocks, on the top of which there is a zoo.  Then the family has a picnic.


In the end, it turns out that the no-good troublemaking boy in Jerry's class stole Ginger and abused him.  But thankfully the family was very poor and had to flee town to avoid creditors, so Ginger escaped.

Hold up there, buckaroo.  Let me repeat that: the child is a criminal because he is poor.



And as a special bonus, all the time that the Pye family was searching for Ginger, they conveniently "forgot" that Ginger would not remain puppy-sized.  The author tells us this several times, as if it's cute.  No.  These people clearly have no brains.

I really do wonder whether they polled some corpses the year this won the Newbury because I can't imagine anyone alive actually finding this to be good storytelling.



6 comments:

  1. Hate to break this to you, Pamela, but this author was a children's librarian.;-) Even if the Newbery committee didn't know what kids liked, she would have. But this book was published in 1951. Maybe her local library readers liked this sort of fiction.

    Look, I reread the occasional Enid Blyton and wonder what I ever saw in these books - racist, sexist, classist and even, occasionally, rude about the police - but kids are still reading them and loving them, however dated they are.

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    1. For some reason I get Blyton and Estes confused in my mind a lot ... oh dear.

      I didn't realize she was a children's librarian. Perhaps this is the sort of thing people wanted to read--I don't know! My parents aren't in the right age range to ask about having read books like these as a kid.

      I just don't get anyone in our area asking for these books, and other books of the same charming ilk that I did like (Half Magic, The Saturdays, etc.) I have to really push kids to take out.

      Now I am curious about police-related rudeness in Enid Blyton :D

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    2. Well, apart from Noddy knocking over Mr Policeman, there were the Five Findouters and Mr Goon(notice the name?), the local DUMB policeman who is always trying to compete with them for the cases and whose ankles are regularly snapped at by Buster the dog. :-)

      As for the Estes book, perhaps it has just dated,

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    3. Mr. Goon??? Subtle, so subtle ;)

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  2. PS I suspect that books like Half Magic might need new covers. Kids are very picky about those and those old Puffin covers just don't appeal any more. Which is a pity, because I agree, they're great books. I read Knight's Castle first and loved it, but I was n adult at the time.

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    1. Yeah, I've ONLY read these as an adult. When I was a kid I was reading like Jurassic Park and stuff.
      All of these books could benefit from a new cover à la The Chronicles of Prydain. Those are so pretty! And shiny! I like shiny.

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