When we last looked in on the venerable Newberys, the winner was the lovable, racist Smoky the Cowhorse.
In 1928, the Newbery Committee in all its wisdom chose as the best children's book of the year Gay-Neck: The Story Of a Pigeon, by Indian-born author Dhan Gopal Mukerji. This would prove to future generations of children to be a problematic choice for two reasons. One, it is called Gay-Neck, and that's just not something you can live down anymore. Two, it is the story of a pigeon.
The plot begins in the early 1900s, with a young Indian boy who raises carrier pigeons. The titular Gay-Neck, named for his colorful neck plumage, is the finest, able to outfly eagles and hawks. When WWI breaks out, Gay-Neck is used as a messenger pigeon under the boy’s friend, Ghond the hunter. The bird finds he must dodge the screaming mechanical eagles (planes) and barking dogs (machine guns) that try to destroy him.
During the course of the war, both the pigeon and Ghond are wounded, and both develop a form of traumatic disorder. So they travel to the lamaseries in the Himalayas to meditate and overcome their fear. The story is told mostly from the boy’s point of view, but occasionally Gay-Neck narrates when the bird is alone, and Ghond is also given his view, during the most harrowing battle. It is a story of a pigeon, in a strict sense, but the plot is really only the steed that the message rides, so to speak.
Mukerji's main concern is promoting Buddhist concerns of peace, courage, and wisdom. Prayers and meditations on overcoming fear are not only included, they're the main lesson of the story – "No beast of prey can kill his victim without frightening him first," and "each being that lives is a reservoir of infinite courage." I like that second one, by the way. Trying saying it to yourself. Go on. I'll wait.
Rarely does a children’s book manage to tread such deep waters without looking ridiculous, but Mukerji manages to imbue his little tale with an enormous amount of inspiration and wisdom.
Recommended for children: Well... oh dear. It's a good book, and kids love animal stories. But, see, it's called "Gay-Neck."
Recommeded for adults: Yes.