Sunday, May 10, 2009

Newbery V

The 1926 Newbery Medal winner was Shen Of the Sea: Chinese Stories For Children, by Arthur Bowie Chrisman. It is a collection of humorous folk tales from China, written in a light, mostly tongue-in-cheek style that seems to mimic the inflections and honorifics of the Chinese language.

The title story describes a monarch who tricks and captures the shen, or demons, of the sea, who wish to flood his domain. Other entries are explanation tales, reminiscent of the Just-So stories: how chopsticks came to be (the king invented them after being attacked by his irascible queen with the silverware) how fine porecelain came to be (it was a collection of mud pies fired hard by dragon breath), or how tea came to be (a witch enchanted Chah's herbs so they'd help him stay awake, after he saved her from a black dragon, or oo long; cha is Chinese for tea). A couple are love stories between men and spirits, and a few are like the European folk tales of silly people who do things literally, but in the end their silliness is their salvation.

It's fun reading, but there's nothing spectacular about the prose, nor particularly memorable about the tales, so I do hope this wasn't actually the finest children's book of its year. As with the previous year's winner, Tales From Silver Lands, perhaps the committee thought multiculturalism trumped non-spectacular writing.

Recommended for children: sure.

Recommended for adults: not really, unless they're Sinophiles.

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