Secret of the Andes – Part II
I can’t wait to hear what everyone else has to say about the 1953 Newbery Award. As I talked about in this previous post, over Thanksgiving I read Secret of the Andes and re-read Charlotte’s Web, both with Newbery Criteria in mind, in order to discuss here why Secret of the Andes might have been the winner although Charlotte’s Web has certainly stood the test of time/popularity better.
The first thing I’ll say is that I can both understand why Secret of the Andes might have been chosen as the winner, and I can also understand why Charlotte’s Web is the more on-going popular book that has become a classic. And the first thing I thought about, while I was reading these books, was how one being more popular than the other 55 years later does not really necessarily have to do with literary merit. And how, even at the time, popularity and potential popularity should not and would not have been considered by the committee. I realized, as I thought about this more, that reading these two books and comparing and discussing them today really just brings up a lot of the issues we’ve already discussed in this blog. Popularity, and how it does not play into the Newbery Medal, is the first of those issues.
Another issue that I found myself facing was comparing two very different books. I’ve also talked about that before in this blog – the challenge in comparing a lighter funnier book to heavy historical fiction, for example. Or a book geared towards a 7 year old to one geared toward a 13 year old. How does one look at literary excellence in such a diverse set of literature? This is something I am still working on, and something that I’m sure every committee deals with.
And there was the extra challenge, with this reading, of comparing a beloved book (both personally and generally in the child lit world) to one with less sentiment surrounding it. This is something a Newbery Committee doesn’t have to deal with, because they are, of course, reading and comparing only very contemporary books. But it is, for sure, a similar feeling to when I’m trying to compare a book I loved to a book I didn’t love, without considering my love, or lack of, when I think of its qualities, literarily.
So, I found Secret of the Andes to be a quite outstanding book. The language is poetic. Rich and sometimes heavy, the novel is full of lush descriptions, profound thoughts, and quietly strong characters. The text of Secret of the Andes is almost entirely the thoughts in Cusi’s head. There is almost no dialogue, but from Cusi’s private thoughts, we still, as a reader, experience so much. The details are brilliant, and beautiful. Cusi’s first experience of the color green (page 36) and his discomfort with it strikes me strongly when I think of the types of details I’m referring too. In contrast, Charlotte’s Web, is full of colorful dialogue, bright and humorous characters, and emotional twists and turns that lead a reader down a very specific path. Both are very well done. Both are excellent and both pluck the reader out of his or her chair and put them right into the setting of the novel, using very different techniques.
I thought also about the difference in the authors’ treatments of animals, which play a heavy role in each book. The llamas in Secret of the Andes are not humanized. They are almost mystical. The animals in Charlotte’s Web talk like humans, to each other and to Fern, and they experience human-like emotions and thoughts. Both work so well, but again, so differently.
I would love to have these two books at my Mock Newbery (or to have been a committee member in 1953) to discuss them and am so excited to have that discussion here.
I would not go into a discussion without some questions about Secret of the Andes. One thing I would like to think more about, for example, is how realistic Cusi’s character is. He has no memory of a life anywhere other than his isolated mountain valley, and has never in his whole life, as he states, "talked with a boy" (page 50). So are his interactions with others throughout the book at all realistic? Are his thoughts even realistic when he has only ever known one other person? The book is mysterious and a bit fantastical. In the context of the story I did believe in his character. It was clear he was not like other boys and that he held some greater purpose. He can speak to llamas, why would he not understand more about life and the world than he should? What do you think?
And then there’s the obvious, to me at least, use of the term Indians throughout the book. I wonder what meaning that term had in the early 1950s. Was it the most appropriate term to use? If I was reviewing the book now as if it was contemporarily written historical fiction I would likely take issue with this term. But if I’m looking at the book as though I was a committee member in 1953 I think all I can do is ask if this is a term that native people of Peru would have used at the time. And is this even relevant when the book is in English and not in either Spanish or the native tongue? And if not, what did this term mean to people in English, both Americans and Native Americans (and other native peoples) at the time?
It is easy to see why Charlotte’s Web has remained a more popular book. While being excellent literarily, it is also a charming fun novel that warms the heart. It is just perfect for a certain age of child with a certain sense of wonder. It makes a great read-aloud. It makes a great movie! Secret of the Andes is for a particular child. But that doesn’t make it any less special.
So, these are some of the places my head wandered while reading the books. Can’t wait to hear what you think. Please do comment and keep this discussion going.
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About Sharon McKellar
Sharon McKellar is the Supervising Librarian for Teen Services at the Oakland Public Library in California. She has served on the Rainbow List Committee, the Notable Children’s Recordings Committee, The Arbuthnot Honor Lecture Committee, and the 2015 Caldecott Committee. You can reach her at email@example.com.
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