Ladies and gentlemen, there are a great number of old Newbery Honor books that have faded into obscurity. Some of them are actually pretty good, too! The Winged Girl of Knossos has a pretty big following among the five people who've read it, for one, and I rather enjoyed The Secret River (despite it being so cutesy at times that writers of Barbie movie novelizations would find it a touch too saccharine). So, generally, I don't have a lot of trepidation when approaching an old book with a shiny silver sticker on it.
After reading 21% of The Story of Appleby Capple, though, I'm pretty sure I'm going to have to rethink that, because this may have been the worst thing I've ever read that didn't start as fanfiction of something. Just HOW bad was the children's publishing year of 1950 if this thing was considered one of the top five books?
So, the plot: Appleby is boy with a dumb name (though as the weirdly intrusive narrator says on the first page, not a name as dumb as Choke-Cherry or something, because THAT'S important and plot-relevant). He's going to go find his extremely old cousin a Zebra butterfly for his 99th birthday. It doesn't go all that well. People freak out. Animals are everywhere, as are extraordinarily offensive stereotypes of Native Americans. Hilarity, apparently, is to ensue.
There are exactly two reasons why you should ever consider reading this:
1. You have a serious fetish for alliteration, in that all alliteration always seems appropriately awesome and accessible. (No matter how shoehorned in it is, because seriously, this book does more shoehorning than a freaking Payless model!)
2. You REALLY want to read every Newbery Medalist or Honor book, even the really terrible ones that will make you question your life choices.
The illustrations are lovely, sure, but they do NOT require reading the text, so if you ever get a hold of this book, just look at the illustrations and pretend the text never happened.
Perhaps, you may think, Kim is being too hard on this little book, this old book that only serious kidlit aficionados have any awareness of. This book that she didn't even finish! Please note that I have only ever marked one book as DNF before this one. I stick out terrible things far more often than I'd like to admit, but this book was painful and showed no signs of getting any better.Reason 1: The voice.
All forced whimsy and quirk, significant of nothing. I am entirely certain I have never read a book told in a more painful style than this. It flips from past-tense to present-tense with all of the coherence of a rambling drunk. The narrator breaks the fourth wall because... she can? And, again, alliteration. Painfully pointless alliteration. It's impossible to figure out which part of the 6-12 age group it's aimed at, considering it talks to the audience as if they are profoundly unintelligent four-year-olds. I swear it was sentient and personally thought I was stupid, that's how bad it was. I have no idea where the story was going, because it kept going off to explore the psyches and backstories of all these ridiculously precious adult characters who are SO CONCERNED about where this profoundly uninteresting protagonist ran off to. (If you're so concerned, go FIND HIM!)
Admittedly, exploring the mental state of the caterpillar was kind of cute. I have a major weakness for caterpillars, though, so that's not really a plus in the book's camp.Reason 2: Holy unbelievable racism, Batman!
Those of us well-versed in children's literature are aware that many, many, many, many old children's books have no great shortage of offensive stereotypes. Even so, there comes a point where your alarm sounds so loudly that you have to take a look at what you're reading and say, "What the hell?" There is a depiction of a Native American character that is so offensively brutish and animalistic that it honestly pained me to read his sections of the "plot," and there's a completely bizarre tangent about a Chinese decoration that is both completely pointless and horrifically stereotypical. I've seen episodes of Family Guy with more racial sensitivity than this book. I'm not going to chalk it up to being a product of its time. That robs the author of the book of her responsibility in creating something like this. A huge part of why I stopped reading was because I really, really didn't want to see just how much more offensive it could get. I could tell that it was going to get worse.Reason 3: Being called "distinguished" in the history books will only get you so far.
There's no way in telling what will age well and what will not, and I don't believe it's the responsibility of the yearly Newbery committees to figure that out, personally. Still, when we look back on the shiny sticker parade, there are going to be things we can reasonably refer to as "mistakes." And, oh boy, is this one of 'em. In my estimation, there is nothing distinguished here text-wise, in any positive sense. The characters barely register as existent, save for the animals. The writing, as said above, is atrocious and insulting. The plot rambles. The theme, which is the alphabet, is pulled off well only in that there definitely are lots of letters in this book. In short, it's very hard to see what makes this book special, and not at all hard to see why it's obscure and out of print.
I never complain about whether or not a kid would willingly pick up a book if it's won an award, but this is a book that I think maybe two currently existing children would ever willingly gravitate to, and I'm fairly certain it would fail to captivate them as well.
Perhaps the remaining 79% of the book that I avoided like the plague is a riveting masterpiece of suspense and beautiful writing, but judging by what preceded it, I sincerely doubt that. An apple a day keeps the doctor away; what do I have to do to keep Appleby Capple away?