The Book That Made Me Hate the Newbery

It took only one book to make me hate all things Newbery.

It was autumn 1975, and my sixth-grade teacher assigned us Paula Fox’s The Slave Dancer, which had won the Newbery Award the previous year. Set in 1840, the novel follows Jessie Bollier, a white thirteen-year-old boy kidnapped from New Orleans and pressed into service on a slave ship, The Moonlight. Jessie is required to play his fife while the captive Africans are forced to “dance” on deck, because they will bring a greater profit if they are in good physical condition. This is painful subject matter, and the book filled me with dread and disgust.

Fox’s novel was the first Newbery Medal book I was ever assigned in school, and my teacher emphasized its recent win in solemn and reverential tones. So my entire concept of the Newbery crystallized around this distressing and depressing book. Somehow I forgot the dozens of other Medal and Honor Books I’d read. I forgot that the gold sticker of doom hadn’t prevented me from loving A Wrinkle in Time. I projected my aversion for one novel onto the Newbery Award and every book that had ever won it. This was irrational and absurd, of course. And yet, I now realize, the book’s content justified my reaction in many respects. The Medal has traditionally favored historical fiction and weighty subjects. The Slave Dancer fits this profile, confirming the widely held perception, at least until recent decades, that Newbery books are sad, serious, and not kid friendly.

The Slave Dancer is also representative of its era. Newbery Medal books with African or African American characters hit their twentieth-century peak in the post–civil rights 1970s. More specifically, it represents an era when books about Black experiences won Newbery gold only if they were written by white authors. That phase lasted from 1951 (with Elizabeth Yates’s Amos Fortune, Free Man) through 1966 (Elizabeth Borton de Treviño’s I, Juan de Pareja) and 1970 (William H. Armstrong’s Sounder). But Paula Fox’s 1974 win for The Slave Dancer marked the end of an era: the following year, the Newbery finally went to an African American author, Virginia Hamilton, for M.C. Higgins, the Great.

Fox traveled in progressive circles and supported racial equality. In her 1974 Newbery acceptance speech, she recalled one inspiration for The Slave Dancer: an elderly white woman she’d seen on TV protesting the construction of what Fox called a “housing unit for black people.” “Why should they get special housing?” the woman had yelled. “Their people decided to come to this country on ships just like mine did.” Clearly, The Slave Dancer’s nightmarish portrayal of the Middle Passage was meant to remedy this “self-imposed ignorance of slavery.”

Despite the author’s progressive intentions, many aspects of The Slave Dancer are problematic. Even at the time, critics raised objections to the novel’s content. The day before Fox received her Newbery Medal at the 1974 American Library Association convention, the Council on Interracial Books for Children presented a conference session titled “How to Identify Racism and Sexism in Your Library.” Because of its Newbery win, The Slave Dancer drew particular scrutiny at the session and in the essays the CIBC subsequently published in its Bulletin. Marshaling extensive textual evidence of the novel’s “stereotypes” and “distortions,” the CIBC critics denounced its pervasive dehumanization of the Africans onboard The Moonlight. The nameless captives are depicted as “pathetic sufferers,” “chained objects” with “no human characteristic[s]” and “no individuality,” Albert V. Schwartz stated. Worse yet, they are presented as the source of the ship’s “foul stench,” even though they wouldn’t have been the only source: the white crew lacks sufficient water with which to wash, ­Sharon Bell Mathis pointed out. Thus, the enslaved ­Africans are both objectified and ­objectionable.

The Slave Dancer also exposes young readers to distorted historical information, the CIBC critics argued. Noting repeated claims that “greedy” “native chiefs” were eager to capture and sell other Africans — an allegation that comes up at least five times in the novel — ­Binnie Tate cautioned that there was “not enough evidence that African chiefs were a primary force in the slave trade to allow for the consistent projection of this theme.”

Readers may object to the fact that the story is narrated entirely from the point of view of a white protagonist. But for Newbery Medalist Christopher Paul Curtis — the first African American man to win Newbery gold, for Bud, Not Buddy, in 2000 — this authorial choice is more than a relic of an earlier era: it is a strategic choice by an author dealing with devastating material. In his introduction to the 2016 Kindle edition of The Slave Dancer, Curtis explains that he had long “wanted to write a novel about slavery from a slave’s perspective,” but “slavery was a horror beyond my skills as an author.” Presenting the story from the perspective of a young white boy — a character at one remove from the horrors of the Middle Passage — was the way Fox “overcomes this problem,” says Curtis. Curtis also addresses Fox’s frequent use of racial epithets: the n-word comes up seventeen times in the novel — every ten pages, on average. Curtis makes the case that Fox’s vocabulary is historically accurate — while emphasizing his profound discomfort with the word.

The Slave Dancer holds some lessons that feel astonishingly current. Early in the voyage, a crew member tells Jessie: “You’ll see some bad things, but if you didn’t see them, they’d still be happening, so you might as well.” Jessie’s position mirrors ours, because the novel makes readers look at many uncomfortable things. There is an imperative to witness — but also an awareness that people may shy away from that imperative. In one angry outburst, Jessie wishes the captives dead: “Not to hear them! Not to smell them! Not to know of their existence!” After his sojourn aboard The Moonlight, Jessie rejects his earlier goal of becoming a ship’s chandler: “I made a promise to myself: I would do nothing that was connected ever so faintly with the importing and sale and use of slaves. But I soon discovered that everything I considered bore, somewhere along the way, the imprint of black hands.” The insight is central to Fox’s message, and is still relevant today: there is no getting away from the legacy of American chattel slavery.

* * *

In terms of my own personal history, I now realize how powerful The Slave Dancer was to stick with me so vividly. I’m glad that I’ve revisited it, since I can now admire the author’s literary craft and political intentions. I can also understand the novel’s implicit biases and the ways the book reflects the historical moment in which it was written and awarded the Newbery. And by way of apology to my sixth-grade teacher — because I know that my dislike of the material made me a bratty, resentful student — I’ll offer one revision to my claim that The Slave Dancer made me hate the Newbery: it was also the book that taught me how to think critically about literature and literary institutions.

Fortunately, today’s young ­readers have better options — books that provide authentic portrayals of African ­American experiences, including the most painful parts of history. And ­fortunately, some of them now bear the shiny ­Newbery sticker that keeps books in print, in classrooms, and in children’s hands.

From the May/June 2022 special issue of The Horn Book Magazine: The Newbery Centennial.

Jocelyn Van Tuyl

Jocelyn Van Tuyl is a professor of French at New College of Florida. With Sara L. Schwebel, she is the editor of Dust Off the Gold Medal: Rediscovering Children's Literature at the Newbery Centennial. Her article is adapted from a lecture given at the Center for Children's Books at the University of Illinois.

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