When I was a kid someone gave me for my birthday a boxed set of five Newbery Award winners. Three of them I loved and read many times: A Wrinkle in Time, The Twenty-One Balloons, and Roller Skates. The other two I hated and only read once: Strawberry Girl and Island of the Blue Dolphins. I thought it would be interesting to go back to Strawberry Girl -- since I had it on the shelf anyway -- and see if it improved at all thirty years later...
Strawberry Girl is about a family eking out a living in the Depression-era backwoods of Florida. Reminiscent of the Laura Ingalls books, it describes 10yo Birdie Boyer's daily life in detail. Lois Lenski wins a bunch of points for describing in a foreword the research she did and the people she talked with to gather material for the story. She says, "practically all incidents used were told to me by people who had exerienced them. Many were too dramatic for my purpose and had to be softened; some had to be altered to fit into my plot." Too dramatic: I can well believe it! The drama in the story comes from the feud between the Boyer family and their nearest neighbors, the Slaters. Pa Slater is abusive and alcoholic, Ma Slater is unable to manage crops or livestock, and Lenski doesn't pull her punches when she describes all this. Some episodes are quite painful to read.
The ending was also painful to read, but for a different reason. I think this is where she "softened" and "altered" things. I don't want to give away the ending, so I will just tell you that she wraps everything up with a pat, sweet, happy ending that feels totally false compared to the gritty realism of the rest of the book. Very disappointing.
I've been thinking about why Strawberry Girl might have won the award. One thing it has in common with quite a few of the other award-winners is that it illuminates a particular time and location. But other than its historic & geographic value I don't think there's anything too special about this one.