From Adventures in Reading:
Preparing to read Seth Lerer’s Children’s Literature, I decided to first delve back into my own childhood and reread Hugh Lofting’s The Voyages of Doctor Dolittle and by incident this also kicks off my first book for the Newbery Project. Recently at work, various aged co-workers and I were discussing the excitement surrounding the fast-growing young adult section and reflecting on our own young adulthoods which had far less reading fodder. When I was a young adult literature was certainly available, but I often found myself searching for something to read and one of these conquests led me to Lofting.
It’s difficult to not be familiar with some aspect of Doctor Dolittle even if it’s only that he was a character who could speak with animals. This 1923 Newbery Award winner is told in hindsight from the somewhat fatalistic viewpoint of young Tommy Stubbins. After becoming more or less apprenticed to the good Doctor, the two and their human and animals friends begin a voyage to Spider Monkey Island off the coast of Brazil. Various adventures ensue including stowaways, bull fighting, floating islands, and a shipwreck.
Central ideas in the book are fairly representative of the time; particularly Dolittle’s interest in natural history (the popular scientific study of animals or plants) and the Dawin-esque feel of exploration stealthily lodges Doctor Dolittle into a bubble of historical consciousness. Lofting’s sketches illustrate the quite diminutive Tommy exploring Dolittle’s world. The back story is also quite interesting, as apparently Lofting wrote these tales out as letters to his children when he was a soldier during the World War.
The Voyages of Doctor Dolittle is problematic however in its representation of race, indigenous culture, and colonialism. Two characters in particular stand out: Bumpo an African prince being educated at Oxford who incorrectly uses lengthy words and prefers going about barefoot and Long Arrow a stoic South American indian who venerates Dolittle. So imagine my surprise when I finished the book and learned in Christopher Lofting’s afterword that the Yearling edition is actually an edited version from the original text and that some socially questionable illustrations had also been removed. I confess my interest is peaked more than ever to reread this book in its original format.