“Why should I ever read fairy stories, when the truth of history is so much more interesting and entertaining?”
Imagine my surprise when I first went in search of Hendrik Willem Van Loon’s The Story of Mankind, the first winner of the Newbery Award, and stumbled onto a history tome of 500+ pages (in its “updated” state). I was not prepared for this. My brief dalliance with the Newbery Award has always been with fiction and considering the seeming shortage of children’s nonfiction I never appreciated the idea that the Newbery list may be more expansive.
First published in 1921, The Story of Mankind is a children’s history beginning with the first cells that would contribute to the initial plants and animals on Earth through the beginning of the United Nations. The Story of this work is that it’s largely written in a narrative style that reads very much as verbatim classroom lecture or simply as an adult explaining aspects of history to a child. Nearly every page is decorated with a map, illustrated timeline, or simple sketch to further enlighten the passages. Perhaps this doesn’t appear too impressive compared to modern children’s history texts, but I’m sure it was quite a staggering accomplishment for the period.
Seth Lerer describes The Story of Mankind as “rich with engaging anecdotes, clear judgments, and precise chronology” and “It gives us history that is accurate, clear, and organized.” And all of these things are true but it is the “clear judgments” that I find most troubling. Though I am only up to the chapter on the English revolution, it’s blatant that The Story of Mankind is not the most objective work of nonfiction and threads of racism and intolerance trickle throughout the texts. (Admittedly Van Loon passed prior to post-colonial studies developing into a force to be reckoned with.)
It’s ironic though that within the book Van Loon dedicates space to the idea of intolerance, “For tolerance (and please remember this when you grow older), is of very recent origin and even the people of our own so-called ‘modern world’ are apt to be tolerant only upon such matters a do not interest them very much.” I would still give Van Loon a great deal of credit on writing a children’s history that during the time must have very much complimented other historical and nonfiction writings. It’s an idealist book that focuses exclusively on the events that leads the reader unquestioningly to the development of the modern United States. Throughout the text the reader is not often required to consider the “rightness” or “wrongness” of situations as Van Loon provides a “clear judgment” of events.
Of all the books appearing on the Newbery list, The Story of Mankind (using completely unscientific statistics) seems like the least read or most unfinished book. Van Loon’s portrayal of human history and heritage seems quite foreign to more modern Newbery winners and even stands apart from the early winners of this literary award. Perhaps the most obvious distinguishing feature is that The Story of Mankind is more or less a work of nonfiction while the vast majority (if not all of the rest) of other winners are works of fiction.
This book is problematic for the modern reader in part because it was originally published in 1921 and, like every other book attempting an all-encompassing view of history, it promises more than it can ever possibly deliver. Van Loon is a subjective writer and certain racist, hegemonic, and imperialist attitudes crop up throughout the book. And as other authors writing such a vast history, it just doesn’t work. The Story of Mankind is the story of historical events that led to the formation of the modern United Nations and doesn’t spend a great deal of time outside of Europe and the United States of America (unless other countries were briefly useful in colonization that led to the formation of the United Nations).
The Story of Mankind does work in its narrative features to deliver history and what in 1921 would have been the rather progressive look at using illustrations to instruct and enliven history for children. I was asked by Julie regarding current (if any) usage of The Story of Mankind, and while I would never argue for sole usage of this text a comparative look between this and a more recent study of history would certainly have some validity.
I must say that I am still intrigued by the presence of The Story of Mankind on the Newbery list and particularly as it was the first book to win the award. Returning to Children’s Literature, Seth Lerer describes some of the books attributes for the Newbery category: “rich with engaging anecdotes, clear judgments, and precise chrononology,” a “history that is accurate, clear, and organized,” it “is history as a social lesson,” it’s a vivid book written with clarity and optimism that from “hard work and struggle” leads to “a good feeling of success.” And I suppose that it is these categorizes that continue to filter down through the years when selecting the Newbery titles.
Originally published in two parts at Adventures in Reading.