The Newbery Medal for children’s literature and the Caldecott Medal for most distinguished picture book are the Big Bang of the children’s book world — they’re the Nobel, the Pulitzer, the pot of gold at the end of an author’s rainbow. The prizes, awarded annually by the American Library Association, are so esteemed as a guarantee of reading pleasure that the chosen books are snatched up from bookstore shelves within days of the ALA’s announcements. ”The standard wisdom in the industry is that as soon as you put that gold seal on the book jacket, you’re guaranteed sales of at least 100,000 copies,” says Diane Roback, children’s book editor at Publishers Weekly. ”That seal is a stamp of approval for parents and librarians.”
This year’s winners — Shiloh by Phyllis Reynolds Naylor and Tuesday by David Wiesner — live up to their laurels.
Shiloh, a preteen novel that captured the Newbery for prolific author Phyllis Reynolds Naylor (The Keeper, The Agony of Alice), is a direct descendant of a long line of boy-loves-animal stories, from The Yearling to Where the Red Fern Grows.
Like these antecedents, Shiloh is a compelling read. A boy’s devotion to a lovable, mistreated dog is a powerful motive force for the plot; it draws us in and keeps us hooked.
The story is narrated by 11-year-old Marty, who speaks believably in the cadences of the West Virginia hills. For Marty’s working-class family (his dad delivers the rural mail), keeping a pet is an unthinkable luxury. But when a too-thin, frightened beagle timidly follows Marty home one day, trembling with fear and hope of affection, the boy falls for him hard and hopelessly. He names the dog Shiloh, and schemes desperately to rescue him from his cruel owner, Judd Travers.
Through Marty’s eyes, Naylor gives us a sympathetic yet unsentimental portrait of the whole family, including Marty’s loving though hard-pressed parents and his two pesky, engaging little sisters.
But the heart of the story belongs to Marty, his struggle to protect the dog, and his battle with his conscience. He secretly hides Shiloh in a pen in the woods and is ensnared by the growing web of lies required to conceal the deed.
In other words, this isn’t just a boy-and-his-dog adventure, it’s a strongly persuasive story of moral growth, told without a hint of moralizing and with acute insight into a preadolescent’s inner life. Throughout the swift-moving plot, Marty wrestles with tough ethical questions.
Naylor’s wonderful achievement is to keep the action and suspense bubbling along, even as Marty’s character continues to develop new depth-all the way to the completely satisfying, heartwarming, and yes, uplifting, conclusion. A