Adventures in Reading


Newbery Project: The Story of Mankind by Hendrik Willem Van Loon Part I (Pages 1 – 278)

“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.

And a lot of other opinions from the Newbery Project.

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