Adventures in Reading


Newbery Project: The Story of Mankind by Hendrik Willem Van Loon Part II (Pages 279-532)

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.

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