When the 1930s started, my grandmother was around the age GirlChild is now–and she’ll be turning 93 next month. It amazes me that some of the books she might have read as an elementary school student are books my little girl is reading now!
While that helps put this decade in perspective for me, here is a selection of world events from about.com to help other readers orient themselves in time!
1930–Pluto is discovered
1932–Amelia Earhart is first female to complete solo flight across the Atlantic
1933–Prohibition ends in the U.S.
1935–Monopoly released by Parker Brothers; first paperback books published (Penguin books)
1936–Gone with the Wind published
1938–Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs released by Disney; Superman appears in comics
1939–World War II begins
All the Newbery Medals awarded during this decade were to women compared to all the medals in the 1920s going to men; I don’t know if there’s a reason for this, but it caught my eye! Of the ten winners, I’m familiar with five of the titles; my mom read Caddie Woodlawn and Roller Skates to us when I was young, and she owns Invincible Louisa (although I don’t remember ever reading it myself).
1930–Hitty, Her First Hundred Years, by Rachel Field
1931–The Cat Who Went to Heaven, by Elizabeth Coatsworth
1932–Waterless Mountain, by Laura Adams Armer
1933–Young Fu of the Upper Yangtze, by Elizabeth Lewis
1934–Invincible Louisa: The Story of the Author of Little Women, by Cornelia Meigs
1935–Dobry, by Monica Shannon
1936–Caddie Woodlawn, by Carol Ryrie Brink
1937–Roller Skates, by Ruth Sawyer
1938–The White Stag, by Kate Seredy
1939–Thimble Summer, by Elizabeth Enright
[UPDATE: I didn’t realize that Caldecott Medals began to be awarded during this decade! The first winner, in 1938, was Animals of the Bible: A Picture Book, illustrated by Dorothy Lathrop, and the 1939 winner was Mei Li, by Thomas Handforth.]
And now to our list!
The Cat Who Went to Heaven, by Elizabeth Coatsworth (1930): This book, the story of a cat who inspired a destitute Japanese artist and brought him good fortune in the form of a commission to paint the death of Buddha, was the 1931 Newbery Medal winner. It alternates between third-person prose describing events from the artist’s perspective and brief songs of the elderly housekeeper who first brought the short-tailed cat into their home. The unnamed artist first resists the appearance of the cat since he calls cats a devil and is upset because the housekeeper spent their little money on the cat instead of food, but he seems besotted by her as soon as he sees her. The housekeeper names the cat Good Fortune, and that is what she seems to bring them. The cat appears to pray to their image of Buddha, causing the artist to consider his recent lack of prayer due to his hardships and sadness. After the priest arrives to commission the painting, more and more good things come to the artist. He ponders the Buddha in order to do the painting justice, and he comes to a deeper understanding of the object of his faith and remembers also that cats were the only animals not to receive Buddha’s blessing because they were too proud. The cat’s attention to his painting as he adds animals significant to the story of Buddha so moves him that he disregards his fear that his painting will be rejected and includes a cat in the scene. Good Fortune, so happy to see the cat included, dies suddenly. The priest who receives the painting the next day is in awe of it until he sees the cat pictured and puts it aside for burning, but the artist feels as though he has done the right thing anyway. During the night, the image of the cat moves from the end of the parade of animals to a position under the now-outstretched hand of Buddha (as if in blessing), so the significance of the title refers to this cat who supernaturally (through the painting) received Buddha’s blessing and went to heaven.
Angus and the Cat, by Marjorie Flack (1931): One of several books based on the author’s own Scottish terrier dog, Angus and the Cat tells the story of how Angus–old enough and wise enough to deal with many of the things his little world throws at him–finds himself at a loss when a cat suddenly appears in his home and invades his space. Whenever Angus approaches, sometimes innocently, sometimes to defend his territory, the cat lashes out or retreats to a place where Angus can’t reach. When the cat seems to disappear one day (BoyChild loved finding her hiding on the roof next to the gable window where Angus couldn’t see her!), Angus searches all over for her and realizes he is lonely without her. The cat returns at lunchtime, and Angus and the cat seem to come to an understanding and enjoy each other’s company. This book is particularly applicable to us right now because we’re fostering a dog who is doesn’t trust our dog because of a bad experience with a similar animal and medication issues. We’re hoping things end up like this book, where our Angus and the cat (the other dog) learn to get along together!
Histoire de Babar (The Story of Babar), by Jean de Brunhoff (1931): Babar is, perhaps, the best-known elephant on the planet. This first story, based on a story the author’s wife made up for their children, tells how Babar came to wear clothing and be the king of the elephants. The English version, translated (I think, but maybe retold in English instead) by A.A. Milne, was published in 1933.
GirlChild has always loved elephants, and the year she was four, she wanted to be both an elephant and a princess for Halloween, so I turned the whole family into the Babars and decorated our trunk (for trunk-or-treat) with copies of all the Babar books I could find. Dr. Daddy (he’s a vet) made the biggest splash as King Babar himself!
Little House in the Big Woods, by Laura Ingalls Wilder (1932): The first of the Little House books, this tells the fictionalized story of four-year-old Laura and her family before they pack up to leave the big woods of Wisconsin. Set in the second half of the 1800s, it tells of the day-to-day life of a family living off the land and by their wits. My family loved hearing these stories when I was a kid; we loved the pioneer unit my mom used to teach at school (dress-up in bonnets and pinafores! knead bread! make butter! write on slates!); we loved to build log cabins and smokehouses with our Lincoln Logs like Pa did with the real thing. GirlChild has read this one, too, and we’ve listened to (most of) The Long Winter during a trip during our own long Midwest winter. This book tells the kind of things kids want to know about life long ago, and it helps remind me what a blessing modern conveniences are when I start to romanticize the “old days”!
The Story About Ping, by Marjorie Flack and Kurt Weise (1933): Inspired by her research into ducks for another Angus story, the author delved even deeper into the world of Peking ducks, and this story is the result. Ping is one of a number of ducks who live on a houseboat (with eyes–creepy, creepy–um, I mean wise–eyes) on the Yangtze River. Every day, the ducks leave the boat to forage, and every evening, they are called back to the boat. The last duck gets a swat from a switch (probably to encourage the ducks to always return quickly), and Ping decides one day–a day when he misses the call and would be the last duck–to spend the night outside rather than risk the spank. As Ping explores the river the next morning while he searches for his home, we get peeks into life on the river for a variety of groups, from the diving birds fishing for their master to the family whose child is out bobbing in the river with a barrel tied to him for a life jacket. The boy’s family wants to eat Ping, but he releases Ping secretly, and Ping finally catches sight of his home, just in time to hear the call and be the last duck back. He decides to risk the spank so he can be back home with his family again.
Mary Poppins, by P.L. Travers (1934): I remember picking up this book in my elementary school library (it had to be pre-fifth-grade because I remember which library it was, and I changed schools in fifth grade) and being a little shocked that Mary Poppins seemed kind of harsh! My experience with the character was, predictably, limited to the Disney version of her, and she kind of scared me in the book! I remember the magic seeming pretty different, too, and I was pretty confused by an episode with bread wrapped in paper (which reflects the fact that I was unaware that the book was already over 50 years old). With renewed interest in the story due to the movie Saving Mr. Banks in 2013, perhaps it’s a good time to break out the original stories again (it’s a whole series!) before my kids get too spoiled by the Julie Andrews version! (Interestingly, the author herself died twenty years ago this weekend!)
And to Think that I Saw it on Mulberry Street, by Dr. Seuss (1937): Dr. Seuss’s first children’s book is the rhyming tale of a boy who is instructed by his father to observe what he sees while he travels to school and report what he has seen. The boy thinks that what he has seen is too boring, so he embellishes and embellishes until the man driving a horse and cart becomes a brass band on a trailer being pulled by an elephant and two giraffes being escorted by motorcycle police and watched by the city officials and on and on and on…until he gets home, so excited to tell what he has seen that he can’t even speak, and he finally just reports what he actually saw: a plain horse and cart on Mulberry Street.
Mr. Popper’s Penguins, by Richard and Florence Atwater (1938): I recently read this one to my kids, too. It was one of the books introduced to me, along with Anne of Green Gables, by my second grade teacher who realized I needed more than what her grade-level classroom library had to offer. A Newbery Honor recipient in 1939, Mr. Popper is a painter who dreams of world travel. He loves to read about far-off places, and he greatly admires Admiral Drake and writes him a letter about the “funny penguins” at the South Pole. After telling him, via radio broadcast from the expedition, that he should expect a reply to his letter, Admiral Drake sends him a penguin by air express. They soon add another, a gift from an aquarium as they both try to help the ailing penguins recover, and those two soon start a family. Soon the Poppers have ten baby penguins to add to their collection. The house has been transformed into a funhouse for penguins; they train them to do a little show, and they are offered a good sum to travel with their performing penguins. Eventually, the penguins are sent with Admiral Drake on an expedition to establish a penguin population at the North Pole, and Mr. Popper gets to live his dream by joining them on their trip. While it might be a little difficult for young readers to understand all the cultural differences between this book’s setting and modern times, there really is nothing extra needed to imagine how fun and funny it might be to have penguins as pets, even for just a little while!
Mike Mulligan and his Steam Shovel, story and pictures by Virginia Lee Burton (1939): Mike Mulligan and his steam shovel, Mary Anne, are becoming obsolete as new gas and electric steam shovels are developed. They try to prove themselves one more time by offering to dig the cellar for the new town hall in Popperville in just a day. Having an audience always makes them work harder, and a crowd soon gathers to watch their work and see if they really can do all that digging in just one day. Just at sunset, they finish their work to the applause of the townspeople who are all standing around watching. After all that hard, fast work, a little boy (who has been watching all day) notices that Mike and Mary Anne have forgotten to leave a way out. Then the little boy suggests that they simply stay where they are: let Mary Anne be the furnace for the new town hall, and Mike Mulligan can be the janitor. They all agree, and Mike and Mary Anne stay relevant by reinventing themselves and being useful.
Here’s the related list from What We Do All Day: remember that this blogger focuses on lesser-known works, so there’s little overlap this time because of how many well-known works were written during this decade!