Walk Two Moons (1994) by Sharon Creech is number 70 on the Top 100 Chapter Books list. It’s the story of Salamanca Tree Hiddle and her journey across the midwest with her grandparents. While on the trip, she tells them about her recent life in the guise of telling them about her friend Phoebe. I’m going to forego my usual review structure this time because I had some complaints while reading this book and I want to talk about them (at least the ones that don’t require massive spoilers to tell). It is a Newbery Award winner and probably seemed really sensitive and progressive at the time. But now, 20 years later, I’m not sure that it deserves this place on a list of the top books for children.
Not too far into the book, I started feeling uncomfortable about the way that Native Americans were being portrayed in the story (a very “full of mystical wisdom and anger” portrayal). I did a quick Google search and came up with this very thoughtful discussion of it on the American Indians in Children’s Literature website. A few of the criticisms were: mixing up names from different tribes, someone claiming Indian heritage but then not knowing the name of their own tribe, using only white sources for Native myths (the author’s shortcoming, not within the story). I think, as readers, we are becoming more demanding that an author does not speak to a racial experience that they have not had, certainly not under the flimsy pretense of having had a possible Native ancestor (based on what a cousin said during childhood). I frequently found myself cringing and wishing that I was reading a story about an authentic Native experience instead.
There’s also a 1995 article from the New York Times about the book that mentions that it was “panned for its plot contrivances”. If some of those critics thought that it was a ridiculous coincidence that a girl (Sal) whose mother had left to “find herself” moves to a new town where her first friend (and subsequent best friend, Phoebe), within months, has a mother that does the exact same thing, then I agree with them. This drove me crazy. What was even worse, though, is the fact that Sal never once tells Phoebe about her own mother. What’s the point of having a (frankly unbelievable) shared experience if you aren’t going to SHARE it?!
The last major irritant for me was when the students (the girls are 13 so maybe 8th grade?) write summer journals for their English class. The teacher collects them and it’s only at that point that the kids realize that the teacher might read them. This is, of course, entirely realistic. What he actually ends up doing is far worse though and not remotely acceptable. He starts bringing out a couple of journals a day and READS FROM THEM TO THE CLASS! He hides whose journal it is and he changes the names but the kids can tell who would say what and about whom — because all he’s reading out is what one kid has said about another. He ruins friendships and budding romances and allows kids to be teased. It is awful. He only stops when one of the kids writes something that accuses one of his family members of a crime. There is barely an apology and it’s a completely pointless action anyway because none of it has anything to do with the plot. All it seems to do is to convince young readers to hide their feelings and to not trust teachers.
Anyway, this apparently was a contentious choice for the Newbery and I think it’s a contentious entrant on this list. Of the 100 books on the list, I believe that only two are written by an author of color and both are by the same person — Christopher Paul Curtis. This is extremely disappointing. I didn’t hate this book but I am absolutely sure that we could find much better books to speak to a variety of experiences.
Whew! I am really looking forward to From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler. I know I saw it on the shelves tons of times when I was a kid but honestly can’t remember if it was one I ever read. I guess I’ll find out!