I’m enrolled in an online course through ALSC that studies the Newbery winners through the decades. I wasn’t much of a reader as a kid, so I am using this class to keep myself informed about the children’s literature classics and to do some improved Readers Advisory for students who want to try something new in their reading.
Reading children’s classics isn’t always easy. My 2017 brain has a hard time adjusting back to some of what appears today to be casual racism, sexism, and anti-Semitism. Sometimes the books present a moral universe that’s a little too clear-cut to be real or true to kids. But at the same time, there’s a reason these books are classics and their potential to resonate with readers is high.
The Voyages of Dr. Dolittle is that kind of book. We have a child main character, Tommy Stubbins, who has conveniently absent parents and no true emotional life other than the thirst for adventure. And we have a Dr. Dolittle, who also appears to have no emotional life, but an exceptional talent to speak to animals. Lots of my readers get stuck on reading for emotions, and this book’s setup conveniently avoids reader struggle points like inner dialogue, voice, and character development.
As far as the story goes, I appreciate how there’s an overall story arc about traveling to the Spider Islands to find the missing naturalist Long Arrow. But this book is mostly about its tales, which vary between 3-5 pages long and serve as episodic amusements that are silly, funny, and resolve themselves (mostly) within the chapter. This setup is perfect for my students who struggle to attend to a slow-developing story.
Will the language and style be accessible? Maybe for some readers and maybe not for others. My guess is that the desirability with this one will depend on what my readers have already experienced. If my readers can do weird and enjoy animal stories, which some of them still do, I think they’ll go on board with Dr. Dolittle.
I hold some reservations about this book as a model for its attitudes towards nonwhite races and ethnicities, but rather than discourage readers to read it for those reasons, I’d much rather they read it and see if those issues emerge for them the way they emerged for me. As young teens, I believe they can learn about the world around them through non-examples and misguided examples as much as examples, especially when they continue to read books that treat race and ethnicity in different ways.