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The first thing to understand is that this is probably not a book that could be written today, and its certainly not a book that could be published today. In order to deal with it at all, we have to have that understanding up front.Although Shen of the Sea is subtitled Chinese Stories for Children, it has no source notes of any kind, and none of the tales are recognizable versions of any standard Chinese folktales. All of the stories, in fact, seem to be either entirely Chrismans invention, or so wildly changed from their original form as to be unidentifiable. This is true despite the fact that a large number of the tales are porquoi stories about the origin of such things as chopsticks, china plates, tea, and kites. Indeed, Chrismans China is a sort of hazy fairyland, one constructed almost without relation to any place or time that may have really existed. Although theres a definite fondness for the idea of China in his writing, his grasp on the details of the country and culture is tenuous at best -- perhaps understandably so, given that he knew only a handful of words and phrases in the language, and, unlike Elizabeth Foreman Lewis and Elizabeth Coatsworth, never personally visited Asia. One simply cant read this book and expect to find cultural or historical accuracy.So, its fairly off-putting to 21st-century eyes. It fails any given test of authenticity, and it smacks of cultural imperialism, to say the least. Those are the facts, plain and simple.And yet, Chrismans wry humor and folk-style plotting are still effective. I found Shen of the Sea perfectly readable; it wasnt a chore to trudge through in the same way that something like Smoky, the Cowhorse was. Its more comparable to The Matchlock Gun in that the writing is perfectly fine even when the content isnt -- and if Walter Edmonds finely-tuned prose runs circles around Chrismans sometimes stilted English, Chrisman doesnt consistently demonize and inhumanize his non-white subjects like Edmonds does. Is that faint praise? Maybe. You certainly couldnt give Shen of the Sea to a kid without any explanation, and you might not want to give it to them at all. But like so many of the other early Newbery winners, its hard to definitively say that Shen wasnt the most deserving book of its year. The best-remembered titles from the 1925 publishing year werent eligible: Emily Climbs, by L.M. Montgomery (Canadian); Gallery of Children, by A.A. Milne (British); The School at the Chalet, by Elinor M. Brent-Dyer (also British). The only Honor book was PГЎdraic Colums The Voyagers: Being Legends and Romances of Atlantic Discovery, which isnt one that inspires a lot of fervor. The few other eligible books that are more or less still in print arent necessarily ones most people would argue for either: The Adventures of Little Joe Otter, by Thornton W. Burgess; Raggedy Anns Wishing Pebble, by Johnny Gruelle; The Lost King of Oz, one of the many inferior sequels by Ruth Plumly Thompson. Maybe its another reason to be grateful that the Newbery was instituted. If these early winners tend to be of...uneven quality, I dont think it can be argued that the state of American childrens literature is orders of magnitude better than it was back when the award was instituted -- and of course, thats one of the main things the Newbery was supposed to encourage.

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