After the marathon 500 page history book, The Voyages of Dr. Dolittle was a quick and fun read. It was about a fifth as long, and perhaps a fifth as difficult as the first Newbery Winner The Story of Mankind. Dr. Doolittle is by far the most popular of the 1920s Newbery Winners. It is part of a long series of books (and later movies) by Hugh Lofting about a doctor who can communicate with animals.
I didn’t grow up watching the movies, but Evan did, and loved the 1967 musical version with Rex Harrison. I liked the book enough that I am curious now to see the movie adaptations. The Newbery winning Dr. Dolittle book is the second book in the series which has a 10 year old boy, Tommy Stubbins, as narrator recalling his sea voyage from England with the great naturalist Dr. John Dolittle in search of the lost native naturalist Long Arrow on Spider Island.
What I liked. The concept of talking with animals is really whimsical, and the best parts of the books are the animals themselves. I loved the duck house keeper DabDab and the wise fluent-English parrot Polynesia. Lofting creates some fun situations for animals to help, such as a dog as a witness in court, bulls who help put on a show during a bull fight, parrots winning a war by nipping the enemies’ ear lobes, whales pushing an island, and a snail acting as a submarine.
What was interesting. I was fascinated by the depiction of the turn-of-the-century naturalist and animal rights. Although it has a very different feel from Black Beauty or The Evolution of Calpurnia Tate, it does seem to capture the late 19th century fascination with the animals and plants that Charles Darwin was cataloging and theorizing about in his own writings. John Dolittle’s secret discovery of the north pole or the concept of how various animal languages were connected echoes a wider shift in scientific thinking and practice during that period.
What were some limitations. Similar to The Story of Mankind, there is definitely some orientalism and racism in this book. The depiction (and names!) of the African prince Bumpo and the South American Popsipetels natives leaves a lot to be desired. They are clownish and naive, dependent on the benevolent wisdom and power of Dr. Dolittle. Also, there are remarkably few female human characters (although a lot of great female animals).
Why I think it’s a Newbery: There is so much packed into this book: a sea adventure, stow-aways, a murder case, talking animals, a bull fight, a rescue attempt, a war, a snail submarine. It just is a really fun book!
Similarity to other Newbery winners. Like Story of Mankind, there is definitely a very international and broad scope to this book, but from within the worldview of Europe at the center.
What it teaches me as a writer: I think that Dolittle really encouraged me to remember that well-thought out whimsical and fun situations really can carry a book. Especially where I am in the drafting process, having a lot of fun and whimsy is important. (Tree houses! Doors behind waterfalls! Underground castles!)
Have you read (or watched) Dr. Dolittle? Or what are the whimsical books you loved as a child?
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