The Newbery Medal is a less-than-constant cultural barometer. The highest honor for children’s literature has gone to works entirely wholesome (such as Kate DiCamillo’s pint-sized saga The Tale of Despereaux in 2004) and surprisingly gruesome (see Neil Gaiman’s The Graveyard Book, which won in 2009 by melding Rudyard Kipling with graveside grue and serial killers). The powers that be behind the award obviously have expansive standards when it comes to child appropriateness, but I suspect that many forward-thinking readers might cringe at some its prior recipients. Take, for instance, Sid Fleischman’s The Whipping Boy, which took top honors in 1987. It contains no creepy ghouls or bad men with sharp knives, but it deals with a subject that the literary academy finds more than a little backward: Discipline in general (and corporal correction in particular) can aid a child’s development.
No one calls Prince Horace by his proper name. A childhood spent greasing knights’ saddles, tying noblemen’s wigs to the backs of their chairs, and dumping croaking frogs into the castle moat has earned him the unenviable nickname of Prince Brat. Not that the King hasn’t tried to reform his wayward spawn. The problem is that it’s forbidden to lay a hand on the royal heir, so a street urchin named Jemmy has to fill in. When the prince pulls a terrible prank, Jemmy gets lashed. When the prince refuses to get out of bed, Jemmy gets tanned. When the prince doesn’t apply himself to his lessons, well, you get the idea. The one thing Jemmy can count on in his day is a swift spanking. But there’s a silver lining. Though the prince has refused to learn how to read and write, Jemmy’s acquiring a working knowledge of the alphabet through sheer osmosis. Still, he would give it up for an opportunity to go ratting in the sewers once again. Then one night, Jemmy finds himself shaken out of a dead sleep. The prince has grown sick of court life and wants to run away—with Jemmy’s help.
The first thing you notice about The Whipping Boy is Fleischman’s masterful use of language. Chapters scarcely run more than three or four pages, but he peppers them with similes, metaphors, and all sorts of vivid imagery. Just look at the opening paragraph: “The young prince was known here and there (and just about everywhere else) as Prince Brat. Not even black cats would cross his path.” And that’s just for starters. On the night Prince Brat decided to run away, “the moon gazed down like an evil eye.” An unpleasant rascal met on the road “was a big man, … big and raw as a skinned ox.” If you want to raise a little logophile, you could do far worse than to start with The Whipping Boy.
However, the book contains more than just great writing. One could spill plenty of ink praising its character development (during their journey, the two boys change in surprising yet believable ways); worldbuilding (Fleischman spins out a believable society with a few deft strokes of his pen); and plotting (it’s sharp and polished as a fresh arrow shaft). But rather than boring you with an overlong review, I’m going to focus on that contentious main theme. In truth, Boy deals very little with the titular whipping and more with the idea of ignoring the blessings beneath one’s very nose. By rejecting discipline and neglecting instruction, Prince Brat has denied his kingdom a competent heir to throne, a fact of which his future subjects are quite aware. Meanwhile, Jemmy has treasured ignorance over the chance to acquire an invaluable education. Both discover that external correction only works when met by internal change, a truth that even the most progressive cultural critic can gladly acknowledge.
(Picture: Copyright 1986 by Peter Sis; used under Fair Use)