When "Sarah, Plain and Tall" by Patricia MacLachlan (Harper & Row) was named winner of the 1986 Newbery Medal, the award committee also named two Honor Books, one a novel set in the modern Arctic, and the other an account of Japan during the 19th Century.
"Commodore Perry" is a handsome coffee tablelike book, rich with Japanese art and history that will appeal as much to a child's visual pleasure as anything else. In scholarly but not intimidating prose, Blumberg recounts how, in 1853, four U.S. naval ships with 560 men anchored near the fishing village of Shimoda, to the terror of its natives who called the Americans "hairy barbarians." What follows are delicious details about this isolated nation which at the time was in its Tokugawa Period: a medieval feudal society where customs, laws and fashions hadn't changed for 250 years, and where foreigners were barred. After Perry's delicate negotiations, a treaty was signed, and the two cultures could finally mingle with mutual curiosity.
These pages and margins are gracefully filled with drawings done by artists from the Perry expedition as well as reproductions from Japanese scrolls. A bibliography, five appendices, notes and index plump this into a fine volume worthy of anyone's bookshelf, child or adult.
The other Newbery honoree, Dogsong by Gary Paulsen (Bradbury: $11.95; 177 pp.; age 12 up), tells of a 14-year-old Eskimo boy who rejects his snowmobile culture in search of the ancient truths known by his ancestors. He embarks on an epic journey north using only the team of sled dogs and primitive weapons of Oogruk, his blind mentor who chooses to remain behind on an ice floe to die. Oogruk's teachings are the key to Russell's survival where nothing matters but "shelter and food and heat and comfort." As he lets the dogs lead him across ice fields and under skies colored with northern lights he remembers Oogruk words: "It isn't the destination that counts, it is the journey. That is what life is . . . Pay attention to the journey."
Hypnotic, spare prose matches the rhythm of Russell's quest which is filled with mystical and mythical images that guide the boy to his own "song." The yearning for self knowledge is described with beautiful precision as is life in Arctic wilderness, something the author knows well. At the time of "Dogsong" publication, he was running his own sled team, for the second time, in the 1,049-mile Iditarod race across Alaska.