The Silver Pencil
Alice Dalgliesh (YA Fiction Newbery Honor)
The silver pencil was a miracle. It was handsome to look at, delightful to use because it never needed sharpening. One had only to change the lead. Janet was sure that she could write almost anything with it. Confidently she sat down at her small table, with clean sheets of paper in front of her and the shining pencil in her hand. To her surprise, exactly nothing happened.
Nine-year-old Janet Laidlaw was a British citizen living on the tropical island of Trinidad. She loved her life in the House on the Hill, but things quickly changed following the sudden death of her beloved father. At thirteen—when most Colonials went off to school—Janet traveled to her mother’s birthplace of England where her world suddenly got a lot bigger. With the promise of new friends and adventures, perhaps her silver pencil wouldn’t be silent for much longer.
Newbery books have always been my “go to” reads. Whether I’m looking for an excellent story for myself or I need a solid recommendation for a young reader, that silver- or gold-foiled sticker always let me know that I had picked out a winner. Unfortunately for me, The Silver Pencil fell short of this assumption. Awarded the Newbery Honor Book distinction in 1945, Alice Dalgliesh’s coming-of-age (and semi-autobiographical) book is about a young girl who travels from Trinidad to England and then to New York while pursuing a career in teaching before ultimately stumbling upon success as a children’s author. This book is meant to mirror Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women, which was Janet’s first introduction to America. Unfortunately, Dalgliesh’s tale didn’t quite rise to the level of its literary inspiration and probably won’t have the same appeal with a young adult audience.
Published in 1944, the beginning of The Silver Pencil is full of racially insensitive and inappropriate cultural references. These obviously didn’t cause a ripple back then, but would clearly result in a tsunami today. Also, Janet’s favorite book is The Story of Little Black Sambo, which she shares repeatedly with youngsters that are in need of fast and effective entertainment. Although the story’s text and illustrations have undergone numerous revisions over the decades, its very title still conjures up negative feelings and emotions. With that being said, the remainder of the book is pretty safe although I felt no attachment to the story and had zero connection to its characters. Despite it being a beautifully written book, the words just hung there and felt lifeless—lacking any sense of warmth or feeling. Even when Janet was dealing with the death of her father, I didn’t feel her pain and loss although she was obviously experiencing it. Her experiences felt more like a list to be checked rather than a life that was lived.
Despite the low rating, I loved how Dalgliesh used stories and storytelling to bridge the gap between cultures and class, to calm the rowdy and connect the displaced, and to bring people together to make the world seem a little bit smaller. They say that the pen is mightier than the sword, but Janet Laidlaw and Alice Dalgliesh showed us that a silver pencil could be just as mighty…if not more.
* Book cover image attributed to www.amazon.com