In 1928, Gay Neck, which depicts the adventures of a young boy and his carrier pigeon, became the first novel written by a person of color to win the prestigious Newbury Medal. Yet nearly a century later, the book and its author, Dhan Gopal Mukerji, are largely overlooked, seldom referenced even in discussions about diversity in children’s literature.
Mukerji is not the only author to have found great success and then seemingly disappeared from historical memory. Gayl Jones wrote experimental novels about the legacy of slavery that were praised by literary greats such as Toni Morrison, John Updike, and James Baldwin. Jones was also a finalist for the National Book Award, but few still remember her. Herman Wouk wrote about World War II with startling realism, earning a Pulitzer Prize and multiple film and TV adaptations of his books—but few still celebrate his work today. Kuniko Tsurita published manga that shattered gender norms and drew from influences as diverse as Greek art-house film and American wordless novels. Yet she, too, has not received lasting critical attention.
The Harlem Renaissance poet Claude McKay’s novel Amiable With Big Teeth actually did disappear—until a graduate student found the work nearly 70 years after it was written. Reading the masterful book now, one finds an expansive yet deeply grounded portrait of an understudied moment in American history: Black radical organizing in 1930s Harlem.
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What a forgotten kids’ book reveals about U.S. publishing
“The rise and quiet disappearance of Gay Neck is not only a reminder of how publishing success waxes and wanes with shifts in groups’ social and economic capital, but also how erasure hurts and representation does, in fact, matter to contemporary narratives about art.”