Remembering the First Indian-American Children’s Book to Win a Newbery

Remembering the First Indian-American Children’s Book to Win a Newbery

By Lakshmi Gandhi

It may be the first children’s book by an Indian-American author to win the John Newbery Medal for American children’s literature, but Dhan Gopal Mukerji’s “Gay-Neck: The Story of a Pigeon” has been largely forgotten today, according to literature professor Oindrila Mukherjee.

First published on July 1, 1927, “Gay Neck: The Story of a Pigeon” tells the story of a beloved pigeon named “Gay-Neck” (the name is a reference to the iridescent colors on the bird’s neck) and the Indian boy who cares for him. The story, which was illustrated by the artist Boris Artzybasheff, follows the bird as he travels through Calcutta and is eventually enlisted into service in France during World War I.

“I teach creative writing at Grand Valley State University, and I interviewed there in 2011 during that big Midwestern blizzard,” Mukherjee told NBC News. “The second day of the interview was cancelled so the then-chair of the department began talking to me to entertain me. He had grown up in Kansas and he used to keep pigeons and he said, ‘there’s this book’ and I had no idea what he was talking about.”

Born in Calcutta in 1890, Mukerji moved to the United States to study at the University of California, Berkeley in his 20s, according to Mukherjee. He would later write several books for both children and adults incorporating Indian themes and Hindu folklore and became the first (and to date, only) Indian American to receive a Newbery award when the book was granted the prize in 1928. “Gay-Neck” was a particularly autobiographical children’s book as Mukerji kept pigeons throughout his childhood in Calcutta, at one point having a flock of 40 birds, Mukherjee noted.

The book was widely praised by critics and readers after it was released. The story “has wonderful characters and thrill and beauty, wisdom and story all the way through,” Arthur Bowie Chrisman, himself a 1925 Newbery winner, reportedly told The Oak Parker newspaper in 1928. A reviewer for The Burlington Gazette concurred, writing in 1928 that “It is indeed a pleasure to recommend such a book as ’Gay-Neck’ to both parents and children who want to read a ‘good book.’”

It really wasn’t just for children, it had so many layers. It actually explains Hindu Indian culture to Western readers.”

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