I received my degree in library and information science in a small midwestern college going by the name of St. Catherine. Librarianship was one of those occupations I fought against. I was the kid who made a cataloging system for the family videotapes. Who tried to work out a pre-computer list of searchable terms for my National Geographic Magazines. I didn’t want to just fall into the occupation of librarian, but sometimes we have very little choice in these matters. As it was, I decided not to give in without a fight.
So it was that when I entered the College of St. Catherine MLIS program I decided to shy away from the usual day-to-day deskwork and do something a little flashy. I wanted to be an archivist. As you might have gathered, I have a funny definition of “flash” floating about my head. But I took a children’s literature course on a lark. I thought that maybe it would be fun. Good for a laugh. An easy-peasy class I could dip my toe into without having to commit myself in any way.
It was during that time that I also began to work in the St. Catherine library as a Serials Manager. While on the job I’d often find myself inspecting the college children’s collection in conjunction with my class. It was a lovely little collection, I might add. Lots of goodies from the past and present were freely circulating. And one day as I was perusing the shelves, my eyes alighted on a fun title. “The Winged Girl of Knossos” by Erick Berry.
For reasons of my own that I will not go into (i.e. they’re silly) I was in a let’s-read-all-the-children’s-books-with-winged-characters phase. The luck of the draw caused me to smile and snatch up Berry’s book. Imagine my surprise then when I discovered it to be a 1934 Newbery Honor title. Oh la la, as they say. Of course, I’ve read a lot of older Newbery titles. Berry’s book was, as it turned out, one of eight Honor books that year (the winner being, in my personal opinion, the nice but blah “Invincible Louisa”). It was a product of the D. Appleton-Century Company (1846-1962). Now deceased, an enterprising soul could probably root around the files of this company, now housed in Indiana University’s Lilly Library Manuscript Collection and perhaps find info pertaining to this book (though the online inventory does not look promising). You won’t though. No one will because “The Winged Girl of Knossos” is a completely forgotten title despite its magnificent plot, characters, and storyline.
In spite of the fact that this book is, in my eyes, the greatest out-of-print travesty of this or any other life, I’ve never reviewed it. I meant to. Yet when I found that stray circulating copy in the St. Kate library (now mysteriously gone from the record, I was sad to find) I was not yet reviewing children’s books, old or new. It’s just sheer luck that I happen to work in a library right now that has a Reference copy of the book in question. So was it as good as I remembered? I took a second look and tried to determine if I was correct in recommending this book to every man, woman, and child I knew.
The story begins with a theory. What if the mysterious lost land of Atlantis wasn’t a land sunk deep below the sea as so many have suggested? What if it was, in fact, the ancient civilization of Crete instead? And if Crete were, in fact, a remarkable land above and beyond its neighbors, could we then also assume that maybe some of the Greek myths we know so well were based on true events? Theseus vs. the Minotaur and the tale of Icarus take on a whole new meaning in this clever novel. In Berry’s book we meet Inas, daughter of Daidalos. She’s the kind of girl who prefers hanging out with sea divers and testing out her father’s inventions over your usual needlepoint and girly type activities. Her father, as it happens, is a fairly important fella. He created the Labyrinth used by King Minos, and has a whole slew of ideas every day. Speaking of Minos, recently he acquired some rather interesting Greek slaves. Amongst them a tall burly man by the name of Theseus. Princess Ariadne, a confident of Inas, has grown rather fascinated with that young man, much to the younger girl’s dismay. Then things start to get dirty. Crete is threatened by outside forces. Ariadne manages to free Theseus and run away with him. And now, for some reason, Minos is accusing Daidalos of treachery and is threatening him with imprisonment. It’s up to Inas to survive the changes coming to her kingdom as Crete reaches the last of its once beautiful days.
Erick Berry, as it turned out, was a pseudonym. Recognize one Allena Best as the true author of this book. I had been a little shocked that a fellow in the early 30s would create a female character quite as spunky and fun as Inas. Not that spunky girls were unknown in children’s fiction during that time. Consider three Newbery Award winners that came out practically three years in a row: “Caddie Woodlawn” (1936), “Roller Skates” (1937), and “Thimble Summer” (1939). Now consider Inas. Chapter One opens with a paragraph where our heroine, “wedged the three-pronted fork – a short-handled trident,” under her arm to fish for sponges. Next she braves shark-infested waters to meet her friend’s boat. She regularly tries out her father’s magnificent glider for fun, high above the land. Best of all, and this is what really sets Inas apart for me, she’s a bull-vaulter. She goes into a ring with bulls, allows them to toss her into the air, and performs acrobatic stunts on their backs as they flip her. You got that? Bull. Vaulter. Inas kicks ass, takes names, and manages to rescue herself and her “boyfriend” over and over due to her ingenuity. Does she end up marrying by the end? Of course. But before that she’s basically acted as a kind of acrobatic Cretean superheroine. The fact that the author also happened to create all the interior illustrations as well (fun pictures based on “murals and decorations from Knossos and other Minoan cities”) is just a nice plus.
Want to check out the book on your own? Good luck with that. On Alibris you have your pick. You can either buy the book for $150 or $162. It’s wide open. The copies on Amazon.com? All unavailable unless you can find a used vendor somewhere. Your best bet is to locate a library with a complete collection of Newbery Award winners and their Honors. Personally, I think it’s worth it. With the resurgence of interest in Greek myths and titles (a tip of the hat to you, Rick Riordan), I like to think that this book might have an audience if you punched up the cover. It reads really well and feels ahead of its time. Let’s re-establish this book back where it truly belongs. In the canon as a classic of its time.
Notes on the Cover: Well, why not? It’s not as if you’re gonna find it anywhere. I’m sure I’m not the only person out there who took a look at it and saw it as a highly stylized play on Native American images. Closer inspection reveals the lack of perspective and flattened effect. Just the same, you have to admit it’s kind of cool. I wouldn’t put it on a reissue or anything, but if the New York Review of Books wanted to reprint this puppy in vibrant colors, it could end up looking pretty striking. *hint hint* New York Review of Books *hint hint*.