The Old Tobacco Shop by William Bowen

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The Old Tobacco Shop: The True Account of What Befell a Little Boy in Search of Adventure by William Bowen (first published 1922) and runner-up to the first year of the Newbery Medal, is even worse than the tobacco-filled title can suggest. With racist sterotypes, smoking by a young child, and bizarre, unconnected adventures, The Old Tobacco Shop should disappear into the smoke of oblivion.

First, our young boy, Freddie has been asked to fetch his papa’s tobacco from the titular “Tobacco Shop.” Then, the shop proprietor, Toby, tells a somewhat terrifying story about the “Punch” statue coming alive at various hours of the day. Toby feels somewhat creepy as a friend of this young boy, despite the presence of his physically “lame” sister, called Aunt Amanda, who sits sewing in the corner whenever Freddie comes to visit. One day, after hearing stories of the magical tobacco in the “Chinaman’s head” canister, Freddie decides to smoke it to see what the magic will do.

The adventures that follow are nonsensical, unconnected, and purely ridiculous. With Toby, Aunt Amanda, the elderly churchwarden who sits nearby, and other imaginary characters from Toby’s stories, Freddie experiences the high seas, where a shipwreck leaves him stranded; kidnapping by pirates; haunting from ghosts; and a fantastical village where a stereotypical Persian carpet merchant gives them their heart’s desire with all the gold they have found. This desire is, apparently, to be old (Freddie) and gorgeous (the other adults in the company). Aunt Amanda has become the long-lost queen of the mysterious kingdom in which they find themselves, and her skinny beautify causes amazement to all involved.

Just as mysteriously, the adventurers are returned to their regular appearance and find themselves back in the street with the tobacco shop. Was Freddie really gone? The dialog with his not-mentioned-until-now parents suggests he had run away for six months, but all the further references make it seem as if he had been sick and these ridiculous adventures had a been a dream. Regardless, the adventure features adults and imaginary figures and the context for the adventures feels like on a perverted grown-up would have imagined, rather than a five-year-old child who recently stopped lisping his own name.

I knew these early Newbery books would be questionable, but this just takes the cake, so far. The only consolation is that, over the more than 200 votes cast for the Newbery in 1923, only 5 people voted for this book. Although the racism was not as horribly persistent as in the also inappropriate The Great Quest, which dealt with the slave trade in the early 1800s, there is very little in the way of good writing, characterization, or plot in The Old Tobacco Shop. Avoid this one at all costs.

I rate The Old Tobacco Shop, Newbery Honor from 1922, as “blah/yuck” and say “don’t bother.”



Reviewed on September 29, 2023

About the author 

Rebecca Reid

Rebecca Reid is a homeschooling, stay-at-home mother seeking to make the journey of life-long learning fun by reading lots of good books. Rebecca Reads provides reviews of children's literature she has enjoyed with her children; nonfiction that enhances understanding of educational philosophies, history and more; and classical literature that Rebecca enjoys reading.

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