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The literary prize of beloved children, The Newbery medal, will celebrate its 100th anniversary this year. The Newbery Medal was first offered in 1921 by Frédéric Melcher, then editor-in-chief of Publishers Weekly. Melcher believed that children’s literature deserved recognition similar to great poetry, plays or novels and the awards that celebrate them. He believed that the creation of such an award would be a great opportunity for children’s librarians to serve the reading interests of children with excellent writing in the field. As a result, the Newbery Medal was officially created on June 22, 1921.
To understand the importance of the award, its history and its evolution over 100 years, I spoke with Kirby McCurtis, President of the Association for library service to children. McCurtis explained that literary awards, in general, increase the attention paid to a certain type of literature, which in turn improves the quantity and quality of that literature. Prizes like the Newbery Medal are not intended to award the most popular books. Instead, they recognize which books are the most “distinguished”. McCurtis says the members of the Newbery Medal committee “work very hard to identify the best of the best and bring them up. And when it comes to recognizing and rewarding achievement in children’s literature, McCurtis says, “Kids deserve it!”
Throughout its 100-year history, the award’s goal of recognizing distinguished children’s books remains, but “the Newbery of 100 years ago is quite different from the Newbery of today,” says McCurtis . Logistically, for example, the Newbery Medal Selection Committee was once also responsible for selecting the winner of the Caldecott Medal – an award for the most distinguished American children’s picture book artist. This overlap existed from the creation of the Caldecott Medal in 1937 until 1980.
Additionally, throughout its history, with few exceptions, the Newbery Medal has been awarded almost exclusively to white authors. McCurtis is candid about this aspect of the award’s history and the award’s commitments to do better. He says, “Today’s Newbery Medal Committee members are determined to research the wide range of voices and stories currently available to children. Since 2015, the Newbery Medal has been awarded to BIPOC authors every year except one.
With 100 years of history, there are many interesting or pivotal moments to share about this award. A full list of award winners can be found here. KT Horning, the director of the Cooperative Children’s Book Center (CCBC) also shared some interesting facts about the Association for Children’s Library Services (ALSC), the Newbery Medal and the evolution of children’s literature award. For example:
In 1924, the medal was awarded posthumously for the first and only time. Charles Boardman Hawes, author of The black frigate, died before the award decision was made.
1928 marked the first year a BIPOC author received the Newbery Medal. Dhan Gopal Mukerji won for Gay Neck: The Story of a Pigeon. Forty-six years will pass before another BIPOC author wins the award, this time Virginia Hamilton for MC Higgins, the Great; seventy-four years will pass before another Asian American writer wins, in this case Linda Sue Park for A single shard.
First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt attended the 1937 Newbery Banquet and was seated at the head table next to Frédéric Melcher, who first conceptualized the award. It was also the last year the banquet was reserved for the Newbery Medal. The following year, the Caldecott Medal was created and became the Newbery-Caldecott Banquet.
Robert Lawson won the Newbery in 1944 for Rabbit Hill. He had won the Caldecott medal three years earlier for They were strong and good, and he remains the only person to have won both a Newbery and a Caldecott.
In 2000, Bud, not buddy by Christopher Paul Curtis was the first book to win both the Newbery Medal and the Coretta Scott King Award for Writing.
Notably, the award has also evolved with the fields of children’s literature and children’s library science. The moments in the history of the Newbery Medal demonstrate that children’s librarians have a long history of advocating for the constituents they serve, even if that means criticizing their own award-winning titles.
According to Sujei Lugo, a children’s librarian at Boston Public Library, one of these events occurred in 1958, after the Newbery Medal was awarded to Rifles for Watie by Harold Keith. Rifles for Watie is a novel about the Civil War and a young soldier from the Civil War. The book contains problematic content on African Americans and Native Americans.
After the book won the award, Charlemae Hill Rollins, committee member, librarian for black children and leader in the field, reached out to the book’s publisher and editor to discuss the problematic descriptions and words used regarding its black characters. . McCurtis adds, “It shows that there is a story of children’s librarians who advocate for humanity and respect for the lives and experiences of black children, and some have even had the courage to stand up and criticize award-winning titles.” . In the end, while the publisher understood Rollins’ concerns about the book, the author pushed back on the requested changes and lasting changes were not made. Libraries and children’s librarians have a responsibility to be accountable to the diverse communities they serve, and Rollins’ actions demonstrate this commitment.
The official Newbery 100e Birthday party will occur from ALA Annual Conference 2021 and culminating at the 2022 ALA Annual Conference. Between these two summers, a number of exciting opportunities and events are currently being planned for the public and ALA members.
Additionally, the Celebration Committee commissioned a series of collaborations with beloved children’s illustrators, who designed their own version of the “Newbery 100” logo. These illustrators and their designs, new products, events and resources, and more will be updated on the Newbery 100 web page when summer arrives. Throughout the 100th anniversary year of the medal, readers are encouraged to share their favorite Newbery books, authors, trivia, stories, memories and more on social media using # Newbery100.
Read more Book Riot articles on the Newbery Medal and children’s literature here.