thoughts on…the Newbery Medal

Every January, the Newbery Medal is awarded to one book, marking it for having made the most distinguished contribution to American children’s literature the previous year.  It is considered the most prestigious award in children’s literature. 

The award was begun in 1922, making 88 winners to date.  These winners include classics such as The Voyages of Doctor Doolittle (1923) and Caddy Woodlawn (1936),  recent favorites like The Tale of Despereaux(2004) and Holes (1999).  They also include books you may have never heard of including The Dark Frigate (1923) and A Visit to William Blake’s Inn (1982).  The winner is chosen by a division of the American Library Association.  Newbery Honor books, which are runners-up to the medal, are also announced each year.  There are usually about 3 or 4 of these and they include some absolutely fantastic titles as well.

I have read quite a few of the Newbery Medal winners, and continue to try to pick away at the list.  Some of our all-time favorite titles  come from this list.  On the other hand, some of the winners I am not particularly enamored with.  That is to be expected in any sort of award-listing.  If you are interested in children’s literature, or if you are interested in keeping your finger on the pulse of themes which are currently of high interest in children’s literature circles, reading the Newbery award winners is a great window on this world.  In the process, you will discover gems, and you will disagree with the committee at times, but I do think in any case you will be given plenty of food for thought and a literary treat.  You may or may not choose to recommend it to others.

The criteria for the medal include that it must be published originally in English, in the U.S., and be written by a citizen or resident of the U.S.  This eliminates many wonderful books, including those by British authors.  I’ll try to write another time about British book awards.  The target audience must be children, and the Newbery defines this as age 14 and down.  It can be awarded to fiction, non-fiction, or poetry.  Quite obviously, the main criterion is that it must be marked by excellence.  Even though the award is for children up to and including age 14, these are not books for toddlers.  A number of the earlier winners, especially, appeal to a very wide age-range, but a number of the more recent winners are definitely written for the top of the age grouping.  Keep in mind that the best way to know if a book is a great read for your family is to read it yourself; not just listen to the opinion of an “expert” or a reviewer…or even a blogger! 

The award was named after John Newbery, who was a British book publisher in the 1700s.  (A little ironic that this all-American award is named after a Brit!)  I did a little research about Mr. Newbery and found out that he published what is considered to be the first book every published intentionally for children.  It was called…are you ready?…A Little Pretty Pocket-Book Intended for the Instruction and Amusement of Little Master Tommy and Pretty Miss Polly with Two Letters from Jack the Giant Killer!!!  And it was marketed (there truly is nothing new under the sun) by being sold with a ball (for boy purchasers!) or a pincushion (for girl purchasers!)  The title page of the book tells us that the use of the ball or pincushion will “infallibly make Tommy a good Boy and Polly a good Girl”!  There was also a little songbook included.  At any rate, Mr. Newbery published quite a lot of literature for children, most of which was little moral tales about working hard and gaining a better place in society, but nevertheless it was the beginning  of publishing with children in mind.  I, for one, am grateful to him!

Here’s a link to a list of all the winners, with the exception of the 2010 winner which is When You Reach Me, by Rebecca Stead.