"Alive and Vigorous": Questioning the Newbery

As the Horn Book approaches its seventy-fifth birthday, we’ve been celebrating Bertha Mahony Miller: her vision, her enthusiastic devotion to children’s books, her potent, pioneering spirit. Bertha, founder of the country’s first children’s-book-only bookstore and co-founder and first editor of The Horn Book Magazine, recognized a kindred spirit in Frederic G. Melcher, “children’s bookman extraordinaire” and father of the Newbery and Caldecott Awards. She once wrote that he was “a person who put his impress upon every phase of children’s book[s] . . . From [his involvement] on, the history of children’s books in America quickened.” She might easily have been writing about herself.

Bertha was the best kind of supporter of the Newbery Award. She knew how much the Newbery helped the fledgling field of children’s books; she was lavish in her praise. She applied for and obtained permission to reprint the award winners’ acceptance speeches in the Horn Book; and, knowing that magazines are ephemeral, she bestowed upon posterity the gift of the collected acceptance speeches in book form. But she didn’t hesitate to call for improvements when she saw the need.

As early as March 1937, just fifteen years after its inception, she was taking note of the Newbery’s limitations, its inability as a single award to reward all in children’s literature that needed to be rewarded. “The Newbery Award invariably goes to a book for older children . . . . Perhaps some individual or group will now create a second award to go annually to the finest book published in America for younger children.”

In 1955, she was again challenging the Newbery status quo, asserting that “inevitably certain questions have occurred to us, the type of question which might well be discussed from time to time to keep the award selection alive and vigorous.” She asked, “Should the award be given to an inferior book just because the author had written one previously which might indeed have merited it? If there is no outstanding book to deserve the special honor in a particular year, would it not be better to omit bestowing the award or give it to a book of a previous year which had grown in critical esteem?”

None of Bertha’s questions received direct answers (her 1937 query might have had a hand in begetting the Caldecott Award; however, it’s debatable whether or not the need for an award for “younger children” was thereby answered). But she was right to ask. Even then the Newbery was raising more questions and generating more debate than ever it definitively identified the “most distinguished contribution to American literature for children.” Now, on the seventy-fifth birthday of the magazine Bertha Mahony Miller founded — and after an entire decade of Newbery winners from a single genre (middle-grade fiction) — it seems appropriate to raise once again questions of the type intended “to keep the award selection alive and vigorous.”

First, some history. In 1921 Frederic Melcher proposed the John Newbery Award, the first children’s book award in the world, in order “to encourage original and creative work in the field of books for children. To emphasize to the public that contributions to the literature for children deserve similar recognition to poetry, plays, or novels. To give those librarians, who make it their life work to serve children’s reading interests, an opportunity to encourage good writing in this field.” In 1921, the field of children’s books was in its infancy. The first separate children’s department at a publishing house was just two years old. There was only one children’s bookstore in the entire country — Bertha E. Mahony’s Bookshop for Boys and Girls in Boston. Most bookstores sold children’s books only at Christmastime, and most publishing houses published children’s books only for that Christmas market.

We’ve come a long way since then. Today we have to worry about too many books, not too few. Today there are dozens of children’s book departments (although perhaps not as many as there were a few years ago, due to the conglomeration of publishing). Children’s literature is an established field. And the Newbery Award, along with the Caldecott, is as firmly entrenched in the field as . . . Harriet the Spy (not that Harriet actually won a Newbery Medal — but of that, more later). As Barbara Bader put it, “As a means of focusing attention on children’s books, the awards have been singularly successful. Once a year, children’s books are news. The choices arouse interest; people seek them out. On the basis of the awards, moreover, the winners are preserved in perpetuity. They acquire a permanent standing.”

But even as the Newbery is the acknowledged star of the firmament, it doesn’t come without its contradictions and frustrations. Perhaps Frederic Melcher can best be seen as the literary equivalent of a fairy at a christening, bestowing a gift that becomes somewhat of a mixed blessing. Why mixed? First — not to belabor the obvious — because it allows for only one winner a year. Imagine the job of singling out one “best” book from among all the many age groups and genres that make up children’s literature: picture books, easy readers, novels for younger middle-grade readers and for older middle-grade readers; poetry, folklore, nonfiction. It’s an enormous and, to me, unenviable task.

Second, it’s a mixed blessing because, of course, not everyone will agree with each year’s choice. As John Rowe Townsend has written, “the consensus reached by [fifteen] informed people who meet to discuss the carefully sifted output of a year is clearly valuable, but it is not definitive.”

Reading through the oeuvre of Newbery winners, one sees a range in quality from what Townsend calls “respectable, worthy books of the traditional award-winning kind” to books of undeniable greatness; one finds fiction, nonfiction, poetry, and biography. But despite the variances, there are more similarities than differences — similarities that give rise to one of those invigorating, Bertha-type questions. Is there an identifiable kind of book that tends to win the Newbery Medal? And what does that mean for the rest of children’s books?

Even the most cursory glance back through Newbery history reveals that there is indeed such a thing as a quintessential Newbery book. Call it the ur-Newbery. It’s fiction, with an older (twelve-ish) protagonist who is nevertheless not an adolescent (not preoccupied with adolescent concerns). The main character can be either male or female, but most often male (for though twice as many women as men have won Newberys, the female authors write about boys as well as girls, while the male authors, if they feature a single main character, write almost exclusively about boys). He (or she) must face some adversity, must struggle against himself, or someone close to him, or with some idea or stricture, to find the right form of self-expression, the best way to be human; and if along the way he can have adventures that occur against a background of sweeping events and perhaps even face a threat to his own or his family’s survival, all the better. So many Newbery books fit that mold. The Dark Frigate. Dobry. Call It Courage. The Door in the Wall. Secret of the Andes . . . And Now Miguel. Rifles for Watie. Onion John. The Bronze Bow. The High King. The Slave Dancer. The Hero and the Crown. The Giver. The Midwife’s Apprentice. Out of the Dust. And Johnny Tremain, that exemplification of Newbery excellence.

I think that’s why a little ping of recognition goes off in our heads whenever we come across a book like Johnny Tremain, or The Midwife’s Apprentice, or Out of the Dust. We read them and say to ourselves, “That’s a Newbery book.” And we’re not wrong to do so. These are the books and the themes that exemplify the power of children’s literature; they are why so many of us find children’s literature so compelling and so rewarding.

Nevertheless, it seems to me as if we are adhering more and more to this fixed notion of what a Newbery book should be. The adventure may sometimes be more internal, the venue more personal than the Revolutionary War or the Dust Bowl. But the essential elements remain, and the package is that of middle-grade fiction, slanting up slightly toward the upper ages. Look at the last five years alone: Walk Two Moons, The Midwife’s Apprentice, The View from Saturday, Out of the Dust, Holes. Yes, they’re all very different; but they all have ur-Newbery elements, and in one way, at least, they are all the same: novels for readers in the older elementary and middle-school grades.

I find this problematic not because the books are “too old”; not because, as so many would have it, Newbery winners should be accessible to all children — should be Sarah, Plain and Tall rather than The Hero and the Crown. It’s understandable that many teachers and librarians want Newberys that their nine and ten year olds can read and enjoy. But as far as I can tell from the wording of the award’s original purpose, the Newbery was never intended to be for nine year olds, or for that matter for four year olds or for fourteen year olds. Not to be blasphemous, or outrageous, but the Newbery Medal as originally conceived had children at its implicit core but was aimed explicitly at adults: writers, critics, librarians. The three stated purposes, remember, were to encourage writers, to bring children’s books recognition from the outside world, and to involve librarians. The notion that every Newbery winner should be accessible to every child is misguided. So I don’t object to books for older readers being recognized; they are as likely to be distinguished as any children’s book for any age. What I do find disheartening is so much else going unrecognized, for years and years and years, and of the quality and depth of other genres suffering, perhaps, in consequence.

Picture books, for instance. In 1929, Wanda Gag’s groundbreaking Millions of Cats, with its unforgettable, chantable refrain (“hundreds of cats, thousands of cats, millions and billions and trillions of cats”) was — deservedly — named a Newbery honor book. In 1934, Gag was honored again, for The ABC Bunny. Then, in 1938, the Caldecott Award, another brainchild of Frederic Melcher, came into being and changed the nature of the Newbery and perhaps the nature of American picture books forever. For after ABC Bunny not another picture book was recognized by the Newbery until 1972, when Annie and the Old One was named an honor book. 1972 was an amazingly innovative year: the committee gave honors not only to a picture book but also to Virginia Hamilton’s Planet of Junior Brown (only the third time an African-American writer had been so honored); to Ursula LeGuin’s The Tombs of Atuan (the 1969 committee had ignored A Wizard of Earthsea); and to Allan W. Eckert’s Incident at Hawk’s Hill (the last title not published as a children’s book to earn Newbery recognition). Perhaps the originality and courage of the 1972 choices inspired later committees, for in 1973 Arnold Lobel’s Frog and Toad Together was named a Newbery honor book, the first and last time an easy reader received Newbery recognition. Then, stunningly, in 1982, a book of poetry in picture-book format, Nancy Willard’s A Visit to William Blake’s Inn, won the Medal. After such a breakthrough there seems to have been a sort of snowball effect: over the next few years two superb picture books were honored, Doctor de Soto in 1983 and Like Jake and Me in 1985. But then the snowball melted; that was the end of the picture book’s presence on the Newbery. Why? It’s not exactly the Caldecott’s fault. After all, Newbery committees are still free to look at picture book texts. It’s just much more natural for all of us to see a picture book and think Caldecott — not Newbery.

When, back in March 1937, Bertha sent out that call for an award for younger readers, was she thinking of one honoring picture book art alone? It certainly didn’t seem so. She appeared to be just as frustrated as I am today with the automatic leg-up that novels for children have over shorter works of genius, and the inherent difficulty in comparing them. But in 1938, when the first Caldecott was awarded, she rejoiced: “We have wanted for a long time a yearly honor for a fine picture book. For the past fifteen years the number of beautiful books written and illustrated by the same person has been steadily increasing. It has been hard to have go unhonored such books as Anne Parrish’s Floating Island, the Petershams’ Christ Child, the d’Aulaires’ Ola and Ludwig Bemelmans’ Hansi and The Golden Basket. The award each year of the Caldecott Medal cannot fail to add still more brightness and interest to the world of children’s books to which the Newbery Medal has already contributed so amazingly much.”

However, although the two medals seem a perfectly logical and equal pairing — one award for a writer, one award for an artist — was it a mistake to give the award just to the illustrator and not to the whole picture book? Surely picture books were never meant to be divorced in that way. The Caldecott’s emphasis on art alone has left us with too many, in Ethel Heins’s words, “technically brilliant but empty vessels” — several of which, in my opinion, have won Caldecott Medals. And of course the Caldecott is not always won by an author-illustrator. In the years when the author is not the same person as the artist, the author is left out in the cold.

Some of the field’s greatest writers never won a Newbery simply because their venue was picture books, not novels. To me, it’s absurd that Charlotte Zolotow has never won a Newbery, or that Margaret Wise Brown never did, or Ruth Krauss. Of course, all three wrote books that were awarded Caldecott Medals or honors — but the awards went to the books’ illustrators, not to the authors.

Books for newly independent readers, another genre that looks so easy to write and actually requires talent amounting to genius, have been equally under-represented on the Newbery roster. There’s nothing to compare to the world of warmth and love conjured up in Else Minarik’s Little Bear books, or the humor and freshness of Arnold Lobel’s Frog and Toad books. But Minarik never won a Newbery Award (in 1962, however, Maurice Sendak won a Caldecott honor for Little Bear’s Visit); Lobel’s one Newbery honor for Frog and Toad Together came twenty-five years ago. Recent years have seen easy readers worthy of Newbery consideration: Cynthia Rylant’s Henry and Mudge and the Happy Cat, with that wonderful, understated message that good mothers come in all genders; Betsy Byars’s My Brother, Ant — so in the footsteps of Minarik and Lobel, with humor and truth and friendship and love mixed beautifully. And I so wish James Marshall had won a Newbery for one of his Fox books (Fox on Wheels, Fox in Love, etc.). With their extraordinary characterization and sustained humor, they go down like candy; it’s only when you go back and marvel at the seeming effortlessness with which Marshall manipulates his controlled vocabulary that you realize you’ve partaken of a gourmet meal.

I am certainly not advocating that any future Newbery committee go on a crusade for previously neglected genres and throw picture books or easy readers books on to the list willy-nilly. It’s not the committee’s job to look back — or forward, for that matter; it’s not the committee’s job to balance the list, or to rectify past gaps of any kind. And no one wants the standards of the Newbery lowered; honoring an unworthy picture-book text or easy reader would be worse than overlooking a distinctive one. But I believe without question that it takes as much genius to write a brilliant picture book or easy reader as it does to write a brilliant novel. It’s just a different kind of genius. And, of course, picture books and easy readers are as valid a part of the broad spectrum of children’s literature as novels are — and make just as much of a “contribution.” (Looking back at the books of 1963, for instance, what would you choose as “the most distinguished contribution to American literature for children”? The novel that won the 1964 Newbery Medal, It’s Like This, Cat? Or Where the Wild Things Are?)

But can the Newbery stretch far enough to honor the whole of children’s literature? How to compare a tour de force of a novel with a masterpiece of a picture book text? It seems impossible, almost absurd, to even try. And yet I hope committees do. For given that one of the goals of Frederic Melcher in establishing the Newbery Medal was to encourage authors to write books for children, what kind of encouragement are authors of picture book texts or easy readers getting today? Precious little.

Here’s another question, prompted by a lament from Bertha Mahony Miller: “Too often,” she wrote in 1955, “a fine author does not have the satisfaction of being placed in the company of Newbery Medalists. Too often a fine book is lost to the world, dropped out of print, and completely forgotten because it failed to get sufficient publicity.” In 1955, the Newbery was one of the few sources of recognition for children’s books in existence; a book not named a Newbery might very well, in 1955, vanish from sight. Today, the support system is strong and vast: review journals’ and professional organizations’ “best” lists, innumerable book awards, Internet connections. Still, nothing spells fame, fortune, and lasting success like N-E-W-B-E-R-Y. So what is the Newbery’s record on “lost” books?

The Newbery’s strict, weighted-ballot voting system (not to mention the dedication and high-mindedness of the committee members) definitely ensures careful choices. No reckless, rash decisions are likely to be made, but neither is the system terribly conducive to encouraging an upset in the status quo. In fact, it’s close to miraculous how often committees have chosen the innovative and exciting over the solid and “worthy”: Roller Skates rather than Agnes Hewes’s ur-Newbery Codfish Musket; From the Mixed-up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler instead of The Black Pearl. Over the last dozen years, Newbery committees have broken out of the ur-Newbery mold remarkably often: with nonfiction (Lincoln) and poetry (Joyful Noise); with nontraditionally structured novels (Walk Two Moons, The View from Saturday, Holes). Many of the recent honor books, too, have been courageous stretches for the Newbery: from the experimental fiction of What Jamie Saw to the rarely honored humor of Ella Enchanted. Yet more often than not, the careful Newbery voting procedure has favored the “safe” choice over the risky one.

I’ll give just three examples; there are many more. In 1965, a classic ur-Newbery book, Shadow of a Bull, won the Newbery, with Across Five Aprils as the one honor book. Here’s what didn’t win: Harriet the Spy (not to mention The Pushcart War and The Book of Three). In 1976, the Newbery committee awarded the Medal to Susan Cooper’s The Grey King, part of her established Dark Is Rising Sequence, with Sharon Bell Mathis’s Hundred Penny Box and Laurence Yep’s Dragonwings as honor books — a very interesting roster. But what happened to Natalie Babbitt’s Tuck Everlasting? (Robert O’Brien’s Z for Zachariah and David McCord’s Star in the Pail were also eligible that year). And in 1984, Beverly Cleary’s Dear Mr. Henshaw — a “respectable, worthy” Newbery, but surely not a great one — was the committee’s top choice, while Sylvia Cassedy’s electrifying Behind the Attic Wall didn’t rate a mention.

Of course, it’s all too easy to look back and say what should have happened. As John Rowe Townsend wrote, “Everyone would agree that, with benefit of hindsight, it would be pleasant (though clearly impracticable) to reshape the list, remove the weaker titles, and bring in books that now seem to have been mistakenly passed over. No two people would agree on what books should be discarded or introduced.” He’s absolutely right. But somehow we need to keep in mind that, for whatever reason — too radical, too quiet, too much of a departure from the ur — sometimes great books don’t win Newberys. Harriet the Spy and Tuck Everlasting became classics, despite being overlooked by the Newbery. Behind the Attic Wall — an anti-ur book if there ever was one — has become perhaps more of a cult classic. But not all books can be assured of such success — and they shouldn’t get “lost.”

In 1955, Bertha respectfully proposed a change in Newbery rules, suggesting that the award be withheld “if there is no outstanding book to deserve the special honor in a particular year.” What would happen if the Newbery rules were changed to allow more flexibility in the choosing of honor books?

As it stands now, honor books can be chosen only from the pool of books discussed on the final ballot; they must be serious contenders for the top prize from the word go. Until 1971 they were called “runners-up”; in essence, they still are. What if, instead, they were true honor books? Committees would then be free to name as honor books not only runners-up for the Medal but also fine books that might otherwise get “lost”: exciting but flawed books, perhaps first novels, perhaps departures from an author’s norm, that deserve commendation but aren’t quite Medal caliber; otherwise Medal-caliber books that are unlikely to win in a head-to-head competition (such as deserving picture books and easy readers).

True, this might swell the numbers of books honored each year — a slight, in the opinion of some, to the winner. I’d see it more as an homage to the strength of children’s literature. When the Newbery was young, it was not uncommon for six or seven honor books to be named in a year. In 1931, and again in 1934, there were eight. But for the last twenty years or so, two or three honor books a year is the norm. This year, the committee chose only one — despite what was generally regarded as a strong year for children’s books, ur-Newbery fiction in particular. If Newbery committees could recognize six or eight honor books in the 1930s, when mere hundreds of children’s books were being published a year, surely we can stretch to include something like that many now, when thousands hit print each year.

Frederic G. Melcher wanted to help the fledgling field of children’s books grow up. Now that it has, I wonder what kind of award he would envision today. Would he still make the award a purely American one, in this era of fluid borders, when Philip Pullman’s next installment of His Dark Materials will be published in the U.S. at the same time it is released in the U.K.? Would he still want the process to be shrouded in secrecy, like some covert fraternity initiation rite, with the titles of the books considered by the Newbery committee never to be revealed? (What purpose does the attendant secrecy — frustrating, I imagine, to committee members and children’s literature community alike — serve, other than to lend mystique to the award?) Bertha Mahony Miller certainly thought more openness was in order, advocating for “freer discussion of the selection year by year.” Would Frederic Melcher now find more worth in a published shortlist system?

More to the point, how do we (the current keepers of the Newbery flame) see the award? And how do we keep it, in Bertha’s words, “alive and vigorous”? We rejoice in children’s literature’s most prestigious award and keep it so by asking those Bertha-type questions — in mock Newbery and Caldecott discussions, on listservs, in unintentionally explosive editorials (ouch! See “A Wider Vision for the Newbery,” January/February 1996 Horn Book). We actively support other awards — like the Cooperative Children’s Book Center’s new, welcome Charlotte Zolotow Award for picture-book text; like the Children’s Literature Association’s Phoenix Award for books of high literary quality that were passed over by major awards; like the Orbis Pictus Award for nonfiction; like the Lee Bennett Hopkins Poetry Award — that reward more of what deserves to be rewarded each year than the Newbery manages to encompass. (Bertha was afraid that the prestige of the Newbery and Caldecott might be lessened by the existence of other awards; I think we can say with certainty that that didn’t happen and never will.) We try to keep the “fine” books that went unrecognized alive — by holding them in our own memories, by sharing them with others. We walk the tightrope between celebrating the Newbery’s strengths and acknowledging its limitations — just as Bertha Mahony Miller did — with the best interests of children’s literature at heart.

For on the whole, what a legacy we’ve been given in our Newbery winners and honor books. Roller Skates. The Middle Moffat. Johnny Tremain. The Hundred Dresses. Rabbit Hill. The Twenty-One Balloons. My Father’s Dragon. Banner in the Sky. The Wheel on the School. The Gammage Cup. To Be a Slave. Figgs and Phantoms. Bridge to Terabithia. Dicey’s Song. Sweet Whispers, Brother Rush. The Ear, the Eye, and the Arm. We all know that the Newbery isn’t perfect. “Opinion in the awarding of a literary prize is rarely unanimous.” “There is always argument about book awards.” “In most years it would be a rash person who would assert that one book could be established permanently and beyond all doubt as ‘the best.’” It is in the nature of the award that there will be dissension, and argument, and discussion. Ultimately, what’s important isn’t the one book chosen each year by a particular committee — fifteen brave individuals who have mutated for the duration into a single organism. It’s that they choose at all, and that they use the highest literary standards to do so. It’s that we all care so passionately that the best book be chosen, whatever that “best” is for each of us.

Article adapted from a speech delivered at the annual meeting of the New England Round Table of Children’s Librarians in Newport, Rhode Island

From the July/August 1999 issue of The Horn Book Magazine.
Martha V. Parravano
Martha V. Parravano
Martha V. Parravano is book review editor of The Horn Book, Inc., and co-author of the Calling Caldecott blog.
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Therese Bigelow

Still a provacative article well worth reading.

Posted : Jan 15, 2016 03:48


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