A Letter to Readers: A Distinguished Past, Present, and Future

Welcome to the Horn Book’s special commemorative issue recognizing the centennial celebration of the John Newbery Award! On behalf of the leadership and membership of the Association for Library Service to Children (ALSC) as well as the dedicated and hard-working members of the John Newbery 100th Anniversary Celebration Task Force, it is an honor to welcome you to this very special issue, guest-edited by the person who has taught many of us much of what we know about the Newbery Award: Kathleen T. Horning.

The first children’s book award, the Newbery Award, was conceived by Frederic G. Melcher in 1921 and approved by the American Library Association’s Executive Board in 1922. The purpose of the award was not only to encourage and promote exceptional books for children but also “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.”

At the time, the Children’s Librarians’ Section of ALA was charged to oversee the award. The name of this ALA division changed several times, and it is now the Association for Library Service to Children, though the name Children’s Librarians’ Section remains imprinted on the medal. Over time, the makeup and voting processes of the jury were reconsidered and altered. The Caldecott Award was established in 1937, and the term honor books replaced runners-up in 1971. Nevertheless, for one hundred years, Melcher’s vision has endured, and his hopes to elevate and shine light on distinguished children’s literature have been realized.

Back in 1922, the Children’s Librarians’ Section was quite small. The field of children’s literature was just coming into its own, with publishers starting to acknowledge the new market by opening juvenile departments, often hiring children’s librarians to oversee this branch of publishing. There weren’t many prizes or awards yet, but when the Pulitzer Prize was announced in 1917 with no category for literature for children, Melcher decided to rectify this omission. Today there are many awards, even within ALSC, but the Newbery is always the one that is announced last, to much fanfare, at the Youth Media Awards ceremonies.

The first book to win the Newbery Medal, The Story of Mankind by Hendrik Willem van Loon, won by a popular vote of the children’s librarian group membership. Over time, winning titles have been determined through a process that is outlined in the Newbery manual, with committee members committing to keep the discussions private. Certainly some titles have won that would not win today. ALSC now includes language in the manual intended to ensure that committee members reach beyond any narrow experiences to intentionally diversify their understanding and appreciation of eligible titles. Committees themselves are more diverse, and the results are encouraging.

In 2022 we can truly celebrate the evolution of the Newbery Award, especially as we look at the most recent Newbery-winning titles. The Last Cuentista by Donna Barba Higuera won the 2022 Newbery Medal, and it also won the 2022 Pura Belpré Author Award. New Kid by Jerry Craft won the 2020 Newbery Medal, and it also won the 2020 Coretta Scott King Author Award. Many of the awards that were established because the Newbery was thought to not recognize a broad enough range of children’s writers are now seeing overlap. It’s been a long time coming, but it is happening!

Planning for the Newbery 100th Anniversary Celebration began right around the start of the pandemic, and it’s been a challenge to envision what might be possible as we have offered virtual webinars and online resources. At this time, it does look like there will be a Newbery-Caldecott-Legacy Banquet at the 2022 ALA Annual Conference in Washington, DC. What a joy it will be to gather once again and to observe this occasion together. ALSC President Lucía M. González, the ALSC board, ALSC Interim Executive Director Alena Rivers, the ALSC staff, and the John Newbery 100th Anniversary Celebration Task Force members have done great work under difficult circumstances to see this through.

The Newbery Award and the Horn Book have quite a history together. In fact, The Horn Book Magazine, first published in 1924, is almost one hundred years old, too! The award and the Magazine have partnered many times to celebrate children’s literature [ed. note: the acceptance speeches of the winners have been published in The Horn Book Magazine since 1936], and in that spirit, I hope you are prepared to be as enlightened and inspired by the articles in this special issue as I know I am.

Susan H. Polos, Chair
John Newbery 100th Anniversary Celebration Task Force


From the May/June 2022 special issue of The Horn Book Magazine: The Newbery Centennial.


The John Newbery 100th Anniversary Celebration Task Force is currently planning events and celebrations; more details available here.


Single copies of this special issue are available for $15.00 including postage and may be ordered from:

Kristy South
Administrative Coordinator, The Horn Book
Phone 888-282-5852 | Fax 614-733-7269

Full subscription information is here.

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