After the Call: An Unseen Talisman

What did winning the Newbery Award mean to me? I’ve heard of writers who had their bags packed and ready in case the call came. I was simply enjoying my shredded wheat when the telephone rang with the wonderful announcement from Pat Scales, chair of the Newbery committee that year. As soon as I hung up, my excited editor called to tell me I had to be in New York that evening to appear on the TODAY show the following morning. And what the Newbery Award meant to me at that moment was that I had exactly twenty-four hours to lose thirty pounds.

But what about my family? Was there time to call my relatives? Could my husband, my wonderful proofreader, come with me? Our sons were both grown and living with their spouses, so who would feed the cats? The coming days and weeks swirled before my eyes. Was this what it was going to be like? Flowers arrived, champagne, a photographer…the ringing phone never stopped.

The following morning when I was rushed into NBC Studios beside the Caldecott winner, David Wiesner, I had my first sense of using the Newbery Award as a shield. While one technician called out the seconds before airtime, “…nine…eight…seven…six…,” a man holding a tiny microphone on a cord said to me, “Can you slip this under your skirt, bring it up behind your blouse, and out above your bra?” and I said…“No.”

So he clipped it to my collar, pushed me down in a chair, and said, “Never mind.”

Now, I like Jane Pauley, who was substituting that morning, and I’m sure she’d had only seconds to glance at our two books before the interview. All David and I had been told in the green room was, “Remember — on television, you have no time to think.” I still recall the look that passed between us. Jane Pauley asked me if I thought my book would make a lot of money, and she asked David if all those frogs floating around on lily pads on the book jacket of Tuesday might not frighten small children, and a few minutes later, the interview was over. The Newbery year had begun.

I didn’t know then that thirty years hence, Shiloh would still be selling well. I did not know that it would be the first in a quartet and that movies would be made of the books. I did not know that some schools would be asked to ban the book because the villain in my story says “damned” once, “hell” twice, and when Marty asks the names of his dogs, answers, “Git, Scram, Out, and Dammit.” Or that Marty lies to his parents because he thinks it’s the only way to save a dog. I did not know I would meet so many wonderful librarians who would stand up for my books. Or that decades later, I would still be answering children’s letters that read, “Why is Judd so mean?”, followed by “This is the best book I ever read.”

Most of all, the award has given me confidence. When its first review ended with “this title is not up to Naylor’s usual high quality,” my heart sank. I presented it to the Children’s Book Guild of Washington, DC, to which I’ve belonged for fifty-five years, and remember hugging it to my chest and saying, because of that review, “No one will ever love this book as much as I do.”

Then came the Newbery Award, to make up for all my deficiencies. So what if I can’t correctly pronounce words in French? If I make a joke and no one laughs, or I’ve never heard of a particular violinist? I carry an unseen, unspoken talisman with me in my head, and no one around me needs to know; there’s at least one thing I did well.

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

Phyllis Reynolds Naylor

Phyllis Reynolds Naylor won the Newbery Medal in 1992 for Shiloh (Atheneum). Her most recent book is Roxie and the Hooligans at Buzzard's Roost (Dlouhy/Atheneum).

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