After the Call: Good Things

“Well, now you know what the first line of your New York Times obituary is going to say,” said the journalist on the phone. I was mostly still asleep; I’d been up since 5:30 a.m., when my assistant woke me to tell me that people were trying to get a hold of me, and the people turned out to be the Newbery committee phoning to tell me that The Graveyard Book had been awarded the 2009 Newbery Medal.

I’d registered the existence of the Newbery Medal when I was ten. A Wrinkle in Time had been awarded it; it said so on the back of the book, which meant, I had no doubt, that it was a good and excellent thing. This was in England, and there were no gold or silver Newbery seals on the book covers. (I knew that the Carnegie Medal, the UK equivalent, existed because the back cover of C. S. Lewis’s The Last Battle mentioned that it had won it. Again, it was a low-key sort of thing.)

The Newbery was a good thing, I knew, but it wasn’t part of my world. It wasn’t until I moved to the U.S. in 1992 that the Newbery Medal became a Thing, because I had children, and they brought books home. The Newbery was a mark of quality, and I started to read the Newbery winners — I would read them aloud to my daughters at bedtime. (This also meant that my daughters thought I was cool for having won, which is a marvelous thing.)

I didn’t actually believe The Graveyard Book would win the Newbery Medal — it was a bestseller by a relatively established author, and I assumed that the Newbery would spotlight something deserving that wouldn’t otherwise get attention. I was thrilled and delighted when it did, though, mostly because it meant I got to interact with a lot more librarians. I like librarians. I like the way they think, and the way they work, and the way they fight for what’s right.

My father died of a sudden heart attack in March 2009. I was glad he had lived to see me win the Newbery. That was a good thing. Coming from the funeral service in the UK straight to New York to appear on The Colbert Report, wearing the mourning clothes I had worn when we sent him to the pyre, that was hard. (But my son, Michael, who loved Colbert, came with me, and thought I was possibly a bit cool. It was great.)

There’s guilt, too. Laura Amy Schlitz, who won the year before me, wrote me a beautiful letter, talking about her Newbery year, and what it was like, and what she had learned. I meant to reply, but I never did, and I meant to write a letter to the person coming after me, but I wasn’t sure that my experiences would match theirs or that anything I said could help, and the ­letter is still in a drawer, unfinished.

When Coraline was published, people in the world of children’s books had looked at me sideways: was I a real children’s author, or the kind of adult author who might have written a book but thought he was too good for the world of children’s books? Was I for real? Was Coraline a proper children’s book, one that would stick around, or was it a transient thing, a will-o’-the-wisp? And what about its author?

It felt like the Newbery recognition of The Graveyard Book said that I was real, and my books for children (at that point there were about ten of them) were real as well. My children thought I was cool, if only for a moment; it made people happy that The Graveyard Book had won; I got to meet so many marvelous librarians; and a New York Times reporter told me how my obituary would begin. I don’t suppose I’ll ever find out if that prediction was right.

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

Neil Gaiman
Neil Gaiman

Neil Gaiman won the Newbery Medal in 2009 for The Graveyard Book (Harper/HarperCollins). His latest book is Chivalry (Dark Horse).

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