After the Call: Love Letters

Susan Cooper at Pembroke College, Oxford, to give the Tolkien Lecture in 2017.
Photo courtesy of Pembroke College Tolkien Lecture.

The Newbery Award had no effect on my work, I believe — apart from making it temporarily harder, due to the mean little voice in one’s head that sneers: Okay, smartypants — now do better! But it changed my life completely.

It was 1974. I was sitting on the deck of a holiday house with no telephone, writing a book called The Grey King, when a voice called up from the beach below. “Susan! Phone call!”

I trotted down the hill, jumped into our dinghy, and buzzed across to the next island, the only place with a telephone. The call was from Barbara ­Rollock, at the ­American Library Association’s Midwinter convention, with the news that my earlier book The Dark Is Rising was that year’s Newbery Honor Book. “The ­runner-up for the ­Newbery Medal! The only one!”

I’d never heard of the Newbery Medal. Married to an MIT professor, I lived in a world of academic engineers and small children, and my writing was regarded as an engaging hobby. I thanked Ms. Rollock rather ungraciously and went back home.

“Nothing wrong,” I said. “The Dark Is Rising just missed winning some prize. I don’t know why they bothered to call.”

I soon found out, of course, when a happy letter came from my editor, Margaret McElderry. By the time she took me to the ALA convention in July, I had discovered that there was a world out there filled with people who cared passionately about children’s books: librarians and teachers and others who not only took such books seriously but discussed and revered them as “children’s literature.” I was amazed and delighted — and horrified — when I found out that the current Newbery winner, Paula Fox, had to make her acceptance speech in front of two thousand people. I said faintly into ­Margaret’s ear, as we walked through the crowded hall, “I never want to win the Newbery Medal!”

Two years later I won it, for The Grey King. The MIT professor was too busy to come hear my tremulous acceptance speech, but my two children, aged eight and ten, insisted on being there, bless their hearts, and spent a spare hour happily seesawing the hotel elevators with the son of the Caldecott winners, Leo and Diane Dillon.

And like all major awards, the ­Newbery changed my life, catapulting me into the ranks of those invited to make speeches, visit schools and universities, give lectures and interviews. At the same time, it gave me the blessing of fellowship; of mixing with librarians, writers, artists, teachers, who are still among my best friends today. I was so lucky. We should remember the element of chance — the fact that each winning book depends on the standards of the people who happen to be choosing that year’s award, and on the quality of the other books that happen to be published that year. As in all the arts, any kind of renown depends on talent, hard work — and good luck.

And my two pieces of Newbery luck brought me one other happy discovery: The Horn Book Magazine. It was a “joyful shock,” I wrote at the time. “Due to a neurotic aversion to reading reviews, I had never even heard of most of the c­ritical journals in the U.S.A. Now, it was astounding to find a thick, healthy magazine that not only devoted itself exclusively to ‘children’s books and reading’ but had considered this a proper study for the last forty-odd years.” By October 1974, when the Horn Book published its fiftieth-anniversary issue, there was a little two-page tribute from me at the back titled “A Love Letter to the Horn Book.” If I live to see the hundredth anniversary, I’d happily send another one — and the piece you are reading at this moment is, of course, a Love Letter to the Newbery Award.

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

Susan Cooper

Susan Cooper won the 1976 Newbery Medal for The Grey King and was a 1974 honoree for The Dark Is Rising (both McElderry), another entry in that series. Her most recent title is The Shortest Day (Candlewick, 2019). She is currently working on what she describes as "a kind of memoir."

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