After the Call: The Newbery's Gifts

Two-time winner Katherine Paterson (far right) with her family, celebrating her 1981 Newbery for Jacob Have I Loved.
Photo courtesy of Katherine Paterson.

Most awards are given soon after or even when they’re announced, but winners of the Newbery Medal are told on a morning in January and have until June to try to figure out what the medal is going to mean to their work and to their ordinary lives.

Before 1978, I had never met a Newbery Award winner. That spring, an actual winner (who shall remain nameless) came to a meeting of the Children’s Book Guild in Washington, DC. “You know what comes with the medal, don’t you?” she said. I, of course, didn’t. “A divorce.” Well, maybe John Paterson was the only man of his generation who would have stayed married to me, but it was death, not a medal, that ended our fifty-one-year marriage. So have courage, fellow winners, past, present, and future: the success of your relationships is up to you and yours, not John Newbery. That goes for friendships as well. My closest friends stuck by me through it all, usually with humor that has kept me aware of just how human I am.

Of course, my life is divided into pre- and post-Newbery. I’d never in my life had extra money. Post-Newbery, I was able to stop mixing powdered milk and buy gallon jugs of whole fresh milk. On the days in spring and fall when the royalty checks arrived, each child was allowed to go to the store and pick out brand-new clothes no one else had ever worn before. We no longer had to count every penny, though old habits among us Scots never really die. Even into the new century, my husband was still buying day-old bread and shopping at the Salvation Army store.

But there was a Newbery gift more important than money. I began to travel all over the country, meeting teachers and librarians I would never otherwise have gotten to know. I could see what these heroic (mostly) women were doing for the minds and hearts of children — could see how vitally important school and public libraries are, not just for children, but for the fate of democracy. And, not incidentally, I was able to meet and make friends with writers and illustrators whose work I admired, and who otherwise would have remained simply names on book jackets. Holden Caulfield daydreamed about being able to call the writer of a book you love on the phone; I can actually do it. How great is that?

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

Katherine Paterson

Two-time winner Katherine Paterson won the Newbery Medal in 1978 for Bridge to Terabithia and in 1981 for Jacob Have I Loved; she received a 1979 Honor for The Great Gilly Hopkins (all Crowell). Her latest book is Birdie's Bargain (Candlewick).

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