Editorial: Newbery Forever? (May/June 2022)

We are tremendously grateful for the invaluable guidance and input of our illustrious consulting editor, Kathleen T. Horning, in creating this special issue on the centennial of the Newbery Award. Horning, director of the Cooperative Children’s Book Center of the School of Education at the University of Wisconsin–Madison, is a leading Newbery scholar, and her knowledge of its history is unparalleled (as those who have taken her online ALSC courses can attest). We welcome our readers into the issue with her guest editorial, below. HORN BOOK EDITORS

At the time the Newbery Medal was established, its purpose was to encourage authors and publishers to produce a greater number of high-quality books for children. By shining a spotlight each year on the book judged to be the most distinguished contribution to American children’s literature, Frederic G. Melcher and the American Library Association successfully helped to increase the quantity and the quality of American trade books for children, and they did so relatively quickly: the Newbery Medal is its own great American success story. And a hundred years later, despite enormous changes in our field, its mission remains the same: to award “the most distinguished contribution to American literature for children published by an American publisher in the United States in English during the preceding year.”

It was never intended to be a list of classics, best books, or books that would necessarily stand the test of time. And yet that’s what we’ve come to expect of it. ALA’s own press release publicizing the 2014 Youth Media Awards announcement proclaimed: “ALA to Announce the Next Classics in Children’s and Young Adult Literature and Media.” The “next classics” descriptor has replaced the equally misleading “Academy Awards of Children’s Literature,” which the Academy itself asked ALA to stop using years ago. Adding to the muddle is the fact that Newbery books rarely go out of print and, in fact, are frequently given an updated look to appeal to contemporary children and to the parents, teachers, and librarians who buy them.

The first book to win the award, The Story of Mankind by Hendrik Willem van Loon, published in 1921, was a sweeping account of human history that ended with World War I. But because human history continues to grow, twenty-three chapters have been added in the eight revisions published since then. The jacket art of the newest edition may mimic David Macaulay’s The Way Things Work, but don’t be fooled: the text remains embarrassingly outdated by today’s standards.

Times change, and literature changes with them. I recognize that most of the books I read as a child in the 1960s are hopelessly dated, and even those “cutting edge” books I read as a library school student in the early 1980s may seem like quaint relics to today’s kids (Annie on My Mind, anyone?). So why do we continue to hold up Newbery books of yore as some shining standard of quality? Why does that little gold seal affixed to the cover act as a literary life-support system, keeping these old chestnuts alive long after they would otherwise have faded into obscurity? I understand the value of keeping the books for research purposes — they obviously are a gold mine for children’s literature scholars. But for children? The more of them I read, the more I wonder.

That’s not to say that there are not some truly great Newbery books from earlier decades that have stood the test of time. A Wrinkle in Time; Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry; The Giver — these are Newbery winners that are closer to true classics. And then there’s the one most of us agree should have won, Charlotte’s Web. But these few seem to be the exception, not the rule. Personally, I would rather see more attention placed on the truly excellent Newbery Honor Books of recent years than on the gold medal winners from decades ago. And it wouldn’t bother me a bit to see The Story of Mankind and Roller Skates slip quietly into lower stacks.

Still, many adults (myself included) have a fascination with the Newbery Medal. Speculation about what will win next starts almost as soon as the current Newbery winner is announced. The one-hundredth anniversary of the award offers us an opportunity to look back at the Newbery through a critical lens.

Linda Sue Park, winner of the 2002 Newbery Medal for A Single Shard, takes a long, hard look at the Newbery Medal in terms of diversity (or lack thereof). Noting that in the twenty years prior to her win, nineteen out of twenty Newbery ­winners (or 95%) were white authors, she then points out that recently there’s been a major shift, jolting the Newbery out of its nearly all-white world. Nicholl Denice ­Montgomery highlights the handful of Newbery books that bring Black girlhood into the conversation, a narrative perspective still underrepresented among the Medalists.

Several articles chart the Newbery’s history through the years, starting with my own look at the publishing phenomenon that was Hitty, the 1930 Newbery Medal winner. With its outdated views of Black, East Indian, and Indigenous peoples, Hitty has not stood the test of time, but the promotion efforts associated with its publication leave today’s social media campaigns in the dust. Julie Danielson offers thought-provoking observations about the importance illustrations have played in many Newbery books, especially recently, despite the Newbery’s focus on text; while Sylvia Vardell takes an insightful look at the very few poetry books that have won Newbery gold or silver over its hundred-year history. Jocelyn Van Tuyl looks back on her childhood reading of a problematic Newbery winner, Paula Fox’s The Slave Dancer, analyzing it from a twenty-first-century viewpoint.

The issue offers two perspectives on committee work, past and present. Nina Lindsay talks with Ginny Moore Kruse about the last big change to the Newbery committee process, when the Newbery/Caldecott committee was split in two, with GMK in the pivotal position of chairing the first separate Newbery committee since 1938 (the year the Caldecott Medal was first awarded). And Newbery history was made once again when the pandemic forced committees to conduct their meetings virtually. Jonda C. McNair gives us an inside view of that process from her perspective as chair of the 2021 committee.

The Melcher family shares priceless memories of the man they call FGM, known to the book world as Frederic G. Melcher, who brainstormed the Newbery Medal into existence in 1921 with a group of children’s librarians at an ALA conference in Swampscott, Massachusetts. Added to these are the varied memories of Newbery authors of the past four decades, whose short essays are humorous, poignant, inspiring, and memorable. The essays are presented in chronological order throughout the issue, from Susan Cooper (1976 winner) to Donna Barba Higuera (2022 winner). It’s not surprising that all these authors have been recognized for their distinguished writing because, boy, can they write! As Tae Keller puts it: “The awards have always been about the community and the kids and the people who turn kids into ­readers.” May it be ever thus.

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

 


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
ksouth@juniorlibraryguild.com

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Kathleen T. Horning
Kathleen T. Horning
Kathleen T. Horning is the director of the Cooperative Children’s Book Center, a library of the School of Education, University of Wisconsin–Madison. She is the author of From Cover to Cover: Evaluating and Reviewing Children’s Books and teaches a popular online course for ALSC on the history of the Newbery and Caldecott medals.

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