Family Memories of Frederic G. Melcher

The Melchers at a Carnival of Books broadcast for the 1954 Newbery with winner Joseph Krumgold.
Photo coutesy of the Melcher family.

While my daughters and I are all avid readers who grew up enjoying award-winning children’s literature, we never had the opportunity to meet our relative, Frederic G. Melcher (1879–1963), founder of the Newbery and Caldecott awards. However, we did hear some lovely stories about him from his grandson, my late husband, Frederic G. Melcher II; and my husband’s stepmother, ­Margaret Saul Melcher.

FGM was described by many as very friendly, knowledgeable, and beloved. Starting out as a young man working in a bookstore in Boston, then becoming a bookstore manager in Indianapolis, he made his way into the publishing field in New York City, as co-editor of Publishers Weekly and later president of R. R. Bowker and Co., the magazine’s publisher. He felt that supporting authors was his highest calling, and his extensive correspondence with many of them has been donated to the University of Virginia in Charlottesville.

According to Margaret Saul Melcher (who worked at Bowker for eight years, starting in 1955), as president FGM made the rounds every day, visiting every office and speaking to every employee. “That always did wonders for my spirits,” she noted. One of her favorite memories was when her youngest brother, in the Coast Guard at the time, came to Manhattan unexpectedly to visit. “He somehow made contact with FGM in the lobby at Bowker, and FGM brought him up to my office. I will never forget the joy on FGM’s face. That was just the sort of thing he loved doing.”

The Melchers at home. Photo courtesy of the Melcher family.

His grandson, Fred, often described his thorough delight in doing things with his grandfather. One of his favorite excursions as a boy was to join FGM at the annual American Library Association conference for his grandfather’s walk through the booksellers’ area, stopping to talk with friends and colleagues at every bookstall. Fred would tag along, carrying a shopping bag, which, by the end, would be full of books. This love of books never left my husband; he always had one or two in his coat pockets and often another wedged into a hip pocket.

On another occasion, the young Fred went for a walk in the woods with his grandfather and one of his grandfather’s close friends — Robert Frost. As they approached the dense forest, the city-raised boy looked around, puzzled, and asked, “Where’s the path?” Both of the older men turned to him grinning, and then just plunged into the woods.

Our family’s appreciation for Fred’s grandfather has continued to grow. Frederic G. Melcher believed strongly that the publishing industry needed to do more to support and encourage quality in children’s literature, so creating the John Newbery and Randolph Caldecott awards felt like the ­culmination of his life’s work.

Laura Melcher, Carmen Schipper, Sue Melcher, and Margaret Saul Melcher. Photo courtesy of Kathleen T. Horning.

This inspiration of finding joy and fulfillment in meaningful work continues through the Melcher generations. FGM’s son, Daniel Melcher, made many inventive contributions to publishing, the most prominent being upgrading the ease of publication of Books in Print, before computers. In order to facilitate this process, Dan invented a special camera. (Fred enjoyed explaining how, as a boy, he thought it was a small oven and tried to bake a muffin in it, with no success.) Dan and his second wife, Margaret Saul Melcher, expanded this enterprise during the computer era; their final contribution was the creation of Libros en venta — books in print in the Spanish-speaking world. Frederic Melcher II continued this spirited contribution through his own work. He and a close friend began a free newspaper as they were completing college in Chicago. Eventually, he worked for the American Bar Association, editing, among other things, its publication The Judges’ Journal.

Ten-year-old Laura Melcher reading Walk Two Moons at the 1995 banquet. Photo courtesy of Sharon Creech.

For all of us, it is an honor and a delight to continue this legacy in our own ways, especially through reading. ­Family favorites among Newbery titles include ­Madeleine L’Engle’s A Wrinkle in Time and Sharon Creech’s Walk Two Moons; and I’m well into a second reading of Tae Keller’s When You Trap a Tiger. We continue to enjoy the books and authors being awarded Newbery and Caldecott medals, and share this pleasure with future generations.

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

Sue Melcher

Sue Melcher, a clinical psychologist, is the widow of Frederic G. Melcher's grandson and the mother of FGM's great-granddaughters, Carmen Melcher Schipper and Laura Margaret Melcher.

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