The Search for Distinguished

In a much talked about opinion piece published in School Library Journal in 2008, former Horn Book editor Anita Silvey asked, “Has the Newbery lost its way?” She made it clear that she thought it had, after interviewing “more than 100 people—including media specialists, children’s librarians, teachers, and booksellers—in 15 states across the country.” A series of unattributed quotes built the case, with her anonymous informants alleging that nobody much wanted to read the books that won the Newbery Medal, calling the recent winners unpopular, unappealing, and “completely forgettable.”(1)

Silvey’s arguments are not new; they’re just the most recent version of a decades-old debate. Controversy has dogged the Newbery Medal from its inception, always coming in the form of pointed attacks from those outside the process who are critical of the books selected for the award. Who could have guessed, when bookseller Frederic G. Melcher created the award in 1921, that people would come to care so quickly and so deeply about the books deemed “most distinguished”? That was what Melcher wanted, but I doubt it was his intention to stir things up from the get-go when he made the decision to put the award selection into the hands not of booksellers or teachers but of children’s librarians.

According to the history of the award, as told by Melcher himself, the idea for a children’s book award came to him suddenly in the midst of a meeting of the Children’s Librarians’ Section of the American Library Association (ALA) at its Annual Conference in Swampscott, Massachusetts, in 1921. He was there to promote the concept of Children’s Book Week, which he had launched with Franklin W. Mathiews, chief librarian of the Boy Scouts of America, two years earlier. “It was a great opportunity for Book Week’s pro¬motion,” recalled Melcher years later.
As I looked down from the platform at the three or four hundred people, I thought of the power they could have in encouraging the joy of reading among children. I could see that I was sure of having the librarians’ cooperation in Children’s Book Week, but I wanted to go further and secure their interest in the whole process of creating books for children, producing them, and bringing them to the children.(2)

Those most invested in Children’s Book Week at that time were booksellers, who hoped to reach parents as consumers with their campaign “More Books in the Home”—just in time for the Christmas shopping season. In 1921, children’s librarianship was still a relatively new profession, and Melcher wisely saw librarians as potential partners in getting this message out. Despite the fact that the influential children’s library leader Anne Carroll Moore had served on the Children’s Book Week committee from the beginning, other members of her profession were not entirely enthusiastic about what some booksellers were doing. At the same 1921 ALA meeting in Swampscott, the head of the Children’s Librarians’ Section, Clara Whitehill Hunt from Brooklyn Public Library, told those assembled:
I saw, last November, big advertisements of the “Week” which noted, along with excellent titles, many books which no good public library places on its shelves. I saw the names of speakers who were to appear in a certain book department each day of the week, and most of the speakers were authors whose books the ALA would not dream of putting on its approved lists.(3)

A search through the New York Times during the second week of November 1920 turns up exactly the advertisements to which Hunt referred. “Kiddies! This Is Your Book Week! Bring Along the Grown-Ups to the Gimbel Celebration…You’ll find ’em all at Gimbels—so carefully selected you can’t choose wrong.” Included among the “carefully selected” books were Adventures of the Teenie Weenies and three volumes of the Boy Mechanic (“Here’s the book for any wide-awake boy”[4]). In the other ad Hunt referenced, Bloomingdales presented their program of author speakers not recommended by the ALA. For the record, they were: David Cory (author of Billy Bunny); Henry C. Walker (author of the Jimmy Bunn stories); Frank Parker Stockbridge (author of Yankee Ingenuity in the War); Dorothy Whitehill (author of the Polly Pendleton series, Twin series, etc.); Lillian E. Garis (author of the Girl Scout series); William Heyliger (author of the St. Mary, Fairview, and Boy Scouts series); Howard R. Garis (author of the Uncle Wiggly series), and Horace Wade, “the eleven-year-old author of In the Shadow of the Great Peril.”(5)

These were the very types of books children’s librarians railed against in their selection standards. Hunt herself included more than one reference to popular formula series fiction, other¬wise known at the time as “fifty-cent books,” in her list of “Don’ts” in book selection. She wrote, for example: “Don’t let those adults who point pridefully to themselves as products of a trash-reading childhood shake your determination to give today’s children better mental food than those worthy citizens had.”(6) Earlier, in a statement that echoes eerily in modern times, Hunt had explained why she thought it was so important to offer children better books: “Just so surely as America neglects to fill her children’s minds with good ideas, just so surely will those children, a few years hence, be swayed by every shrieking demagogue and yellow journal working to undermine our country.”(7)

By giving the Children’s Librarians’ Section the power to select the Newbery Medal winners, Melcher got their support for Children’s Book Week by assuring them that children’s librarians would become the key tastemakers. Just a year after her criticism of the way Children’s Book Week was taking form under Melcher’s watch, Hunt had only laudatory words for him as he handed her the first Newbery Medal to present to Hendrik Willem van Loon for The Story of Mankind. “We feel strong and powerful because you believe in us and are putting in our hands a weapon, one of the most potent of our times—publicity of the best kind.”(8)

From a children’s librarian’s standpoint, the Newbery Medal promised to lift children’s literature to higher standards, or, as pioneering children’s editor May Massee described it, to “rescue it from mediocrity.”(9) Given this, it’s not surprising that popularity was not a criterion for selection—in fact, quite the opposite. To these librarians, popularity meant “poor style, poor binding, narrow margins, pulpy paper.”(10) Rather, the focus for the Newbery Medal has always been on distinguished books—whatever “distinguished” means to the group of children’s librarians making the selection each year. From the beginning, the term was left intentionally vague: “Because creative talent cannot and should not be confined to any pattern, the words ‘most distinguished’ were wisely undefined and unqualified, so that no limitations were placed upon the character of the book.”(11) But the terms have always included a sentence about what “distinguished” does not mean: “The award is not for popularity.”(12)

While the Newbery Medal, for the most part, was widely embraced almost immediately by librarians, teachers, publishers, booksellers, the press, and the general public, there was one group that was, not surprisingly, unhappy with the award: those who wrote popular series fiction. The authors of “boys’ books,” in particular, grumbled about the “blood-thirsty”(13) librarians who knew nothing about real boys and what their reading interests were. How could these women possibly be entrusted to decide what books were best for children? (And by children, of course, they meant boys.) Louise Latimer, director of work with children at the Washington, DC, Public Library, addressed these sorts of charges in a talk she gave to the Children’s Librarians’ Section at the 1924 Annual Conference in Saratoga Springs, New York.
I believe I can go further and assert that few fathers, if any, and few leaders of boys, if any, could tell you as accurately and sympathetically—not sentimentally, mind you—what a boy likes to read as a children’s librarian of many years’ experience. This is not remarkable, for more boys and boys of more types pass thru her hands, and she has their own testimony to support her opinions.

We cannot help but recognize, however, that the points of view connoted in these expressions (“high-brow,” “old maid,” etc.), have made a consistent approach to standards difficult. Have we let such criticism lower our standards in book selection? It is only as we have done that or as it has weakened our position in the community as judges of reading for young people that such criticism matters.(14)

Latimer’s last comment is especially interesting in light of the early criticism of the Newbery Award winners. At the time of her writing, there had been only three winners selected: The Story of Mankind, The Voyages of Doctor Dolittle, and The Dark Frigate—robust nonfiction, humorous fantasy/adventure, and a high-sea adventure. All were written by male authors and have a distinctly male point of view. A critic at the time would have been hard-pressed to claim that none of these were “boys’ books.” In fact, the next five Newbery Medal books were all written from male perspectives by male authors, and they include a war story (Gay-Neck, the Story of a Pigeon), a Western (Smoky, the Cowhorse), and historical fiction (The Trumpeter of Krakow), all mainstays in the reading preferences of boys. Were children’s librarians involved in the earliest selection of Newbery Medal books subconsciously looking for books to counter the charges, as Latimer feared might happen?

We’ll probably never know, but what happened over the next ten years is curious. After nearly a decade’s worth of boys’ books written by male authors, the second decade of Newbery Medal winners were all written by women, and many of them were classified as girls’ books in their times. By 1939, author Howard Pease had had enough. As an invited speaker at an ALA preconfer¬ence on children’s reading hosted by the Section for Library Work with Children, the author best known for his high-sea adventure books (popular with boys) delivered what amounted to a misogynistic rant to an audience of four hundred children’s librarians, most of whom were women. He berated them for creating a children’s book world controlled by women and feminine values. He was especially critical of the books most prized by children’s librarians. “All the models held up today are girls’ books. All the qualities demanded of writers today are feminine qualities—the delicate, the fragile, the beautiful, the poetic, the whimsical, the quaint, the fairylike.”(15)

Pease’s speech raised the eyebrows and the ire of the women in attendance who, understandably, found his remarks insulting. In his own report of the event, Frederic Melcher refuted the assertion that women are not good judges of “red-blooded” adventure stories and pointed out that fewer men write for children because there is less money in it. But, he noted, the successful children’s writer might make more money in the long run as the books bring in greater royalties over time. He put out a call for more men to write children’s books: “One of the objectives before publishers of children’s books may well be to find more men who have something to say and know how to write to compete in a field where women writers outnumber them two to one.”(16)

As the father of the Newbery Medal, Melcher artfully walked the fine line between both sides of the argument in an attempt to pacify librarians and authors, and that might have been the end of it. But a few months later, in the October 1939 issue of Elementary English Review, educator and school library advocate C. C. Certain stirred the pot again. In an editorial titled “What Are Little Boys Made Of?” he took on the Newbery Medal at full force, charging that the winners represented “a kind of faded prettiness,” particularly in the last decade. “Just imagine, if you can, the average tousle-headed American boy, or for that matter, his girl counterpart, sitting down for an hour to read Thimble Summer by Elizabeth Enright (Newbery Award, 1939), or Roller Skates by Ruth Sawyer, or Caddie Woodlawn by Carol Ryrie Brink…”(17) As the most recent Newbery winner at the time, Thimble Summer was held up as an example of a particularly bad Newbery Award winner. “Garnet [Thimble Summer’s protagonist] over and over again loses herself to young readers in mature reflection and adult parlance.”(18) Mr. Certain, on the other hand, was pleased with the Newbery choices of the 1920s, citing The Dark Frigate and The Story of Mankind as books he could imagine the “average American boy” reading “with zest.”(19) Although she was writing about different books, Silvey would make essentially the same argument nearly sixty years later in “Has the Newbery Lost Its Way?” saying that the most recent winners were “particularly disappointing” especially in comparison to the winners from the previous decade, which were much more popular with children.

Certain revisited his complaints in the next issue of Elementary English Review, in an “Open Forum on the Newbery Award,” inviting readers to join him in a discussion of the award. He makes his own opinion clear: “The children themselves cannot but be disappointed in books that are so highly sentimental and reminiscent of childhood. Confronted with these award books, they will come to regard all literature as ‘sissy.’”(20)

Letters poured in to the Elementary English Review in response. Most, at least of those quoted in the April 1940 issue,(21) agreed with Certain’s arguments. And, like Certain, they believed the problem could be remedied by having teachers and school librarians choose the Newbery Medal winners instead. They felt that teachers were less likely to be sentimental and more likely to be in touch with the reading tastes and abilities of real children. There was a general agreement among those who wrote in that the Newbery Medal was being awarded by the wrong people to the wrong books, but Certain noted that few were brave enough to say so publicly. In fact, he wrote that many of the letters the Elementary English Review had received were anonymous. This also corresponds with Silvey’s report in which the people she interviewed would only speak out against the Newbery Medal on condition of anonymity. It’s not clear why teachers and school librarians—now or then—with valid concerns about how the Newbery Medal winner was selected were so afraid to speak out. Are children’s librarians really such a fearsome bunch? Howard Pease obviously didn’t think so.

The children’s librarians shot back with their own letters to the editor of the Elementary English Review, which were included in April 1940’s “Open Forum.” Quoted at length were letters from the chair and vice-chair of the Section for Library Work with Children, of particular interest because both would have been in leadership positions on the Newbery committee at that time. Irene Smith, who in 1940 was vice-chair of the Section for Library Work with Children and thus chair of the Newbery committee, revealed that she had written to Melcher, assuring him that “this year’s committee will seek earnestly for literary masculinity, but whether or not we shall find it remains to be seen.”(22) (What they found was Daniel Boone by James Daugherty, the 1940 winner. Literary masculinity was, in fact, found in the next four years as well, with Call It Courage, The Matchlock Gun, Adam of the Road, and Johnny Tremain.) A year later, in the May 1941 issue, more letters to the editor were printed under the title “The Newbery Award Again.” Betty Hamilton, a children’s librarian from Atlanta, called Certain on his sexism: “And why do the editor and others complain when a good book for girls wins the Medal? Why shouldn’t a girl’s book win? Don’t girls read?”(23)

The war of words continued for three years and even spilled over onto the pages of other journals. In 1942 the vice-chair of the Section for Library Work with Children, Clara E. Breed, asked for a “Plea for Understanding” in an article about the Newbery Medal she published in Wilson Library Bulletin. She was convinced that there would be less criticism of the Newbery Medal if people only understood the process by which it was chosen (something she explained in great detail) and the original purpose: to select the most distinguished book of the year.
Indeed the complaints about the Newbery Medal usually insist that the medal be something it is not. Elementary teachers say the books chosen are too old, junior high teachers that the books are too young. An author of boys’ books says the books are too feminine and too tender-minded. A parent objects that the selections too often have been books with foreign backgrounds. A school administrator suggests the books would be better made “if teachers, parents, children, and an artist or two were involved in the selection.” Sometimes it seems as if all these people had joined hands and were chanting in unison: “The Newbery books are not popular.” (When has Webster defined “most distinguished” as “most popular”?)[24]

In spite of the fact that the award terms have always made the award’s purpose clear, Breed and others who have come to the Newbery Medal’s defense have had to remind us again and again that it is not an award for popularity. The most recent defense came in 2008 in direct response to Silvey’s article and was pointedly titled “Captain Underpants Doesn’t Need a Newbery Medal.” Its author, Erica Perl, a children’s writer and elementary-school creative writing teacher, would have made Clara Whitehill Hunt proud: “We already have plenty of ways to track the most popular children’s books. Shouldn’t the field’s most prestigious honor aim higher?”(25)

Few librarians today would make the argument their forebears made that “trash reading” is somehow harmful to young readers. We would even hesitate to call popular formula series fiction “trash” these days. Most of us are perfectly comfortable with the idea of Captain Underpants keeping company on the shelves with Good Masters! Sweet Ladies! Our attitude toward “popular” books has certainly changed since the Newbery Medal was first created, but our mission to find the most “distinguished book” of the year remains the same.

But why do we bother, when we are constantly reminded by Newbery critics that nobody wants to read most of the books that have won? “Who cares that the books aren’t popular?” asked the ever-provocative Dorothy Broderick back in 1960. She characterized the Newbery Medal as “a means of honoring an author who has offered an important insight in life. This gift of insight cannot be measured by the number of readers. If it can be measured at all, it is in terms of its impact on the few readers of each year or decade who come to it with the back¬ground and intelligence to absorb the author’s statement.”(26)

Has the Newbery lost its way? I don’t think so. It’s just more often than not chosen the road less traveled in its search for distinguished.

1. Silvey, Anita. “Has the Newbery Lost Its Way?” School Library Journal 54:10 (October 2008), p. 40.
2. Melcher, Frederic G., quoted in A History of the Newbery and Caldecott Medals by Irene Smith. Viking Press, 1957, p. 36.
3. Hunt, Clara Whitehill. “Children’s Book Week: A Librarian’s Point of View,” Publishers Weekly 100:1 (July 9, 1921), p. 69.
4. New York Times, November 17, 1920, p. 9.
5. New York Times, November 14, 1920, p. E 17.
6. Hunt, Clara Whitehill. Library Work with Children. Revised. (Manual of Library Economy Number XXIX) ALA. 1924, p. 6.
7. Hunt, Clara Whitehill, quoted in “Children’s Books,” by Wilhelmina Harper, The Library Journal 48:17 (October 1, 1923), p. 807.
8. Hunt, Clara Whitehill, quoted in A History of the Newbery and Caldecott Medals by Irene Smith. Viking Press, 1957, p. 45.
9. Masee, May, quoted in “The Sayers Institute” by Claire Nolte, Library Journal 64:14 (August 1939), p. 588.
10. Hunt. Library Work with Children, p. 7.
11. Breed, Clara E. “The Newbery Medal: A Plea for Understanding,” Wilson Library Bulletin 16:9 (May 1942), p. 724.
12. “Newbery Medal Terms and Criteria,” Asso¬ciation for Library Service to Children website. Retrieved April 27, 2012.
13. Eaton, Walter Prichard. “How Much Red in the Boy’s Book?” Publisher’s Weekly 106:16 (October 18, 1924), p. 1375.
14. Latimer, Louise P. “They Who Get Slapped,” The Library Journal 49:13 (July 1924), p. 625.
15. Pease, Howard. “Children’s Books Today: One Man’s View,” Proceedings of the Institute on Library Work with Children. School of Librarianship/Uni¬versity of California, 1939, p. 7.
16. Melcher, Frederic G. “Men Wanted?” Publishers Weekly 136:1 (July 1, 1939), p. 7.
17. Certain, C. C. “What Are Little Boys Made Of?” Elementary English Review 16:6 (October 1939), p. 247.
18. Ibid.
19. Ibid.
20. “Open Forum on the Newbery Award,” Elemen¬tary English Review 16:7 (November 1939), p. 283.
21. “The Newbery Award: Open Forum,” Elemen¬tary English Review 17:4 (April 1940), p. 160-162.
22. Smith, Irene. Letter to the Editor in “The Newbery Award: Open Forum,” Elementary English Review 17:4 (April 1940), p. 162.
23. Hamilton, Betty. Letter to the Editor in “The Newbery Award Again,” Elementary English Review 18:5 (May 1941), p. 193.
24. Breed. “The Newbery Medal: A Plea for Understanding,” p. 725.
25. Perl, Erica. “Captain Underpants Doesn’t Need a Newbery Medal,” Slate, December 19, 2008. Retrieved April 22, 2012.
26. Broderick, Dorothy M. “The Newbery Award Is Not a Popularity Contest,” Library Journal 85:6 (March 15, 1960), p. 1281.

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. The author of From Cover to Cover: Evaluating and Reviewing Children’s Books, she teaches online courses for ALSC on the history of the Newbery and Caldecott medals.

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2012 ALA Round-Up - The Horn Book

[...] The Search for Distinguished: K. T. Horning revives a decades-old Newbery debate. [...]

Posted : Jun 26, 2013 07:07


Oh yeah. Let me add this: A distinguished book invites readers to examine their values and assumptions, not to “correct” them, but to reaffirm them or revise them. A distinguished book remains distinguished, despite changes in society in general or literary fashion in particular.

Posted : Jun 20, 2012 06:31


"Rather, the focus for the Newbery Medal has always been on distinguished books—whatever “distinguished” means to the group of children’s librarians making the selection each year. From the beginning, the term was left intentionally vague..." Too bad. That discussion would've done a great service to children's literature. For example: "I believe a distinguished book respects its audience--its intellect, emotional maturity, and empathy. A distinguished book breaks new ground by drawing attention to little-known subjects or revealing new truths about familiar ones. A distinguished book contains surprises that bring a renewed, albeit different, delight upon re-reading." I could go on--it's fun--but I think I've said enough to be told why I'm wrong.

Posted : Jun 20, 2012 03:10



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