The beloved children’s literary prize, The Newbery Medal, will celebrate its 100th anniversary this year. The Newbery Medal was first proposed in 1921 by Frederic Melcher, who was an editor at Publishers Weekly at the time. Melcher believed that literature for children deserved similar recognition to great poetry, plays, or novels, and the prizes that celebrate them. He believed that creating such a prize would be a great opportunity for children’s librarians to serve children’s reading interests with great writing in the field. As a result, The Newbery Medal was officially established on June 22, 1921.
To understand the importance of the prize, its history, and how it has evolved over 100 years, I spoke with Kirby McCurtis, the President of the Association for Library Service to Children. McCurtis explained that literary prizes, in general, increase the attention put on a certain type of literature, which in turn improves the quantity and quality of that literature. Prizes like The Newbery Medal are not about awarding the books that are most popular. Instead they recognize what books are the most “distinguished.” McCurtis says The Newbery Medal committee members “work very hard to identify the best of the best and raise them up.” And when it comes to recognizing and awarding achievement in children’s literature, McCurtis says, “kids deserve it!”
Over the course of its 100 year history, the prize’s purpose of recognizing distinguished books for children remains, but “the Newbery of 100 years ago looks quite different than the Newbery of today,” McCurtis says. Logistically, for example, The Newbery Medal selection committee was once also responsible for selecting the winner of the Caldecott Medal — a prize for the artist of the most distinguished American picture book for children. This overlap existed from the Caldecott Medal’s inception in 1937 until 1980.
Additionally, throughout its history, with a few exceptions, The Newbery Medal has been awarded almost exclusively to white authors. McCurtis is upfront about this aspect of the award’s history, and the prize’s commitments to do better. He says, “today’s Newbery Medal committee members are committed to seeking out the wide range of voices and stories currently available for children.” Since 2015, The Newbery Medal has been awarded to BIPOC authors every year except one.
With 100 years of history, there are lots of interesting or pivotal moments to share about this prize. A full list of the award recipients can be found here. K.T. Horning, the Director of the Cooperative Children’s Book Center (CCBC) also shared some interesting facts about the Association for Library Services to Children (ALSC), The Newbery Medal, and the evolution of awarding great children’s literature. For example:
In 1924, the Medal was awarded posthumously for the first and only time. Charles Boardman Hawes, author of The Dark Frigate, died before the award decision was made.
1928 marked the first year that a BIPOC author was awarded the Newbery Medal. Dhan Gopal Mukerji won for Gay Neck: The Story of a Pigeon. Forty-six years would pass before another BIPOC author won the award, this time Virginia Hamilton for M.C. Higgins, the Great; seventy-four years would pass before another Asian American author won, in this case, Linda Sue Park for A Single Shard.
First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt attended the 1937 Newbery Banquet and was seated at the head table next to Frederic Melcher, who first conceptualized the award. This was also the last year the banquet was just for the Newbery Medal. The following year the Caldecott Medal was established and it became the Newbery-Caldecott Banquet.
Robert Lawson won the Newbery in 1944 for Rabbit Hill. He had won the Caldecott Medal three years earlier for They Were Strong and Good, and he remains the only person who has won both a Newbery and a Caldecott.
In 2000, Bud, Not Buddy by Christopher Paul Curtis was the first book to win both the Newbery Medal and the Coretta Scott King Award for writing.
Notably, the award has also evolved with the fields of children’s literature and children’s librarianship. Moments in The Newbery Medal’s history demonstrate that children’s librarians have a long history of advocating for constituents they serve, even if this means critiquing their own award-winning titles.
According to Sujei Lugo, a children’s librarian at Boston Public Library, one such event occurred in 1958, after The Newbery Medal was awarded to Rifles for Watie by Harold Keith. Rifles for Watie is a novel about the Civil War, and a young Civil War soldier. The book contains problematic content about African Americans and Native Americans.
After the book won the award, committee member Charlemae Hill Rollins, a Black children’s librarian and leader in the field, reached out to the book’s publisher and its editor to address the problematic descriptions and words used regarding its Black characters. McCurtis adds, “This shows there is a history of children’s librarians advocating for the humanity and respect of Black children’s lives and experiences, and some were even brave enough to stand up and critique award-winning titles.” Ultimately, though the editor understood Rollins’ concerns with the book, the author pushed back on the requested changes, and lasting edits were not made. Libraries and children’s librarians have a responsibility to remain accountable to the diverse communities they serve, and Rollins’s actions demonstrate that commitment.
The official Newbery 100th Anniversary Celebration will occur beginning at ALA Annual Conference 2021 and culminating at ALA Annual Conference 2022. Between these two summers, a number of exciting opportunities and events are currently being planned for the public and ALA members.
Additionally, the celebration committee has commissioned a series of collaborations with beloved children’s illustrators, who have designed their own takes on the “Newbery 100” logo. These illustrators and their designs, new merchandise, events, and resources, and more will be updated on the Newbery 100 webpage as summer arrives. Throughout the medal’s 100th anniversary year, readers are encouraged to share their favorite Newbery books, authors, trivia, stories, memories, and more on social media using #Newbery100.