Awards and Prizes: The Newbery Medal

Quite a while ago I promised to introduce a new “Awards and Prizes” category to my posts here on The Art of Reading, and at the time I’d intended to start off by talking about The Pulitzer Prizes for Literature in relation to last year’s winner in the fiction category, Paul Harding’s debut novel, Tinkers.  But then things happened, and Tinkers got set aside, barely begun. I’ve yet to return to it, though I look forward to doing so, maybe when it gets a bit colder.

There are, however, lots of literary prizes which are not the Pulitzer, and so I’m going to begin with one of my all-time favorites, The Newbery Medal. The Newbery Medal has been awarded every year since 1922 by the Association for Library Service for Children (ALSC), a division of the American Library Association (ALA). It is given to “the author of the most distinguished contribution to American literature for children published by an American publisher in the United States in English during the preceding year.” The books and authors that have received this award (especially from the pre-1990s era) read like a who’s who of my favorite books from childhood. Actually, the reason I thought to write about this award now is that E.L. Konigsburg’s From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler, which I mentioned a few days ago, won the Newbery Medal in 1968.

The award is named for an 18th century British bookseller and publisher of books for children named John Newbery, and the award’s mission, as described by its founder (a Frederic G.Melcher) is to encourage the creation of original works for children, to emphasize that the importance of literature for children is on par with that  for adults, and best of all, to give librarians, “who make it their life work to serve children’s reading interests, an opportunity to encourage good writing in this field.” I’m all for giving more power to librarians. At least those that make it their life work to serve the reading interest’s of children, because I’m eternally indebted to several of them. If you need to buy a gift for a young reader, or a young person you’d like to become reader, The Newbery Winner’s list is probably a good place to start (another place to look is at the book list of the non-profit organization, Kids Need to Read).

I am almost 100% certain that I have read more Newbery winners and “Honors” books (the Newbery Medal term for honorable mention) than the winners of all other well-known literary prizes combined. Among my favorite Newbery Medal honorees are the above-mentioned Mixed Up Files, L’Engle’s A Wrinkle in Time (1963) The Little House on the Prairies series (Laura Ingles Wilder received an Honors mention five times between 1938-1944, but never  won outright), Eleanor Estes’ The Moffats series, Charlotte’s Web (honors in 1953), Raskin’s The Westing Game (1979), several books by Katherine Paterson, and Patricia MacLachlan’s Sarah, Plain and Tall (1986). And that just covers the years before my birth.

Since then, there’s Maniac Magee (1991), The Giver (1994), The Ear, the Eye and the Arm (Honor Book in 1995), and others by the likes of Karen Cushman and E.L. Konigsburg, again, nearly thirty years after her first win. There are so many great books on this list. And I’ve heard from a reputable source (author Maile Meloy, who spoke at The Harvard Bookstore Wednesday night) that this year’s selection, When You Reach Me, by Rebecca Stead, is more than up to snuff.

Of course, because this prize is restricted to American children’s books written by authors who maintain a long-term residence in the United States, recent children’s classics like The Harry Potter series or Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials Trilogy don’t appear among its winners. And like any good prize, the committee’s decisions have occasionally been disputed, with certain parties arguing that the Newbery Medal should be given to children’s books that are more accessible, and more widely read, rather than to books which are often less well known (but arguably of much superior literary quality). I suppose if the Newbery Medal’s founder wanted the prize to emphasize that children’s literature is as important as adult literature, he should have been prepared for the often petty, prize-disputing Adult literary squabbles to find their way to his prize committee’s decisions as well.

Another fun fact about the Newbery Medal: I don’t know the exact statistics, but from reading the list of all-time winners, I can safely guess that this prize must have one of the highest female-male winners ratios in the history of literary prizes. Easily 2/3s of the winners and at least as many of the Honors books were written by women. I’m sure someone at my women’s college could turn that into a thesis…

Happily, I’ve already written my thesis, so I can go to bed now and leave that to the undergraduates.

Coming soon, a companion piece for the Newbery Medal’s companion prize, the Caldecott Medal. And feel free to send any feedback my way as to what (if anything) about literary awards and prizes actually interests you…if you’d like me to focus more on history, on famous or infamous winners (and losers), to dig up funny anecdotes or to report on the selection process, etc., just let me know.

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