Posted by: Kathy Temean | August 14, 2012

The Story Behind the Newbery

Written by Lori Joyce

Every January, writers, readers, and publishers of children’s literature look forward to the announcement of the next Newbery award-winning book. This prestigious award, accompanied by its newly minted bronze medal, has the ability to take a great book and boost it into the stratosphere for recognition and sales. While teachers, writers, publishers, parents, librarians, and students know the value of this honor, they may not be aware of its lengthy and storied history.

The Newbery Award was the first award to recognize the contributions of children’s literature. Although many publishing companies now have children’s divisions, in 1918 there was only one, MacMillan. Following its success, several other companies launched their own children’s divisions.


In 1921 Frederic G. Melcher (pictured), publisher and a member of the American Library Association, felt that the best writing in children’s literature should receive a special commendation. He proposed an award for the most distinguished work of children’s literature in the form of fiction, non-fi ction, or poetry to the American Library Association. In 1922 they approved the measure and gave the Association for Library Service to Children (then known as the Children’s Librarian Section) the charge of selecting the book.

Melcher also suggested the award’s name: The John Newbery Award. John Newbery was a bookseller, publisher, and writer who lived in England from 1713 to 1765. One of his monikers is “Father of Children’s Literature.” In addition to writing and publishing didactic stories for children (typical for the time), he also published the first English translation of Mother Goose. Newbery’s philosophy that stories should instruct and delight and the work he did to promote children’s literature made it appropriate to honor him with the name of this esteemed award.

The selected book gets reprinted due to demand for the book, and the seal is placed on the book cover. There is more to the actual award than the embossed seal on the book, however.  The winner of the Newbery receives a specially minted bronze medal. The front pictures an adult with a book in hand talking to a young boy and girl.  The back of the medal has the name of winner and the date engraved on it along with the words “For the Most Distinguished Contribution to American Literature for Children.” Artist Rene´ Paul Chambellan, primarily an architectural sculptor, was commissioned to design the medal for the first award.

Frederic Melcher contributed his own funds to help off set the cost of the artist’s work and subsequent medal forging throughout the years. The design of the medal has not changed in the nearly ninety years the award has been given out.

The American Library Association formally states that the purpose of the Newbery award is “to encourage original creative work in the field of books for children. To emphasize to the public that contributions to the literature for children deserve similar recognition to poetry, plays, or novels. To give those librarians, who make it their life work to serve children’s reading interests, an opportunity to encourage good writing in this fi eld.”


The fifteen individuals on the committee that selects “the most distinguished contribution to children’s literature” are faced with a diffi cult task. A minor change in the process occurred in 1971 when “runner-ups”—books that merit special recognition but don’t win the medal—were renamed “honor books.” Th e designation of honor books remains today, and only books from fi nal balloted list may be selected as honor books.

The public children’s librarians and school librarians on the selection committee serve for two years. Starting in 2010, the composition of the committee is as follows: eight elected members, six appointees, and one appointed Chair. The president of the ALSC appoints the eight members and the general membership votes on the elected members. All committee members must belong to the Association of Library Service to Children, and by extension, the American Library Association.

The task of the group is to review works from the approximately 5000 titles in children’s literature published in America the previous calendar year and select one book. Th e criteria are that the writer must live in America and the book must be published for the first time in America (though simultaneous publication in America as well as other countries could be considered) in the year immediately prior to the current year. For example, the committee for 2011 has formed and is considering books published in 2010.

Publishers send the committee books for consideration and the general membership of ALSC makes suggestions as well. Committee members submit lists of books for consideration, and the chairperson compiles and redistributes that list on a monthly basis.

Ultimately, the choices are narrowed by submission solicitations during a three round elimination and selection process according to the manual for committee members: “Committee members will be asked to nominate three, two, and two books (for a total of 7 distinct nominations) and to provide justifi cation for each book. The Chair will distribute the results and the justifi cations.”

Once this is completed, the committee meets to discuss the books. ALL book suggestions, at any point in the process, are kept confi dential. This secrecy is maintained to the very end. In fact, the books that were considered, other than the honorees, are never revealed.


Th e chosen author receives “The Call” just before the announcement is made at the annual meeting. Sharon Creech, New Jersey resident and Newbery winner in 1995 for Walk Two Moons said, “It was a complete surprise and a major shock, and although it was exciting, it was also terrifying in the beginning. It can be unnerving to be suddenly in a spotlight. One of the best parts about Newbery-life is that you have the chance to meet so many people (students, teachers, librarians, parents, publishers, other authors) who love books of all kinds, and it renews your own excitement in writing.”


If you’re interested in reading Newbery award winners, you may wish to do so in the company of others. The web site, The Newbery Project, has an open membership and provides the opportunity to add your commentary on the selections. The site also provides a list of all winners. As you read through works published in 2012, try picking which might be on the Honor list or the winner of the gold standard of children’s writing, the John Newbery award.

Lori Joyce is an Assistant Professor of English at Gloucester County College. Lori enjoys teaching Children’s Literature to prospective teachers. She resides in Mullica Hill, NJ, with her husband, youngest son, dog, and two college-age children, when they are home.

Talk tomorrow,


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