Celebrating Newbery’s 100 Years!

By Suzanne Hawley, MLS

Did you realize that there have been over 400 titles selected as Newbery honors and winners since the medal was established in 1922? Remarkable, isn’t it? According to information from the Association for Library Services to Children (ALSC), the award’s “terms, as well as its long history, continue to make it the best known and most discussed children’s book award in this country.”

Newbery medal winners and honors are chosen annually. Frederic Melcher, the founder of the Newbery, had one request for the decision-makers: the process of selecting the books must remain top secret. Every year, a Newbery Committee is established, consisting of 15 members: Eight are elected by members of ALSC, and a chairperson and six members are appointed by the ALSC President. Members can only serve on the committee every four years.

The award is based on the text of each book. Other components, such as illustrations and overall design, may be considered when they make the book less effective. The books must be original works, first published in the United States, and written in English by an author who is a U.S. resident. Also, they must have been published during the previous year. Only the books “eligible for the award” are to be considered. The entire body of work by an author or the fact that the author may have previously won the award should have no bearing on the discussion. The John Newbery Award Committee Manual – Formatted August 2015 is available online if you are interested in more detail.

Who is on this committee? Back in the dark ages, I was! In 1992, I was selected to be on the 1993 Newbery Committee. It was the experience of a lifetime. My appointment came as a jaw-dropping, gob-smacking surprise! One day as my son retrieved the mail from the mailbox, he said, “Mom, here’s something for you from ALA.” I assumed it was a notice to pay dues and asked him to open it because I was busy eating an apple. Excitedly, he said, “Mom, you’ve been appointed to the Newbery Committee!” Astonished, I immediately spit the apple onto the back of his neck. Something soon to be forgiven, but never forgotten!

I called ALA to make sure there was no mistake and that I was on the committee. Once we got that straight, the fun—and I do mean fun—(but also lots of work) began.

I was impressed but worried when I saw who else was on the committee: all well-known figures in the children’s library field. And then there was me, a school librarian with little ALA committee experience. Our first meeting in January 1992 was a “getting-to-know-you” event. The Chair asked us to introduce ourselves, and I was grateful that I was last so I could listen to everyone else first while thinking of something brilliant to say. Instead of something brilliant, I blurted out that I was completely awestruck by the committee members and totally intimidated. At least that elicited a laugh, and then others admitted that they felt the same way. Already, a bond was formed—one that grew stronger as the year went by.

At first, books from publishers trickled in, and I thought, “Oh, this is manageable. I can read a couple of books a week.” By May, I was reconsidering that thought because I had books stacked everywhere, and I was reading as fast as I could. We each read hundreds of books that year.

The Internet was still in its infancy in those days, and all of the communication among members was done by mail. The Chair received our nominations, compiled them, and sent copies to all members. Each committee member was responsible for nominating seven books: three in October, two in November, and two in December. In January, we were allowed to nominate late suggestions that had been published after we submitted our previous nominees. That was a good thing because an excellent title arrived at my front door as I was leaving for the airport to go to ALA Midwinter in January, and we were able to discuss it.

Adhering to the “top secret” rule, the Annual Conference and Midwinter meetings were held behind closed doors with security in place. We were not permitted to mention “eligible titles” outside of the meetings. The group was comprised of 14 individuals, each of whom held strong opinions and were articulate and robust in their advocacy of titles. The Chair proved to be an excellent leader and insisted that our nominations be concise and specific, asking that we cite excepts from the books we talked about to aid in decision-making. More importantly, she expected us to be open to new ideas about titles that we hadn’t paid much attention to. Much to my delight, members became friends and even when tempers ran high, everyone remained respectful.

In January 1993, we met at ALA Midwinter to make our selections. We spent many hours behind those locked doors because so many excellent books were published in 1992, and there was lots of debate. ALSC sent a locked trunk full of the 75 books we had determined were “eligible” before Midwinter. By the final meeting day, we had narrowed that number to about 15. The meeting was a passionate one, and we didn’t start balloting until after midnight.

Each committee member is asked to select (by a secret ballot), a first, second, and third choice for the award. When the ballots are tabulated, four points are assigned to each first choice, three points to each second choice, and two points to each third choice. To win the Newbery, a book must receive eight first place votes and must have an eight-point lead over the book receiving the next highest point total.

Within a short period, we had selected our winner. But there were so many other books deserving of Newbery Honor distinction that we all began lobbying in earnest for our respective picks. Around midnight, our Chair forced a final discussion. It worked; we decided by votes for three Honors. At the end of the entire process, we felt confident that we had met Frederick Melcher’s challenge to select the most distinguished contribution to American literature for children.

Around 3 a.m., exhausted but happy, we went back to our hotel rooms to catch a few hours of sleep before we convened in the ALA office to call our Newbery Winner, Cynthia Rylant, for “Missing May.” She was jubilant as were we. Then, we called our Newbery Honor authors: Bruce Brooks for “What Hearts,” Patricia McKissack for “The Dark-thirty: Southern Tales of the Supernatural” and “Somewhere in the Darkness” by Walter Dean Myers. After that we retired to the auditorium where the announcement was made to the world.

Since my time on the Newbery Committee was almost 30 years ago, I was interested in discovering what has changed since then. After speaking with Dr. Jonda McNair, chair of the 2021 committee, I learned that while the process of choosing winners is similar, the main difference is that communication is now done by email instead of mail. Secrecy is still of paramount importance. In January, they met virtually on Zoom to discuss the nominees and determine the winners and honors. How fortunate we are to have that technology today!

There are big differences in the numbers and kinds of books available. In 1992, around 5,000 children’s titles were published; in 2020, the number was closer to 15,000. Today, diversity and inclusion are uppermost in everyone’s minds, and recent youth media awards reflect this trend. In fact, the 2021 Newbery winner and two honor books take place in Southeast Asia: “When You Trap a Tiger,” “All Thirteen,” and “A Wish in the Dark.” The 2020 committee chose an honor, “The Undefeated,” which celebrates contributions of African Americans, and “Other Words for Home,” the story of a Muslim family who fled Syria for America.

Graphic novels have also increased in popularity in the children’s and teen world since the early 2000s. A generational shift fueled this acceptance, as librarians who came of age reading graphic novels became the builders of library collections. Jerry Craft’s remarkable graphic novel, “New Kid,”won the prestigious Newbery medal in 2020, adding a new format to the body of “the most distinguished contribution to American literature for children.” In spite of the changes over the years, the spirit of the Newbery Medal remains the same.

“Water and sun … but no hurricane” is Suzy Hawley’s mantra. She loves selecting children’s and young adult materials for library collections. Other than that, she spends her days interfering in her children’s lives, helping seniors, and spoiling her Olde English Bull Dogs. Click here for more. Click here for more.

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