For 100 years, the shiny John Newbery Medal seal that appears on the covers of children’s books has moved those titles to the top of to-be-read piles. It has parked them prominently on shelves in schools, libraries, and stores. A badge of distinction, the medal labels books as pieces of distinguished literature meant to entertain, motivate, educate, and engage children. The award’s centennial celebration this year is the perfect time to reflect on this first century—and look ahead to the next one.
Appropriately, the Newbery Medal, the world’s first children’s book award, is named for the man credited with publishing the first children’s book. In 1744, John Newbery, a British bookseller, published A Little Pretty Pocket-Book, a book of simple rhymes for each letter of the alphabet. The book often came with a gift—a ball or a pin cushion—for its young readers. The Newbery Medal remains the best-known and most widely coveted award of its kind.
Given annually by the Association for Library Service to Children (ALSC), a division of the American Library Association (ALA), the Newbery Medal was instituted in 1922 by Frederic G. Melcher, a bookstore manager and editor of Publisher’s Weekly. Per Melcher’s agreement with the ALA Executive Board, the award was to have three goals: “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 field.” (Melcher later proposed to ALA a second award for children’s books that honored illustrators, the Caldecott Medal, in 1937.)
The Newbery Award Selection Committee consists of 15 members who look at original works released in the United States in the preceding year and written for children 14 years and under. Books must be published in English and authors must be US citizens or residents. Members cast their votes after a confidential vetting process and, in the end, pick one winner. In January, the committee selected the dystopian middle-grade novel The Last Cuentista by Donna Barba Higuera as the 2022 winner.
“Putting that sticker on the winning book together after voting is such a meaningful moment. I get goosebumps every time,” says Thaddeus Andracki, chair of the 2022 Newbery Award Selection Committee and a middle school librarian at University of Chicago Laboratory Schools.
“There’s something special about knowing what the award means and what it’s going to do for an author’s career,” he says. “Many children across the United States, and even the world, are going to see that sticker on that book or have that book added to their library when it might not have been added before. You know that you really have made a difference, and it’s because all 15 of us really love this book.”
For many who have served on selection committees, the centennial is a chance to recognize how Melcher’s vision endures today.
“We are celebrating 100 years of honoring Melcher’s intent to encourage and elevate creative writing for children and to center children as an audience for distinguished writing,” says Susan Polos, current chair of the Newbery 100th Anniversary Task Force, middle school librarian at Greenwich (Conn.) Country Day School, and a past member of the selection committee.
For Jonda McNair, professor in the College of Education and Human Ecology at Ohio State University in Columbus, it was this legacy that prompted her to serve as Newbery Medal Selection Committee chair last year. “I understand the significance and longevity of this prominent award that uplifts and promotes excellence in writing for young people,” she says.
Putting that sticker on the winning book together after voting is such a meaningful moment. I get goosebumps every time.—Thaddeus Andracki, chair of the 2022 Newbery Award Selection Committee and middle school librarian at University of Chicago Laboratory Schools
Sara L. Schwebel, professor and director of the Center for Children’s Books at University of Illinois Urbana–Champaign and coeditor of the book Dust Off the Gold Medal: Rediscovering Children’s Literature at the Newbery Centennial, says the medal has achieved its goal of stimulating the production of quality children’s literature and attracting authors to write for young people by generating prestige. (Winning a Newbery almost invariably boosts sales, report media outlets like Forbes, Los Angeles Times, and The Hollywood Reporter.)
“The most exciting development of this moment is the conversations unfolding among librarians at all levels,” Schwebel says. “The centennial events can facilitate the process of librarians thinking about the Newbery and what they want the medal as an institution to do, moving forward into the next century.”
Inside the process
The selection committee includes six ALSC members picked by an appointing officer, eight members elected by ALSC membership, and one chair appointed by the ALSC president. Committee members technically serve a two-year term, though they actively read selections and meet only in the calendar year leading up to their vote on the medal. (Starting with the 2025 Newbery Award Selection Committee, all members will be appointed.)
How the committee selects titles is twofold: Members find books to nominate, and publishers send books for consideration. Narrowing down the selections is a time-consuming task that requires a lot of reading and organization. Committee members will read 150–300 books in those 12 months, Andracki says. Polos says she has heard of members reading upward of 350 books.
The committee makes its first nominations in October but does not vote or deliberate until the following January, the month the medal is awarded. Preliminary winners are discussed at selection meetings, where committee members then vote for their top three titles.
Discussions are confidential, Andracki says, and these conversations are known for being passionate. “The discussion itself is much deeper and more thoughtful than most book discussions are, simply because everyone is so invested,” he says. But committee members do listen to one another, and discussions can sway opinion. Because of how balloting is done, the committee must work toward consensus.
By long-established practice, a winning book must receive at least eight first-place votes and lead any other book by at least eight points. After settling on a winner, the committee decides whether to name honor books (runners-up for the award) and how many (three to five is custom). Winners receive a bronze medal, and honorees receive a plaque.
Polos says the Newbery Medal selection manual makes clear to committee members that their work is both a responsibility and an honor. It encourages them to recognize their individual strengths, gaps in knowledge, and biases; to listen before speaking; and to consider books that represent unfamiliar experiences rather than defaulting to materials that represent their own experiences.
As chair, Andracki says he has seen firsthand how the selection process works and admires it more than ever. He views a winning piece of children’s literature as one that’s going to stick around. It’s a book that, “when you close it, there’s a sigh or an exhale,” he says.
The legacy of the Newbery Medal and the question of what makes a book a winner has led to thoughtful discussions in classrooms and libraries over the years, some of them in the form of mock Newbery selections. During those events, young readers, librarians, and educators tenaciously defend their selections, vote, and host their own version of the much-anticipated annual announcement.
Kathleen T. “K. T.” Horning, director of the Cooperative Children’s Book Center at University of Wisconsin–Madison and former president of ALSC, has led many mock Newbery selection events. She says the experience is valuable for children and adults and gives librarians a chance to see which books people gravitate to on their own; it expands the horizons of what participants read and provides them with an opportunity to articulate their opinions. And it gives them an audience that listens as they say how they arrived at their opinions and why they choose to defend them.
These mock Newbery events can build communities of readers, Horning says: “From my experience, kids especially form opinions and get really invested.”
Like most things that have survived long enough to see multiple wars, cultural shifts, and social movements ripple across the globe, the Newbery Medal has not been without its criticisms and challenges.
In an article for Slate published in January, Schwebel and her Dust Off the Gold Medal coeditor Jocelyn Van Tuyl wrote that the Newbery Medal has “smuggled some real duds onto library shelves” and kept some books in stock and circulation that may have otherwise faded away over time. The authors ask in their article: Should publishers put some of the older winners—which may be outdated, problematic, or blatantly racist—out to pasture?
In 100 years, only one Newbery book has gone out of print—the 1940 winner Daniel Boone by James Daugherty. The book was pulled from print for its racism and perpetuation of stereotypes (according to a 2021 ASLC webinar about problematic, award-winning texts) but it is far from being the only problematic title. And Newbery titles stay in print, in curricula, and on shelves in disproportionate numbers, Schwebel and Van Tuyl report. The award provides not only recognition but also endurance, which raises the question of whether the books always deserve their long lives.
I think we’ve turned a corner, and I am cautiously optimistic that we’re going to see prizing from the Newbery Medal that reflects a vision of inclusivity.—Sara L. Schwebel, professor and director of the Center for Children’s Books at University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign
One way to address this issue, Schwebel and Van Tuyl posit in their article, is to contextualize these questionable classics with critical scholarship. Schwebel herself has produced an edition of Scott O’Dell’s 1961 Newbery winner Island of the Blue Dolphins that critically examines how the book has contributed to settler colonialism and national mythmaking.
Representation is also an issue. “You have a legacy of overwhelming whiteness,” Schwebel notes of the 100 authors who have been recognized and the characters they have created. For instance, it wasn’t until 1975 that the Newbery Medal was awarded to a Black author—Virginia Hamilton, for M. C. Higgins, the Great.
But the award is evolving, and the list of winning authors has grown more diverse over time. “I think we’ve turned a corner, and I am cautiously optimistic that we’re going to see prizing from the Newbery Medal that reflects a vision of inclusivity,” Schwebel says.
In the early years of the Newbery, winners were mostly white men. Yet over the award’s 100-year history, a majority of winners—more than 60—have been women. Increasingly, Newbery medalists are becoming more reflective of underrepresented groups.
Seeing authors of color recognized more frequently, rather than “one winner of color every 10 years or so,” has been a welcome change, says McNair, whose research covers access and equity in children’s literature. “I hope this trend continues,” she says.
“In the last seven years, we’ve seen so much more diversity in both authorship and writing styles,” Horning says. “There has been an expansion of the interpretation of ‘distinguished literature.’ We’re looking at all types of writing and not just at novels, which most Newbery books in the past were.” A case in point, New Kid by Jerry Craft became the first graphic novel to win the Newbery, in 2020.
“There is always room for growth,” Polos says. “We are clear that many older Newbery titles would not be considered today.” She adds that celebrations of the medal’s 100th anniversary both acknowledge the importance of children’s literature and the gains made in representation, inclusion, and diversity.
Andracki agrees there has been a shift, and the selection committees now see that when they choose a winner, they are selecting a book for all children in the United States. This means recognizing that children are many and varied, he says, and looking beyond white, cisgender, heterosexual authors and characters.
“The Newbery has evolved, and it has been a great evolution,” Andracki says. “I think that at the heart of the Newbery experience is good books for kids.”