Sunday, January 17, 2010

The Calm before the Storm or 88 Years Ago

On this very quiet day before the announcement of the ALA awards (if you, like me, are not lucky enough to be at ALA Midwinter, you can watch the announcement live here), it seems appropriate to share a little tidbit of historical information that shines a light on just how momentous this occasion is for children's literature.

Last night I was flipping through books and resources I plan to use in my children's literature course that starts in a few weeks when I came across Leonard Marcus' Minders of Make-Believe: Idealists, Entrepreneurs, and the Shaping of American Children's Literature (Houghton Mifflin, 2008).  I immediately remembered staying up until 3:00 a.m. reading right after I got it!

The first two chapters in the book discuss children's literature in colonial America  through the beginning of the nineteenth century. The remaining chapters are divided into decades starting with chapter three on the 1920s. By this time, public libraries had long been established across the country along with service to children.

Attending his first ALA conference in 1921 in Swampscott, MA, Frederic G. Melcher, then of the National Asssociaton of Book Publishers (but soon to become the editor of Publishers' Weekly) addressed the children's librarians to present an idea that had occurred to him overnight.

Melcher told a rapt crowd that the time had come for children's literature to have its own Pulitzer Prize as a vehicle for encouraging--and publicizing--high achievement in writing for the young, and that librarians, having no commercial stake in the fate of any particular book, constituted "the jury which could give value" to it. "Now," he said with a flourish, was "the time to inaugurate it." With his previous nights reading, Charles Knight's Shadows of Old Booksellers, fresh in mind, Melcher proposed a name for the new award: the John Newbery Medal, in commemoration of the eighteenth-century English bookseller-printer-publisher who had popularized the notion that children's books should offer their readers delight and instruction in equal measure.  The response to his call to action was wildly enthusiastic. The America Library Association's Executive Committee would have the final say in the matter, but the feeling in the room was that history had just been made--that this was the genesis of the world's first literary prize for a children's book. When the Executive Committee met later that same day, they voted to authorize the awarding of the first Newbery Medal at the next year's conference in Detroit. (p. 86)

That same afternoon, the librarians wondered which children's book would have won the Newbery Medal had there been one awarded that year. Hugh Lofting's The Story of Doctor Dolittle "swept the field." Isn't that such an interesting fact? The first Newbery Medal could have gone to Dr. Dolittle!

It would be another year (and six months after the awarding of the first medal) before the terms of the prize were formally set, limiting consideration to books written by citizens or residents of the United States. "Defining the award in this way amounted to an idealistic gamble, as it was not at all clear just then that America had, or might soon have, enough children's authors of merit to conjure with the likes of Kenneth Grahame, E. Nesbit, and Walter de las Mare" (p. 87). How forward thinking was that?!

Melcher paid for the design and striking of the Newbery medal, but he was adamant that the librarians work out the procedure for selecting the recipient of the new award themselves, so a committee was selected to write guidelines for the new award.

They decided that any full or part-time children's librarian (472 in 1921) would be eligible to nominate a book. However, the final decision would not be left to majority rule. "It is most important that the final judges of the award be a few of the people of recognized high standards and experience. If a majority vote of all so-called children's librarians determined the award it is entirely possible for a mediocre book to get the medal" (p. 87).

On March 8, 1922, the first round of 212 nominating votes were tallied. 163 votes went to The Story of Mankind by Dr. Hendrik Willem van Loon. The first runner-up with 22 votes went to The Great Quest by Charles Boardman Hawes.

At the ALA annual meeting in Detroit that June, Frederic Melcher took to the  podium to introduce Clara Whitehill Hunt at a festive afternoon ceremony attended by an overflow crowd of hundreds of librarians. First Hunt formally accepted the gift of the Newbery Medal from Melcher. Then the librarian from Brooklyn presented the first medal to van Loon. Finally, the author make a "very appreciative speech" before being whisked away for a round of press photographs and a newsreel recording. (p. 89)

And the rest is history...

Nina Lindsay at Heavy Medal: A Mock Newbery Blog reminds us that the committee has already decided on the next Newbery winner and the press release has already been delivered to the press office. Now is the calm before the storm as they say, and I think, an apropos time to reflect on how it all began 88 years ago.

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