In 1922, the Newbery Award became the first children’s book award in the world. Named for 18th-century English bookseller John Newbery, the award fulfills the following purpose: “to encourage original creative work in the field of books for children. To emphasize to the public that contributions to literature for children deserve similar recognition to poetry, plays, or novels.”
A valuable aspect of the award is the honor it gives librarians, recognizing their life work to serve children’s reading interests. The panel of judges is made up of children’s librarians from pubic and private schools (members of the American Library Association). They choose the most distinguished American children’s book published the previous year. Although only a single book wins each year, several runners-up, listed as “Newberry Honor Books”, receive high marks and embossed seals on their covers as well.
The focus of the award – “original and creative work” – highlights two values I personally esteem in literature. Writers and book publishers inundate children with copycat stories that get churned out in an attempt to follow the popularity flow. Movie producers pursue the same “follow the leader” strategy to insure high box office sales in the film medium.
In contrast the Newbery Medal offers originality.
The first winner of the Newbery Medal was a history book, The Story of Mankindby Hendrik Willem van Loon. Next up was the whimsical fantasy,The Voyages of Doctor Dolittleby Hugh Lofting that won in 1923. Two stories which are more current and accessible due to recent book-to-movie efforts are the 1999 Winner: Holes by Louis Sachar and the 2004 Winner: The Tale of Despereaux: Being the Story of a Mouse, a Princess, Some Soup, and a Spool of Threadby Kate DiCamillo.
I recently re-read the 1972 Newbery winner, Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIHM by Robert C. O’Brien. This fantasy tale brings the reader into the lives of lab rats who escape their scientist captors and seek to establish their own society, one built upon self-reliance. The central tenet of their Great “Plan” is to live without stealing, unlike their rat ancestors.
Mild-mannered Mrs. Frisby, the widow of lab mouse, Jonathan Frisby, steers her difficult course by the compass of familial love and finds unlikely allies in the rats of NIHM.
Mr. O’Brien wove a fantasy story that charms more than it scares the young reader. The author died only a few years after the publication of Mrs. Frisby, which makes me wonder what more he would have written given the opportunity. The ending of the book left me with several questions: What happened to the rats of NIMH; did they make a success of their new home in Thorn Valley? Did the Frisby mouse children grow up to do great exploits like their heroic father?
As I researched the Newbery Award for this blog post, I read the list of 92 winners out loud to my teen daughters and was chagrined to find that they only recognized 10% of the books on the list. I myself have missed out on numerous titles since I only read the Newbery books that were published when I was a child and then later those winners promoted on homeschool curriculum book lists.
Better get cracking!
Check out link to the Newbery list and send me a comment with your favorite winner! I would like to send out a prize – my first ever on pineneedlesandpapertrails- to the reader with the most Newbery titles read, so shoot me a total (honor system).