100 Years of the Newbery: Letters from the Authors

Letter from Meindert De Jong to Jane Darrah, January 14, 1955. Series 24/42/5.

For a century, the American Library Association has honored children’s authors with the John Newbery Medal. From the earliest years of the award, its prestige was not lost upon the authors who received it. Letters written by awardees to the Newbery Medal Committee chairs reveal their excitement upon receiving the news.

In 1934, author Cornelia Meigs was selected for the Newbery for her book Invincible Louisa. Meigs wrote to the selection committee chair, Siri Andrews, and was delighted to have her book honored, acknowledging that the Invincible Louisa was in good company:

Your letter, with its very delightful and astonishing news, has given me much pleasure. The Newbery Medal is an award for which everyone has the most profound respect, so that I am fully sensible of what good fortune it is to me to have it offered to Invincible Louisa. Some such extraordinarily fine books have been on your list in the past that it seems a very impressive thing have an invitation extended to join that distinguished company.(1)

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100 Years of the Newbery: The First Medal

The John Newbery Medal, established in 1921 for “the most distinguished contribution to American literature for children,” celebrated its 100th anniversary last year and the centennial of its first award ceremony is quickly approaching.

Frederic Melcher in 1926. Image ALA0004587.

In 1921, Frederic Melcher, a publisher, bookseller, and chairman of the Children’s Book Week Committee, proposed the idea of a medal to be awarded in recognition of children’s literature and for it to be named after John Newbery, an 18th century British bookseller and children’s books publisher. With a growing audience for children’s books, more librarians being trained in children services, and the emergence of children’s book departments in publishing companies, the time seemed right for such an award and the idea gained traction.(1) Melcher paid to have the medal struck, while the Children’s Librarians Section (predecessor to the Association for Library Service to Children) organized the selection of the first winner through a vote of children’s librarians from across the country.

The first medal was awarded to Hendrik Willem van Loon for his book, The Story of Mankind, in 1922 at the ALA Annual Conference in Detroit, Michigan. While the ALA Archives unfortunately does not have many records from the early days of the Newbery Medal, conference records provide an insight to how the first award ceremony went.

Agenda for the Children’s Librarians Section on June 27, 1922, including the first presentation of the John Newbery Medal. Record Series 5/1/1.

The Newbery was presented on June 27, 1922, during the Children’s Librarians Section’s session at the conference and was listed as the last item on the section’s agenda for the day. Despite the lack of a banquet or formal event, the presentation drew a crowd. The conference proceedings on the event open with: “Interest in awarding the John Newbery medal brought a big audience to the first session of the Children’s Librarians Section. The hall was full to capacity, many people were turned away.”(2)

At the ceremony, Clara W. Hunt, chair of the Children’s Librarians Section, expressed the gratitude of the section to Melcher for his donation of the medal:

“I would I had the ability to express adequately the gratitude which we children’s librarians feel for the inspiration which prompted you to make this gift to the cause we love … We feel strong and powerful because you believe in us and you are putting in our hands a weapon, one of the most potent of our times—publicity of the best kind.”(3)

The description of the event closes with: “The enthusiastic applause which greeted Dr. Van Loon gave evidence of the appreciation and interest of the large audience.”(4) As seen from the conference proceedings, the Newbery was instantly well regarded, and the excitement of children’s librarians was obvious. Its initial acclaim was well deserved as the Newbery Medal has proven to be an enduring honor.

 

Blog post adapted from “The Newbery in the Archives: 100 Years of Letters, Photographs, and Stories,” presented at The Newbery Medal at 100, November 5, 2021.

1. Zena Sutherland, “The Newbery at 75: Changing with the Times,” American Libraries 28, no. 3, (March 1997): 34-36.
2. Papers and Proceedings of the Forty-Fourth Annual Meeting of the American Library Association, (Chicago: American Library Association, 1922), 267.
3. Ibid.
4. Ibid.