Children's Literature (all forms)

The Newbery Award: Answers to Six Questions, with a Few Myths Exposed

Submitted by Julie Corsaro, ALSC Priority Group Consultant VI (Awards)

1. “The Newbery Medal seems to be selected by a group of librarians who have no idea what kids actually like to read. Kids only read these books for school assignments.”

While the criteria state that the Newbery award is not “for popularity,” it also says “committee members must consider excellence of presentation for a child audience.” There are many recent Newbery winners that combine literary excellence with popular appeal, among them The Tale of Despereaux by Kate Dicamillo, Holes by Louise Sachar, Giver by Lois Lowry, and Shiloh by Phyllis Reynolds Naylor. Recent popular honor books include Because of Winn Dixie by Kate Dicamillo, 26 Fairmont Street by Tomie DePaola, Ella Enchanted by Gail Carson Levine and The Watsons Go to Birmingham by Christopher Paul Curtis. Among classic honorees that kids love to read, the list is impressively long, including: Ramona Quimby, Age 8 by Beverly Cleary, Frog and Toad Together by Arnold Lobel, Rascal by Sterling North, The Cricket in Times Square by George Selden, My Father’s Dragon by Ruth Gannett, Misty of Chincoteague by Marguerite Henry, Little Town on the Prairie by Laura Ingalls Wilder, Mr. Popper’s Penguins by Richard and Florence Atwater and, no less than, Charlotte’s Web by E.B. White.

2.”I still don’t believe you. Why haven’t any of the Harry Potter books won?”

That’s because the Newbery Medal goes to a writer who is an American citizen or resident. The author of the Harry Potter books, J.K. Rowling, is Scottish. Many countries have national children’s book awards. The Harry Potter books are eligible for England’s Carnegie Medal, the closest award to our Newbery.* Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone was a “Commended” Carnegie book, akin to a Newbery Honor book. Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban was on the Carnegie shortlist.

3. Speaking of “shortlists,” I do a mock Newbery in my library every year, and would love to have a shortlist of possible Newbery winners. Why isn’t one available?

The Association for Library Service to Children and its Board of Directors have determined that in order to insure the integrity of the award process and guarantee committee members the ability to speak freely during their closed session meetings, that “committee members may not quote the opinions of other committee members, or indicate in any way which books are under consideration.” On the other hand, committee members are not only free, but encouraged, to express their opinions about “books under consideration…to obtain a variety of critical opinions.” Finally, “it is understood that all eligible books are being considered up until the selection of the winner is made.”

4. Just like with the academy awards, I think that sometimes a book wins the Newbery as a kind of consolation prize to the author for their book that really should have won. For instance, some of the Newbery winners remind me of Martin Scorsese winning the Oscar for The Departed instead of for Taxi Driver or Raging Bull.

Personal preferences aside, only books published during the calendar year under consideration can be considered for the Newbery. The Newbery committee uses the discussion guidelines of the Cooperative Children’s Book Center (CCBC) of the University of Madison at Wisconsin for their deliberations, including the following recommendation: “Try to compare the book with others on the discussion list, rather than other books by the same author or other books in your experience.” The Newbery discussion guidelines for the Midwinter selection meeting say, “Each book nominated or suggested will be considered.” Conversely, anything NOT nominated or suggested cannot be discussed, including previous publications by an author who has a book currently under consideration. If a committee member happens to bring up a book that isn’t on the table, the Newbery Chair will remind him or her of the guidelines.

5. “Can you say more about this ‘suggestion’ and ‘nomination’ business”?

Sure. To quote from the Newbery Manual, “The Chair solicits suggestions of eligible titles from committee members, usually on a monthly basis. Each time, committee members are asked to suggest books deemed to be strong contenders based on the award criteria.” In addition, each committee member can nominate six titles for the award, usually three in October and another three in December. These titles may be books that have already been suggested for discussion, but they don’t have to be. Both the suggested and nominated titles comprise the discussion list that the committee considers for the award at the Midwinter selection meeting. By the way, members of ALSC can suggest titles for the award by contacting the Chair of Newbery.

6. “Wow. There’s a lot to know. How can I learn more?”

Go to the ALSC web site and locate “The John Newbery Medal Committee Manual.” You’ll find a wealth of information that should answer all your questions.

*Unlike the Newbery, the Carnegie medal can be awarded to a non-Briton, as long as the book is first published in the U.K. The only American to have won the Carnegie is Sharon Creech, an American citizen who resides in England.

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