I was one of those children who could read well but didn’t care much for the activity or lack thereof. I wanted to be outside playing cowboys, riding my bike, or climbing trees. The elementary school readers we used were, in a word, boring. The stories had little plot, and the characters were insipid. My older sister read novels, long tomes with no pictures at all. How was I to survive third grade, much less adulthood, if boring black print was my reading future?
It was The Witch of Blackbird Pond, the Newbery Medal book of 1959 that made me a reader. Our third grade assignment had been to read a book from our school library, and the librarian suggested Elizabeth George Speare’s book about a feisty young woman in Colonial-era Connecticut. That book offered a delightful heroine who gets into trouble because of her generous spirit. She is rescued from being condemned as a witch, and there is even some chaste romance. What nine-year old girl could resist? Thereafter I was eager to read everything, whether assigned by a teacher or just placed conveniently in my line of vision. (Cereal box readers, unite!) I still reread my touchstone book on a regular basis just to re-experience the creation that turned me on to reading.
A few words, then, are in order about the Newbery Medal, its creation and namesake. John Newbery (1713 – 1767) was an English entrepreneur who had his finger in an amazing number of businesses in the city of Reading as well as in London. He made most of his money from patent medicines, but he had a printing business and published a variety of books and magazines. Newbery had the brilliant idea of publishing a book aimed specifically for children, and although A Little Pretty Pocket-Book (1744) was not the first children’s book, he clearly had mastered the art of the sell. Pocket-Book was small in size and featured gilt-edged paper with woodcuts and rhymes to teach the letters of the alphabet. Here’s the real advertising gem: for a few coins more he included a toy with each book purchased—a ball for boys and a pincushion for girls. (I would have begged for the ball.) Many different writers contributed to his books and magazines, and well-known authors like Oliver Goldsmith, Christopher Smart and Samuel Johnson were good friends of Newbery. Goldsmith has been suggested as a probable author of some of these children’s books. Among Newbery’s most popular titles for the young were The Renowned History of Giles Gingerbread and The Renowned History of Little Goody Two-Shoes. Yes, that is where we get the jibe “goody two shoes.” Ideas about what constitutes a young heroic character have changed over the centuries.
It was an ardent bookseller and champion of children’s literature, Frederic C. Melcher, who in 1921 proposed the creation of a special medal to honor the “most distinguished children’s book published in the previous year” and acknowledge John Newbery’s contribution at the same time. The Association for Library Service to Children of the American Library Association awards the medal annually in January. Since 1922 the ALA has awarded 92 Newbery Medal winners, and starting in 1971, they also named retrospectively Newbery “Honor Books,” other books that deserve honorable mention.
Part Two of this post will showcase some of my favorite Newbery books, and why I think they are worth reading at any age. In the meantime, can you name at least two Newbery Medal-winning books that were made into movies/or TV movies? You DID see at least one of the five I will name in the next post!