Who was John Newbery, the namesake of the children’s book award?
By Marylou Tousignant,
John Newbery is called the “Father of Children’s Literature,” not because he was the first to publish children’s books — he wasn’t — but because he was the first to turn them into a profitable business. In mid-18th-century England, a new and growing middle class had money to spend on their children, and Newbery gave them something to spend it on.
Beginning in 1744, he published about 100 storybooks for children, plus magazines and “ABC” books, becoming the leading children’s publisher of his time. More than 175 years later, when editor Frederic Melcher suggested that the American Library Association create an annual award “for the most distinguished contribution to American literature for children,” he asked that it be named for Newbery, an Englishman who never set foot in America.
Tuesday marks the 100th anniversary of Melcher’s proposal, which the association formally approved in 1922. The first children’s book award in the world, the bronze medallion is the highest honor a children’s author can receive. Only United States citizens or residents are eligible.
Tae Keller received the medal this year for her story about a biracial girl whose family moves in with her ailing Korean grandmother. “When You Trap a Tiger” is just Keller’s second book, so receiving the Newbery was a shock. When the awards committee broke the news, “I just kept thinking, ‘Are you sure? Are you sure you’re sure?’ ” Keller told the online newsletter Shelf Awareness.
“Pretty amazing” was Jerry Craft’s reaction last year when his book “New Kid” became the first graphic novel to receive a Newbery.
All but a few of the medal-winning books have been works of fiction, although some are novels based on real people and events. The first Newbery was awarded in 1922 to “The Story of Mankind,” a history book for children. Its Dutch American author, Hendrik Willem van Loon, was also its illustrator. (Beginning in 1938, artists got their own award, the Randolph Caldecott Medal, for “most distinguished American picture book for children.”)
Newbery, the son of a farmer, was self-taught. He loved to read, which led to his becoming a printer’s helper and eventually a publisher. He wrote, edited and published newspapers and books for adults, and had a second job selling unproven health remedies, such as Dr. James’ Fever Powder, which was used to treat cows as well as people.
Newbery moved to London in 1743 and expanded both of his businesses. The next year he published his first children’s book, “A Little Pretty Pocket-Book.” It was colorful, informative, fun and, most important, affordable — about $4.50 in current U.S. money. For a few pennies more, children got a ball or pincushion they could use to track their behavior. The book promised to “make Tommy a good boy and Polly a good girl.”
According to the British Library, which has a 1760 edition, the book contains the first known use of the word “baseball.”
The little book launched Newbery’s career as the leading publisher of children’s works. Over the years, more than 10,000 copies were printed.
More than 275 years later, in 2020, 262 million print books for kids (not including audio or digital books) were sold in the United States. But not one of them promised to make Tommy and Polly behave.
Newbery Medal facts
● Of the 100 Newbery medals awarded since 1922, two-thirds (66 medals) have gone to women.
● Six authors, including Kate DiCamillo and Lois Lowry, have won two medals each.
● Sid and Paul Fleischman are the only parent-child duo to receive medals, in 1987 and 1989, respectively.
● Laura Ingalls Wilder, who wrote the Little House on the Prairie series, received five runner-up Newbery awards but never got the top honor. More in KidsPost Join the KidsPost Summer Book Club: “True Friends” A friendship is at the heart of ‘Clues to the Universe’ Find more KidsPost stories about books and authors in Readers’ Corner