On June 27, 1922, at the annual American Library Association meetings in Detroit, Michigan, in a room filled to overflowing, the first Newbery Medal, for the most distinguished contribution to American literature for children published the preceeding year, was awarded to Hendrick Van Loon for The Story of Mankind. The idea for the medal was suggested at the previous year's meeting by Frederic G. Melcher, an editor at Publishers' Weekly. A medal for a children's book was a novel idea as juvenile literature was generally ignored by literary prizes, including the Pulitzer.
Melcher's idea was enthusiastically received by the children's librarians. He took it as his responsibility to find a designer for the medal and to have it struck and engraved with the winner's name each year at his expense. It was left to the Children's Literature Section of the Association to select the winner. The Section officers struggled with two questions that first year: Who is entitled to cast ballots for the competing books, and who will make the final decision? The vice chair of the Section wrote, "It is most important that the final judges of the award be a few 'people of recognized high standards and experience.' If a majority vote of all so-called children's librarians determines the award it is entirely possible for a mediocre book to get the medal. [However,] to give everybody a chance to make nominations will create interest and induce good feeling."1
It was decided to conduct a popular vote and in the case of a close verdict, the final choice of the winning book would be left to a jury of officers of the Section and four other leading children's librarians. Nominations were due on March 1, and all librarians, not only children's librarians, were invited to take part."2 Two hundred and twelve nominations were sent in by librarians from all over the United States. The Award Jury did not have to convene because the verdict was unmistakable: Van Loon's The Story of Mankind had received 163 of the 212 nominations.
Because Mr. Melcher was “so anxious to have the name of the winning author absolutely not known until the day of the award,"3 Clara Hunt, chair of the Section, tabulated the votes and was the only one, other than Melcher, who knew who that first winner was. The two of them kept the big secret for over three months. Although the procedure for selecting the winner has changed, (it is now chosen by a committee) the winner has always represented the very best in children's books. The Newbery has become an award, as Melcher hoped it would, in recognition of "genius giving of its best to the child."4
Copyright 2007© Rita Smith
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