Center for Children's Books examines Newbery Medal's history, legacy

Sara Schwebel
Sara L. Schwebel, Professor and Director of the Center for Children's Books

The Newbery Medal – the oldest and most prestigious children's literature award – is celebrating its 100th anniversary.

In conjunction with the award's centennial, Sara L. Schwebel, the director of the Center for Children's Books in the School of Information Sciences at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign, co-edited a book of scholarly essays about Newbery award winners with Jocelyn Van Tuyl, a professor of French at New College of Florida. Schwebel also is organizing a symposium, "The Newbery Medal at 100."

The book and the symposium consider what Newbery books reveal about changing attitudes toward children's literature and how the books respond to issues of race, class, gender, disability, nationalism and globalism, including elements of hidden diversity throughout the history of the Newbery.

Dust Off the Gold Medal: Rediscovering Children's Literature at the Newbery Centennial, published in August by Routledge, looks at representative-but-understudied Newbery books from the 1920s through the 2010s.

"The Newbery Medal at 100" symposium is Nov. 5 on Zoom. Hosted by the Center for Children's Books, it is open to the public.

The Newbery Medal is awarded annually by the American Library Association for the most distinguished American children's book published in the previous year.

"The Newbery Medal has an outsized influence in shaping what children read, what books are shelved in libraries, what appears in bookstores and what books are recommended by librarians and teachers. They literally have a gold stamp on the front cover," Schwebel said.

Given the medal's tremendous prestige and influence, there has been surprisingly little research by literary scholars on Newbery books, she said.

Newbery Medal-winning books are ubiquitous – they rarely go out of print, are available in paperback and are infrequently discarded from library collections, Schwebel said. Because of this, teachers and librarians need to provide context for older titles that represent race, class, ethnicity, language and more in ways that many people find quite troubling today, she said.

"If you look at the 100-year history of the Newbery Medal from the perspective of the 21st century, the overwhelming whiteness is striking. Not until recently do we see more racial and ethnic diversity among the authors, and also in the subject matter and the characters of the books themselves," she said.

Schwebel said there have been more Asian American and African American authors honored, as well as more diversity in characters and in form, with graphic novels and verse novels recognized. In 2021, the Newbery Medal and three of the five honor books were written by Asian American authors. The 2020 Newbery Medal winner was a middle grade graphic novel written by a Black author. "That's a book that likely wouldn't have won before, given its subject, authorship and form," Schwebel said.

These are very recent changes, with only a few nonwhite authors honored until the early 2000s, she said.

The same is true of the selection committee, she said. African American librarians began to be included on the committee in the mid-20th century, but they were few in number and the committee members reflected the demographics of librarianship as a profession – overwhelmingly white, female and middle class, Schwebel said. Their selections represented their upbringing, education and taste, as well as their limitations, she said.

The symposium will feature scholars from multiple fields – including English, library science and education – and practicing librarians who will discuss the history, legacy, influence and future of the award.

Illinois has several connections to the Newbery Medal. The U. of I. Archives is the repository for the American Library Association Archives, including materials from the Newbery Medal selection committees. Archivist Cara Bertram will share items from the archives during the symposium.

Alumni of the School of Information Sciences have served on the Newbery selection committee, and four of them will speak about their experiences in a panel discussion during the symposium, including Tad Andracki, who earned a bachelor’s degree, as well as a master's degree in information sciences, from the U. of I. Currently a middle school librarian at the University of Chicago Laboratory Schools, he served on the 2018 Newbery Medal committee – which selected "Hello, Universe" by Erin Entrada Kelly, a story with a Filipino American central character. Andracki is the chair of the committee that will select the 101st Newbery Medal winner in January.

"Conversations about equity and diversity and inclusion in the awards process have been ongoing. It really helps frame our work. Something we're really trying to think very carefully about is, how is this book going to hold up?" Andracki said.

There is more reflection lately on past selection practices and the influence they have had in choosing an award-winning book, Schwebel said.

"We're in a historical moment where increased attention is being paid to the history of children's literature. Some are beginning to question the idea of the Newbery as an instant classic that should remain perpetually in circulation and celebration when it comes to child readers," she said. "The Newbery Medal remains influential and widely embraced. Rather than reject the award, there's been a real push for change and reform and expanding the ideas of what constitutes a distinguished book for American children."

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