The Newbery at 75: Changing with the Times

Article excerpt

PEER INTO THE LOOKING GLASS OF CHILDREN'S BELLES-LETTRES AND SEE A REFLECTION OF JURORS' EVOLVING MORES

All the ingredients were there in 1918 when World War I ended. The audience for children's books had been spurred by new Carnegie-endowed libraries, many with separate rooms for children's services. A growing number of those rooms had librarians trained for just such services. Led by Macmillan, many publishers established separate children's-book departments. There was a groundswell of reviewing of children's books by specialists in the field.

The American Library Association gave enthusiastic support, especially in its Children's Librarians Section, which, after several name changes, is now the Association for Library Service to Children. As advocates of good books for children, their gratitude and ours go to such catalysts as the postwar triumvirate of Franklin Mathiews, Frederick Melcher, and Anne Carroll Moore. The two bookmen had approached Moore with a proposal for the establishment of a Children's Book Week in 1919, and pursuant thereto came the donation by Melcher of the Newbery Medal, named after British 18th-century children's book publisher John Newbery. It was, however, the children's librarians who chose the books to be honored.

It's a monumental task, one that is usually considered a pleasure and a privilege by those who are elected or appointed. It may have been easier in 1922, choosing that first Newbery winner. There were fewer books; in fact, between 1915 and 1945 the annual average of new titles was 713. Probably the librarians of that year felt, as we do now, the same sense of obligation to choose wisely. Probably they hoped, as we do today, that the children who read the award books would enjoy them. Almost certainly, they too were familiar with children's needs and their reading interests. And surely, even with fewer eligible books, they were frustrated by the conflicting or competing virtues of fiction and nonfiction, realism and fantasy, poetry and prose.

There are, of course, other factors that influence the opinions and evaluations of committee members, and some of those factors may operate silently. We are all products of our time as well as of our heredity and our environment. We all have convictions about what children should know, or not know, and perhaps at what age. We each have a preference for some styles of writing and most of us have a desire to be objective and rational. We may unwittingly be swayed in individual establishment of priorities by sympathy for an author who has had many Honor Books but never won the medal. Most of us respond favorably to books that espouse a cause we hold dear, and we may differ in our opinions of whether a good novel with an important social message or a good novel with superb characterization is the more worthy.

It is true now, as it was true when John Newbery published children's books, that what is published for children reflects the contemporary society's idea of what children should read, and that opinions about that idea change with time and place. Today our language has changed, our mores have changed, and our ideas about how children learn and what we want them to learn have shifted repeatedly and will surely continue to change in the new millenium.

Meteors in a leaden sky

Among the things that were acceptable 75 years ago was "writing down" to children. Writers had a different concept of children as readers, and most critics and editors of the time shared that concept. When books for children first appeared, they were either prosaically instructive or gloomily minatory. They were used as vessels for instilling precepts of good behavior, piety, respect for parents, and other worthy goals that did little for enjoyment on the part of young readers. Some of this lingered for a very long time in children's books, softening from Puritan doom-and-gloom to Victorian morality and making such pioneers as Edward Lear and Lewis Carroll seem meteors in a leaden sky. …