Children's Literature: A Reader's History, from Aesop to Harry Potter

By Seth Lerer | Go to book overview

13
Good Feeling
PRIZES, LIBRARIES, AND THE INSTITUTIONS
OF AMERICAN CHILDREN'S LITERATURE

“It is deeply satisfying,” noted the narrator of E. B. White's Charlotte's Web, “to win a prize in front of a lot of people.” Prize culture has informed literary publishing for more than a century, and in America it has helped shape the canon of children's books since the 1920s. The American Library Association began awarding the Newbery Medal for the best children's book of the year in 1922, and it inaugurated the Caldecott Medal for outstanding illustration in 1938.1 Prizes such as these, together with a raft of other markers of distinction, approval, and praise, have come to condition children's literature in modern America. Beverly Lyon Clark, in her study of the institutions of American children's literature, Kiddie Lit, notes that the imprimatur of such awards can lead to sales reaching to the scores of thousands, making certain books mainstays of publishers' backlists, public-library lending, and school instruction.2

If the libraries and classrooms, bookstores and bedrooms were filled with prize-winning books, so, too, the books themselves were filled with prizes. Contests, races, and competitions came to shape the arc of storytelling. Biographies of past politicians, soldiers, inventors, and explorers focused on their triumph over doubt and their rewarding achievements. Winning the prize became both the internal and the external criterion for literary canonicity, and what emerged in the course of the American twentieth century was nothing less than a literature of winners.3

Readers had created canons and criteria for children's reading long before these prizes. The fifteenth-century advisory poem The Book of Curtesye set out a syllabus of study for the child: the poets Chaucer, Lydgate, and Hoccleve were to be commended for their mastery of English style,

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