Sexual Politics and the Newbery Medal

By Hearn, Michael Patrick | American Libraries, March 1997 | Go to article overview

Sexual Politics and the Newbery Medal


Hearn, Michael Patrick, American Libraries


A NOTED CHILDREN'S LITERATURE CRITIC DECRIES THE LOOK OF THE FIELD'S HIGHEST HONOR

As the 75th anniversary of ALA's John Newbery Medal approached, I began digging into its history and discovered some distressing information. I had always wondered exactly who that man was on the back of the bronze medal awarded since 1922 to "the most distinguished contribution to American literature for children." I had always assumed that the adult bestowing the blessings of his book on a boy and a girl was just an inaccurate portrait of John Newbery himself.

I was wrong. The figure is not even Frederick G. Melcher, the person who came up with the award. No, according to Melcher, the man on the medal is "The Writer," representing "genius giving of its best to the child."

I had always thought the Newbery Medal, as well as the Caldecott Medal for best children's book illustration, was Anglocentric for being named after an Englishman rather than a red-blooded American. (Ironically the "British Newbery," the Carnegie Medal, was named for American robber baron and library benefactor Andrew Carnegie.) Could the Newbery Medal possibly be sexist as well? Look at how the girl, who along with the boy is reaching for the book proffered by the benevolent gentleman, sits deferentially while the more assertive lad stands proudly before her and his elder.

The image's bias goes even deeper than that. Apparently in 1921, when the Newbery Medal was designed by Rene Paul Chabellan, everyone just assumed that "The Writer" was naturally a male. At the time, children's book experts even conceded that, had the award been available in 1921 (when Melcher first proposed it to ALA's Children's Librarians' Section at the Association's June conference in Swampscott, Massachusetts), the very first winner would have been Hugh Lofting's The Story of Doctor Dolittle. (Indeed, Lofting won the medal in 1923 for The Voyages of Doctor Dolittle.)

Melcher, as co-editor of Publishers' Weekly and secretary of the American Booksellers Association, believed that the establishment of an annual award designed "to encourage authorship, to elevate the standards of publishing, and to increase public interest in children's books" might interest librarians "in the whole process of creating books for children, producing them, and bringing them to children." Melcher refused to have his own name attached to it, "because someone might think this was a book campaign or publishers' idea." Nor did he think it should be named for any living person.

So, Melcher called it the John Newbery Medal, after the "lovable bookseller and publisher of the 18th century" who, at his shop at St. Paul's Church Yard in London, founded the British juvenile book trade and was probably the first person to make a decent profit from specializing in the printing and selling of children's books. Quickly the award in his honor became, as Arna Bontemps once said, "the Pulitzer of the juveniles."

Woman's work

Apparently the John Newbery Award Selection Committee fully approved of the sex of Melcher's "Writer. …

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