How Important is the Newbery Medal when You Choose Books for Children?

The Significance of the Newbery Medal

How Does a Book Get a Newbery Medal?

What is the  Newbery Medal? For a complete explanation see The John Newbery Medal website. In a nutshell, it is an award given to the author of the most distinguished contribution to American literature for children during the year preceding the giving of the award. Books also considered outstanding that don’t win the gold medal, the runners-up, are designated Newbery honor books. The Newbery Medals are given based only on the text of a book — not its illustrations. The Caldecott Medal is given to the artist who illustrated the most distinguished picture book published in the preceding year.

The medal was first proposed by Frederic G. Melcher in 1921. In his words, the purpose of the medal is “To encourage original creative work in the field of books for children. To emphasize to the public that contributions to the literature for children deserve similar recognition to poetry, plays, or novels. To give those librarians, who make it their life work to serve children’s reading interests, an opportunity to encourage good writing in this field.”

To be eligible to win this award, a book must meet specific conditions. These include the following:

  1. The book is written for children up to  and including fourteen years old
  2. It is written by a citizen or resident of the United States
  3. It must be written in English and published in the United States or one of its territories.

Are Newbery Winners the Best Books for my Children?

When you consider what the significance of this award means in terms of whether a book is a good fit for the children in your life, you must consider who determines which books will be honored. That is spelled out on the Newbery Medal website linked to  above. The books are chosen by school and public library children’s librarians — the same people who chose the books for those library collections. They are individuals, and in the past few decades most of them have leaned toward political correctness. Their taste in books may be quite different than yours. I’ve been dismayed at some of their choices, such as Catherine, Called Birdy, a 1995 honor book, which I would not have put into my own children’s hands.

As I looked over the Newbery list of books with medals or honors, it’s like a list of the changing values in American culture since 1922, when the first award was given. Up until those published in the  1960’s and later, I enjoyed most of the Newbery books I’ve read and would have been happy to have my children read them. I read many of them to my classes in Christian schools. Of course, I didn’t have time to read them all, so this isn’t a blanket endorsement of all Newbery books published before 1960.

Since 1960,  more dark and occult themes have been introduced. More characters are alienated from their families. More young protagonists model disrespect for parents and teachers  as normal behavior. It is subtle, but children pick up these attitudes, just as they pick up expressions and behaviors of television characters like Bart Simpson.

Just as you would check out who your children spend time with in the real world, it’s good to be aware of your children’s book friends, whose behaviors and attitudes will also influence them.  Do you want your children to speak to you the way their friends in books speak to their parents? Do you want your children to behave as their book friends do?

One or more pages of this site are devoted to my reviews of the Newbery Gold Medal winners and honor books. You should know my own biases. I am a Christian and I support the form of government established in the Constitution of the United States — a federal government with constitutionally limited powers . I believe in equal opportunity for all, but not artificially propped up equal outcomes. I don’t recommend books I think try to undermine my values. I read and review them as objectively as I can with regard to writing quality and how well they develop their theme and characters . My reviews will explain my reasons for or against recommending them in case your criteria for choosing a book may be different than mine.

On a personal level, I don’t like to read books that are violent, and I don’t enjoy reading much science fiction, adventure, or fantasy. That means that after reading publisher summaries or other reviews, I may not choose to read some Newbery winners because I’d rather spend my time reading books I think I would enjoy more.  My choosing not to read these books does not mean I wouldn’t recommend them to people who like adventure, fantasy, or science fiction if they are otherwise well-written.

Many Newbery fiction award winners have serous themes. Some deal with children losing a friend or family member to death. Characters in some books may even consider themselves the cause of the death or know that others may blame them for it. I have reviewed these in a special section on death and dying in children’s literature and will link to those reviews from my page of Newbery reviews.

I suggest that you never recommend or encourage your children or students to read any book you haven’t read first, no matter which awards it may have received or what list it may be on. Just as you plan your children’s meals and foods to keep around the house for snacking to promote physical health, you should encourage reading that promotes healthy minds and desirable character traits.

Pick only the best books to read aloud. Garbage in the brain becomes garbage from the brain. Even worse, it can sometimes encourage dark thoughts in your child’s mind you may be unaware of.  Have wholesome reading snacks around the house — books you enjoyed first and can discuss with your child who decides to pick one up and read it. Those book snacks should have inviting covers, be based on your children’s interests, and be at a comfortable reading level for your children.  They normally won’t want to work at relaxing when it’s so easy for them to turn to electronic entertainment.

So where does that leave the Newbery and other award-winning books? It leaves them as some of the first books you may want to consider when choosing books to read before recommending them. Most are well-written, whatever values they promote. Many, though, have not been popular enough with youthful readers to stay in print, in spite of their quality. After all, whatever else you may say about children’s librarians, they are adults who will have different criteria in selecting books than will  children picking a book to read. Some are written in genres like poetry or nonfiction that may not appeal to your child.

Some are excellent and have stood the test of time. Some have become books I recommend to almost any child. Almost all appear on other reading lists and are taught in public and many private schools. The most recent are probably in your public library, though many early Newbery winners are now deemed politically incorrect or obsolete and may have been removed. Most recent Newbery award books are where your child has access to them, so I suggest you read them, too. You should be able to discuss them intelligently with your children after they have read them. You will find a complete list Newbery winners here arranged with the most recent on top.   I will be adding pages of my reviews of them under this tab.



A World of Reading Choices