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Newberry award oldest and most distinguished for children's books
By Sarah Long | Daily Herald Columnist
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Published: 4/19/2009 12:05 AM

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Since 1921, the Newbery Medal has been awarded annually by the American Library Association for the most distinguished American children's book published in the previous year. The idea came from bookseller and publisher Frederic G. Melcher when he proposed the idea to the Children's Librarians Section of the ALA. He wanted to encourage original and creative children's books and to have a vehicle for recognizing exemplary children's books in the same way that poetry, plays or novels are recognized. He also wanted to give librarians who make it their life's work to serve children's reading interests the opportunity to encourage good writing of children's books.

Melcher's idea was enthusiastically embraced and the first Newbery award, named for 18th century English bookseller John Newbery, was awarded in l922. Now there are many children's book awards, but the Newbery Medal was the first and still is the most prestigious and most discussed.

In l937, Melcher proposed the establishment of a second annual medal to be given to the artist who created the most distinguished picture book published in the U.S. in the preceding year.

Originally, the two awards were determined by a committee of children's librarians. Serving on the Newbery-Caldecott Committee, as it was known then, was among the highest honors for a children's librarian. It was my pleasure to serve on this committee in 1978. In l980, two committees were created, one for each award.

In l991, the Association for Library Service to Children, the division of the ALA administering these awards, branched out into media and created the Andrew Carnegie Medal for Excellence in Children's Video. Like the Newbery and Caldecott awards, the focus is on quality and limited to entries originally released in the U.S.

"Distinguished" is the operative word in the criteria for both the Newbery and Caldecott awards. It is defined as:

• Marked by eminence and distinction: noted for significant achievement.

• Marked by excellence in quality.

• Marked by conspicuous excellence or eminence.

• Individually distinct.

In selecting the winners for all three awards, committee members consider the award's intended audience, which is children up to and including age 14.

Serving on any of these committees is intense. Committees meet initially and discuss the criteria in great detail. Committee members receive copies of books or videos as they are released and make their own decisions based on the criteria. When they meet to finally decide, opinions run high and there is much debate. Committees continue to meet in secret until a decision is made. Sometimes this takes many hours.

Winners are announced as part of the ALA's Midwinter Meeting in January, usually at a huge press conference, typically with standing room only. Later, at the ALA's Annual Conference in the summer, there is a banquet with serious acceptance speeches given by the winning author, illustrator and producer.

Other ALSC literary awards include the Wilder Medal, to an author or illustrator whose books have made a substantial and lasting contribution to literature for children, and the Belpré Medal honoring a Latino/Latina writer and illustrator whose works best portray, affirm, and celebrate the Latino cultural experience in an outstanding work of literature for children and youth.

For more information on these awards visit ala.org and choose "awards" on the left side of the page.

Listen to my podcast interviews with the chairs of this year's Newbery, Caldecott, and Carnegie medal committees at librarybeat.org for details of the winners and insight into how these important choices are made. And they are important: Books and media winning Newbery, Caldecott, and Carnegie never go out of print.