Every year, since 1922, the American Library Association has awarded the Newbery Medal to the best children’s book published in the United States. The award is named after John Newbery, an Englishman who is credited with creating a viable niche for children’s literature in the publishing business. Actually, it’s not awarded to the best children’s book, but rather “for the most distinguished contribution to American literature for children.” Next Monday, the winner of the 2012 Newbery will be announced. Working in a bookstore and working with former and current children’s librarians has definitely ramped up the excitement about the actual announcement, but my love affair with the Newbery goes back to my own childhood.
I don’t remember exactly how it all transpired, but I was likely moping around the children’s section of the public library, not being able to find or decide what I wanted to read. The librarian (Mrs. Seeshay – not only do I remember her name, but I can picture her with her dark hair pulled back in a tight bun and half glasses perched on her nose or hanging by a chain around her neck, honest!) handed me a bookmark with the list of all the Newbery Medal winners on it and said, “Try one of these.”
It was a free bookmark! It was a whole list of books that I could cross off after reading! My sister hadn’t read them all first! They were “winners” and they were also really, really good! (Okay, almost all of them.) I don’t remember how long it took me to read them all, I do remember writing one or two more winners on the bookmark, but I did it. Considering that my greatest reading accomplishment before that was to get through all the Bobsey Twins books, the Newbery list really opened my mind to ALL that books had to offer. Non-fiction, fantasy, science fiction, historical fiction, mystery, poetry…there’s definitely a little bit of every type of children’s lit represented on the list. Reading was always part of my growing up, but the Newbery list definitely was the catalyst that turned me into a life-long reader.
Well, almost life-long. I know this happens to lots of people, but it still sounds weird to say it….school got in the way. Starting in high school and going thru college, who had time for pleasure reading? All those “classics” that I “should” have read? Hey, if it wasn’t assigned in high school, it didn’t get read. And for me, studying engineering and pleasure reading were mutually exclusive.
Then I got a job. Compared to college, this was “only” a 40-hr per week job. I didn’t have homework. I could READ. I started the habit slowly enough. It really took off when I moved to Houston and married another reader. Bi-weekly trips to various branches of the Houston Public Library became part of our newlywed routine. And you know what? One day, there was a free bookmark at the library! The print was a little smaller because there were another 15 winners on it, but there was that Newbery list again. And seeing the titles of some of my favorite books made me want to read them all again. So I did. At least most of them, I seem to recall that I couldn’t track down all of them, and I was not so obsessive of crossing everything off the list. Even as an adult, they were still great reads.