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From the July/August 2011 issue of The Horn Book Magazine

Secrecy and the Newbery Medal

by Kathleen T. Horning

In January 2010 I was among the 1,500 or so librarians seated in
an ALA Youth Media Awards press conference, eagerly anticipating the announcements of the award winners. With the proliferation of ALA-sponsored children’s and young adult book awards in recent years, the press conference has gotten longer and longer, and we now must wait almost an hour to find out what won the Newbery Medal because it’s always the last award announced. The suspense feeds the crowd’s anticipation, which is palpable—it’s almost as if we are all holding our collective breath.

Back home, my partner, Emily, was following the announcements via Twitter, texting an occasional “Hooray!” or “What??” to my phone. She was just a few beats behind me since ALA was tweeting the announcements as they were occurring. But just a minute or so into the ALSC Award announcements of the May Hill Arbuthnot Honor Lecture and the Odyssey Award for Excellence in Audiobook Production and the Andrew Carnegie Medal and the Mildred L. Batchelder Award and the Pura Belpré Award and the Robert F. Sibert Award and the Theodor Seuss Geisel Award and the Randolph Caldecott Medal, Emily texted me that the news of the Newbery winner just hit Twitter—a full seventeen minutes before those of us at the live press conference would find out.

Out of respect for my sensibilities, she didn’t divulge the title. I sat in stunned silence waiting for the official announcement. When the winner was finally announced, it was no surprise at all, really—When You Reach Me by Rebecca Stead had been such a favorite that the announcement only confirmed long-held suspicions.

How did this glitch happen? An innocent newbie working at the winning publishing company tweeted the information at the time ALA had predicted the news would be made public, not the time of the actual announcement. She hadn’t accounted for how long and drawn-out the press conference might be; neither, it seems, had ALA.

So glaring was this error that the vice president and executive director of publicity at Random House Children’s Books, Judith Haut, issued an apology: “We’re deeply sorry about it, and would never do anything to intentionally harm the integrity of the awards announcement.”1

So why all the fuss? It seems that much as those of us in the field of children’s books enjoy speculating about what will win the Newbery each year, and stop just short of listening at keyholes, there’s something in us that enjoys the tradition of secrecy and surprise.

The committee proceedings weren’t always so secretive. In the early years there wasn’t even a committee making the selection. In 1922 the twenty-one-year-old Children’s Librarians’ Section of the ALA solicited suggestions from all librarians through published notices in professional library journals, asking them to submit the title of the book they thought was most distinguished to the chair of the Section, Clara Whitehill Hunt, the superintendent of work with children at the Brooklyn Public Library. By the set deadline of March 8, 1922, they had received 212 votes, 163 of which were for The Story of Mankind by Henrik Willem van Loon. The next-highest vote getter, The Great Quest by Charles Boardman Hawes, had received just twenty-two votes. In the end there were just fifteen books that got any votes at all, and the support for van Loon’s book was so overwhelming that it was declared the winner. All was done by mail; there was no discussion and no balloting.

But they did have a back-up plan in place. If the initial vote had been close, they had a jury ready to make the final determination. It was composed of the five officers of the Children’s Librarians’ Section and four other prominent children’s librarians, including New York Public Library’s influential Anne Carroll Moore. This jury was also given the power to override the popular vote if they determined the book receiving the most votes was “mediocre.”

Through it all, the founder of the Newbery, Frederic Melcher, stayed in the background. But he did make one request of the children’s librarians he had entrusted with the decision: to keep the results a secret. Chair Hunt wrote to the other eight members of the jury, asking them not to divulge the name of the winner until the award announcement was made. “Men think women can’t keep a secret,” she wrote them. “Let’s prove to Mr. Melcher that we can.”2 It was a secret these nine women would keep for 111 days until the award was officially announced and conferred on van Loon at the ALA conference in Detroit on June 27, 1922.

This particular selection process was in place for two years, during which period a popular vote also selected Hugh Lofting’s The Voyages of Dr. Dolittle (in 1923) and Charles Boardman Hawes’s The Dark Frigate (in 1924). But even at the time of Dr. Dolittle’s selection, there were rumblings about the need for a procedural change, and at the Section’s business meeting at the 1924 ALA conference in Saratoga Springs, Effie L. Power presented a resolution calling for the creation of a special award committee, charged with selecting each year’s most distinguished contribution to American literature for children. The Section’s executive committee, its book evaluation committee, and three members at large who had been elected by the Section membership would determine the winner.

Amazingly, the tradition of keeping the winner a secret from March until June was maintained for almost three decades. A humorous story recounted in Irene Smith’s A History of the Newbery and Caldecott Medals describes how Dhan Gopal Mukerjee had to be kept hidden behind a stand of trees on the hotel grounds prior to the announcement that his Gay-Neck, the Story of a Pigeon had won the 1928 Newbery.3 Apparently, the presence of an East Indian man in a crowd of mostly white librarians meeting in French Lick, Indiana, would have been a dead giveaway.

But early on, there were leaks, presumably from the committee members themselves, and so beginning in 1933 the chair did not report the results to the committee: they found out the winner when everyone else did—when it was publicly announced at the annual ALA conference in June. Aside from the committee chair, who tallied the votes, only the author, the publisher, and Frederic Melcher were entrusted with the news. Each March there was a small private ceremony in Melcher’s New York office so that he could hand the winning author his or her medal, and then take it back to give to the Newbery chair to be conferred at a public ceremony three months later.

Difficult as it must have been for the author and publisher to keep this secret, there was a good reason for it: Melcher knew that the secrecy would build anticipation and give the fledgling award public visibility. The three-month period between the final vote and the announcement was a time of excited speculation—it got people talking about the Newbery. In contemporary parlance, it built buzz. The increased secrecy was apparently effective: in 1933, two thousand people were on hand to hear Elizabeth Foreman Lewis accept the award for Young Fu of the Upper Yangtze. The announcement became the highlight of the ALA Annual conference, and within the decade a formal dinner became part of the tradition.

In 1949, the voting was still being done by mail in the months after the ALA Midwinter conference, but the Children’s Library Association (as the Section came to be called) voted to announce the winner in March, soon after it was selected.4 The CLA cited several reasons for making this change, including the difficulty of keeping the news a secret for three to four months, but in doing so they lost a crucial advantage: those months had provided time for the publishers to reprint the winners so that they could be ready when the demand for copies hit the day of the announcement.

And apparently it wasn’t just the few people who had been in Frederic Melcher’s office the first Monday in March who had been getting the news—it was also being fed to the press by means of a confidential press release. By the mid 1960s (by which time the Children’s Library Association had been renamed the Children’s Services Division), the announcement was no longer being handled by the Newbery publicity committee but by the public relations office at ALA, which recognized what a boon the award was for general library publicity purposes. To help in this effort, the news was embargoed for a month or more after the vote was tallied so that ALA could prepare and send out press releases in advance to media outlets.

Librarians did not like being among the last to know, especially when the news slowly leaked out to others, making it clear who was in the inner circle and who wasn’t. School Library Journal editor Ellen Rudin addressed the issue in her February 1964 editorial, titled “Loud Silence.” She wrote: “When is a secret not a secret? When it is possible for anyone to learn it, directly or indirectly, by words spoken or words withheld, by deduction, by chance, or by uncontested guess. The Newbery–Caldecott secret is not a secret; why then do we persist in pretending it is?”5

In the January 1966 issue of the CSD’s journal Top of the News, ALA Public Relations Officer Charles R. Carner defended ALA’s practice and outlined the steps his office followed to get the word out to national magazines and local newspapers. He noted that newspapers were more likely to publish the award information in their weekly book sections and that these often went to press two to three weeks before the street date, so having a four- to six-month leeway between the decision and the announcement was critical. He recognized that the announcement stood less of a chance of being picked up as breaking news, saying, “If the Newbery–Caldecott announcement were to be made on the basis of ‘hard news’ and left entirely to the whims of national news editors, the award would compete with the presidency, the Congress, civil rights, and other topline news which tends to nudge N/C and similar stories toward the all-too-handy circular file.”6

Throughout the 1950s and early 1960s, news editors hadn’t been the only ones getting the confidential press releases announcing the winners. According to Carner, advance notice was also distributed to book jobbers and to “key public libraries, school library supervisors, and state library agencies” so that they could have the books in stock to meet immediate demand once the winners were announced. But, as Rudin noted, they weren’t as good at keeping secrets as the press—possibly because they cared so much more about sharing the information. Carner announced in his article that book jobbers and librarians would no longer be privy to the news; they’d have to find out when everyone else did.

This news must not have sat well with Children’s Services Division members because it wasn’t put into effect—at least not immediately. The press release for the 1966 Newbery and Caldecott awards announcement was marked for national release after 4:00 p.m. on March 14, 1966, but it had gone out a month earlier with a cover letter from CSD Executive Secretary Mildred L. Batchelder addressed to all state library agencies, state school library supervisors, heads of children’s departments in public libraries, and city school library supervisors five days before it was scheduled for early distribution to the press. In the cover letter, Batchelder outlines the decision of the Children’s Services Division board of directors to try “an experiment” this year.

CSD Board wished to bring more librarians into the “confidential” group so that school and public libraries will be in possession of this confidential publicity for announcement day—March 14. If many libraries, by extension of the confidentially informed group, can be ready to show and promote the books, the impact of the awards and the excitement about them will be greatly increased among children and the public in general. More elaborate newspaper stories can be developed. More television and radio coverage can be obtained. These are the hopes of CSD officers and directors.7

Batchelder concludes her letter with a warning: “The experiment will demonstrate whether CSD members can keep the confidence within the library family and not jeopardize the newspaper coverage of the story on March 14.”8

Librarians enjoyed their status as secret keepers until 1969, the first year the news was released at the ALA Midwinter conference immediately after the Newbery committee made its decision. But the CSD still worried about publicity for and promotion of the awards. In spite of successes with wide press coverage (Caldecott winner Gerald McDermott was interviewed by Gene Shalit on the Today show back in April 1975 to promote National Library Week), children’s librarians were still the ones who could be depended on to get the news out. But it was hard for them to do if they didn’t know the news themselves.

To try to remedy this, in 1972 the CSD board tried yet another experiment—publishing the list of committee nominations twice a year in Top of the News as well as in School Library Journal and Booklist. They explained: “The purpose of the list is three-fold: (1) to solicit further recommendations of outstanding books; (2) to stimulate group discussions of the books on the list; (3) to encourage increased participation in the balloting by the CSD membership.”9

What was originally a one-year experiment was deemed so successful that the practice was continued for the next five years. Anyone who wants to know what books the joint Newbery–Caldecott committee was considering in the early 1970s has only to look in the August and January issues of Top of the News. The lists were published with a disclaimer, however, stating that “the committee…will not be limited to titles listed in December should late publications of unusual merit appear.”10

The publication of the preliminary lists was a popular practice that stimulated discussion and mock Newbery–Caldecott deliberations in schools and libraries throughout the United States. Librarians hosting these discussions were encouraged to submit the results to the Newbery–Caldecott chair so that more members had a voice in the decision. Members were also encouraged to submit their own nominations for the award by means of a tear-out postcard bound into the November issue of Top of the News.

In 1974 Bulletin of the Center for Children’s Books editor Zena Sutherland wrote an article for Top of the News addressing common complaints about the Newbery, including the secrecy surrounding the award. She applauded the publication of the preliminary list of considerations and the announcement at Midwinter, noting that these changes had alleviated part of the secrecy problem. But she went on to discuss the code of silence for the committee proceedings themselves: “There remains the basic question of whether or not any award committee should give up its prerogative of privacy even though the level and tenor of discussion might be illuminating, especially to new librarians and to students who are not experienced in book selection.”11 Of course, it’s not the function of any award committee to teach, but why can’t the committee members at least talk about how they arrived at their decisions? What observations led the committee to determine that one book was ultimately more distinguished than all the others? And when a book widely regarded by outsiders as a front runner in the months leading up to the announcement does not even get a mention among the honor books, what fatal flaw did the committee find?

There must have been a lot of talk in the early 1970s about recording the award discussions because Sutherland outlined why she thought this would be a bad idea: “Since feelings tend to become warm when there’s a marked disagreement, as there sometimes is, a post-mortem might bring repercussions—and it wouldn’t change results.”12 It wouldn’t even solve the problem to hold the tapes for five years before releasing them, Sutherland pointed out, because there would still be the issue of having to create and store the tapes—a “nuisance,” she called it. And, more significantly, there was the realization that recording the committee proceedings would likely change the discussion itself as members might be more guarded in their comments if they knew they were being taped. Some things, Sutherland concluded, must remain secret.

Although the practice of publishing the lists of award contenders—the equivalent, almost, of a shortlist—seems to have been popular with the membership, the CSD board quietly voted at Midwinter 1977 to discontinue it. The only reason given was that the listed titles were being misinterpreted as “nominees.” Of course, it didn’t help that that’s what the lists were called originally, before CSD started using the term suggestions. And even if they were being thought of as nominees, it’s not clear what harm was being done by the misunderstanding, except perhaps for raising unrealistic hopes among some authors, illustrators, and publishers.

Sutherland raises a good point, though, with the idea of some sort of statute of limitations on the secrecy surrounding award proceedings. While her arguments for not doing a “post-mortem” are still reasonable today, it’s frustrating that, after fifty years, we can only speculate as to why the librarians on the 1953 Newbery committee believed winner The Secret of the Andes to be more distinguished than honor book Charlotte’s Web. Sure, we can continue to blame Anne Carroll Moore and her public distaste for E. B. White’s writing for children. But that can’t be the whole story. Anne Carroll Moore wasn’t a member of the committee, and those who were members were formidable women in their own right. If only they could have talked openly about what happened, even twenty years after the fact!

The mention of honor books leads us to one of the best-kept secrets of the Newbery. Although the CSD Board voted in 1971 to change the terminology from “runner-up” to “honor book,” the process for selecting them didn’t change until 1977. Until then they were officially runners-up; i.e., numerically the next-highest vote getters after the winner. In addition, until 1959, the runners-up were not listed in alphabetical order by author but in the order of the number of votes they received, so that the first runner-up always appeared at the top of the list. You can go to the Newbery listing on the ALSC website and see, for example, that perennial honor book winner Laura Ingalls Wilder came in second two out of the five times she appeared on the list. This practice is so little known that it might as well be a secret, and I’m sure one day some well-meaning paragon of organization will decide to alphabetize all the Newbery honor books for the sake of consistency and this slight glimpse into the Newbery’s secret proceedings will be lost.

Because the honor books were listed in this way, we can see that Charlotte’s Web was the first runner-up in 1953. We will never know why it didn’t win, but at least we know it came in second. The twenty-three members of the Newbery committee were the only ones who knew why, and they took their reasons to the grave. Like every other Newbery choice, the rationale will forever remain a tantalizing secret that is bound to keep us speculating and talking about the Newbery Award before and after the announcements. And that’s just how Frederic Melcher wanted it.

Endnotes

1. Diane Roback. “A Surprise for the Printz; Twitter Jumps the Newbery Gun.” Publishers Weekly Online (January 18, 2010). http://www.publishersweekly.com/article/CA6715437.html. Retrieved January 20, 2010.

2. Irene Smith. A History of the Newbery and Caldecott Medals. (New York: Viking Press, 1957), 42.

3. Ibid., 109.

4. Ruth E. Hewitt. “Newbery–Caldecott Committee,” Top of the News 6:4 (May 1950), 25.

5. Ellen Rudin, “Loud Silence,” School Library Journal 10:6 (February 1964), [1].

6. Charles R. Carner. “The Case of the Mysterious Awards,” Top of the News 22:2(January 1966), 166.

7. Executive Secretary Mildred L. Batchelder to State Library Agencies, State School Library Supervisors, Heads of Children’s Departments in Public Libraries, City School Library Supervisors and other Librarians who receive this release, February 10, 1966, Children’s Services Division of the American Library Association, Cooperative Children’s Book Center, Newbery and Caldecott Archives, Press Releases.

8. Ibid.

9. “The Top,” Top of the News 29:1 (November 1972), 7.

10. Ibid.

11. Zena Sutherland, “Not Another Article on the Newbery–Caldecott Awards?” Top of the News 30:3 (April 1974), 250.

12. Ibid.

Kathleen T. Horning is the director of the Cooperative Children’s Book Center, a library of the School of Education, University of Wisconsin–Madison. She is the author of From Cover to Cover: Evaluating and Reviewing Children’s Books and teaches a popular online course for ALSC on the history of the Newbery Medal.

From the July/August 2011 issue of The Horn Book Magazine

 
 
   
 
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