In 1921, Frederic G. Melcher, coeditor of Publishers Weekly and founder of Children's Book Week, proposed an award for authors of distinguished American children's books to the American Library Association (ALA) meeting of the Children's Librarians' Section. The purpose of the award would be:
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.
Melcher suggested that the award be named after John Newbery, an eighteenth-century English writer, publisher, and bookseller who had a great influence on the development of children's literature in Great Britain as well as in the United States. The children's librarians accepted Melcher's proposal and, in 1922, it was approved by the ALA Executive Board, becoming the first children's book award in the world.
First awarded in 1922, the John Newbery Medal is a prestigious award given each year to the author of the book voted the most distinguished contribution to children's literature published in the United States during the previous year. The Association for Library Service to Children (ALSC) of the American Library Association appoints a 15member Newbery Committee each year to select the winner of the John Newbery Medal. The winner is announced in January or February at the ALA's midwinter convention.
The Newbery Committee adheres to specific criteria when deciding on the Newbery Medal winner. The committee members consider the theme or concept of the book, plot development, character development, setting, appropriateness of the author's style, and the accuracy, clarity, and organization of the presentation of information to the reader. Because books contain different literary qualities, a book does not need to exhibit excellence in each of these areas; however, a book should have distinguished qualities in all areas that are relevant to a particular book. A book must also portray excellence of presentation for an audience of children. The Committee makes its decision based primarily on the text. If the overall design of a book, the illustrations, or other aspects of a book distract from the text, they are considered in the decision also. The Committee bases the award on literary quality and quality of presentation for children, not on popularity or didactic intent (the intent to convey educational or moral messages). The Committee requires that authors who win the Newbery Medal be citizens or residents of the United States.
The Newbery Medal, designed by René Paul Chambellan, is bronze, engraved with the winner's name and the date. The medal bears the inscription, "For the most distinguished contribution to American literature for children."
The first Newbery Medal was awarded in 1922 to Hendrik Willem van Loon, author of The Story of Mankind. Since that time, most authors have won the medal for writing distinguished fiction, although some authors of works of poetry and biographies have won, too. Along with the Newbery Medal, the ALSC also cites an unspecified number of "honor books," other books the Committee has reviewed and deemed excellent, and presents the authors with certificates.
The Newbery Medal is the most well-known children's book award in the United States. All of the Newbery Medal books and "honor" books are distinctive literature for children worthy of attention.