Friday, January 11, 2008
Encyclopedia Brown and the Mystery of the Newbery Medal
Over the next couple days the Newbery Award committee will meet in Philadelphia to begin the mysterious process of picking the next winner. I use the word “mysterious” because, even though the names of all the committee members are known and the rules for selecting the prize book are clearly stated, the entire process is swathed in secrecy and mystery. So we will never know what titles were on the shortlist of possible winners. Or if our favorite book almost made the cut or wasn’t even considered. Or whether the final selection was a slam-dunk or a compromise choice. These are the mysteries I ponder every year when the winning book is announced.
There are also a few historical mysteries connected with the Newbery and I wish some literary-minded Encyclopedia Brown or Nancy Drew would find a way to crack them.
Here are the top three:
1) The Mysteriously Missing Honor Books.
Every year the Newbery committee picks a winner and some Honor Books. Originally called “runners-up” (the name was changed in the early 1970s), there can be one or more Honors. On at least two different occasions there were eight Honor Books! (The more the merrier, in my opinion.) But there have also been three years, early in the history of the awards, when there is no record of which Honor Books were selected. It’s odd, because the Honor Books were duly noted in 1922, the first year the award was given. But there is no record of the Honor Books for the following year when THE VOYAGES OF DOCTOR DOLITTLE won, or the next year when THE DARK FRIGATE claimed the gold medal. We do know the Honor Books for the following two years, 1925 and 1926, but someone dropped the ball again in 1927 and there is no record of the runners-up to SMOKY, THE COWHORSE. I find it frustrating beyond belief that there are a handful of Newbery Honors out there, languishing on dusty library shelves, that we know nothing about. Not that they’d be particularly popular if we did know their names today (when was the last time anyone read the 1922 Honors CEDRIC THE FORESTER or THE OLD TOBACCO SHOP?) But still...it would be nice to see them acknowledged -- even at this late date. I wish I’d made some attempt to solve this mystery when I was younger. Even in the 1970s and 1980s there might have been a few librarians alive who served on those early committees, but it’s now too late to get any firsthand information. Dead librarians tell no tales. The best we can hope for is that some old notebook or sheet of paper containing this information will turn up some day. Imagine someone buying an old library desk from an antique store, then getting it home and finding it once belonged to the American Library Association and one of the drawers contains a scrap of paper with the 1923 runners-up jotted on it. What a dream. And what a nightmare if the person who finds it knows nothing about the Newbery and just flips it over and writes their grocery list on the back.
2) What are the 1933 Honor Books?
According to the list presented in NEWBERY AND CALDECOTT MEDAL BOOKS : 1956-1965, edited by Lee Kingman and published by the Horn Book in 1965, there were three Honors that year:
SWIFT RIVERS by Cornelia Meigs
THE RAILROAD TO FREEDOM by Hildegarde Swift
CHILDREN OF THE SOIL by Nora Burglon
But wait. Another major reference volume, A HISTORY OF THE NEWBERY AND CALDECOTT MEDALS by Irene Smith, published by Viking in 1957, gives us an entirely different slate of Honors:
HEPATICA HAWKS by Rachel Field
ROMANTIC REBEL by Hildegarde Hawthorne
AUNTIE by Maud and Miska Petersham
TIRRA-LIRRA by Laura E. Richards
LITTLE HOUSE IN THE BIG WOODS by Laura Ingalls Wilder
There isn’t even an overlap between these lists. Which one’s correct and which one’s wrong? Kingman’s list seems to be the most accepted and has been reprinted in many different reference books over the years, but Smith’s 1933 Honors have been reprinted in some subsequent reference volumes as well, giving us a case of dueling Honor books and a mystery that should be answered definitively at some point. Incidentally, here's a little mystery within a mystery: there actually isn't any book named AUNTIE by the Petershams, though they did write one named AUNTIE AND CELIA JANE AND MIKI.
3) The Newbery Honor That Wasn’t.
WHERE THE LILIES BLOOM was written by Vera and Bill Cleaver and published by Lippincott in 1969. Certainly one of the high points of their amazing literary career (and why aren’t the Cleavers’ books read as much today as they were a few years ago? They seem timeless to me. But I digress....) I think I can state unequivocally that, as much as it deserved an award, WHERE THE LILIES BLOOM was not honored with a Newbery. And yet...and yet...this book is frequently referred to as a Newbery Honor Book. It was even billed this way in the film adaptation of the novel -- on all the advertising and right there in the opening credits, “Based on the Newbery Award Winning Honor Book.....” Sorry the picture below is blurry, but if you click on the image, you can see that the poster mentions the Newbery.
I’m sure there are many more mysteries associated with the Newbery. If you know of any...or know the answers to any of the puzzles I’ve just related, please post the solutions here. Though I suspect that, for most of us, the biggest Newbery history remains, "How in the world did...(insert title of your personal least-favorite winner here)...ever win the Newbery?"