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 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

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

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?"


Anonymous said...

This is only a mystery in the sense that I can't figure out why it isn't available or in print. The Newbery Honor winner The Winged Girl of Knossos by Erick Berry is perhaps one of the best American children's books out there. Try finding it sometime, though. Rare doesn't even begin to describe it. If you do get a chance to read it, it's pip. I believe it won the honor in 1929. Fingers crossed that it gets its due someday.

Nina said...

No honors? Well, I don't know if it was the case in those years...but currently the rules don't require that the committee name ANY honor books. It's up to committee whether or not to name honors, and if so, how many. So those may not be "missing" honors you notice...just, none.

Anonymous said...

I can solve one of the mysteries for you. The 1933 Honor Books are:

Swift Rivers -- Meigs
Railroad to Freedom -- Swift
Children of the Soil -- Burglon

The titles listed in Irene Smith's book were the other books that got votes that year, but only the top three were taken as honor books (or runners-up, as they were called at the time). In 1933 the 15 committee members voted for their 1st, 2nd, 3rd, and 4th choices, and the top vote getter was given the Newbery and the 2nd, 3rd and 4th were honors. (The list you see above is given in 2nd, 3rd, and 4th place order).

Things were not at all confidential back then, and all this information comes from Library Journal, Nov. 1, 1933, including the incorrect name for the Petersham book. That is probably where Irene Smith got the info; her eyes must have just skipped to the second paragraph when she was searching for honor book titles. I would guess that other sources listing the wrong books have used Smith as a source.

The missing runners-up from the 1920s have bugged me for years. Some day we'll uncover them. I think the answer probably lies in the personal papers of the librarians who headed the ALA's Children's Section in those years. In 1927 that was Louise P. Latimer of D.C. Public. "Smoky the Cowhorse" was an odd Newbery choice. Not only was it an adult book, but Will James did not like winning a children's book award. He didn't show up to collect his medal, and it was given to his Canadian publisher.

Peter D. Sieruta said...

Please stay tuned, fuse #8. I am going to write a blog entry on WINGED GIRL OF KNOSSOS within the next few days. P.S. I enjoy your blog at SLJ!

Thanks for your input, Nina. I never knew the committee had the option for selecting NO Honors at all. I'm surprised it hasn't been done once or twice over the years. I guess it's possible that that's what happened in the 1920s, though the list of Honor Books for those years in my reference books don't say "None chosen," but rather "None recorded." It would be interesting to borrow Danny Dunn's time machine and go back and see what really happened at those early meetings, wouldn't it?

Many thanks, KT Horning, for solving one of my mysteries! I've wondered about the 1933 Honor Books for decades and you're the first person who ever explained it. To be on the safe side, I've tried to collect both "sets" of Honor Books for that year, so I guess I'll now call the top three the "real Honor Books" and the other the "Honorary Honor Books." Now you've got me wondering...if Library Journal printed the other vote getters for 1933, does this mean I can go to Library Journal in 1934, 1935, etc., and find out what other titles received Newbery votes in those years? I'm going to look.

I hope you're right that the missing Honor Book titles turn up some time. I've often thought of writing a book on the "mysteries of children's books" and this would chapter one. Another mystery I've long wondered about is what happened to Louise Fitzhugh's missing manuscript AMELIA, a topic that you covered in your insightful blog, Worth the Trip, recently.

Anonymous said...

Peter, I find the LJ reports on Newbery to be sporadic, but you might find some things if you look in the issues from June-Nov. They usually appear in reports about the annual conference from the Children's Section. (Library Journal back then was the official publication of ALA.)

Good luck!

Kyra said...

Good Lord - I haven't thought about Where the Lillies Bloom in YEARS!

And, Encyclopedia Brown - that was one of my fav series!


buy jeans said...

The permanence of the internet makes this kind of joke even more amusing. I just saw this today, and it wasn't until the photo was MENTIONED in the post that I looked at it closely and scrolled back up to the date to see if it was an AF.