Since 1922, the author of the best American children’s book of the year earns the Newberry Medal. A similar honor, the Caldecott Medal, is given to the illustrator of the best picture book, and has been awarded since 1938. Many of the Newberry and Caldecott winners live in our memories as our favorite childhood books. Many of them may be entirely new to us.
I want to read these books. All of them. Including the runners up.
I’ve been a bookworm since I began reading. And even as an adult, children’s books have remained my favorite books. And why not? Books written for children are magical. Beautiful. Devastating. Honest. Humble. Fun. And they teach us something (which is not always the same thing as educational).
The first winner of the Newberry Medal was Hendrick Willem van Loon’s The Story of Mankind, an illustrated “history of the world” book. In that book’s forward, van Loon writes about climbing “to the top of the tower” of St. Laurenskerk church in Rotterdam, the Netherlands (xix). Climbing to the top, and taking in the city from that height “was [his] first glimpse of the big world” (van Loon xxi). And isn’t a good children’s book just that? They take us to the top of something, and we understand better.
After his first visit to the tower, van Loon went back to the top of the tower at every opportunity. He writes that understanding history is like climbing that tower. “It is no easy task,” he wrote “to reach the top of this ancient structure and get the benefit of the full view. There is no elevator, but young feet are strong and it can be done” (van Loon xxii).
It is not history I am trying to understand, though children’s books often teach us aspects of history that other books cannot. But I do not doubt that I will “get the benefit of the full view” by reading these medal-winning books. The world is big, but my feet are young, it can be done.
Read along with me, and “When you return, you too will understand the reason for my enthusiasm” (van Loon xxii).