The John Newbery Medal was first established in 1921 by the Association for Library Services for Children. Often shortened to the Newbery Medal, it was created in order to honor books that serve as a distinguished contribution to American literature for children. Along with the Caldecott Medal, it is considered the highest honor for children’s books in the United States. The qualifications for this medal are such that any children’s book (picture book through young adult) published by an American citizen during a respective year is eligible. Each year a committee of fifteen (though historically the winner was chosen by popular vote. The Newbery Medal was the first ever award for children’s literature and continually recognizes the best and most enduring works published each year. Today in our brand new Newbery Medal Winning Authors series, we take a look at the very first winner of this prestigious award: Hendrik Willem van Loon.
Who is Hendrik Willem van Loon?
The inaugural Newbery Medal was awarded to children’s author Hendrick Willem Van Loon. Van Loon was originally born in Netherlands and moved to the United States to study at first Harvard and then Cornell. He and his wife moved to Germany upon his graduation so he could pursue his doctorate at University of Munich. The dissertation he developed during this time eventually became his first book, The Fall of the Dutch Republic, which was published in 1913. Throughout his time in Germany, he worked as a correspondent for the Associated Press, covering historic events such as the Russian Revolution and World War I. History fans may be familiar with his journalistic efforts from this time. He returned to the US and to Cornell in 1915 and officially became an American citizen in 1919. From 1913 until his death in 1944, Van Loon published numerous books geared toward a young adult audience. He often illustrated his books himself, utilizing black and white pen and ink drawings and often featuring detailed diagrams. In addition to his Newbery Medal, he was also honored by Queen Wilhelmina of the Netherlands, who knighted him in 1942.
Collecting Van Loon
The Story of Mankind
Van Loon was awarded the first ever Newbery Medal in 1922 for his ambitious work, The Story of Mankind. This 1921 nonfiction book gives a brief overview of Western Civilization starting with primitive humans with chapter detailing important events in human history up until the time it was published. In order to reduce such a massive amount of history, art, and discovery into a manageable length, Van Loon determined which events, people, and works whose absence would drastically alter the existence of modern people. The book featured many of his own illustrations. It was loosely adapted into a film in 1957 featuring such film legends as Vincent Price, the Marx Brothers, Hedy Lamar, and Dennis Hopper. The book has been updated by historians throughout the years (notably one edition was created by his son), most recently in 2014.
Van Loon’s Lives
Van Loon’s Lives, released in 1942 and loosely inspired by Plutarch’s Lives, also goes by the amusing and length full title of Van Loon's Lives: Being a true and faithful account of a number of highly interesting meetings with certain historical personages, from Confucius and Plato to Voltaire and Thomas Jefferson, about whom we had always felt a great deal of curiosity and who came to us as dinner guests in a bygone year. Like it’s inspirational text by Plutarch, Van Loon structures the book as a series of conversations between himself and two historical figures who did not necessarily exist in the same time period, often ending in a comedic situation. While the juxtaposition and anachronism of the historical figure’s beliefs as well as their position are enough of a draw, the true value in this book can be found in Van Loon’s openings to each chapter, which feature his worries about political situation across Europe and the rest of the world. Released in 1942 but set in the 1930s, readers at the time of release and readers today know that World War II was just around the corner from the time period of the book, making the conversations of the characters as well as Van Loon’s personal observations even more poignant.
A Selection of This Year’s Newbery Honors
The Windy Hill by Cornelia Meigs
The Windy Hill by Cornelia Meigs and illustrated by Meigs and her husband features a family mystery in the sleepy town of Medford Valley. When two siblings come to stay with family for the summer, they’re surprised by their cousin’s behavior. He seems depressed and uninterested in them. In search of explanation for his actions, they ask around town and learn that his sadness is part of a deeper mystery involving many people and generations through the valley. With the help of a local beekeeper, they piece together the town’s history and that of their family and come up with a plan to help their cousin and the town heal.
Cedric the Forester by Bernard Marshall
Narrated by Sir Dickon Mountjoy, Marshall’s historical fiction novel about Cedric Pelham Wood, tells the story of the pair’s lifelong friendship during the time of the Crusades. The novel follows their experience as knight and squire as well as Cedric’s journey to becoming the crossbowman in all of England, resulting in his own knighthood. The book also details Cedric’s role in the signing of The Charter of King John, a controversial document which protected the rights of the rich during the reign of an unpopular king.