Joyce Magnin

Joyce Magnin is the author of the popular and quirky Bright’s Pond novels. She is a frequent conference speaker and writing instructor. When she’s not writing or reading Joyce enjoys baseball, needle arts, video games and cream soda but not elevators—especially glass ones. She listens to many kinds of music, shamelessly confesses to enjoying American Idol, has never eaten a scallop or sky dived. Joyce has three children, Rebekah, Emily and Adam and three grandsons, Lemuel, Cedar and Soren and one son-in-law, Joshua. Joyce lives in Havertown, Pennsylvania with her son, Adam and their crazy cat, Mango, where she cares for an eighty-year-old onion plant. You can also visit her blog at: joycemagnin.blogspot.com.

Joyce Magnin

Lofty Goals and the Newbery Medal

Newbery AwardOne of my more lofty goals is to win a Newbery Medal. The main medal would be oh so sweet, but I’d also be just as honored to have one of my books named a Newbery Honor Book. Imagine to be forever linked with authors like Madeline L’Engle, Jerry Spinelli, Gary Schmidt, Lloyd Alexander, Beverly Cleary, Lois Lowry. Wow. I have recently made another goal to read every Newbery winner since 1922—the year the first Newbery was awarded. I’ve read quite a few but not all—yet. The first award went to The Story of Mankind by Hendrik Willem van Loon (Liveright). Interestingly enough, it is not fiction. I think we mostly think of Newbery titles as fiction. But no, there are plenty of nonfiction books that have won recognition from the Newbery committee. I think being on the Newbery committee is a tough job. But just who are these people who comprise the committee and what does it take to score a Newbery?

According to the official Newbery Website, the John Newbery Medal “is awarded annually by the American Library Association for the most distinguished American children’s book published the previous year. On June 22, 1921, Frederic G. Melcher proposed the award to the American Library Association meeting of the Children’s Librarians’ Section and suggested that it be named for the eighteenth-century English bookseller John Newbery. The idea was enthusiastically accepted by the children’s librarians, and Melcher’s official proposal was approved by the ALA Executive Board in 1922. In Melcher’s formal agreement with the board, the purpose of the Newbery Medal was stated as follows: ‘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.’”

I especially like the last line of the quote: “To encourage good writing in this field.” It takes some really good writing to be recognized.

Good writing, that’s the key. But it goes so much deeper than that. The Website lists many criteria for works to even be considered for the honor. One criterion is that the book be marked by distinction and eminence. Wow.

In other words, a Newbery-worthy book has to be excellent. It must distinguish itself from the pack, the hundreds of other books for children that make it to the library stacks each year. Many really good books are written for this age group every year. The Newbery winner is not necessarily the one that sold the most, or had action figures and puppets created in their wake. No, quite often the award goes to a quiet book that didn’t get passed around from kid to kid. The book that didn’t fly off the shelves as quickly as it was stocked. And this I think is a good thing. And sometimes the prize goes to a book that had rough beginnings—like A Wrinkle in Time the now classic by the late, great Madeline L’Engle. Her manuscript was rejected many, many times before it finally found an editor to champion it.

It all comes down to story. The committee reads not only for something different or distinctive but also for all the things we’re taught: a well-developed plot, good characters, representation of theme or premise. All that craft stuff we aim to master.

The award goes to the book that stands out in some way. Here is what Newbery Medal Committee Chair Cynthia K. Richey said about the 2011 winner Moon Over Manifest by Clare Vanderpool. “Vanderpool illustrates the importance of stories as a way for children to understand the past, inform the present and provide hope for the future.”

I like that, “the importance of stories.” This was what, in my opinion, distinguished Manifest from the others. It is a novel with a bit of history thrown in and told by people telling stories. An excellent book. Lovely writing.

A few years ago I met Jerry Spinelli. He used to live in my town, right across the street from the middle school. Jerry won a Newbery Honor Medal for Wringer and the high prize, the Newbery Medal, for Maniac Magee. He was one of the first people to see my debut midgrade Carrying Mason. He said, “You got it, kid. Keep writing.”

Lloyd Alexander, 1969 winner for The High King, lived about two miles from where I lived. I was just a kid when he won. I don’t remember if the town made any hoopla over it. I wrote to him a few years later, when I was sixteen. He wrote back! I still have the letter, although it is currently MIA. Written on a 5x7 inch piece of paper with FROM THE DESK OF LLOYD ALEXANDER engraved on the top, he stamped it with an image of a little purple turtle. He encouraged me to write what was in my heart, never to give up, and to strive for excellence. I met him years later at a book signing. He shook my hand. I reminded him of the letter, and he held my hand in his a second or two longer. He was old then, gnarled fingers, and translucent skin. His eyes twinkled as he reminded me once again to make every word I write for a child excellent.

Yeah, I want to write that well.

Now I may never win a Newbery, although this town of mine seems to grow them. Be that as it may, I’ll tell you this: I will always write with the Newbery in mind because it reminds me to be excellent.


Carrying Mason