On this day in 1922, the American Library Association (ALA) awards the first Newbery Medal, honoring the year’s best children’s book, to The Story of Mankind by Hendrik Willem van Loon. The idea for an award honoring outstanding contributions to children’s literature came from Frederic G. Melcher, a former bookseller who in 1918 became an editor of Publisher’s Weekly. Over his long career, Melcher often looked for ways to encourage reading, especially among children. In 1919, he co-founded Children’s Book Week with Franklin K. Mathiews, librarian of the Boy Scouts organization. Two years later, Melcher suggested the creation of a children’s book award at a June 1921 meeting of the Children’s Librarians’ Section of the ALA. He proposed that it should be named for John Newbery, the 18th-century English bookseller and author who was considered the father or ”inventor” of children’s literature.
The group of children’s librarians loved the idea, and Melcher’s proposal was approved by the ALA Executive Board the following year. The official purpose of the Newbery Medal, as agreed by Melcher and the board, was to encourage originality and excellence in the field of children’s books, to let the public know that children’s literature deserved the same recognition as poetry, plays or novels for adults, and finally ”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.” Van Loon’s The Story of Mankind, a history of the world written especially for children, was the first book to receive the bronze Newbery Medal.
In 1937, Melcher and the ALA began giving another annual award, the Caldecott Medal, for the best children’s picture book. Together, the Newbery and Caldecott awards are the top honors for children’s literature in America. In addition to the medal-winning books, the award committees also cite a few other books each year as worthy of attention, which are today called Newbery or Caldecott Honor Books.