By Renee Runge
If you’re a parent, educator, or writer, you’ve likely seen the medals in the corners of children’s book covers. You may have even wondered what the awards are for, aside from the obvious idea that if the book has won an award, it must be worth the read.
Keeping track of all of the different children’s book awards out there can be confusing! What is each award for? Who are they named after? Why does it matter?
In this article, we’ll break down some of the most popular children’s book awards, all of which are announced at the American Library Association Midwinter Meeting each January.
John Newbery, the namesake of the Newbery Medal, wrote what is widely considered to be the first children’s book, A Little Pretty Pocket-Book (1744). Prior to Newbery, children weren’t considered as a demographic for publishing at all; his works completely shifted how the world viewed children, both as readers and as individuals.
The Newbery Medal is awarded annually by the American Library Association “to the author of the most distinguished contribution to American literature for children.” One submission is awarded the Newbery Medal, and typically around two to five submissions receive Newbery Honors.
Award criteria is centered around the “distinguished” nature of submitted children’s books, defined by theme or concept, presentation of information, plot development, characters, setting, and appropriateness of style for children. The Newbery Medal is limited to books published in the United States in English intended for children up to fourteen years of age.
Named after illustrator Randolph Caldecott, the Caldecott Medal is presented “to the artist of the most distinguished American picture book for children.” This prestigious award, like the Newbery Medal, is decided by the American Library Association each year and announced in January alongside the Caldecott Honors.
The Caldecott Medal defines children as people up to fourteen years of age. The award criteria defines “distinguished” illustration through artistic technique employed in the picture book’s artwork, excellence of artwork in interpretation of the story, appropriateness of artwork to the theme of the story, effectiveness of artwork in establishing central story elements, and recognition of a child audience.
What constitutes a “picture book” is highly subjective. Several Caldecott Honors in the last several years have been awarded to graphic novels. As the field of children’s literature shifts, will we see more graphic novel artists winning awards traditionally given to illustrators of other mediums? This will certainly be an exciting trend to look out for.
Coretta Scott King Award
Coretta Scott King was an outspoken advocate of civil rights work, as well as the widow of Martin Luther King Jr. In 1970, the Coretta Scott King Award was established by the American Library Association in the name of the “First Lady of the Civil Rights Movement” to be awarded “to outstanding African American authors and illustrators of books for children and young adults that demonstrate an appreciation of African American culture and universal human values.”
The award criteria includes the following: the book must portray black experience in the present, past, or future, be written or illustrated by an African American, be published in the United States, be original work, and meet standards of writing and illustration quality for youth. In addition, the intended audience of the book must fall into one of three age ranges: preschool through 4th grade, 5th grade through 8th grade, or 9th grade through 12th grade.
The Coretta Scott King Award committee actively seeks titles that encourage readers to think deeply about their place in society and attitudes towards topics of race and culture.
Two awards under the Coretta Scott King name are presented each year. One goes to an author, while the other goes to an illustrator. This means that one selected work is usually a novel, while the other is a picture book. Several Coretta Scott King Honors are given to distinguished works that also sufficiently meet criteria.
A third award, the John Steptoe Award for New Talent, named for the African American illustrator, is given to either a new writer or an illustrator that the Coretta Scott King Award committee affirms as excellent but who may not be formally recognized with a Coretta Scott King Award that given year. The author or illustrator must be new to the field, with less than three published works under their name.
Pura Belpré Award
Pura Belpré was the first Latina librarian at the New York Public Library. Her award recognizes Latinx writers and illustrators “whose work best portrays, affirms, and celebrates the Latino cultural experience in an outstanding work of literature for children and youth.”
Two Pura Belpré Awards are given each year: one to a writer, and one to an illustrator. While the winning books must be published in the United States or Puerto Rico, books that are written in English, Spanish, or in bilingual formats are eligible.
Committee members consider factors such as interpretation of theme, presentation of information, plot, characters, setting, and appropriateness of style for children in award decision-making.
Michael L. Printz Award
The Michael L. Printz Award is aimed exclusively at books written for young adult audiences. A newer award founded in 2000, it was named for the librarian of Topeka West High School, who was also a member of the Young Adult Library Services Association and encouraged authors to write quality material for young adults.
Young adult novels considered for the award have an intended audience of twelve to eighteen years of age. All forms of writing are eligible for the Michael L. Printz Award, including novels, poetry, and nonfiction.
The criteria for the award is extremely subjective, as it is meant to evolve with time, but has the following as suggested guidelines for decision: story, voice, setting, style, accuracy, characters, theme, illustration, and design.
There are many more children’s book awards out there, and not all of them come from the American Library Association; these are just the most recognizable. If you explore online, you’re sure to find even more specific awards for children’s books of various categories.
At the end of the day, awards are only as important as you deem the opinions of the committees who decide them. However, they can give you a really great idea about what kinds of stories are popular in the world of children’s literature, as well as a great place to start building up your children’s bookshelf!