Skip to Main Content

Newbery: History

A guide that lists decades of Newbery winners.

Who was John Newbery

English publisher John Newbery (1713-1767) was the first person to create books specifically for children. His work reflected the changes in attitudes about children during the eighteenth century and aimed to present entertaining and educational materials designed for a child's reading level and interests.

The eighteenth-century publisher John Newbery was the first person to focus on the creation and marketing of books for children. The success of his work was due in part to the rise of the British middle class during this period and the increased amount of money and leisure time they were able to spend on their children. Another factor was a changing philosophy about the role and nature of children; rather than being looked upon as miniature adults, children were beginning to be recognized as having interests, energies, and attention spans

that were greatly different from those of adults. Newbery's accomplishments in catering to these new trends in society and the foundations he laid for the ongoing practice of children's publishing are recognized today in the Newbery Awards—the annual honors bestowed upon outstanding works of children's literature by the American Library Association.

Newbery was born in 1713 in Waltham, Berkshire, England. He was the son of a farmer, Robert Newbery, but other members of his family were active in the publishing business. Newbery received a modest education in his home district, learning only the basics traditionally thought necessary for a farmer. But the boy also had a great love of reading and was drawn to a career that would indulge his appreciation of books. At the age of 16, he was apprenticed to a printer in the town of Reading, nine miles from his home. There he learned the skills of the printing trade from William Carnan and assisted in the production of Carnan's newspaper, the Reading Mercury. Eventually, Newbery was promoted to the position of assistant to the printer.

Built Successful Newspaper Business

When Carnan died in 1737, the 24-year-old Newbery inherited half of his printing business, sharing the company with Carnan's brother. The publisher soon gained more control over the business by marrying Carnan's widow. Newbery took responsibility for Carnan's children, and eventually had three of his own. TheReading Mercury thrived under his supervision; by 1743 it was sold in nearly 50 markets and was one of the top provincial papers of the day. The paper's success may have been in part due to Newbery's active interest in promoting his paper and investigating new markets and business possibilities. In 1740 he had undertaken a tour of England for these purposes, gaining information that may have guided him in his later book publishing ventures. It was in 1740 that Newbery published his first book, beginning the career for which he would be best remembered. For much of his life, however, a large part of his income was not from his publishing activities but from his side business ventures. One of these enterprises involved the sale of about thirty different patent medicines, including Dr. James' Fever Powder; advertisements for these products often appeared in Newbery's publications.

In his ongoing search for new opportunities, Newbery moved to London, opening the Bible and Sun publishing company in 1745 at St. Paul's Churchyard. This marked the beginning of Newbery's most productive years as a publisher. In London, he began the writing and selling of children's books, a market in which there was a growing demand for materials, particularly during the Christmas holidays. The books he produced were aimed both at the amusement and education of children. His first success in this area was the 1744 book A Pretty Little Pocket Book, a high-quality work that featured an entertaining and colorful style, including expensive copperplate engravings and a gilt cover. The book contrasted sharply with the dull and cheap appearance of earlier chapbooks, and the public eagerly snatched up copies; at least 10,000 copies were distributed between its initial publication and the end of the century.

Created High-Quality Children's Books

In 1746, Newbery published two more books directed at the education of children, Circle of the Sciences: Writing and Circle of the Sciences: Arithmetic. An introduction to the ideas of the English physicist and mathematician Isaac Newton were presented in the 1761 work, The Newtonian System of Philosophy Adapted to the Capacities of Young Gentlemen and Ladies … By Tom Telescope, popularly known as simply Tom Telescope. The book's author is a subject of debate; some believe that the author Oliver Goldsmith wrote the book, while others suggest that Newbery himself was the creator. This was another great success for Newbery, going through at least ten printings for a total of around 30,000 books by 1800. Newbery was cautious in business though, and his first printings were usually very small; only once he was able to gauge the interest of the market would he undertake further printings.

Children's literature was only one aspect of Newbery's role in literature and publishing in his day. He was an associate of a number of leading English writers, including Samuel Johnson, Oliver Goldsmith, and Christopher Smart. These authors and others contributed to Newbery's numerous newspapers in London and the provinces. One such paper was The Universal Chronicle or Weekly Gazette, which he founded in 1758; the paper published a number of famous works by Johnson, including "The Idler," "The Rambler," and "The Lives of the Poets." The Public Ledger, initiated in 1760, featured Goldsmith's "A Citizen of the World" in its first issue. Newbery also published Goldsmith's book The Vicar of Wakefield in 1766.

Memorialized in Book Awards

Newbery died on December 22, 1767, in London at the age of 54. His publishing business was carried on by his son, Francis Newbery, and later by one of Newbery's nephews, then the nephew's wife. Although the business lasted until 1801, it never again reached the remarkable level of success that Newbery had accomplished with his varied publishing projects. His contributions to the promotion of children's literature resulted in similar ventures by other companies, however, insuring a continuing commitment to the field. More than 150 years after the publisher's death, the Newbery Award for children's literature was established in 1922 by the American Library Association, honoring Newbery's pioneering work in presenting the first materials specifically designed for the amusement and entertainment of children.

Further Reading

For more information, see Darton, F. J. Harvey, Children's Books in England, Cambridge University Press, 1932; Meigs, Cornelia, A Critical History of Children's Literature, Macmillan, 1953; Noblett, William, "John Newbery: Publisher Extraordinary," History Today, April, 1972, pp. 265-71; and Welsh, Charles, A Bookseller of the Last Century, Being Some Account of the Life of John Newbery, Griffith, Farran, Okeden and Welsh (London), 1885. □

How the Newbery came to be

The 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."

The Newbery Award thus became the first children's book award in the world. Its terms, as well as its long history, continue to make it the best known and most discussed children's book award in this country.

From the beginning of the awarding of the Newbery and Caldecott Medals, committees could, and usually did, cite other books as worthy of attention. Such books were referred to as Newbery or Caldecott "runners-up." In 1971 the term "runners-up" was changed to "honor books." The new terminology was made retroactive so that all former runners-up are now referred to as Newbery or Caldecott Honor Books.

John Newbery Award

Newbery Pocket Reader

Mr. Newbery's Little Pretty Pocket-Book

The title page of John Newbery's A Little Pretty Pocket-Book.

John Newbery was the first printer to see a market for children's books that both instructed and amused children, so he invented the genre. His first book of this kind, A Little Pretty Pocket-Book: Intended for the Instruction and Amusement of Little Master Tommy and Pretty Miss Polly was published in 1744, and is considered a landmark in children's literature. Interestingly, no copy of the first edition has been found.


A Little Pretty Pocket-Book contains several pages of games and amusements. At the top of each of these pages is a letter of the alphabet, below which is an illustration of the activity, a verse describing it, and a small verse with a moral lesson.For example, the book contains the first known mention of "Base-Ball."


The Ball once struck off,
Away flies the Boy
To the next destin'd Post,
And then Home with Joy.

The description of the game is followed by the verse:

Thus Britons for Lucre
Fly over the Main;
But, with Pleasure transported,
Return back again.


This isn't exactly the modern American game (note the posts instead of bases), but it looks pretty close. The illustrations and verses in Little Pretty Pocket-Book help historians research games of the past. 

Newbery knew how to market to children and their parents. A Little Pretty Pocket-Book was sold with a ball (for boys) and a pincushion (for girls). Contained in the book was a letter from Jack the Giant-Killer describing the proper use of these toys. Newbery's books, bound with covers of Dutch floral paper and gilt edges, were designed to delight the eye. His books appealed to parents who embraced the popular Lockean ideal of education by amusement, and they set a standard for quality of writing and presentation.


A Little Pretty Pocket-Book was the first of many educational children's books published by Newbery. He appears to have written several books himself, but well-known authors were also willing to write for him. Sarah Fielding, for example, wrote, The Governess or Little Female Academy, and Oliver Goldsmith almost certainly wrote Little Goody Two-Shoes. Newbery's The Newtonian System of Philosophy, also known as The Philosophy of Tops and Balls, was an introduction to what we would call science today, presenting astronomy, physics, geography, and natural philosophy in an appealing way. We can credit Newbery with the first English version of Charles Perrault's Tales from Mother Goose. By the time of his death in 1767, Newberry had published a long list of children's titles. The Latin motto on the frontispiece of A Little Pretty Pocket-Book, "Delectando monemus," had become his life's mission-instruction with delight.