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On Frederic G. Melcher

CBC’s new History is Lit series will explore literary history, book lore, ancient storytelling, and any place where stories and yesteryear meet.

Whether they are seen as collectible objects, entertainment, or repositories of far-away knowledge, books have been one of my continuous companions. Words are my connecting thread. Life, for me, has been a mash-up of law, journalism, travel, and children’s publishing, but my one constant in all fields has been literature and storytelling. Albeit, in my case, books seem to have done a Benjamin Button. I read adult books as a kid, so it’s only natural that I read kids’ books now as an adult. 

Many choose to spend their adult lives in children’s pursuits. You may be one of the writers, illustrators, editors, marketers, publicists, designers, booksellers, librarians, teachers, or others who constantly dedicate their time and energy to bring joy, knowledge, and happiness to kids via books. Welcome! Let me tell you, you are in great company inspiring others to love reading and following an enduring legacy, like the wide, solid, and kind one left on the children’s book industry by Frederic G. Melcher. 

Frederic G. Melcher (from Harvard Square Library)

Melcher was born on April 1879 in Massachusetts. A brilliant child who by the age of 12 was taking college courses in high school. Upon graduation at 16 years old, Melcher decided not to go to college and started work immediately instead; thus, an exceptional career as a bookseller, editor, and book advocate was born. Melcher’s first job was at Estes and Lauriat Bookstore in Boston where he became the top salesman within the decade. He married in 1910 and three years later moved to Indianapolis to become the manager of W.K. Stewart Bookstore, a role he prepared extensively for by reading widely and consulting with his writer, printer, librarian, and literary friends.

In 1918, Melcher became coeditor of Publisher’s Weekly. As he had done before, he rose quickly in the organization and became the president of R.R. Bowker and Co., the magazine’s publisher, in 1933, and chairman of the same in 1959.

One of Melcher’s lifelong pursuits was to continually look for ways to encourage reading. Only a year into his first PW role in 1919, he and Franklin K. Mathiews (librarian of the Boy Scouts organization) co-founded a celebration you might’ve heard of — Children’s Book Week. A legacy that we keep alive and thriving to this day!

But Melcher didn’t stop there, in 1921 he advocated with the ALA Board for an award ”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.” (ALA source). He suggested the award be named after the man considered to be the pioneer of children’s literature, the eighteenth-century English bookseller and author John Newbery. Thus the first Newbery Award was given on June 27, 1922 to The Story of Mankind by Hendrik Willem van Loon

The success of the annual Newbery award created a slight unease among many in the book community who noticed that the illustrators, who were just as deserving, were being ignored. So, in 1937, Melcher suggested to the ALA Board a second annual award for children’s books given to the best illustrator. This time the name was chosen to honor the nineteenth-century English illustrator Randolph J. Caldecott. The first Caldecott Medal was given in 1938 to Animals of the Bible, illustrated by Dorothy P. Lathrop.

Learning about the motivations and history of the pioneers in the children’s book industry fills me with joy, gratitude, and renews my own commitment to an organization that continues this essential legacy today. Melcher looked to promote excellence and originality in children’s books while at the same time showing that children’s literature deserved the same recognition as its adult counterpart. He pursued this purpose until his last days and then it became the mantle of the ALA, CBC, ABA, and other kid-lit organizations through the years to champion reading, words, and books every day.


CBC’s resident history and yesteryear explorer, Laura Peraza, takes you back in time. Check out other series on our blog and our Reader Resources for more books and materials.

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