The 2021 winner of the John Newbery Medal, one of the most prestigious honors in children’s literature, was named on Monday, Jan. 25, and a North Forsyth High School graduate helped make the decision.
JoAnna Phillips Schofield graduated from North Forsyth in 2004 and now serves as branch manager at the DeHoff Memorial Branch of the Stark County District Library in Canton, Ohio, and last year, she was selected to be part of a small group to decide this year’s winners, which will be the 100th year of the awards.
“I think we all recognized what an honor it was that we had been trusted to choose this award,” Schofield said. “This year, we chose the 100th winner of the Newbery, which is a big deal, and we knew that this was a moment and we all appreciated it and everyone had such respect.”
Awarded since 1922, the Newbery Medal is named for British bookseller John Newbery and is given out by the Association for Library Services to Children, a division of the American Library Association.
The 2021 medal went to “When You Trap a Tiger,” by Tae Keller, which Schofield called “a distinguished contribution to children’s’ literature that I would happily put in the hands of any reader.”
“Beautifully intricate prose, characters that you adore and want to fight for and a story that will leave you laughing, crying, cheering and celebrating all in one breath contribute to the eminence and success of this wondrous story,” Schofield said. “Such a joy to read and share, ‘When You Trap a Tiger’ is a book that will be read and adored by readers for generations to come.”
Five other books received Newbery Honors for being distinguished works.
Looking back, Schofield said she never thought she would work in libraries or with literature and said, as a student, she was more interested in science and even went to the Governor’s Honors Program for physics her sophomore year of high school.
Schofield was born and raised in Forsyth County and attended Cumming Elementary, Otwell Middle schools before going to NFHS and credited her teachers along the way – notably Steve Mashburn, Gary Headrick, Judy Austin and Laura Link – for inspiring her to follow her dream and to help find her love of literature.
“But, I had some really fantastic teachers along the way, who got me interested in storytelling and the idea of different experiences and what the rest of the world was experiencing, and it really helped me see that the world is a bigger place than just Cumming, Georgia,” she said.
Austin told the Forsyth County News that she was proud to have a North alum serving on the prestigious committee.
“In a world where we are distracted and lured by technology and social media, more than ever we need to recognize the power of words and of story,” Austin said. Words matter. Stories matter. Words can encourage or destroy, mobilize for good or for evil. They can bring out the best in humanity or the very worst. And story? Stories keep us alive.
“Through JoAnna's daily work with children's literature and this special work of the Newbery committee, the value of stories to our lives is emphasized and reiterated to society. I'm so proud of her.”
After leaving North, Schofield attended Salem College in North Carolina and then North Georgia College and State University, now the University of North Georgia, where she graduated and moved back to Cumming after getting married.
Schofield said she never seriously considered being a librarian until her first son was born, and the family relocated to Ohio so she could attend Kent State University, where she earned a master’s of library and information science.
She has been working in libraries since 2012 and is currently completing her doctorate from the University of Dayton.
“The Newbery is an award many librarians seek to be on their entire life,” Schofield said. “It’s a prestigious honor. It’s amazing because only 15 people do it every year, so it is a big deal, so, of course, it is something I always wanted to do.”
Story continues below
Schofield said her journey to the committee started nearly a decade ago and really hit a stride when she attended a training conference at NASA’s Wallops Flight Facility in Virginia.
As part of the program, Schofield had to partner up with another attendee and said she picked her partner because “I saw this woman with the most amazing shoes. They looked like little books.”
That partner ended up being Starr LaTronica, who was serving her term ALSC president that year, who asked Schofield if she dreamed big, what award committees would she want to be on.
Schofield said she wanted to pick winners for the Geisel Award, which is given in memory and is named for the real name of author Dr. Seuss and highlights literature meant for students about ages kindergarten to third grade.
“People always ask me, ‘Why didn’t you say the Newbery?’” she recalled. “I said I couldn’t even imagine dreaming that big. That was so big to me, I thought -- no way. Never going to happen. The Geisel was as far as I could even dream at that moment, and I went home, and the next weekend, I was appointed to the Geisel.”
Over the next few years, Schofield continued to work on various committees, until, in 2019, she was sitting on the couch with her family when she received a notification on her phone: she had been selected for the Newbery committee.
“It was an appointment, and, I’m going to be honest, I stared at it, and I said, ‘no way,’” she said. “I looked at my husband and said, ‘Can you read this please?’”
“He read it and he said, ‘No way.’ I shared it with my son, and he read it and he goes, ‘Are they crazy? Are you serious?’”
Before meeting with other members of the committee, Schofield said she spent most of the next year reading hundreds of books, writing thousands of notes on innumerable sticky notes.
Like all aspects of life in 2020, the committee was impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic, which meant instead of meeting to deliberate in-person, the meetings were held online.
“I will say, I was really anxious about what that was going to be like because a phase that is often used in this kind of work is trust the process…,” Schofield said, “and I had a hard time envisioning what that would look like in a virtual environment and would the process feel the same, and I am so impressed by the leadership of our chair and the professionalism of our committee. It was so much fun. It was such a joy.”
Being able to discuss the books was a relief for Schofield, who signed a confidentiality agreement and had not been able to talk or even post pictures about what she was reading.
“All my pictures, I couldn’t have my bookshelf in the background,” she said. “I couldn’t say, ‘Hey, this is a really great book. You should check it out.’ I couldn’t say any of that, and we weren’t allowed to talk about it amongst the committee, so it wasn’t even like I could read something and go, ‘what did you think about this?’ We had no communication with each other really until we met to deliberate.”
Schofield said she is still not allowed to talk about how long the group met or what books were or were not discussed before the selections were made, which aren’t necessarily always the most popular books of the year.
“I always remind people, it’s not a popularity contest. It’s not a didactic contest, there are other contests that exist for those things,” she said. “The Newbery is about what is distinguished, what really sets itself apart and sets a high bar in the field. To be able to have those conversations is an amazing thing.”
Looking back at what made her fall in love with literature, Schofield credited the local school and library systems with fostering her love of reading and recommended that everyone take some time to go to a local library and pick out a book.
“Without access to libraries -- both public and school -- I might not have become the reader that I am,” Schofield said, “and so I want to honor the work that all of your public and school library workers are doing because even though I know they know it makes a difference, it really does make a difference.”