Barrington Stoke and the Carnegie Medal

In thinking about the significance of this year’s Carnegie winner, I’ve thought a lot about issues of representation: the way Lark made me feel seen, and the questions around disability representation it raised for me. The final piece of this is thinking about Lark in the context of its publisher, and the wider significance of choosing this particular kind of publication for the Carnegie Medal. This week, Dyslexia Awareness Week, seems like a good time to pick up this thread.

Lark was published by Barrington Stoke, a well-established publisher who specialise in ‘super-readable, dyslexia-friendly fiction to help every child become a reader‘. This goal is realised through the design of the books – which are printed in a dyslexia-friendly font on a yellowish paper – and through the content. Their books are short, edited ‘to ensure unnecessary words don’t hinder comprehension while the text will still challenge the reader’, and written with a view to the interests rather than the reading age of the intended reader.They also have attractive cover designs which present them as typical mass market paperbacks rather than as ‘special’ books (these have gotten better and better over time as Barrington Stoke have become more established and their budget correspondingly higher).

It’s the writing style that particularly interests me, in light of Lark’s Carnegie win. One peculiarity of the Carnegie Medal is that the criteria make no reference to children. That is, while at various points they invite judges to consider the effect of the book on the reader, there’s no explicit direction to consider the intended reader. In many ways this makes sense – much academic ink has been spilt on the issues associated with conjuring up an imagined reader , especially in relation to children’s literature. On the other hand, this is something which has often given rise to criticism in relation to the Carnegie Medal’s trend towards awarding more and more young adult fiction. It’s quite challenging to judge a humorous novel for 8-10 year olds against a serious historical novel aimed at 15+, and the risk is that the more complex writing and themes of the latter will be more appealing to the (adult) judges, especially absent any explicit directive to consider the readership. In my shadowing group, we’ve had quite a few spirited debates about whether particular aspects of shortlisted books would work for actual children, and how much it matters. In conversations with past Carnegie judges about this, I’ve heard that they are encouraged rather to think about what the book sets out to do, with the aim of thinking about age but also about factors like genre.

In our shadowing group this year, we had some debate about whether it was relevant that Lark was published by Barrington Stoke. My feeling is that it is, insofar as knowing about Barrington Stoke is a useful frame for understanding what the book sets out to do (it’s also important to know that the book is the last of a series, even though it works – as it must according to the criteria of the Medal – as a stand-alone read).  Lark is a short, focused novel and it works as such, but I think that understanding the aims of the publisher make it easier to embrace the form rather than wishing for more.

One of Anthony McGowan’s previous books in this series, Rook, was nominated for the Carnegie Medal. I also loved that book and thought it would have been a worthy winner, but I’m particularly interested in Lark‘s win because its physical presentation marks something of a turning point in Barrington Stoke’s presentation of its books.

Book jacket for Anthony McGowan, 'Rook'. Cover image is a photograph of a teenage boy splayed upside down on a sofa placed on the beach.
Jacket image of Anthony McGowan’s Rook.

 Rook – and the other books in the series – followed most other Barrington Stoke books in using photographs for their jacket images. I like the design of these books, which are very appealing and eye-catching. This particular cover doesn’t really relate much to the content of the book (I’m not sure why the boy is on a sofa on the beach) but it does have something of the spirit I associate with the book. I’m interested in the tendency to use  photographic jackets because it follows the example of an earlier series for ‘reluctant’ readers, Macmillan Topliner, which was edited by Aidan Chambers from the late 1960s to the beginning of the 1980s. In the case of that series, using photographs was part of a concerted effort to make the books appear more like typical mass market paperbacks, and to appeal to readers who might be more drawn to teenage magazines such as Jackie. I suspect that Barrington Stoke were similarly motivated by a desire to produce books which would immediately grab the attention of readers, and which didn’t look like ‘special’ books but rather were similar to mainstream publishing for the same age group. Certainly at around the time Barrington Stoke launched, I remember that the portrait photo style of jacket was particularly popular. In the case of Pike and the other stories in this series, what is emphasised is the realistic quality of the series, its focus on working-class life and on boys.

Jacket image for Anthony McGowan, 'Lark'. Stylised linocut style illustration of a lark in flightLark breaks from the style used with the earlier books, and with earlier Barrington Stoke titles in general, deploying this very distinctive linocut style image of a lark in flight. This is the first book in McGowan’s series not to feature a person on the cover – which is striking given they’re all named after animals – and it breaks from the photorealist style entirely. I think it’s fair to say that this cover emphasises a completely different aspect of the book. Rather than foregrounding the ‘gritty realism’ of the series, it emphasises its links to nature, and perhaps to the heritage of literary writing about nature. The lark, of course, has some particularly powerful literary associations, so it’s perhaps appropriate that this is foregrounded in this book. But one of the things which I find compelling about all the books in this series is their lyricism – along with a lively and immediate narrative about characters in often difficult situations, they offer some beautiful and evocative writing about the natural world.

This cover, then, speaks to one of the really important things about Barrington Stoke. It’s not uncommon for difficulty reading to be conflated with reluctance to read: after all, if you find it difficult to read the text, you’re a lot less likely to feel enthusiastic about reading at all. But this conflation often leads to a particular construction of the ‘reluctant’ reader as someone who is only interested in plot driven, immediate narratives; someone who probably wants to read about people like themselves; someone who is the anthithesis of the ‘literary’ reader. The more overtly ‘literary’ styling of Lark foregrounds something which has been part of Barrington Stoke’s ethos all along: the understanding that readers with dyslexia and other difficulties with literacy are still very diverse readers. They are just as likely to welcome evocative, lyrical nature writing as gritty realism, just as they are likely to come from all sorts of social and ethnic backgrounds. Lark is both a ‘literary’ book and an ‘accessible’ book, and it is a pleasure to see the Carnegie Medal recognise this.

 

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(Dis)ability, readers, and the Carnegie Medal: more thoughts on Lark

In my recent blog on this year’s Carnegie Medal, I talked extensively about the themes of Anthony McGowan’s Lark and the reasons this year’s win was particularly meaningful to me. There were a few miscellaneous things I had originally had in mind for that post, but couldn’t fit in. So this post is in the nature of a ‘mop up’: some things that seem to me important or interesting but that don’t necessarily fit together completely. I’ll be discussing the ending of Lark in this post, so if you haven’t read it then go away and read it before you read this post. It’s brilliant and it’s short!

One thing I praised Lark for was its representation of disability. It’s important to acknowledge that the experience this series gives voice to is primarily that of the sibling of a persom with a disability: the books are narrated by Nicky, the non-disabled sibling, and we see Kenny’s disabilty through his eyes. This isn’t a weakness – in fact it’s exactly the thing that was meaningful to me – but it’s worth acknowledging.

The aspect of Lark that I was most ambivalent about was the ending. The epilogue of the book skips forward some decades, portraying the brothers as older adults who have lived out full and largely happy lives. Kenny is dying of cancer, and it’s at his deathbed that Nicky finally confesses the truth about the death of their dog Tina years before. Nicky’s last act of care for Kenny is his final act of storytelling, and his picture of Tina seeking Kenny out in heaven. As a reader, this ending destroyed me: full on ugly sobbing. Even now I can’t look back at it without starting to cry. As someone who has a sibling with a disability, it hit some visceral feelings not only in terms of anticipated grief and loss, but also because the prospect of being able to care for a sibling right through to the end is in itself a sort of reassuring fantasy. For someone like Nicky, who has spent his whole life looking out for his sibling, the idea of ‘abandoning’ that sibling by predeceasing them is in itself a fear. In fact, I think you could read this epilogue as Nicky’s imagined ending for them: we learn for example that he’s been married to Sarah, the character who was his girlfriend in the previous book (they’ve broken up by Lark), which aids narrative economy but also could be read as something of a fantasy. So this is a strange sort of happy ending, which hit me right in the guts.

And yet: I have some reservations about it. In terms of the overall narrative of the book and the series, I wondered whether the revelation that Kenny on some level understood that Nicky’s story about Tina going to ‘live on a farm’ was a comforting lie would have worked better in the closing chapter, when they are about to meet their mother. The absence of their mother – and the negative effects of her absence – have been a running theme through the series, and it’s the anticipation of her visit which drives the boys out on the fateful walk in Lark. Placing the revelation that Kenny understands Nicky’s stories as part of the care he offers would have had an important impact here, I think, in terms of emphasising that he is just as resilient as Nicky and just as able to weather the new upheavals in their lives represented by their mother’s return. And crucially, I think this would have kept the books more firmly within the perspective of the teenagers who are the intended audience. For me as an adult, the prospect of a life in which I am the sole carer of my sibling is much more real, and so thw anxiety about what would happen if I wasn’t there is correspondinly more real. This wasn’t a thing I was really conscious of aged 15, and I wonder how the ending of the book resonates for readers of Nicky’s age.

I also have reservations about this ending because so many children’s books which portray people with disabilities ultimately ‘kill off’ those characters. This book doesn’t fall into the ablist tropes that often accompany this: Kenny has lived a full life, and his death is not portrayed as a good thing. This isn’t a ‘blessed release from the curse of disability’, for Kenny or for Nicky. So I wouldn’t say this ending is ablist – but in the context of that long tradition of disabled characters who don’t make it to the end of the book, it is a bit uncomfortable.

Notwithstanding my queation about how the ending resonates for teenage readers above, one of the things that pleased me about the Carnegie win for Lark is what it says about the ways in which the Medal might be thinking about its readers. I’d thought that this might fit into this post. but it’s running long, so I’ll save that for another day. Next time: thoughts on a Carnegie win from Barrington Stoke.

 

 

Knight Crusader

Book jacket: Ronald Welch, 'Knight Crusader'. Jacket depicts a mounted medieval knight in the foreground, with white surcoat emblazoned with a red cross. A train of horses crossing the desert is in the background.
First edition jacket of ‘Knight Crusader’

The trend towards historical fiction in the Carnegie Medal of the 1950s continues with 1954’s winner, Ronald Welch’s Knight Crusader. The story of Philip d’Aubigny, a young Norman nobleman born in the Crusader states of the Outremer, it is set at the time of the Third Crusade (1189–1192). At the opening of the book, Philip is an impetuous young knight. The first part of the narrative leads up to his engagement in the Battle of Hattin, which ends in defeat for the Christian forces and Philip’s capture by Saladin’s forces; the second part covers Philip’s escape from captivity and involvement in the Third Crusade under King Richard; the third part sees Philip arrive in Britain where he takes up the Welsh fiefdom left by his grandfather.

This is very much a ‘Boys’ Adventure’ type of book: its central focus is Philip’s growth from a strong but untested knight, to ‘one of the greatest barons in Outremer’, and there are a LOT of battle scenes. I typically find battles pretty boring (even in books where there’s something extra-cool about them, like Naomi Novik’s Temeraire series where the Napoleonic Wars are being fought with the aid of dragons), so these made the book drag a lot for me, although I can imagine they would be pretty exciting to the right reader. Some of the most vivid parts of the book are those dealing with the experience of doing battle in the intense heat and dust: it’s possible that Welch had some first-hand experience to draw on here, as he served in the Welch Regiment in WW2 (adopting his pen name in their honour – his real name was actually Ronald Oliver Felton). I haven’t been able to figure out which battalion he served with, but the 1st Battalion saw service in Palestine and Egypt. If he was in the 1st Battalion, he also suffered quite a few crushing defeats, and the desperate madness of soldiers aware that defeat is inevitable is another aspect of the book that stands out.

What is interesting to me is the way this book fits into its historical context. Philip’s experience of being a ‘Norman’ born and bred in the Outremer, and who ‘returns’ to a Britain he has never actually experienced, is one that must have resonated with many white Britons who had lived most of their lives in British colonies. The rapid contraction of the British Empire in the first half of the twentieth century meant that many such people were ‘returning’ to Britain as their former homes achieved indepdendence from Britain (exactly the shift that is taking place in this book as the Outremer states largely fall to Saladin’s forces). In this context, Welch doesn’t simply draw a picture of Britain as superior. The book emphasises the fact that in many respects the culture of the Near and Middle East was superior to European culture of the period: there are frequent references to the dirtiness of recent arrivals from Europe. When dining in Kidwelly Castle in Wales, Philip witnesses his host throw the scraps of his food to the dogs:

For one second there passed through Philip’s mind a picture of old Usamah [the Muslim noble with whom he was captive]  in his beautifully decorated dining room, his table covered with gold and silver dishes or graceful Damascus glass, eating daintily and fastidiusly with the bright Eatsern sun streaming in through the tall windows.

It’s made clear that Philip imports some of the comfort and civilisation he’s been accustomed to to Britain, and it’s interesting to see this recognition of how ‘British’ culture has been underpinned by influences from elsewhere (though it doesn’t really acknowledge that this means British culture and luxuries are often stolen or extorted). Philip also shows a good deal of respect for the various Muslim noblemen he meets: at the beginning of the book he even considers the prohibition on alcohol, offering a Turkish nobleman water rather than wine after he rescues him from an attack by bandits.

These positive representations, however, are part of a generally Orientalist portrayal in which the luxury and civilisation of the East are combined with an essential savagery. In the various battle scenes, it’s always the Islamic forces who are described as ‘savage’ even though the level of violence is about the same on both sides. There’s also some ‘period typical racism’, including the use of the term ‘Infidels’ and several references to ‘Negroes’. My paperback edition, published in 2013, includes a note in the beginning that ‘some words in the text would not be used in any book written today’, although given that it doesn’t highlight which words are problematic this is rather mealy-mouthed. Overall, the book definitely doesn’t have the kind of egregious racism that a lot of other ‘Boys’ Adventure’ type books have, and it might have seemed quite progressive at the time of publication, but it’s not necessarily a book that I’d choose to give to young readers today. There are loads of brilliant contemporary historical novels which give a more fully rounded picture of different cultures and I didn’t feel as if there was anything especially special about this book that merits it living on.

The other thing that interested me about this book’s portrayal of British history is its use of the ‘Good King Richard’ narrative. When I was thinking about this blog post, I realised that I know very little about this period of history, but I do know that it was ‘Good King Richard’ as opposed to ‘Bad King John’. This is probably because of books like this: Welch definitely cleaves to this narrative. At the start of the book the disastrous leadership of Guy de Lusignan is shown to lead directly to the defeat of the Christian forces; by contrast, when Richard arrives he’s depicted as a brave and intelligent commander who makes the right choices even though he’s far less familiar with the territory. We never meet Prince John, but his supporters are shown as the kind of men who abuse their servants and are both bullies and inferior warriors. At the end of the book, Philip takes back his fief from its current occupant (who has literally no reason to think he’s not the legal heir until Philip shows up out of the blue), but it’s presented as ok because he’s one of John’s supporters so he must be a Bad Man. At this distance in time I’m not sure if it matters if the portrayal of Richard and John is especially accurate (at least in terms of the overall impressions the book leaves – obviously it matters from a historian’s perspective) but this very strong and pervasive picture of these two kings is striking. And on the whole, I’m not a fan of the portrayal of people who are on the other side, politically speaking, as also bad people in every other sense.

So – this is one I’m happy to consign to the annals of history. A fair enough read if you’re fond of battle and adventure type stories, but as I’m not it didn’t hold up that well for me. A shout out though to William Stobbs’ illustations, which are in a lovely woodcut style (I’m not sure how they were actually done) and really add to the book.

SOME UNSCIENTIFIC RATINGS AND NOTES…

My overall rating: 6/10  – Well-researched (if ideologically inflected) historical narrative, which is well put together. It’s a good example of its type, but I’m not sure it’s stood the test of time.

Plot: 7/10 – It’s a well-constructed plot and has a lot of exciting elements, even though the heavy emphasis on battles wasn’t for me

Characterisation: 5/10 – We get a lot of consideration of Philip’s character, but it’s very much ‘impetuous boy to battle-hardened man of restraint and power’. I never felt I really got to know him, and moments like his father’s death don’t have the psychological insight they might have done because they’re so driven towards the ‘forging in hardship’ type narrative

Themes: Crusades, battle, Middle Ages, masculinity, imperialism, British identity

Publisher: Oxford University Press (we’re well into the era of OUP Carnegie dominance here)

Illustrator: William Stobbs. Stobbs did the cover image as well as the black and white illustrations. A very fine example of the illustrated novel of this period. Stobbs is less well-remembered than he should be. Incidentally this is the year that Harold Jones was ‘highly commended’ for Lavender’s Blue, which directly prompted the establishment of the Kate Greenaway for illustration.

Author’s nationality/race: White Welsh (I think?)

Intended readership: The older end of children’s – specifically boys. I’m not sure if it would go down well with a ten-year-old today, but I imagine the 10-14 bracket was the target audience of the time.

 

 

 

The Lark ascends: being seen in the Carnegie Medal

Banner reading 'Winner: CILIP Carnegie Medal 2020 - Lark, Anthony McGowan, Barrington Stoke'. It is accompanied by a picture of the jacket image of the winning book, depiciting a lark flying over a snowy scene.

This year’s Carnegie Medal has been awarded to Anthony McGowan for Lark, the fourth in his series about Northern teenagers Kenny and Nicky. In a year with quite a few shortlisted books I would have been happy to see win, I was utterly delighted that the Medal went to this one. In a lifetime of rich reading experiences, this particular set of books touched me in a different way, speaking to a part of my life I rarely see represented in any media.

The books are set in Yorkshire, not too far from where I grew up in County Durham, and this alone makes them stand out for me. The last Carnegie winner to be set in the North of England was David Almond’s brilliant Skellig, which won the Medal in 1998. Nicky and Kenny’s life is pretty far removed from my own childhood (which was considerably more privileged) but it’s also immediately recognisable to me as a portrait of the places and people of my life.

Lark follows the naming convention of the three previous books: Brock, Pike, and Rook. The  series has a theme of caring: care for the eponymous animals; parental care, or the lack of it (when the series begins, Nick and Kenny’s mother has abandoned the family and their father is struggling with alcoholism); and the care of siblings for one another. Although Kenny is the older brother, for most of the series the emphasis is on Nicky’s role as his carer, because Kenny has a learning disability – or, as Nicky puts it in the first book, Brock, he is ‘simple’, in the sense that ‘He hasn’t got all the stuff going on that messes up other people’s heads. […] He thinks other people are as kind as he is, and he only has one idea at a time’. McGowan’s treatment of care shows it in all its messy reality: the boys’ father wants to do well, but for a large portion of the series is fundamentally failing; and Nicky is dedicated to Kenny but also frequently annoyed, impatient, and imperfect in inevitable ways. The books are told through Nicky’s first person narration, which means that Kenny’s disability is not always described in the ‘right’ ways (as in the passage quoted above) but that Kenny himself is described in the way that Nicky sees him: as rich and complicated human being who is amusing, irritating and lovable in the way of all siblings. The books negotiate what it means for Nicky to care for Kenny, in all the possible senses of the word ‘care’.

Lark, the final book in the series, depicts a turning point in this exploration of care. It’s appropriate that whereas the first three books open with a chapter from the point of view of the animal, and focus the plot around this animal, Lark breaks from this. In fact, it’s not until almost the end of the book that the lark actually makes an appearance – and not in the same very real and concrete way that the animals in the earlier books appear. Instead, the book opens with Kenny’s words – ‘I don’t bloody like it’ – plunging us straight into the plot of the book, in which the risk is not to the animal but to the boys themselves. Lost on the Yorkshire Moors, their planned adventure – a distraction from the impending arrival of their estranged mother – has begun to turn to peril.  As the weather turns colder, they begin to realise that they do not know how to get back to civilisation.

There are many lovely touches in the portrayal of the brothers’ relationship here, such as Nicky’s care to take a hat, scarf and gloves for Kenny while failing to think of warm clothing for himself. Whereas some of my Shadowing group found this a bit contradictory, I found this a very realistic note which highlights the way that caring for someone can often mean focusing on their needs first. It also provides the basis for the beginning of a shift in their relationship which is the real story of the book, since Kenny refuses to wear the woollies and suggests Nicky wear them himself. ‘And the truth is, it felt good having the hat and scarf and gloves on. Like having a cuddle from your… Well, like having a cuddle.’ This is the first hint that in this book the tables will be turned: while Nicky has always been the carer, in Lark it’s ultimately Kenny who has to care for his brother.

This shift is forced on them when Nicky breaks his leg, so that there’s no choice but for Kenny to make his way up the river alone in search of help. For the first time in the series, when Kenny says he’s scared, Nicky can’t protect him. Instead he has to push him away, saying ‘We’ll always be together. But to be together, you’ve got to leave me now’. The lark is an appropriate symbol for this book, for this is the lark ascending, which can be realised only through separation. To care for Kenny, Nicky has to let go of him, and allow him to be the one who takes care of him.

It’s while the boys are separated that Nicky finally sees the lark after which the book is named (and in search of which they have embarked on their walk). Lying huddled with their dog Tina, whose body warmth has helped him get through the night, Nicky sees the sun come up and then he hears the lark:

The mad ecstatic music of the lark. I peered into the brightness and saw the small bird straining upwards, its flight not like the easy, carefree swooping of the swallows and swifts. The lark’s flight was all effort, as if hauling itself up by sheer will – a wanting, a yearning. To fly and sing was work, it was grit. And it was beautiful.

Nicky comes to understand – or to believe – that the lark is a soul leaving the body, as Tina dies beside him. When he and Kenny are reunited, the dynamic of carer / cared for is partially reasserted through Nicky’s kind lie that Tina stayed on the moors, loving the farm life too much to return to them. But the final chapter of the book reveals that Kenny understood all along that this was nothing but a story. His willingness to accept Nicky’s protection of him is in itself part of his care for Nicky: his understanding that Nicky’s care for him means he needs to feel he has protected him from pain.  We come to understand, by the end of the book, that Kenny too has cared for and protected Nicky; it’s not an unequal relationship but what Marah Gubar might term a ‘kinship’ relationship in which each brother contributes in different ways.

This is a beautiful book, and it was also a profoundly meaningful book for me personally. Like Nicky, I have a sibling with a disability, and I don’t think I’ve ever read a book which captured the love and complexity of that relationship in the way these books do. As a white, able bodied, cis woman with a university education, I’m not exactly lacking in books which reflect my experience, so I was unprepared for just how deeply moving I would find it to be ‘seen’ in this way. I felt this reading the previous books, and this culminating story had me weeping uncontrollably through the last several chapters and beyond. (I’m weeping again now, thinking about them again.) I was hungry for this book without knowing it.

This reading experience made me feel in a more personal way what I already believed in a political way: that it’s hugely important for the Carnegie Medal to honour books which represent a wide range of experiences. Since 2017, when the all-white longlist and shortlist prompted widespread and well-founded criticisms about the lack of diversity in the Medal, CILIP has implemented a wide-ranging review of both the Carnegie and Greenaway Medals and has begun the process of change. The shortlists for the last two years have shown some of the effects of this: we’ve had several non-white authors shortlisted, and this year finally saw a Black British author (Dean Atta) make it to the shortlist. As Lark indicates, the shortlists have also made more room for other types of experience which aren’t often represented in mainstream literature, including disability and queer experience. In terms of race, though, the Carnegie has typically represented non-white experience as ‘outside over there’, as Karen Sands-O’Connor, Aishwarya Subramanian and I identified in an article last year (published version; open access pre-publication version if you can’t access the published one). There are so many British children hungry to be seen in the books they read – some of them, like me, probably aren’t even aware that hunger is in them – and I really want the Carnegie Medal to meet that hunger. I want to see the shortlist and the winners continue to grow richer, especially in relation to race – because for sure Black British children are starving for books about themselves – but also in relation to a whole wide range of experience.  Because it’s not incidental, this prize: it’s highly visible, and it really means something to be seen.

A Valley Grows Up

Front cover of a book titled 'A Valley Grows Up'. A full colour watercolour image of a train of carriags and horeback riders following a road down to a valley fills the entire cover.1953’s Carnegie Medal winner is the third of only four non-fiction titles ever to win the Medal. Like most of the others, it takes a narrative approach to non-fiction, telling the story of a valley and how it changes from the prehistoric era through to the twentienth century. Indeed, as the author admits at the end, the valley itself is fiction and ‘only exists in my imagination’, although its story is rooted in the facts of English history over this time. It’s certainly an engaging way of telling history: the book originated in a series of lectures author-illustrator Edward Osmond gave for students with learning difficulties, which he illustrated on a blackboard ‘by means of an imaginary village which, together, we created “from scratch”‘ (CKG Living Archive). The narrative voice of the book reflects this origin: the narrator directly addresses the reader, directing their attention to details of the illustrations with some of the same authority and familiarity you would expect from a teacher who has been working with a class for some time.

The pictures are thus at the heart of the book. There are 10 double-page colour spreads depicting the valley at 5000BC, 250BC, 250AD, 900, 1160, 1250, 1475, 1600, 1770, and 1900 respectively (in common with most British publications at this time BC/AD are used rather than BCE/CE). A discussion of children’s book illustration in the Times Literary Supplement commented

Double-page spread: colour illustration of a Saxon village in a valley, with a large river winding through the valley
Image of the valley in 900: Saxon village with strip farming

These are augmented by line drawings set into the text itself, including many detailed plans of the town and its buildings at different periods. I particularly liked the visual representation of time on a 12 inch ruler: some of the pictures which appear there are smaller versions of the ones which appear in the text at the relevant points.

Two pages from the book 'A Vallery Grows Up', discussing ice ages and the emergence of modern man, On the left-hand page is a line drawing of a ruler used to represent time: it shows that the last thousand years represent only the thickness of one of the lines marking the inches. On the right-hand page is a line drawing of early man (head and shoulders profile).
Opening pages in ‘A Valley Grows Up’. Note the use of a 12 inch ruler to convey the length of historical time between the formation of the valley and the emergence of modern man, and the repetition of the image representing ‘cave men’ alongside the text.

Despite the importance of the photos, however, there’s much more text than you would find in most information books written for children today. The copy I have happens to have a nice bit of book history attached, in the form of the original owner’s name written (with some embellishments) on the title page.

Judging by the handwriting, this reader was probably somewhere in the age range to whom we might offer a book like Usborne’s Encyclopedia of World Historywhich is much more heavily illustrated:

'Living in a Village' from 'Usborne Encyclopedia of World History'
Double-page spread of ‘Living in a Village’ from ‘Usborne Encyclopedia of World History’.

This difference reflects changes in printing technology, of course: combining colour images and text in this way would have been almost impossible (or at least staggeringly expensive) at the time A Valley Grows Up. It makes for a different kind of book, though, and I think probably contributed to the narrative form of the book: creating an imaginary village with a history and inhabitants brings the history to life and holds the attention even through long passages of text.

Using a fictional valley rather than a real setting makes it possible to ensure that something ‘happens’ in every period of history. By the same token, however, this means that when certain things *don’t* happen that’s a choice of the author rather than an accident of history. Having been thinking a lot over the last few years about the way we construct ideas of nationhood, I found some of these choices quite revealing. For example, the valley doesn’t suffer attack during the first Roman incursion, although it is burned to the ground by the Danes, a decision which makes it easier to focus on the Roman invasion as a civilising influence. Catherine Butler and Hallie O’Donovan have written about role of Rome in the British national imaginary since the medieval era: notwithstanding the Roman invasion of Britain, it is positioned as part of a noble founding myth rather than as a hostile invader, and narratives of the civilising Roman Empire have been important to narratives which cast the British Empire in a similarly postive light. This is certainly the case in this book, in which Danish and Saxon invasions are discussed in terms of pillage and destruction, and the Saxons described as ‘sea-robbers’, while the Roman invasion – when it comes to our valley – is portrayed as a triumph of superior military force: ‘The men of the hill-fortress fought bravely for a sort time, but they were only farmers and were no match for the professional soldiers of Rome.’ When they are defeated it was ‘naturally considered to be a great disaster at the time, but it was to be the beginning of one of the most prosperous periods our valley has ever known’. By contrast, even though the Norman invasion is also shown as bringing new innovations to the valley, the Normans themselves are not portrayed in flattering terms: the new Norman lord is a ‘hard ruthless man’ who adopts ‘bullying tactics’. Implicitly, then, the valley – and through it the nation – are able to claim a founding myth which allies them with a great and civilising imperial power, while more recent incursions retain a sense of hostility to the invading foreign powers. The way the narrative of the valley plays out in this book is, in fact, interestingly similar to the narrative offered up by the spectacular North East outdoor performance, Kynren, which takes a very similar approach to this book, telling the history of England through a specific place, and similarly negotiates a history of invasions in a way which allows for a narrative of enduring ‘Englishness’, and casts some invaders – but not others – as outsiders even while showing that they ultimately ‘become us’.

Although I think that the changes in expectations around non-fiction for children would make this book a harder sell today, it does hold up as an engaging read, and as a well put-together book. At this point in the Medal’s history, the format and printing quality of the book were still important elements of the criteria, and it’s easy to see why this stood out in this respect too. Interestingly, Eileen Colwell’s notes on the Medal show that this book got the ‘popular vote’ (i.e. a preponderance of nominations from librarians, not votes by children) along with Rosemary Sutcliff’s Civil War novel Simon. The number of librarians nominating at this point was still quite limited, but I think this does suggest that this might have been a book that was well-received by children. I’m glad to have had a reason to explore it!

SOME UNSCIENTIFIC RATINGS AND NOTES…

My overall rating: 8/10  – It’s a little difficult to rate in comparison to the fiction titles, but I found it a very engaging read and learned a lot!

Plot: 8/10 – Again, this is an odd measure for a non-fiction book, but I’ve kept it in because it is a story, not a purely non-fiction text, and it brings the valley and its history to life. I think this would be a fantastic way to learn the history of England (even if there are some historiographical issues associated with presenting history so neatly as this)

Quality of information (normally characterisation): 10/10 – My knowledge of history is not that brilliant, frankly, so this isn’t a comment on how accurate the facts are in this book (and I’m guessing that what was considered to be accurate in 1953 might not be so now anyway). But this does a great job as an information book in giving details about each period and bringing them to life, the illustrations are fantastic, and there’s a good level of detail (we find out about education, work, transport, etc). I’d definitely have bought this book as a school librarian in 1953!

Themes: History, heritage, landscape, building

Publisher: Oxford University Press

Illustrator: Edward Osmond

Author’s nationality/race: English, probably white (I haven’t any definitive information on his race but it is probable from the facts I have)

Intended readership: I find this a little difficult to gauge as I’m less familiar with information books of this period, but I think probably roughly 8-14.

 

 

 

The Borrowers

If 1951’s winner didn’t speak to me, 1952’s is one of the books of my heart. It has an

The Borrowers - first edition jacket image
First edition jacket for The Borrowers, illustrated by Diana Stanley

advantage, of course: I read The Borrowers as a child and still carry some of that childhood reading experience with me on rereads. But there’s no question that this is a rich and wonderful novel, whenever you are coming to it. Mary Norton’s tale of tiny people who live hidden in human houses, ‘borrowing’ what they need to live on, has had one of the longest and most robust afterlives of any Carnegie winner: continuously in print, it’s been adapted multiple times, in various different media.

From the very opening lines the book asks readers to think and to wonder:

It was Mrs. May who first told me about them. No, not me. How could it have been me— a wild, untidy, self-willed little girl who stared with angry eyes and was said to crunch her teeth? Kate, she should have been called. Yes, that was it— Kate. Not that the name matters much either way: she barely comes into the story.

What are we to make of this narrator who immediately disclaims herself? A narrator who immediately sets parameters for the kind of little girl who ‘should’ have heard the story, while simultaneously making it clear what kind of little girl actually did. The self-willed little girl sets us up for the heroine of the story itself, the Borrower Arrietty who yearns for a life beyond the cramped spaces below the floorboards. Yet she is also tamed by her exposure to the past, in the shape of Mrs May who tells her the story of the Borrowers:

Kate was never ‘wild’ with Mrs. May, nor untidy, nor self-willed; and Mrs. May taught her many things besides crochet: how to wind wool into an egg-shaped ball; how to run-and-fell and plan a darn; how to tidy a drawer and to lay, like a blessing, above the contents, a sheet of rustling tissue against the dust.

This sets up a tension which runs throughout the book, between a nostalgia for the past and the ways of the past, and the vitality of youth which drives towards the new and recognises the stifling presence of the old.

Much of this tension is embodied in the country house, which was a focus for much of Britain’s complicated feelings about its past and future in the early twentieth century. Like many country estates by 1952, the house in which the main narrative of the Borrowers takes place is in decline. Once a vibrant household with a full complement of servants, a lively family, and a host of visitors, it has dwindled to a single old lady – Aunt Sophy – two servants (a cook-housekeeper, Mrs Driver, and the gardener Crampfurl), and, for the duration of the action of the book, the Boy, sent to convalesce. And, of course – though most of the human inhabitants are unaware of them – the three Borrowers: Pod, Homily and Arrietty. The presence of the Borrowers in itself imbues the space of the house with a kind of magic, and Homily remembers the days when the house was inhabited with both many people and many Borrowers with nostalgia. But for Arrietty, the house is a prison:

It was only Pod who knew the way through the intersecting passages to the hole under the clock. And only Pod could open the gates. There were complicated clasps made of hair-slides and safety-pins of which Pod alone knew the secret.

If the gates serve to keep Homily and Arrietty safe from mice and other intruders from the outside, they also serve to keep them in – as Pod himself points out to Arrietty. The Boy also experiences his time in the house primarily as a period of confinement and loneliness. When Arrietty encounters the Boy, it is transformative for both of them, but these encounters ultimately lead to the discovery of the Borrowes, their flight from the house, and the Boy’s imprisonment in his room. The very story which serves to inspire in both ‘Kate’ and the reader of the book a desire to inhabit such a country house in fact turns on its oppression, decay, and ultimate dissolution.

These tensions are what make this book so narratively and conceptually rich. It’s possible to read the small, vulnerable Borrowers as children (believing unquestioningly that bigger people are for them, ‘like bread is for butter’), or as persecuted peoples (concealed fearfully in attics and under floorboards like the Franks in the Secret Annex). In their symbiotic relationship with the country house itself, they also mirror servants, deriving their social standing from the part of the house with which they are associated (the Overmantels, who lived in the morning room in times past, are – according to Homily – ‘stuck up’). This similarity is underscored by the fact that Mrs Driver, too, considers herself entitled to ‘borrow’: ‘A drop of Madeira here, a pair of old stockings there, a handkerchief or so, an odd vest, or an occasional pair of gloves— these, Mrs. Driver felt, […] were within her rights’. So the tension around the decline of the country house is in part the tension around the loss of community and livelihood for those people who worked in them – a loss which came about partly because the pay and conditions were so bad that young people  gladly abandoned service when other jobs were readily available after WW1. As the inestimable Aishwarya Subramanian pointed out in her doctoral work, there’s also a strong colonial dimension, although a complex one since the Borrowers unquestioningly exploit the ‘natural resources’ of human beings in a way which is reminiscent of the imperial British, but also occupy a vulnerable subject position. The country house itself is of course saturated with Empire, a link most clearly apparent through the presence of the Boy who has grown up in India. (In an mirroring of the Borrowers’ exploitative/vulnerable postion he will in fact ultimately die there, on the North West Frontier.) Rereading the book this time, I was particularly struck by the degree of violence: discovering the existence of the Borrowers, Mr Driver fantasises about how she will display them to her employer once they have been gassed, ‘laid out in sizes, on a piece of newspaper’.

All these complexity means this book is as satisfying on a 50th read as a first one. As a child, I was primarily captured by the idea of the tiny people living secret and intricate lives just out of sight (I can’t have been the only child to have left assorted small treasures under the floorboards just in case there might be someone there to enjoy them). Reading as an adult, I’m able to enjoy that aspect but am also still finding new things to think about on each read through.

Apparently Eileen Colwell (the first children’s librarian to serve as a Carnegie judge, and a major force in the history of the Medal) was dissatisfied with this choice in 1950. If this is true it’s now hard to imagine why, because almost 70 years later it still more than holds up.

 

SOME UNSCIENTIFIC RATINGS AND NOTES…

My overall rating: 10/10  – I can’t actually imagine how a book could be better than this

Plot: 10/10 – This is possibly the most action-packed book of the Carnegie winners so far, driven by first the perilous discovery of the Borrowers by the Boy, their near-extinction, and finally their flight. And the frame narrative adds further complexity.

Characterisation: 10/10 – Every character in this book is distinctly drawn – you get a real sense not only of Arrietty, Pod and Homily but of all the minor characters (I particularly love Aunt Sophy, who regularly talks to Pod under the belief that he is a hallucination brought on by Fine Old Madeira)

Themes: Growth, escape, heritage, decay, magic, class, imperialism

Publisher: Dent

Illustrator: Diana Stanley. Her detailed images of the Borrowers’ lives and the assorted small items they have repurposed as furniture are very satisfying

Author’s nationality/race: White English

Intended readership: Children’s, although Arrietty is actually 14 and the story of her desire to break away from the safety of family and grow out into the bigger world has some YA dimensions.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Wool-Pack

Jacket image for The Wool-Pack: beige background with three banner images, in the style of a medieval tapestry. Images show horses carrying wool-packs, horses with wriders, and three children alongside a shephered with crook, flock and sheep-dog.
First edition jacket image: Cynthia Harnett, The Wool-Pack

It’s been a long time since I updated this blog: there are a number of reasons for this but sadly one of them is certainly the winner for 1951, Cynthia Hartnett’s The Wool-Pack. I’m generally very fond of historical fiction, and I remember enjoying Hartnett’s A Load of Unicorn, so I am not sure why I really got hung up on this one, but ye gods, I found it dull.

It’s set in the 15th century, and follows the fortunes of 12-year-old Nicholas, son of a prosperous wool merchant. At the opening of the book, Nicolas’s father announces he’s betrothed Nicolas to Cecily, the young daughter of another merchant, and this forms one key narrative thread: Nicolas coming to terms with the idea that it’s time for him to transition from boyhood, his meeting with his betrothed, and their negotiation of the relationship. The second narrative thread is Nicolas’s discovery of villainy which threatens to ruin his father’s good name and business: his father’s wool-packer, Simon Leach, supposed to be responsible for ensuring the quality of the wool as it’s packed and sent away to be sold, is instead packing the bales with dross and stealing the good wool.  These two threads weave together, as Nicolas and Cecily work together to uncover the plot, and Nicolas moves from being perceived as a boy (his father dismisses his initial concerns) to greater maturity, successfully unmasking the plot. The book ends with his father’s recognition of Nicolas as ‘a man of honour’.

There’s lots to enjoy in this book: some of the detective work that Nicolas does to detect the plot is fun, and there’s also a genuine sense of menace from Leach and the Lombards. It also does a good job of conveying that people in the past were real people, while showing how they were shaped by the historical moment. For example, both Nicolas and Cecily are anxious about the betrothal, but it’s clear that the concept of having their marriage arranged for them is completely taken for granted. What they are worried about is whether they will actually like each other and how they negotiate moving into this more adult role while still being children. Harnett engineers a nice meeting for the two before they have a formal meeting under the eyes of their parents, in which they establish a genuine liking and understanding of each other as similarly lively; this contrasts nicely with the formal meeting in which they are both on best behaviour. Later on in the book, they try out the exercise of new agency because of their newly betrothed state: for example, Nicolas steps in to stop Cecily being punished for bad behaviour. All this feels very real and establishes how an early betrothal of this kind (to result in marriage only when both parties were adults) could have been the foundation for a happy marriage within this cultural context.

I also enjoyed the sense of England as part of a European community which is present throughout this book. by making the wool trade such a key part of the plot, Harnett is able to push against some popular misconceptions of medieval England as isolated, backwards, etc. International trade is key to the prosperity of Nicolas and Cecily’s families, they are shown as enjoying imported goods and priding themselves on their knowledge of and access to customs and goods from outside England. In the current political climate, all this seems like quite a crucial dimension of English history! This only goes so far, however, as the major antagonists are the Italian Lombards, who are conspiring with Leach to smuggle the stolen wool out of the country for sale on the Continent. This aspect serves to put forward an impression of Englishness as linked with integrity and honesty, while foreignness  is linked with trickery, plotting, and generally sinister behaviour. It’s not ahistorical to cast the ‘agent of the noble banking house of the Medici’ as less than 100% morally upright, but the presentation of his secretary as ‘sallow and pock-marked, with little eyes that peered under heavy lids, and a large flabby mouth’ works to cast the Lombards as intrinsically evil in a way that is quite xenophobic.

Where the book falls down, I think, is that its commitment to historical accuracy is *so* great that it starts to weigh down the plot. There are lots of expositional moments about particular historical details: there’s a long, detailed passage about Nicolas’s clothing, for example, which slows everything down. Most disappointingly, the plot is wrapped up largely ‘offscreen’: Nicholas sends a letter to his father which arrives in the nick of time, but the account of how it enables him to effect his release from prison and demonstrate that he is not responsible for the illicit sale of wool is told after the fact, when his father returns home. It makes sense that Nicolas isn’t present for these events – but if the story had built to a climactic moment in which Nicolas was there in person speaking in defence of his father, it would have been considerably more exciting. Ending the book with the information that Nicolas *will* be the chief witness in the coming trial is a little disappointing.

Having finally gotten around to writing about this book, I’m still not sure why I found it quite such a stumbling block, but it took me three goes to even finish what is a very short book. Oddly, I think I might have enjoyed it rather more as a child, because I did have a taste for stories with lots of details on ordinary life. So maybe the Carnegie committee were onto something. But it’s telling, I think, that this is one of the winners that’s not still in print (or even particularly remembered) today. C.S. Lewis’s Prince Caspian was also published in 1951, and while that’s definitely not an unproblematic read it’s a lot more fun than this. Plus (not to tip my hand) a win for that might have saved us from the award for The Last Battle later on.

SOME UNSCIENTIFIC RATINGS AND NOTES…

My overall rating: 5/10  – There’s stuff to enjoy here. But I didn’t enjoy it.

Plot: 5/10 – What starts out as an exciting plot goes  off the rails by moving the action away from the protagonists.

Characterisation: 6/10 – There’s some good character work, and I find that I do remember Cecily in particular, although I was occasionally annoyed by the obligatory ‘plucky girls like climbing trees more than needlework’ trope. I liked that trope as a kid, though, and it was a bit less tired in 1951!

Themes: Growth, cosmopolitianism, trade, adventure

Publisher: Methuen

Illustrator: Cynthia Harnett. The illustrations are quite charming, detailed line drawings of the type typical of books published in this period.

Author’s nationality/race: White English

Intended readership: Definitely children’s.

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Lark on the Wing

We enter the 1950s with Elfrida Vipont’s The Lark on the Wing, the first – but by far the last – Carnegie winner to emerge from Oxford University Press. Indeed, by the beginning of the 1960s, Oxford’s dominance was beginning to be almost taken for granted. It’s interesting, then, to consider the precent set by Vipont’s novel.The Lark on the Wing - first edition dust jacket

Vipont is probably best-known today for The Elephant and the Bad Baby, a picture book illustrated by Raymond Briggs which is still in print today. However, most of her books were for adults (mostly non-fiction books about Quakerism) or older children and young adults. The Lark on the Wing falls into the final category, and is the second of five novels following the same family. It is essentially a career novel: it follows young Quaker Kit Haverard from her dawning realisation that she wishes to become a professional singer, through to her first major professional triumph performing a major new piece of choral music. In this respect it’s something of a counterpart to 1948’s winner, Richard Armstrong’s Sea Change. Armstrong’s novel was explicitly presented as a novel for boys; Vipont’s can fairly be said to be one for girls, not only because its protagonist is a girl but because it is largely concerned with the challenges of making a career as a girl. Set at a moment when girls were making their way into careers, the novel is interested in what this means for them and how it conflicts with expectations that girls should be focused on the domestic sphere. Where in Armstrong’s novel the chief barrier to success is Cam himself, in Vipont’s it is clear that for Kit, many of the barriers come from societal expectations. Nevertheless,  Kit’s generation is shown to have more opportunities than that of her great-aunts: her experiences are contrasted with that of her Great-Aunt Henrietta, whose frustrated ambitions as a singer are shown to have deeply hurt her.

The Lark on the Wing is also a much more middle-class novel that Sea Change: Kit comes from a well-to-do home, has attended a private school and been provided with music lessons. Indeed, Vipont has to manufacture some of the challenges Kit faces by having her father die and leave too-large a share of his estate to Kit’s cousin Laura who – somewhat improbably given her overall characterisation as morally upright but unaffectionate – initially doesn’t seek to divert any of this money back to Kit. (This also allows for Kit to be rewarded for her hard work at the end of the novel when Laura’s new husband suggests they make over a share of her father’s estate.)

Despite the difference in milieu between this and Sea Change, there are a number of interesting commonalities. Although Kit is presented as rebellious inasmuch as her ambition to become a singer runs contrary to the wishes of her guardian, cousin Laura, ultimately much of the book is concerned with the need for careful and thoughtful hard work. Just as Cam is mentored by a wise second mate who emphasises the need to learn all the basics of seamanship before graduating to the ‘exciting’ work, Kit’s singing teacher Papa Andreou confines Kit to singing scales and practicing vowel sounds before she can graduate to ‘singing out’. Both these books speak to their 1950s context by addressing the experience of a lengthening adolescence and emphasising that there are more rewards in tolerating a long apprenticeship than in rushing headlong into the ‘adult’ portion of a career. Vipont’s Quakerism adds an interesting note here since it contributes to the general ethos of obedience and respect for elders, but also underpin’s Kit’s conviction that her singing is part of the ‘”real me” inside’ and is in some sense connected to the Quaker understanding of worship.

I have to confess that this book is much more to my tastes than Sea Change: I’m just inherently a lot more interested in the travails of a artistic teenage girl than I am in those of an adolescent merchant seaman. It’s also a much more ‘literary’ book in terms of style than Armstrong’s, much more complex in terms of writing style and narrative. Where this is a real strength is in its characterisation: Kit is well and sensitively drawn, and there are a range of other characters who are given some nuance and depth. To some extent Vipont does rely on the fact that this is a sequel to her earlier book The Lark in the Morn, and some of the subplots about different characters are a bit hard to follow if you’re not already familiar with them (as I wasn’t when I read this book), but I did like the sense that they were all real people with their own concerns. Kit’s cousin Milly, for example, falls in love with a Quaker missionary but knows she isn’t cut out for working in the field with him, while his passion for missionary work is such that he cannot give it up.

There is a romantic subplot running through the novel in the form of Kit’s very gradually evolving love affair with fellow singer Terry. Cadogan and Craig, discussing girls’ career novels as a genre, complain that they foreground the issue of romance too much and are often too concerned to demonstrate that girls can still be desirable and conventionally feminine even if they are pursuing a career. Although the book does show Kit blossoming into an attractive young woman, it doesn’t really fall into this trap – the romance is so very subtle that it would be possible to miss it altogether. Indeed, I think that it would have been a more rounded and realistic novel if we’d been allowed to also share in Kit’s growing awareness of her own sexual desire – this type of book was some way off, however!

in the 1960s Aidan Chambers was to complain that the Carnegie winners were ‘‘intellectual, sophisticated, over-written, unremarkable for anything in the slightest “questionable” in thought, word or deed’. This is too harsh a judgement of The Lark on the Wing, but I feel that it is very definitely the kind of book that he had in mind with this complaint. Certainly the pendulum had swung dramatically from the accessible, working-class centric, action focused Sea Change, and it was to stick on the Lark on the Wing side for quite a few years to come. It’s hard to imagine contemporary readers enjoying either book, though, and I think this is much to do with their intensely topical nature. The Lark on the Wing is a good, well-written book but what lifts it out of the niche audience for the ‘literary girl’s book’ is its sensitive treatment of the challenges associated with girls moving into the wider world of work at this particular historical moment.

As my student Jennifer has been showing in her recent work, this kind of book is part of a  longer tradition of novels for and about adolescent girls  which often gets  missed out of the narrative about YA literature. The Carnegie Medal may have skewed too much towards the YA side in recent years, but the presence of this book among these early winners is important, I think, and says something about how the market was developing at that time. It does feel a bit transitional – just as Sea Change was harking back to the nineteenth century seafaring story, this book has much in common with nineteenth century adolescent literature like The Daisy Chain and Little Women, especially in relation to the kind of moral lessons it wants to deliver. Just as Alcott’s Jo has her dalliance with writing ‘trashy’ literature, so Kit gets lured into the chance of performing more ‘commercial’ music in public against the advice of her music teacher, and like Jo she is duly chastened. But Kit is much more self-righteous and less richly drawn than Jo. While I think Vipont is similarly negotiating a fairly radical philosophy within a fairly restricted social context, the tensions of that don’t come across in quite the same way and would definitely escae most modern readers, I think.

 

SOME UNSCIENTIFIC RATINGS AND NOTES…

My overall rating: 7/10  – I enjoyed this, and there’s some fine writing, but it doesn’t quite take off. The whole thing is a bit more inclined to moralisation than I would like, in ways that make it feel a bit flat.

Plot: 6/10 – This is less a plotty novel than a character piece, and a lot of the big plotty moments are the weakest, I think.

Characterisation: 6/10 – The characterisation is finely drawn and the way Kit grows and changes is at the heart of the novel. Again, though, I think there’s a tiny bit too much moralising to make her feel 100% real.

Themes: Growth, work, music, religion, Quakerism, maturity

Publisher: Oxford University Press

Illustrator: My edition doesn’t have any illustrations.

Author’s nationality/race: White English

Intended readership (I’ve added this category since my ponderings on the representation children’s / YA in the Medal and it’s mostly based on my impression of the book on reading): YA

 

 

 

 

 

YA and the Carnegie Medal: growing away from children’s books?

Some musings on age categories and the Carnegie Medal, considering trends over time.

The announcement of this year’s Carnegie Greenaway shortlists (congratulations nominees!) prompted some discussion about the dominance of YA in recent years and the desirability or otherwise of splitting the Medal. This is not an especially new debate – it’s one that’s been familiar to me as long as I’ve engaged with the Medal professionally – but it’s certainly one that has gained in force in recent years. I’ve been mostly thinking about the earlier years of the Medal, and there are certainly quite a few books from the pre-1960s era which to my mind can be unambiguously classified as YA, so I started to wonder about what the trends over the lifetime of the Medal actually are. So, I’ve done a bit of digging around. The short version is: the Carnegie has definitely seen a massive swing in favour of YA in the last decade. Some longer musings below.

There are some challenges involved in producing any kind of a breakdown, not least because the way books for different ages are classified has varied quite a bit over time (though books written specifically for and about adolescent experience have certainly existed as long as the Carnegie Medal). I can’t pretend my survey was especially scientific: since Wikipedia both has a handy list of Carnegie winners and typically includes a classification as children’s or young adult in its descriptions of the books, I used this as a starting point. Having read a good percentage of the winners, I also applied my own judgement as a way of double-checking: for example, Wikipedia classifies Richard Armstrong Sea Change (1948) as a children’s novel, but I feel it is pretty unambiguously a novel for young adults given its focus on entering a career and the age of its protagonist (16) . Where there was an element of uncertainty, I used the age of the protagonist to help me make a determination one way or another, with protagonists over 13 pulling a liminal book into the YA category. There were a few where I felt a bit dubious: Jan Mark’s Handles (1983), for example, is listed as a children’s book, but I haven’t read it and some of the plot description suggests it might have been pushing into the teen category (it was published as a Puffin, though, not in Puffin Plus or similar, so I went with the children’s category). Robert Westall’s The Machine Gunners (1975) is to my mind somewhat liminal, with characters in their early teens and a narrative that is about growing up and away from parental authority, but it’s generally regarded as children’s and ultimately ‘feels’ like a children’s novel to me, so I kept that as children’s also. The trickiest was Watership Down (1972) which has rather a chequered history both in terms of its publication and its reception (it was published on a general list and almost simultaneously by Puffin; won lots of children’s awards but also became a cult classic for adults). It’s never felt particularly like a children’s book to me, and in the end I decided to class this book and this one alone as ‘crossover’. What was a little surprising to me, however, is how easy it was for me to sort most of the books into one category or the other, and how little I disagreed with the judgements of whoever had compiled the Wikipedia pages.

Once I’d done my breakdown, I looked at how many books from each category were awarded the Medal in (roughly) each decade. There are a few decades where this is complicated slightly by the fact that non-fiction titles won, or by years in which there was no award at all. I noted years in which the award was actively withhold, but chose to ignore 2006, which is a ‘missing’ year because it marks the switchover from the award denoting the year of publication, to it denoting the year of presentation.  I also ’rounded up’ the first decade to cover 1936-1946, just to avoid having a stray year caused by the skipped year. There were two ‘no awards’ in this year so it more or less works out.

 

2008-2017 10 YA
1997-2007 (note this is 10 awards because of the ‘missing’ year) 5 YA; 5 children’s
1987-1996 5 YA; 5 children’s
1977-1986 3 YA; 7 childrens
1967-1976 3 YA; 1 crossover (Watership Down); 6 children’s
1957-1966 6 children’s; 1 award withheld; 2 YA; 1 non-fiction
1947-1956 7 children’s; 2 YA; 1 non-fiction
1936-1946 8 childrens; 2 awards withheld; 1 non-fiction

 

So, we can see that YA has always had a presence on the Medal – indeed, I’d argue that Eleanor Doorley’s The Radium Woman (1939), which is non-fiction, could be considered the first YA winner since it’s a biography most concerned with Marie Curie’s adolescence and adulthood. We can also see that the youth movements of the 1960s had their impact, and from 1967 (actually awarded in 1968, when young adults were a very prominent social force!) young adult fiction starts to become more prominent. That 1967 winner is Alan Garner’s The Owl Service, a landmark book for British YA, and as far as I know the first Carnegie winner to be published on a dedicated list for teenagers (the paperback was in Kaye Webb’s Peacock list).

The mid 1980s is where we see YA really starting to gain ground, with a massive upswing in the last decade. The people who have felt that it has taken over in the last few years are right, at least insofar as the winners are concerned. There’s some room for debate on whether the last 10 years have been all YA – I initially had two of the winning titles lists as children’s:  A Monster Calls by Patrick Ness and Sibhan Dowd  and Maggot Moon by Sally Gardner.  When I consulted Twitter, my sense that these were liminal titles was confirmed (at the time of writing, my poll is showing YA ahead, but it’s swung back and forth a bit). In the end though I have listed them as YA, since the former has a thirteen-year-old protagonist, and the latter a fifteen-year-old protagonist (albeit with disabilities that make the narrative voice much younger), and both would certainly be relevant and rewarding for readers of 13 or 14. Indeed, Maggot Moon has been published in an adult edition.  So at at the moment, the Carnegie Medal is effectively an award for YA fiction, at least in terms of what actually wins.

Given the liminal nature of children’s vs YA, and the way that expectations have shifted over time, I though it might also be interesting to look at the ages of the protagonists in the books. This turned out to be quite difficult, both because it was harder for me to get that information and because quite a number of books have multiple protagonists, or no protagonist at all. I played pretty fast and loose with the numbers here to get some sort of an impression: for example, I decided to assign Pigeon Post a protagonist age of 12, on the basis that Titty and Dick and Dorothea are about that age, the novel centres more on them, and they are roughly in the middle of the age range of the group as a whole. I assigned 10 to The Family from One End Street, which allots a story to each child in the family from the baby to Lily-Rose, who is roughly 12 or 13. And for Ruta Septys’ Salt from the Sea, which has 4 protagonists, I opted to go with the age of the youngest, who is 15, but could have gone as high as 20 (or maybe even older – I can’t remember whether it states the exact ages of all the protagonists). Then there are some wildcards – the oldest protagonist of a Carnegie winner is literally millennia old (The Little Grey Men  have been in Britain since before the Romans came), and  presumably Richard Adams rabbits are almost all under ten. This then was a wildly unscientific endeavour. Nevertheless, when you map this data, it is quite interesting:

 

Carnegie protagonists
Age of Carnegie protagonists over time

 

Looking at this, and allowing for the very very unscientific approach I’ve taken, I think we can say:

  1. There have always been Carnegie winners about young adults (15-25)
  2. Carnegie winners overall cluster around the crossover point between childhood and adolescence, i.e. 12-14.
  3. Winning titles about children under 10 are outliers, and where there are younger children they are often part of an ensemble narrative. The youngest protagonist, in Kevin Crossley-Holland’s Storm, may reflect a conscious push back on this since that book won following a previous heated debate about the Carnegie skewing too old.
  4. There has been a steady trend upwards in the age of protagonists.

This all has fascinating implications for the way the Medal intersects with changing ideas about childhood as well as the changing categories of childrens and YA fiction. It would be interesting to look more closely at this, especially factoring how many titles for younger readers have been on shortlists over time. There are some obvious structural issues which are likely to encourage more YA representation: there are more school librarians in secondary education, so the nominating pool is skewed in that direction, and given the lucrative YA market, publishers are also promoting books more heavily in that direction.

What isn’t factored into the above, and would be much more difficult to factor in, is the changing literary aesthetic of children’s fiction over this period. I know from teaching some of the Carnegie books that there are winners which are unequivocally considered children’s books which are actually challenging for undergraduate readers now – this is true of the very first winner, Pigeon Post, and even more true of William Mayne’s A Grass Rope. This is not to claim that they are ‘not really’ children’s books, but I do ponder whether this is where this is where the ‘hidden adult’ comes in – perhaps judges have always been inclined to prize material that was meaty enough for them. Then again, the 2014 shortlist included a fantastic middle grade novel – Rebecca Stead’s Liar and Spy – which offered beautiful nuanced writing and more than enough intellectual meat for this adult reader – which lost out to Kevin Brooks’ The Bunker Diary, and I suspect adult tastes alone might have made that go the other way. So it’s not so simple as that.

There’s nothing in the criteria for the Carnegie Medal which is (at least in my view) specifically geared towards literature for any particular age group – in fact, it’s quite interesting that they don’t refer to audience at all. You could take the same criteria and apply them to adult literature. There’s an emphasis among judges on the idea that the books are judged against the criteria rather than against each other, something which is supposed to help guard against some of the inevitable skewing that might come about when measuring books for different readerships against one another. However, it’s worth noting that originally the Carnegie Medal was supposed to honour fiction and non-fiction, and quite early in its life the idea was put forward that non-fiction might be better served by its own Medal. The idea of splitting the Medal in that way was was rejected, and I think technically it still could go to a non-fiction book (the criteria certainly stipulate that the presentation of factual information should be considered). However, the last time a non-fiction book won was 1960, and the criteria as they are today are clearly much more concerned with the qualities you might find in narrative fiction. Given that the numbers definitely do show a trend towards favouring YA which has continued over the last three decades of the Medal, there’s definitely good reason to seriously examine whether the Carnegie process still serves children’s books as it should. This is a good moment to do so, because the ongoing Diversity Review necessarily entails a review of the mechanics of the award. Any move to address the age balance of the Medal would have implications for the process, so even though age isn’t specifically part of the diversity remit, it makes sense to consider it when it comes to potential changes.

I’ll close by inviting suggestions for great children’s books of the last decade that missed out! Personally, I’m very disappointed that not one of Robin Stevens Murder Most Unladylike books have made it to the shortlist: they are among my favourite books for any age to appear in recent years.

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Story of Your Home

Back in time with the history of homes in Britain.

The Story of Your Home - first edition jacket1949 saw the second non-fiction winner of the Carnegie, Agnes Allen’s The Story of Your Home. The call for nominations at this time specifically included non-fiction as well as fiction, stipulating that it should be judged on ”i. Accuracy; ii. Method of Presentation; (iii.) Style; (iv) Format, etc.” (Library Association Record 16, December 1949, p. 396).

The Story of Your Home fits with some of the earlier Carnegie winners in its interest in the past. Beginning with early man, it takes the reader through the history of British architecture, showing how houses evolved over time. In the process, it gives some historical context, explaining how people would have lived within the houses and how the socio-historical context of the times helped to shape building practices. I can’t speak to the accuracy of the book, since I know very little about the history of architecture, but it certainly comes across as well-researched and detailed. There are multiple useful black and white line drawings (done by Agnes Allen and her husband Jack) which help the reader to visualise the houses described and understand the building techniques.

In terms of its appeal to children, I think the lack of colour illustrations is probably a point against it – certainly to a modern child, this rather lengthy book in which text dominates would probably seem unappealing.  It also lacks a real story (I understand the other books in the same series deployed a time travel device which allowed for characters within the narrative, which might have given this a bit more interest).  The writing style, however, is quite accessible and interesting. The direct address to the reader feels a little dated – the book opens ‘Have you ever wondered what the very first homes men made for themselves were like?’ – but I think would still not be out of place in an information book. I can see how well this book fitted the criteria for the Medal as they were then set out.

To some extent, the book follows earlier Carnegie winners in seeking to give child readers a sense of continuity through history. The chapter on ‘The Town House in the Middle Ages’ observes:

If you live in a house or flat in a great city I expect you feel that country houses have very little to do with the story of your home.

But that’s not really true. The ancestors of us all were farmers, living and working in the country. There were farms and villages long before there were towns and cities.

However, whereas earlier winners had sought to recapture old rural traditions (as with the dowsing incident in Pigeon Post) or to emphasise the stable and unchanging qualities of old buildings (a dimension present in both The Little White Horse and Visitors from London), Agnes Allen is more interested in change, and in the way change comes to be. Throughout the book she shows how houses have changed to suit the needs of the people in them, and emphasises the increasing comfort of British homes. She observes that while many people still live in old houses, and some new houses are built to imitate older architecture:

[…] architects, and some of the people who wanted new houses, got tired of always imitating the past […] So some of our architects began to design new homes that were not imitations of Gothic houses, or of Greek and Roman temples, but were built to suit twentieth-century people living twentieth-century lives.

These are striking sentiments given the context of postwar rebuilding, and certainly are in sharp contrast to the attitudes to the changing built environment in Phillipa Pearce’s later Carnegie winner, Tom’s Midnight Garden. This is a book which is interested in modernity, and which encourages its child readers to look to the future. At the end of the book Allen encourages the reader to imagine what the ‘up-to-date house of the year 2000’ will be like, suggesting that:

if you keep your eyes open, notice what new materials are invented, what new ways of heating and lighting are introduced, and the way people’s lives change because of new ways of getting about and so on, you will soon be able to make as good a guess as anyone else.

 

This is a future-facing book, then, and one which encourages the child reader to consider themselves as an active part of this future.

I was struck throughout the book by its emphasis on the different experiences of different classes, and on Allen’s willingness to draw attention to the suffering of the poor both in the past and the present. She comments on the social disparity of the seventeenth century, when ‘while the wealthy people were building great brick or stone mansions […] the really poor people round the village green, who held very little land, were living in one-room, cruck-built hovel’. In the chapter on contemporary towns, she offers the hope that such disparity might become a thing of the past, commenting:

Unfortunately, there are still far too many people living in the dark, dingy, overcrowded slums that were built during the early part of the nineteenth century when the big new factories were being started. But during the last few years great efforts have been made to clear away the slums and to put healthy houses in their places, with open spaces around them.

In its quiet way, then, this is quite a left-wing book, both advocating the provision of good housing for all, and encouraging the child to take an active role in envisaging how this might be designed to meet the needs of how people live.

It’s interesting that 1949 was the first year in which nominations were specifically solicited from children’s librarians as well as chief librarians (previous years had merely suggested that chief librarians should choose their nominations ‘in consultation with their children’s librarians’. The change probably reflected the growing number of specialist children’s librarians, as well as owing much to the advocacy of Eileen Colwell and others in the Association of Children’s Librarians (established in 1937, the year after the Carnegie Medal was inaugurated). Colwell notes that the ‘popular vote’ (probably based on the number of nominations) was for Martha Robinson’s A House of Their Own: I don’t know anything about this book (and it’s fairly pricey second hand) so I would welcome any comments on what it was like! Over the years I’ve shadowed the Carnegie I’ve noticed that the judge’s choice and the popular favourite often diverge, so it’s interesting (albeit unsurprising) to see this has long been the case.

The Story of Your Home is now out of print – we seem to have entered a run of ‘non survivors’, since Sea Change is out of print and so is the 1950 winner Lark on the Wing. Allen’s book did enjoy a very healthy afterlife, however (my edition is a fourth printing) and remained in print until 1972, which is pretty impressive when you consider the massive changes that occurred in architecture across this period (Worldcat lists the 1972 edition as a ‘new edition’, so it may have been slightly updated). A book of this kind is almost bound to go out of print due to the information becoming outdated; I think it would probably now also suffer with regard to the changing expectations of information books, which are now typically much shorter and much more highly illustrated. I’d love to see the Carnegie honour some equivalently solid and detailed work of nonfiction now, though (the current criteria do still include nonfiction, though they are heavily geared towards fiction in their details).

SOME UNSCIENTIFIC RATINGS AND NOTES…

My overall rating: 7/10  -Detailed, informative, and fairly engaging, but not exactly gripping.

Plot: 5/10 – There’s not really a plot, but I liked the way the details of how people lived during each period were used to give it additional interest.

Accuracy and detail (replacing characterisation): 10/10 – I don’t know much about architecture, so can’t speak to the actual accuracy, but this certainly feels well-researched. The right level of detail is provided so that you get a good sense of what the important features of a building were and how they came about, but without getting too bogged down.

Themes: Architecture, home, history, future, change.

Publisher: Faber and Faber

Illustrator: Agnes and Jack Allen

Author’s nationality/race: White English? (Wikipedia lists her as English, but I haven’t gone digging enough to find any more reliable information on this point)