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.


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.



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).


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)


Prize fighting: the Carnegie Medal and Children’s Librarians – a short bibliography

This bibliography accompanies my article on the Carnegie Medal as a focus for the emerging field of children’s librarianship in Youth Library Review (2017). The article is a very brief set of thoughts, but I’m looking forward to returning to this topic in more depth in the future.

In addition to these print sources, I am indebted to Seven Stories: the National Centre for Children’s Books, who now hold Eileen Colwell’s papers. These were invaluable in helping me to identify Colwell’s various publications on the subject of the Carnegie Medal.

I’m keen to hear from those involved in the Carnegie Medal over the years – do comment here or email me at if you have thoughts you’d like to share.


Works Cited

Colwell, Eileen, ‘Association of Children’s Librarians’, New Zealand Libraries 8 (March 1945)

Colwell, Eileen, ‘Correspondence: The L.A. Carnegie Medal’, The Library Association Record 46 (January 1944), pp. 14-15

English, James, The Economy of Prestige: Prizes, Awards and the Circulation of Cultural Value (Cambridge, Massachusetts; London, UK : Harvard University Press, 2005)

Sayers, W.C. Berwick, The Children’s Library: A Practical Manual for Public School, and Home Libraries (London: Routledge, 1912)

Sayers, W.C. Berwick, A Manual of Children’s Libraries (London: Allen & Unwin, 1932)

Take to the sea with Sea Change

A new voyage for the Carnegie Medal as it takes to the sea with Richard Armstrong’s Sea Change.

Jacket image of the first edition of Sea Change
Jacket image of the first edition of Sea Change

Following the old-fashioned lyricism of Walter de la Mare, 1948 saw a complete shift in tone with Richard Armstrong’s contemporary career novel Sea Change. The novel focuses on sixteen-year-old Cam Renton, an apprentice merchant seaman, and follows him from his arrival on board a new ship through to his acceptance as a valued member of the ship’s crew. Cam’s age and the focus on work in this novel make it the first of the Carnegie Medal-winners which can squarely be classed as an adolescent novel, albeit there is nothing in terms of content which would make it unsuitable for child readers.  It also marks a return to contemporary realism for the first time since We Couldn’t Leave Dinah in 1941 (if that book can be classed as realism, exactly), although with plenty of adventure in the form of powerful storms, a fire on board ship, and a perilous journey as part of the skeleton crew for a salavaged ship. Although W. Berwick Sayers had stated in the first year of the Medal that the winning book should ‘as far as possible’ appeal to both boys and girls, Sea Change is unapologetically (as you can see from the cover) a book for and about boys: there is not a single female character, nor even a mention of women (even in the form of mothers or sisters). This again was a departure for the Medal, although several earlier winners had focused primarily on female characters.

This is an interesting book in that it’s simultaneously very old-fashioned and very modern. It owes a great deal to the nineteenth-century seafaring adventure story,  giving us a kind of ‘bildungsroman by sea’, but its concern to map out the route to a successful career and to emphasise the skills which will be used in the world of work it very much reflects British sensibilities of the late 1940s and early 1950s, a period when the ‘career novel’ was at its zenith.

One element of the book which aligns with the tradition of nineteenth-century boys’ adventure narratives is its assertion of British superiority. This is paradoxically most apparent in the episode which constitutes Cam’s most ignominious point in the narrative. Chafing at the orders he has received to remain close to the ship, Cam and his fellow apprentice Rusty take an illicit trip to a fort in Port of Spain and end up getting arrested by the soldiers manning the fort. This episode serves as a climax to Cam’s feelings of discontent about the orders he has received and his erroneous belief that the second mate ‘has it in for him’, serving as the turning point for his attitude on board ship. The two boys have to be rescued from their scrape by the captain of their ship, but despite this  their strength, courage and quick wittedness is contrasted throughout with the slovenly, ill disciplined behaviour of the soldiers manning the fort. (It’s not completely apparent, incidentally, what nationality these soldiers are – can anyone tell me who would have been manning a fort in Trinidad in the 1940s?). The sentry guarding the fort – asleep on the job – is ‘the strangest soldier Cam had ever seen’: ‘his khaki tunic had no buttons and hung loose over a blue- and white-striped singlet; his trousers were creased and stained and the bottoms of them stopped short of his dusty ankles’. When Rusty trips over his rifle, the soldier awakes and attacks him with a knife, but Cam is swift and efficient in disarming him and the boys are captured only because more soldiers arrive and overpower them. They almost succeed in outwitting the soldiers and escaping from the fort on their own, and and when the captain does rescue them, he persuades the fort commander to drop all the charges by suggesting to him that this will involve losing face. The commander reflects that he does not wish ‘to admit that my command is so undisciplined that sentries sleep at their posts, so inefficient two beardless boys can defy all the force we can muster’. Thus the episode ultimately serves to impress on the reader as well as on Cam the value of British naval discipline and its inherent superiority to other nations. Hazel Sheeky Bird has argued (in work forthcoming) that the ‘navalist’ tradition is key to the construction of British national identity in children’s literature of the early twentieth century, and this is an interesting reflection in light of the focus on heritage which has been present in earlier Carnegie winners. There is, I think, some continuity of concern here, even though this is a very different kind of book.

Cam himself is inducted into this tradition over the course of the book, developing from an apprentice chafing under orders to do some of the most mundane tasks on board ship to a seaman whom the second mate – who is clearly presented within the novel as a model of the idea sailor – describes as ‘Tough as old boots, keen as mustard, and guts to spare’. Although he is still an apprentice at the end of the book, he is identified as the de facto mate of the skeleton crew who have salvaged a derelict ship and returned safely after a perilous journey. All this would fit well into the traditional adventure novel, but the way it is presented also clearly reflects 1940s concerns about  education, teenage identity, and the world of work. At several points Armstrong emphasises the value of skills learnt at school: lessons which may have seemed boring at the time but whose application is vital in the world of work. Cam is allowed a brief teenage rebellion, but Armstrong also emphasises the value of obedience and of trusting that adults know what is best, even if they do not share their reasoning with you.

All this is interesting from a socio-historical perspective, then, but how does it hold up as a story? I do have a bit of a taste for this kind of ‘authoritarian’ bildungsroman, although usually I enjoy i in the form of girls’ school stories (which tend to follow a similar pattern of first resisting, then embracing, the order and authority of the school). However, it’s fair to say that I am probably not the most appreciative audience for a book about adventures at sea. I don’t think, however, that this is the only reason that this is the Carnegie winner I’ve enjoyed least so far. In contrast to the beautiful prose of de la Mare’s book, this is something of a comedown: the dialogue especially is stilted and clearly suffers from the tension between reproducing the language of young sailors realitically and keeping the book within the perceived limits of what is appropriate for young readers. One of the key dramatic episodes in the book starts like this:

[…] Rusty pointed to the porthole through which the night could be seen full of red glare.

‘Suffering snakes! She’s on fire,’ he yelled, and made for the door.

‘Not in your bare feet, you chump!’ shouted Cam.

There’s something to be said for plain prose – and for representing a rather less middle-class millieu than had previously featured in most Carnegie winners – but I found this rather stilted. This is the first of the winners I’ve read which is now out of print, and it’s easy to understand why. Marcus Crouch praises the characterisation and realism of the book, but neither were especially vivid to me.

Despite these caveats, I think this does mark an interesting turn for the Carnegie Medal. Richard Armstrong was the first winner who could really claim to be a working-class writer: born to a blacksmith in Northumberland, he left school at 13 and worked first in the shipyards and then at sea. The book itself is also much more aimed at working-class readers than any previous winner: the kind of boys who would be likely, like Cam, to leave school at 15 and embark on an apprenticeship. This really broadens the definition of ‘childhood’ which the Carnegie Medal was catering to. For that alone, the book deserves an honourable mention, if sadly not a continuing life in print!



My overall rating: 5/10 – It had something to offer me, but the clunky language and the rather thin characterisation made it a bit of a grind

Plot: 7/10 – There’s plenty going on here – maybe a bit too much. I felt I was moving from episode to episode rather than the plot really developing.

Characterisation: 4/10 – Cam does develop a bit, but in general there are stock characters rather than actual characterisation.

Themes: Seafaring, adventure, realism, work, nationhood

Publisher: Dent (the third win for this publisher)

Illustrator: None in my edition, but the first edition had line drawings by the marine artist Michal Leszcynski

Author’s nationality/race: White English














Walter de la Mare – Collected Stories for Children

Old stories, but deliciously living language in Walter de la Mare’s 1947 Carnegie win

Collected Stories for Children
Jacket for 1957 edition of ‘Collected Stories for Children’ by Walter de la Mare, illustrated by Robin Jacques.

The 1947 award marked a new departure for the Carnegie Medal: it was the first time the Medal had gone to a collection of short stories. Walter de la Mare’s Collected Stories for Children was stretching the definition of ‘published in that year’, for it was a collection of 17 stories produced throughout de la Mare’s career. The decision to allow such previously published material, provided ‘a subtantial part of the contents’ had not ‘already appeared as a complete book’, had been taken only in 1944 (Library Association Record Nov 1944, p. 196). It’s possible that this revision was made with de la Mare in mind, for the opportunities to honour this grandee of children’s literature were likely to be limited. Certainly Eileen Colwell notes that the award itself was made partly because the committee felt that de la Mare’s contribution to literature should be recognised.  In a sense, then, this award was one which sought to consolidate part of Britian’s existing heritage of children’s literature.

The collection itself fits strongly within the trend for texts which deal with ideas of heritage and nationhood, since although the stories are original to de la Mare, they have the ‘feel’ of traditional tales. Some are explicit reversionings of well-known stories:  the opening tale, ‘Dick and the Beanstalk’, is a charming ‘making new’ of ‘Jack and the Beanstalk’, in which Dick, ‘what is called a lively reader’, discovers Jack’s beanstalk and sets out to find out the truth of the story, only to get considerably more than he bargained for.  Others create folk tales for particular areas, such as in the ‘The Sleeping Boys of Warwickshire’, the story of three maltreated chimney sweeps who fall into an enchanted sleep after their master attempts to entrap the, in their dreams in order to make them into more passive workers. (As far as I’ve been able to tell, the story isn’t based on any actual local legend.)

The ‘magicking’ of the British landscape which is evident in The Little Grey Men and The Little White Horse is evident throughout de la Mare’s writing. Each story is lush with description: who can resist Griselda’s seaside home by which:

On calm summer evenings unearthly dancers had been seen dancing between the dusk and the moonlght on the short green turf at the edge of the sands, where bugloss and sea-lavender bloomed, and the gulls had their meeting place, gabbling softly together as they preened their wings in the twilight.  – ‘A Penny a Day’

Throughout the collection, the beauty of the landscape retains a numinous quality, whether or not it is peopled with magical creatures.

Walter de la Mare is of course best known for his poetry, and the great joy of this collection is in the language. His description of a scarecrow, ‘nothing but a dumb, tumebledown, hugger-mugger antiquated old hodmadod’, is absolutely delicious, full of words you want to roll around in your mouth, and I love the description of Myfanwy’s possessive father, whose ‘dark brows loured at the very thought’ of losing his daughter. de la Mare often employs the quite formal, slightly archaic tones which are common to many Victorian tellings of fairy tales, but this is language which lives. Although the tone and the amount of description might initially be offputting to children more accustomed to the quick pace of contemporary children’s books, I think that the sheer joy of de la Mare’s language would win them over, especially if the stories were being read out loud.

The one uncomfortable aspect of this collection is the story ‘Sambo and the Snow Mountains’, which features a black British child who is consumed with a desire to be white. The story is more nuanced than this bald summary makes it sound: Sambo’s desire for whiteness is prompted by the racist comments of other chldren, which trouble him even though he knows that in his own country, ‘to be black was bliss […] it was white boys who would be laughable there’. He sets out on a journey to the snow mountains, where he believes he might become white through exposure to the white landscape, and poses as the doctor for a dying old lady who loves all things white, having disguised his black skin with whitewash. The old lady ultimately affirms the value of blackness, telling him:

White gives back all colours; black welcomes them in […] A black man whose mind is free from darkness and his heart from cruelty is in truth whiter than any one whose soul is in the shades.

Sambo responds ‘de blackest ob all dings, lady, dat is a lie’, and washes off the whitewash, resolving to tell the lady the truth about himself. But she dies in the night, leaving him all that she has with the wish that he ‘never put on anything but white for me’. We can assume she means him to wear white clothes, but Sambo interprets this as an injunction to once more whitewash his skin. He lives out his life as a rich man, and a kindly master, but always with whitened skin. But from time to time ‘a voice would cry out on him as if from the very recesses of his being. “O but for a moment, to be black again!”‘. In many ways, then, this is a tragedy about race and racism, and it’s clear that de la Mare’s ntentions were to decry racist attitudes. I think from the point of view of the Carnegie committee in 1947, it may have seemed relatively progressive. It’s marred, though, by the racist caricature of Sambo. As the quote above shows, despite being third-generation British, Sambo speaks a pidgin English, and he’s characterised as ‘slow’ (indeed, he suggests that being white would make him ‘quicker at his tasks’). As is the case with other stories of this type (such as Hoffman’s ‘Story of the Black Boys’) the binary of white as good and black as bad is largely preserved. Ultimately I think it’s hard (especially for a white writer) to write a story about a black child’s quest to become white without it ending up somewhat racist, whatever the intention. On the whole, this isn’t a story I’d be keen to share with contemporary child readers, at least not without some serious discussion. (I would be interested to hear the thoughts of other readers, especially those more equipped to discuss issues of race.)

Sambo aside, I think this collection was a worthy winner of the Carnegie Medal, albeit one which was clearly aimed at celebrating a tradition of children’s literature rather than promoting something new.

The Library Association Record which announces de la Mare’s win also includes a poem he inscribed in the copy of his book he presented to the LA. It’s rather lovely and I’m not sure that it’s very widely known (I’m not very familiar with his poetry but it doesn’t come up on a Google) so I’m reproducing it here:


The Harebell

In the clear sunshine, hour by hour,I’ve toiled, but toiled in vain, to paint this flowerBrushes, and box of colours from this shelf,And nought else with me but the flower itself.Nothing alive – so steadfast yet so frail – Could ever bloom on paper, I know well;But poor and clumsy though the copy be,I could not wish for happier company. 

It seems it might, if I gazed on and on -That wiry stalk, those petals, blue yet wan.The solemn beauty of that marvellous cup -At last, for very love, give its strange scent up.



My overall rating: 7/10 – I couldn’t immerse myself in this in the way I can with some other winners, but SUCH delight in the language

Plot: 9/10 – This varies from story to story, but in general there’s the plottiness and suspense of a good folk tale

Characterisation: 7/10 – Folk tales aren’t necessarily character-focused, as a rule, but these characters do really live. de la Mare has a particularly good eye for his child characters, who could easily end up a bit twee but have a zest that makes them more realistic.

Themes: Magic, countryside, morality, evil, folk tales

Publisher: Faber and Faber

Brother John
Robin Jacques’ illustration of a disgruntled-looking brother John playing his bassoon, from the story ‘The Dutch Cheese’.

Illustrator: Robin Jacques illustrated the edition I had – I love the image of poor brother John in

‘The Dutch Cheese” trying to drive away the fairies by playing his bassoon – but the first edition was illustrated by Irene Hawkins

Author’s nationality/race: White English