1949 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)