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

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

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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.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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