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
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.
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 History, which is much more heavily illustrated:
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.