No suitable book? 1945 passes with no Carnegie winner

A few musings on the books which didn’t win the Carnegie Medal in 1945.

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1945 was the second year in which no Medal was awarded. As in 1943, the impact of the war on the publishing industry as whole was probably a significant factor – relatively few new books for children were published in 1945. Nevertheless, there were a few eligible titles and I was curious to see whether an award could or should have been made.

Jacket image first edition of Enid Blyton's'Fifth Formers at St Clare's'The indefatigable Enid Blyton published several novels in 1945: there were new adventures in her Famous Five, St Clare’s, Naughtiest Girl and Five Find-Outers series, as well as a number of standalone novels. There’s certainly some room for debate about whether Blyton should have been honoured – the fact that I was reading a new edition of Fifth Formers of St. Clare’s as a child in the 1980s is a good reminder of her enduring appeal to child readers – but it’s probably fair to say that if the Library Association hadn’t regarded her as worthy of a Medal in earlier years, there was nothing about her 1945 titles that was likely to make them revise this attitude.

There were some other interesting possibilities. Kim Reynolds identifies David Severn (Unwin), son of the publisher Stanley Unwin and brother of the illustrator Nora Spicer Unwin, as one writer active through the 1940s. His book Hermit in the Hills, part of his series of ‘Crusoe’ books, would have been eligible for the 1945 Carnegie Medal. The book is aligned with many of the trends that are apparent in earlier Carnegie Medal winners: the series fits into the same ‘camping and tramping’ genre as Arthur Ransome’s work, focusing on several families’ rural holidays and the children’s exploits outdoors. Reynolds argues the Severn is considerably more radical than Ransome, however, placing him within a tradition of aesthetic radicalism. Hermit in the Hills is one of  the later titles in the series; Reynolds observes that ‘painting, primitivism, abstraction, folk culture, experiments with rendering time, and the importance of being out the natural landscape to the process of purifying and enlarging perception have become dominant themes’ (Left Out, 2016 p. 138). Having read the book, though, I have to say that while these themes are interesting, as a story it does not stand up well against Ransome’s work. Interestingly, I realise that where it really falls down compared to Ransome is in the characterisation – I say interestingly, because Ransome’s characters have often received flak for being boring or unconvincing (John Rowe Townsend called John and Susan the two dullest characters in the history of children’s literature). He gives them such real inner lives, though, that I understand and sympathise with them and really care about their concerns. In Pigeon Post, the eight children are all very different and all equally convincing and memorable. By contrast, I finished Hermit in the Hills yesterday and I am finding it hard to remember who was who. The book finishes with an emphasis on living in the moment, on really seeing the natural world, and on the idea of storing that experience up while you live with the more mundane aspects of life. These are ideas that are much more in tune with my personal interests than the passion for sailing which is such a part of Swallows and Amazons, but they never quite come off the page in the same way. I sometimes felt that I was reading a manifesto rather than living these feelings with the characters. Despite this, it was an engaging read with some fantastic description, and if it had won the Carnegie I think I’d be characterising it as a lacklustre but not a completely unworthy winner.

The Magic of Coal: jacket imageAnother place the Committee might have looked for possible award winners was Picture Puffins. Noel Carrington’s distinctive picture book series was well-launched by 1945, and there were several titles published that year. Since non-fiction titles were eligible for the Carnegie, and since there was as yet no Kate Greenaway Medal to honour illustrated books specifically, there is a good case for considering these as eligible titles. Peggy M. Hart’s The Magic of Coal is one worthy contender: its striking illustrations alone are certainly worthy of some award (although there was no provision for this within the Carnegie criteria). There’s a pleasingly futuristic quality about the scenes of mining magic-of-coalcommunities therein, which are all very clean and well-organised. Although the details of mining itself are accurate, there is quite an idealistic portrayal of these communities – as someone who grew up in a mining area, I’m not convinced by her assertion that the advent of pithead baths meant it was difficult to tell a miner on his way to work from his neighbour on the way to the pictures. This is part and parcel of the politics of the book, though, which is subtly utopian in its portrayal of this community which is apparently working together for the common good (the book was published a year before the nationalisation of the coal industry). The book is engagingly written and certainly stands up well against other non-fiction winners of the Carnegie.

I wrote in my post about 1943 that Mary Norton’s The Magic Bed-Knob would have been a contender for that year, but in fact it was published in 1945 (I got my ‘no award’ years muddle up). As I said in that post, that book would have been another good pick, but on the whole I am glad Norton was honoured for The Borrowers, which is a true gem.

On the whole, then, I can’t say that I’ve turned up any obvious title which really should have won in this no award year, although I think several of these could fairly have won. I’m interested to dig into the archives to see if there were any other contenders.

 

 

 

 

The Wind On the Moon

An interesting departure for the Carnegie Medal with The Wind on the Moon

The Wind on the Moon: first edition book jacket1944 brought a change in the rules for the Carnegie Medal: having begun as an award for any book published for children in the British Empire, then retrenched in 1941 to cover only books published in England,  the criteria were revised again to specify that it should go to ‘an outstanding book for children by a British subject domiciled in the United Kingdom (Great Britain and Northern Ireland), published in Great Britain during the year’. Owen Dudley Evans suggests that limiting the Medal’s scope to England may well have been an inadvertant consequence of the tendency (strong then and not absent now) to use ‘England’ as a synedoche for ‘Britain’; whether or not this was the case, the case for revising in 1944 must certainly have been strengthened by the fact that the proposed winner was a Welsh-born, Scotland-bred writer with strong Orcadian and Scottish nationalist sympathies.

The winner in question, Eric Linklater, was the first Carnegie Medal winner to have made his name largely in the realm of literature for adults. His third novel, Juan in America (1931), was particularly successful, and later novels, along with some political ambitions (he stood as a Scottish nationalist parliamentory candidate in 1933), aligned him with the Scottish Renaissance. Interestingly, some of Linklater’s Scottish literary preoccupations align him with some of the trends I’ve observed in earlier winners of the Carnegie Medal: he was interested in the Scandinavian / Viking heritage of Orkney and many of his books sought to connect readers with an Old Norse literary heritage. The Wind on the Moon, however – the book which was awarded the Carnegie Medal – doesn’t reflect this interest.

The Wind on the Moon follows the adventures of sisters Dinah and  Dorinda, whose father warns them on the eve of his departure to war that a wind is blowing on the moon, and that if they should be naughty while the wind is blowing they will be stuck being naughty for a whole year. Naturally, despite their best intentions, the girls are naughty, which kicks off a year of naughtiness and strange adventures. They eat until they are as round as balloons, cry until they are as thin as matches, turn into kangaroos and live in the zoo, and finally travel secretly inside furniture vans across Europe, in the company of a puma, a falcon and their dancing teacher, to rescue their father from the dungeon of the evil Count Hulagu Bloot. The book originated as a story Linklater told to his two daughters to quiet them after they were caught in a rainshower, and I think this shows: it’s a set of loosely connected narratives which have the feel of extemporaneous story-telling rather than the coherence of a more formally composed narrative. For this reason I think this would be a good book to read as a bedtime story; in fact, given its length (it has thirty-nine substantial chapters) I think that many children of the right age to enjoy this story (I’d say the 7-10 crowd) might struggle with accessing this one alone.

Linklater served with distinction in the First World War, and was in active service during the Second, so it’s perhaps unsurprising that the war has a discernible impact on this book. Count Hulagu Bloot is a tyrant of a kind which would have seemed all too familiar in 1944. We are told that the people of Bombardy:

[H]ave become a silent people, because [their] infamous Tyrant, Count Hulagu Bloot, has a thousand spies who go everywhere and listen to all that is said, by men and women, throughout the country. And if anyone speaks against Count Hulagu, he is arrested and put in prison. And as there is a great temptation to speak against him, because he is always doing some vile, iniquitous, and cruel thing, the people, to guard their safety, have almost stopped talking. They go about almost in silence now.

The running theme of the book is freedom: on a small scale, the sisters’ adventures are set in resistance to the circumscribed lives demanded of the well-behaved little girl; the zoo incident culminates in them liberating the Puma and the Falcon, for whom liberty is sweeter than all else; the two girls liberate a group of wrongfully-imprisoned people from the local jail; and the third act of the book involves first liberating their father and themselves from Count Hulagu’s dungeon, and then liberating Bombardy from the tyranny of Hulagu altogether. This theme is radical in its expression, especially for a children’s book, since Linklater repeatedly suggests that true freedom is more important than strict obedience to the law. Indeed, the law itself comes off pretty badly in this book. One early episode involves the trial of a woman who is wrongly accused (by a policeman) of stealing a pair of silk stockings. When the jury fail to convict –  notwithstanding the heavy prompting of the judge –  the judge sends all twelve to prison. The law here is an ass.

The Wind on the Moon is less concerned with rural Britain than some of the other books on the Carnegie list, but I think it shares some of the same sense of the importance of nature and wildness. The passage about Dinah and Dorinda’s time spent in the forest with the Falcon and the Puma, where ‘they learnt more than Miss Serendip could teach them. They learnt to see things’ is certainly in sympathy with The Little Grey Men. The rejection of law is linked to a sense that it is poorly connected to natural law, as when the children puzzle over how they can possibly explain to the Puma why it’s a problem to kill the local sheep and conclude that, understanding the Puma’s nature, they can’t expect her to behave in any other way.

These elements of the book are interesting, but the real charm of the book is in its wit and inventiveness. The episode in which Dinah and Dorinda convince the judge to change his mind about keeping the jury in prison though an elaborate prank to suggest that an unchanged mind literally stinks was more me the most interesting and enjoyable part of the book. It’s subversive and funny, and also stands out for being one of the few plotlines completely driven by the two sisters themselves. Linklater is a bit too fond of the deus ex machina, and in most of the other major incidents the solution to the problem at hand comes from elsewhere, and is often rather unconnected to Dinah and Dorinda. This is a bit unsatisfying, and I think a more fully worked through novel would have at the least provided some links which demonstrated that the deus ex machine were prompted by some action of the sisters.

Due to its length and Linklater’s tendency to wallow in his own prose from time to time, I suspect this book would not quite stand the test of time as a book for children to read indepedently. As a book read aloud, though, I think it would be enjoyed by all parties (especially if the reader judiciously edited some of the more self-indulgent passages, as my father used to do when reading to me). It’s certainly a new kind of book for the Carnegie Medal – one thing I’d love to gauge when I get onto the historical research for this project is whether someone on the committee actively sought that change, or whether they were just impressed by Linklater’s general standing and/or unable to think of a worthy contender. Intriguing

 

Some unscientific ratings and notes…

My overall rating: 7/10 – I enjoyed this despite its flaws, although interestingly its strengths are not really in plot or characterisation

Plot: 6/10 – Nice episodes, but the whole thing is a bit rambling

Characterisation: 6/10 – This isn’t a highly character-driven book, though I did enjoy Dinah and Dorinda’s sheer exasperation with the baffling criteria for being ‘good’.

Themes: War, tyranny, freedom, humour

Publisher: Macmillan

Illustrator: Nicholas Bentley (I liked the illustrations, incidentally, though I came across a review somewhere which was rather scathing about them)

Author’s nationality/race: White Welsh / Orcadian

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

War stops play: a year with no award

Some musings on a year with no award

Mary Poppins Opens the Door: book jacket image
Mary Poppins Opens the Door: first edition jacket

No review this week, as we have reached 1943: the first of three years in which no Carnegie Medal was awarded. It’s pretty easy to guess why the committee struggled to make an award: World War Two was by this point well underway, and the depredations of the Blitz had had a significant effect on British publishing. Paper warehouses and printers were badly affected by the bombing, and the general paper shortage meant that publishers were severely restricted in how many books they could publish. Publishing firms were also hit by the loss of many staff to the armed forces – although children’s publishing was arguably better placed to cope with this since so many of the editors were women. War must also have affected the Library Association and its members, perhaps making the task of finding eligible titles more challenging: a problem compounded by the fact that the Carnegie Committee was not at this point made up of specialist youth librarians (who were mostly women) .

There were, however, books published in 1943, and despite the fact that the Committee recorded the ‘no book was considered suitable’ there are arguably some which might have fitted the bill had there been sufficient interest either in identifying possible titles or in bending the rules about eligibility. Before I proceed on to 1944’s award, then, I thought I’d briefly reflect on what might have been.

The most obvious contender for the prize, in terms of ensuring recognition, is Arthur Ransome’s The Picts and the Martyrs. I suspect this probably would have won by default had it not been for the fact that Ransome had already won the Medal in 1936. While there was no explicit rule against repeat winners, it wasn’t (according to Keith Barker) until 1968 that the rules were rewritten to make it clear that the same author could be honoured twice, and it took until 1980 for this to actually happen. So it’s fair to assume that there was at the very least a reluctance to honour Ransome twice. if so, that reluctance was perhaps solidified by the appeal of The Picts and the Martyrs relative to Pigeon Post. It’s a good book (in my opinion most of the Ransome books – with the exception of Missee Lee and Peter Duck – wouldn’t look out of place as winners).  It returns to some similar ground, though (in all senses) and it’s in some ways a quieter, less dramatic book. It has different qualities to Pigeon Post, but I don’t think it would be easy to make the case that it was so much better than that book that it merited a double award for Ransome so soon after he was honoured.

Another possible contender for the 1943 award was Enid Blyton, who published two books this year: The Mystery of the Burnt Cottage and The Magic Faraway Tree. From a contemporary perspective, Blyton might seem like an unlikely contender for the Carnegie, since she has been anathema to much of the children’s book establishment for a large portion of her career. In the 1940s, however, she had yet to attract the amount of opprobrium which was to be attached to her in later days: reviews from around this time are generally positive if not effusive. A 1941 review of The Babar Story Book in the Observer, for example,  praises  her condensed version of the stories, saying ‘ She has, by doing her work with  taste and skill, rendered a real service to M. de Bunhoff’s historic elephant’ (Lucas, A. (1941, Nov 30). FOR THE CHILDREN. The Observer (1901- 2003) ). The stylistic qualities of Blyton’s writing are out of line with what I’ve seen of the Carnegie list to this point, which has tended towards the fairly high literary; on the other hand we can certainly say her books have stood the test of time, since very many of them are still in print and selling well.

I’ve never read The Mystery of the Burnt Cottage and didn’t get around to reading it for this blog post. I did read The Magic Faraway Tree as a child and did NOT enjoy it, though I can’t remember why. I reread it this week and it created some of the same uneasy feelings that I associate with my childhood reading. I think this is to do with the fact Blyton’s fantasy world is so capricious and unpleasant: the book features a set of children who have discovered a magical tree which is populated by all kinds of strange people and which has access to magical lands, which periodically arrive at the top of the tree, stay for a short while, and then move on. They are often wish fulfilment type lands where you can take whatever you want or do whatever you want, although they are equally likely to be unpleasant lands, such as a land where everyone is angry all the time. As a child, I enjoyed the moral order of Blyton’s work a lot – I LOVED her school stories, in which there is a clear ‘right’ way to behave and any misunderstandings are always straightened out by the end of the book. In The Magic Faraway Tree, there are hints of moral didacticism – for example, there’s a world in which you can get whatever presents you want, as long as you want to give them to other people – but there’s also a lot of punishment which is either randomly delivered or wholly disproportionate. When the Saucepan Man goes into the Land of Toys, for example, believing it to be the Land of Take What You Want, he helps himself to toffees from a shop and is immediately apprehended and thrown in jail. In Blyton’s school stories, this kind of situation would be resolved by some kind of demonstration of his good intentions and his contrition; in this book it is resolved by the children breaking him out of prison and tricking all the pursuing toys into an exhausting and futile chase. I can see how this might be appealing to some readers – I think one thing the Famous Five books do well is convey the capriciousness of adult power and the pleasures of outwitting  those who wield it  – but I find it rather mean spirited and unsettling. It also seems to run counter to the Carnegie criteria, which did stipulate that books should offer children ‘a proper expectation of life’, which seems to have meant good moral values rather than realistic expectations (on which count Blytin might have won). All in all, I don’t think Blyton’s failure to win was a mere oversight, nor am I particularly sorry about this in retrospect.

The Magic Bed-Knob: first edition jacket
The Magic Bed-Knob: first edition jacket

The final two books which could have been contenders this year were Mary Norton’s The Magic Bed-Knob; or, How to Become a Witch in Ten Easy Lessons (the first of the two books which were eventually adapted to become Bedknobs and Broomsticks) and P.L. Travers ‘ Mary Poppins Opens the Door. I have read both these books, but in both cases it was a long time agao, and I  didn’t manage to pick up either for a reread. I remember The Magic Bed-Knob as a humorous book with an enjoyable strand of realism – the kind of book which could conceivably have deserved an award – and it’s still in print, so it has stood the test of time. However, had it won the Carnegie committee might have felt that they couldn’t award the Medal to The Borrowers, which (spoiler alert) is to my mind one of the great fantasies of all time. Mary Poppins is another book which has achieved modern classic statement, albeit arguably mostly because of the film. I get confused about which Mary Poppins book is which, but I think Mary Poppins Opens the Door is where things start to get weird(er). Still, reading I Go By Sea, I Go By Land reminded me that P.L. Travers is really a fantastic writer, and with Mary Norton and P.L Travers in the mix I think the Carnegie Committee could probably have awarded the Medal if they’d been inclined to really try. So this does seem a case of ‘war stops play’ rather than a true case of there being no suitable titles at all.

I’ve yet to delve into the Library Association’s records to find out what was actually going on that year. I am curious to see what I’ll find when I do so.

Next time… a book which arguably demonstrates that the charge of weirdness need not have been a barrier to winning the award: The Wind on the Moon.

 

Little Grey Men

1941 offers a rural odyssey with BB’s little grey men.

littlegreymen
The Little Grey Men – first edition jacket

I had a somewhat unplanned summer hiatus from this blog, but as the autumn term beckons I am back in the blogging saddle with the 1942 Carnegie winner, The Little Grey Men by ‘BB’. ‘BB’ was actually Denys Watkins-Pitchford, a Northampton-born naturalist who produced beautiful nature drawings. He also illustrated The Little Grey Men; my copy carries black and white illustrations by him, but is missing the watercolour plates that were in the first edition. (It also replaces his jacket illustration with one by Edward Ardizzone, which I have to say I like a lot more.)

The book focuses on Baldmoney, Sneezewort and Dodder, ‘the last gnomes in England’:

Rather surprisingly, [Baldmoney] was extraordinary like the pictures of gnomes in fairy books, even to the pointed skin hat and long beard. He wore a short coat and waistcoat of mouse-skin with a strip of snake-skin round his middle; moleskin breeches tied in below the knee, but no shoes or stockings. He had no need of these, for gnomes are hairy little folk; in summer time they sometimes dispense with clothes altogether. Their bodies are not naked like ours, but clothed in long hair, and as to their feet, if you had not worn boots of shoes since you were born, you would have no need of them either. He carried a hunting knife in his belt, made of hammered iron, part of an old hinge which he had found in the stream.

However extraordinarily like the pictures of gnomes in fairy books these particular gnomes may be, the book is pretty far from the kind of book that suggests to me. This is definitely not a fairy story, and apart from being very small, the gnomes do not really resemble fairies in terms of supernatural qualities. In fact, they’re a kind of cross between small woodland creatures and rural working men: the charcoal burners in Ransome’s books would definitely get on well with them. As you might expect from Watkins’ Pitchford’s biography, this is intentional: the introduction to the book explicitly tells us that ‘the birds and wild animals are the Little People’, and the book as a whole is clearly very interested in the idea of an enduring country heritage which is embodied in these gnomes who have been there ‘since before Julius Caesar’. So there’s a definite return here to some of the concerns we’ve seen in earlier Carnegie medallists. There’s a much more prominent environment concern, though: there are frequent allusions to the way human beings are impacting on the environment, such as the effect of tarred roads on the stickleback population (the runoff poisons the water, apparently).

There are some quite pleasing details at the beginning about the gnomes and how they live (Dodder has a prosthetic leg which is based around an acorn cup, and they consult the kingfisher on the best material to use to replace the twig which forms the actual leg). Then the main conflict of the plot kicks off: their brother Cloudberry departed some months ago on a journey to find the source of the stream, but never returned. The rest of the novel follows their (successful) quest to find Cloudberry, a quest which takes then away from their sanctuary in the woods and into territory controlled by men. The main drama takes place when they reach a wood controlled by a gamekeeper, the ‘Giant Grum’, who kills all the small creatures who enter his territory and who, they fear, may have killed Cloudberry. This precipitates the strangest part of this book. The gnomes and woodland creatures call on the God Pan to help them kill the Giant Grum, who obliges by providing Dodder with 6 oak leaves which he stuff into the Giant’s gun barrel, causing the gun to explode and kill the Giant (who is of course the gamekeeper).

This incident is… weird. From the point of view of the gnomes and the other woodland creatures, it’s completely justified. The Giant Grum is a wanton killer who they all live in fear of. And from the point of view of the naturalist, the ecological monosystem which the Giant Grum seems to be creating with his policy of ‘kill all life except pheasants’ is also clearly a problem (although the Game and Wildlife Conservation Trust claim that pheasant woods are actually quite good for ecological diversity) – I’d be interested to know if this is the common view today). But the sudden murder of one of the only human characters in the book is a bit startling, coming in the middle of a fairly gentle children’s books, and it’s made more startling by the way Giant Grum is presented immediately beforehand:

Giant Grum had no appetite for breakfast, and his wife was worried. All night he had tossed and turned in his sleep, muttering, groaning. His wife wanted him to stay in bed.

‘You have the flu, I’m sure; lie still and let me send for the doctor.’

But he would not. ‘No, the fresh air will do me good; I must go down to the pens. It’s fresh air I want. Perhaps this hot weather has got me down a bit.’

[…] He strode along with his dog at his heel. Two hundred yards from the house was a clearing and here the pheasant pens were ranged row on row. At intervals were poles from which were suspended the bodies of crows, jays, and magpies, who came to rob him of his precious chicks. As soon as he came within sight of the clearing he stopped short. Something was wrong, not a pheasant was to be seen! Usually they came running to him like chickens to be fed, but the place was deserted.

Giant Grum is clearly not just a giant, but a perfectly ordinary man who is doing his work conscientiously. This section is so sympathetic that I wonder whether Watkins-Pitchford doesn’t want us to direct our anger elsewhere, but if this is the case then the book as a whole fails. The gamekeeper, after all, is just an employee who is maintaining a pheasant wood for the benefit of his wealthy employers. We briefly meet these employers later on, but they are infinitely more sympathetic than Giant Grum. Indeed, insofar as there is a focalising child character it is the small son of the landowner, who is conveniently also afraid of the gamekeeper and relieved to learn he has gone away for a long holiday from which he is not expected to return. So we’re not encouraged to lay the sins of Giant Grum at his employers’ doors where, presumably, they really belong.

These inconsistencies in tone are particularly interesting if you read this book against its historical context. The idea of a violent struggle for access to the land makes sense when read against the birth of the Ramblers Association, notably the mass trespass of Kinder Scout only a decade before this book was published. The title of the first chapter in the game wood certainly seems to situate the book within this context: it’s called ‘Trespassers will be prosecuted!’ But that struggle was closely connected with issues of class and the question of whether landowners have a right to fence off land which is part of the common heritage of the people, so if Watkins-Pitchford was intentionally alluding to that it would make more sense for the actual landowners to come across in a more unsympathetic fashion. If anyone knows more about where he stood in relation to this movement I’d be most pleased to hear about it.

The other interesting historical context for this book is, of course, the war. It’s only briefly mentioned, but the very forceful return to a narrative which intensely treasures the wild spaces of Britain I think partly reflects the sense of the country as a precious space which is to be defended. Owen Dudley Smith sees the violence of the gamekeeper’s death as reflective of the war, but I’m not really convinced by that reading.

This is one of those books where my adult reader and my child reader don’t really align. As an adult, I find this book fascinating, because it’s so clearly engaging with lots of ideas about land and heritage and rural tradition. But I did actually read this book as a child, and I did not like it at all. I remember being quite unsettled by it, in fact – I don’t remember Giant Grum’s death, but it may have been this that bothered me. I think, though, that it was more that the presence of gnomes made me thing I was going to get a more fantasy oriented book, and in fact it’s much more interested in nature and fishing and so on. It’s certainly quite a slow book by modern standards, and I suspect for this reason it would be less engaging to many contemporary children. However, it’s still in print, so someone is buying it!

Some unscientific ratings and notes…

My overall rating: 7/10 – I think this is a better book than We Couldn’t Leave Dinah, but I liked it less.

Plot: 8/10

Characterisation: 7/10

Themes: Countryside, heritage, land, fantasy

Publisher: Eyre and Spottiswood

Illustrator: Watkins-Pitchford

Author’s nationality/race: White English

 

 

 

 

 

Carnegie Shortlist 2016 – Carnegie Medal Winner – Crossan

Some belated thoughts on this year’s Carnegie winner – Sarah Crossan’s One.

UK hardback jacket for Sarah Crossan's One.

Finally I come to the final belated post in my series on the 2016 Carnegie Medal titles. This year’s award went to Sarah Crossan’s One, a verse novel told in the voice of Grace, a teenage conjoined twin. This is the third year Crossan has been shortlisted for the prize. When I read last year’s Apple and Rain, I commented that Crossan would be better off committing to poetry (Apple and Rain just features poetry within a prose narrative). My instincts were right, as this is a far superior novel (I haven’t read Crossan’s other verse novel, The Weight of Water).

The book opens with Grace’s comment on her own existence:

Here
We Are.

And we are living.

Isn’t that amazing?

How we manage
to be
at all.

This opening is both a claim and a challenge, and the book as a whole grapples with these two aspects. Grace and her sister Tippi are subject to the unwelcome curiosity and amazement of those who wonder ‘how they can live like that’; at the same time, Grace makes it clear that their existence is amazing in the positive sense. These two issues are brought into sharper focus for Grace and Tippi over the course of the book as they first begin to attend high school (having previously been homeschooled) and then open up their lives to the scrutiny of a reality TV show. Attending high school also gives Grace and Tippi access to life experiences that they have previously been denied, and much of the book is taken up with their growing friendship with another two misfits and Grace’s feelings about falling in love with one of them.

I enjoyed this book a lot: the poetry format makes it very readable and I fairly gulped it down. There’s a lot of tension and it’s one of the only books on the list which made me really keen to get to the end and find out how things turned out (Talley’s book was the other one that gripped me in this way). There was also a good deal to appreciate in the way Crossan negotiated the issue of disability; I found the portrayal of the twins’ younger sister, Dragon, particularly strong. Grace reflects on whether having ‘freaks’ for sisters might make Dragon into a freak too, but although it’s clear that Grace and Tippi’s condition does affect Dragon (and the family as a whole) it’s not presented as the only issue, nor even as the most difficult one. As someone who has a sibling with a disability, this aspect particularly chimed with me – we’re never asked to pity Grace and Tippi, nor Dragon.

The book doesn’t quite negotiate the question of public scrutiny of conjoined twins as well as it might. Although it critiques the invasive curiosity about conjoined twins (Grace tells us ‘people always want to know’ about the details of their bodies), by definition it’s also inviting us to partake in exactly this kind of curiosity (Grace obliges by telling us the details of their anatomy). The introduction of the reality TV show could have been a good way of forcing readers to confront the implications of our own curiosity, but Crossan draws back from making us really uncomfortable by having the TV producer turn out to be unexpectedly sympathetic. Implicitly we, like the producer, understand the ‘correct’ limits to our curiosity. Instead of taking this route, Crossan lapses into a little sentimentality at the end (albeit this is rather enjoyable – as a lover of nineteenth century novels I can’t fault a good old sentimental ending!).  This book has something of the same problem as Talley’s then – both books were unwilling to make the reader feel uncomfortable, and as a result they fail to have the impact they could have had. Making the reader uncomfortable is a chancy business, of course, but I think that a truly ‘outstanding’ book could push a tiny bit further.

Considering the Carnegie list this year, I’m fairly happy with this as a winner – but not passionate. Notwithstanding some of my critiques of these novels, I thought they were all pretty solid, but they didn’t really excite me in the way some past lists or winners have. Perhaps this simply reflects what was eligible this year, although I was disappointed not to see one of Robin Stevens’ sparkling detective novels on the shortlist (one was eligible, though I forget now which one). And as I mentioned in my last post, the Carnegie does have something of a diversity problem. Still, maybe next year.

Next post – back to the Carnegie inners of yore with B.B.’s The Little Grey men.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Carnegie Shortlist 2016 – Amnesty CILIP Honour winner – Talley

Belated thoughts on the Amnesty CILIP Honour Winner 2016 – Lies We Tell Ourselves

My penultimate and belated post on the 2016 Carnegie shortlist (very belated, as it turns out – I got halfway through this and then got interrupted by a conference & a holiday). I’ve already discussed Frances Hardinge, Kate Saunders and Patrick Ness, and Jenny Valentine, Nick Lake and Marcus Sedgewick. In this post I’ll deal with the first of two award recepients: Robin Talley , whose Lies We Tell Ourselves was the recipient of a new award, the Amnesty CILIP Honour.

 

Robin Talley – Lies We Tell Ourselves – winner of the Amnesty CILIP HonourLies We Tell Ourselves - UK Paperback jacket

This book opens with high school student Sarah walking the gauntlet past a hostile, baying mob of white people. One of the first black students to join the previously white high school following desegregation, she is on the front lines of the civil rights struggle. Half the book gives us Sarah’s voice; the other half is told by Linda, the popular daughter of a racist newspaper owner who is one of the loudest critics of desegregation (‘critic’ doesn’t really seem like a strong enough word here). Initially Sarah recognises in Linda a more disturbing form of racism than the violent, boorish behaviour of many of her classmates: she is calm, reasoned, and still racist. Following a school project in which they are forced to work together, though, the two fall in love – and Linda gradually questions her assumptions about race. By the end of the book, Sarah has faced down her racist bullies and made it to the end of the school year, graduating with honour, while Linda has rejected her father and his racist beliefs.

This is a powerful and memorable book. The opening chapter is visceral in its depiction of the onslaught of hate and fear, and Sarah’s narrative is exhausting in the drip drip fear she faces every day. The author’s note at the back says that many readers ask her ‘was desegration really that bad?’; in terms of facts, it wasn’t news to me, but as a white reader it’s definitely the case that Sarah’s narrative made me appreciate the courage of those who were on the front line of the civil rights movement in a way I hadn’t before. I had a few issues with the way Sarah’s story was told – notably, I was troubled by the way her parents are presented as totally unaware / unbothered by the extreme racism she is experiencing at school. In reality, they would surely have been heartstoppingly conscious of how dangerous it was to be on the front lines of this struggle. It makes some sense in the context of the book, because it’s Sarah’s first-person narrative so we can read it as her experience – she feels as if nobody who’s not living through this really gets it – but given the implied readership (of people who don’t really know this history) I felt it did something of a disservice to those real-life parents who took this terrible risk along with their children.

Much more problematic is Linda’s narrative. I can understand why Talley decided to make this a dual narrative, and at the beginning of the book I found it quite effective. Set against Sarah’s powerful account of the racism she experiences, Linda’s concerns about the fact that the arrival of black students will spoil things for her final year is a very clear expression of her staggering privilege. I think if this had continued, Linda’s narrative could have been a good example of the way that racism is perpetuated through enjoyment of white privilege – not just in big, obvious ways, but because of all the small things which just make not being racist seem like too big an effort. Linda starts out as the ‘rational voice of racism’ in that  – unlike many of her classmates – she isn’t violent or threatening towards her black classmates. She simply believes that it’s rational for black people to have fewer rights than her. Over the course of the book she shifts instead towards the ‘exceptionalist’ brand of racism, still justifying racism in general but suggesting there should be some exceptions for children, or for people like Sarah who are somehow ‘different’. Since her reasoning is set against Sarah’s lived experience of this, it’s clear that this isn’t any less damaging than the overt racism of the other classmates.  In the context of a society in which we (mostly) recognise that the more overt brands of racism are wrong, I think there’s something useful in highlighting this and asking readers to question their own ‘rational’ assumptions about race and privilege. Unfortunately, Talley couldn’t resist ‘redeeming’ Linda and having her overtly reject the racist beliefs of her father, leave home, and end the novel by jumping on a bus with Sarah to make a new life in the city. This shifts the narrative focus from Sarah to Linda in a way that’s quite problematic. It’s hard to overcome racist assumptions in the way Linda does, of course, but there’s a definite limit to how much credit white people should get for recognising the essential humanity of other races. The real hero of this book is Sarah, and having Linda’s narrative given equal weight with hers detracts from that. This would have been a much stronger book had it given us Sarah’s voice alone.

The Amnesty CILIP Honour is a new award, intended to offer ‘a commendation for the books that most distinctively illuminate, uphold or celebrate freedoms’. It selects from across the Carnegie and Greenway shortlists for any given year. I’m pleased to see such an award, but I am less sure about this decision to make the selection from the already shortlisted books, since these are not chosen with human rights in mind.  (CILIP Chief Executive Nick Poole suggests that a preponderance of shortlisted books ‘have human rights at their heart’ but I’m not sure this is a given.)  For me, the strengths of this book did outweigh its weaknesses, and I think it’s a worthy award winner and a fitting one for this particular award. It tells a powerful story about an important period of history, one which is uncomfortably resonant today.

Some of the problems with the way this book deals with race were not apparent to me on first reading, and I owe a big debt of gratitude to my fellow Shadowing Group members at Blackwells Newcastle, whose discussion of the strengths and weaknesses of the book made me see it in a different light. It so happens that on the same evening, one of the current Carnegie judges joined our group to answer a few questions on how the judging works (in general – she was annoyingly discreet about the discussion attached to specific books). One of the questions she answered was about race: the judging panel for 2016 included no people of colour (not particularly surprising given the demographic profile of youth librarians as a whole). I have a lot more thinking to do about race and the Carnegie Medal, but having the discussion I had about Talley’s book with people who were personally and professionally concerned with issues of race highlighted to me the need for diverse judging panels. (I’m sure that this is an issue that has been discussed in the past in relation to the Carnegie – though the debates I have seen have focused more on class – so if you know of any history on this I’d love some pointers.) One thing this book has in common with other Carnegie books focusing on non-white protagonists is that the author is white. I’d like to see a lot more (read: any) books on the Carnegie shortlist by writers of colour. Malorie Blackman’s Chasing the Stars will be eligible for next year’s list, so we’ll see…

Next up – the winner!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Carnegie Medal 2016 – Valentine,Lake, Sedgewick

2016 Carnegie shortlist roundup part 2. In which I continue underwhelmed.

Continuing on from yesterday’s round-up of the 2016 Carnegie shortlist. This post covers the other three titles from the shortlist which didn’t get an award.

Fire Colour One - jacket imageJenny Valentine – Fire Colour One

Iris is a pyromaniac, deeply disconnected from her fame- and money-obsessed mother and stepfather, and has just met her long-estranged father, Ernest, who is dying of cancer. The book opens with Iris lighting a fire at Ernest’s funeral, and then spools back to tell the story of how she got to that point. While Iris’s mother jockeys to gain control of Ernest’s fortune, Iris gets to know her father and discovers they share a love of art, finds out about her own history, and tells the story of her friendship with the mysterious Thurston. These three plotlines come together at the end of the book to give Iris (or, really, Ernest) a final triumph over her mother.

This is really a fairytale of sorts: a wish fulfilment fantasy in which the long lost father turns out to be both rich and adoring, and the horrible parents get their come-uppance. And of course, the girl gets to marry the prince, or in this case gets to be reunited with the cool perfomance artist boy who is the first person ever to tell her that she is valued. Thurston is additionally mysterious because he eschews mobile phones and other usual ways of communicating: part of the drama of this subplot arises from the fact Iris had a fight with him immediately before leaving America, and has no way to contact him to let him know where she’s gone or that she’s sorry.  I found the Thurston parts of the narrative a bit tiresome: he’s an enigmatic character who shows up unpredictably, and his performance art is on the line between cool and a bit creepy or annoying (like all performance art?). Iris’s argument with him arises from one of these acts of performance art: he creates a roadside shrine for her, along the lines of those put up for victims of road traffic accidents, and sets things up so that she unwittingly arrives at the shrine amidst a crowd of people who are leaving flowers – a dead girl at her own memorial. I think we’re supposed to take Thurston’ argument that this is all about demonstrating that Iris is not invisible at face value, but actually her shocked and angry reaction seems much more valid to me, and it grated with me that she spends most of the book regretting the fact that she didn’t apologise to Thurston for rejecting this gesture. I think this is a genuine young adult novel, in the sense that I think this scenario might be more intriguing and appealing if you are a teenager – though I like to think teenage readers also have a healthy scepticism.

It’s interesting to compare this book with The Lie Tree, because whereas Faith starts by idoloising her father and gradually realises there is much to admire in her mother, Iris moves from believing her father abandoned her to essentially idolising him. I was uncomfortable with the way this relationship is set up against Iris’s relationship with her mother. Ernest turns out to be the perfect parent: the rich, loving father who ‘gets’ Iris and her love of art (land thus becoming the second man to tell Iris that she is after all special). By contrast, her mother, Hannah, is vapid and self-centred, doesn’t believe Iris when she is almost raped by the son of a family acquaintance, and cares only for money. Ernest’s stories about his relationship with Hannah don’t do much to add nuance: there’s a hint of something interesting when we learn that he met her when she was homeless and penniless, and that she has erased all references to her life before Ernest, but we’re never allowed to find out any more. Even the story of Iris’s conception paints Hannah in a bad light: it’s Ernest who ‘forces’ her to stop drinking during her pregnancy, and according to him she shows no interest in Iris up until the day she essentially abducts her. This left me wondering why on earth Hannah would take Iris at all: there must be more to her story, but the book isn’t interested in telling us about it. The Lie Tree was a little clunky in showing that the role of socialite might be a way of negotiating gender constraints, but I definitely prefer that to the slightly misogynistic (and classist) implication that Hannah is simply a gold digger.

Once again, I am being quite critical here of a book that I mostly enjoyed. It’s a fairly good read and I think teenage readers would definitely enjoy it, but this is another one that just wasn’t outstanding to me.

 

Nick Lake – There Will Be LiesThere Will Be Lies - jacket image

Lies were a theme this year. There Will Be Lies features two lies, and a truth; or so a coyote tells Shelby as she lies by the side of the road after a car accident. The accident precipitates the disintegration of her whole life, as her mother takes Shelby on the run and Shelby uncovers a series of explanations. They’re in hiding from Shelby’s violent father; no – they’re in hiding because Shelby’s mother murdered her abusive husband; no – Shelby’s mother isn’t her mother at all, but her abductor. Interwoven with this narrative is the story of Shelby’s adventures in the Dreaming, where she is the Maiden, charged by Coyote with the task of killing the Crone and saving the Child in order to save the world. Of course, resolving this part of the story is also linked to resolving Shelby’s real life issues as she comes to realise that her mother is not really her mother, and meets her new family.

I’m sorry to say that the Carnegie has form when it comes to culturally appropriative Native American narratives (Susan Cooper, I’m looking at you) and this book is no exception. I don’t know a huge amount about Native American myth and culture (as always, Debbie Reese has useful thoughts on this aspect of the book), but you don’t really need to know a lot to feel that this is a rather lazy mish mash. It’s unclear, for a start, why Coyote is concerning himself with the fate of one random white girl (at the end of the book he reveals that it’s not the whole world at stake, only Shelby’s world). Lake handwaves this by implying at one point that the Dreaming is simply a part of Shelby’s ill-informed subconscious, but this is rather unsatisfying. I’ll confess, though, that I’m personally able to swallow a lot of cherrypicking from various myths (even while being aware this can be very problematic) if it’s in service of a good story. The problem is that the Dreaming narrative simply isn’t that strong: the revelations about Shelby’s real life are much more interesting, but they are delivered in a rather flat, infodump manner. Clearly the Dreaming is supposed to provide the emotional reaction to these revelations, but it’s so paint-by-numbers that it doesn’t really work.

It’s a shame that Lake went down this route, because there are glimmers of an interesting book in here. When Shelby finally meets the parents she was stolen from, there’s a little bit of exploration of how it might be to adjust to such a reunion after 15 years, but it’s too quickly curtailed. I also liked the way that Shelby doesn’t simply abandon her ‘fake’ mother: unlike Jenny Valentine’s Iris, who seems to have no emotional attachment to her mother despite having been raised by her, Shelby struggles to reconcile her memories of being loved and cared for by this women with the new knowledge that she had also been stolen by her (although she’s totally able to maintain her fatphobia towards her mother throughout the book, ugh). Had Lake abandoned the mythic element and instead pursued the emotional ramifications of his realist narrative, this might have been a good book. Alas.

 

Ghosts of Heaven - jacket imageMarcus Sedgwick – Ghosts of Heaven

This is a series of four interconnected novellas which can – according to Sedgwick – be read in any order. The first is a verse narrative about a girl in prehistoric times who yearns to take on a shamanic role and witnesses the massacre of her entire tribe by another group; the second is the story of Anna, daughter of a cunning woman,  who is hanged as a witch; centuries later a doctor in a mental asylum encounters a poet with a strange mania; and finally a space pioneer wakes from his long sleep to realise that all is not as it should be on board his ship. The stories are linked by the repeating image of a spiral, encountered in the dark of prehistoric caves, painted on the millwheel and on a toy given to Anna’s brother, built in the heart of the asylum in the form of a giant staircase, and mapped by the journey of the ship through space. Each character struggles with the vastness of the universe and the desire to know more of its mysteries. Notwithstanding Sedgwick’s author’s note, I read the four stories in order (largely because I was reading this one in a hurry), and each one does build on the other. Perhaps they do work in any of the 24 possible orders, as he suggests, but I think this would work against any sense of cohesion to the novel.

I am not really sure what I thought of this book. It was, I think, the best written of all the books on the shortlist this year, but I was left feeling it was less than the sum of its parts. It’s indebted to a number of other works, not all of which I got: my fellow shadowers pointed out an overt reference to 2001: A Space Odyssey (I’ve never seen or read this)  and both structurally and thematically I was reminded of Alan Garner (the coded message at the end surely owes something to Red Shift). And the prehistoric section of the book reminded me inexorably of Jean Auel’s Clan of the Cave Bear series, although I strongly suspect this was not what Sedgewick was going for. I liked the idea of the spirals linking all these four narratives, but in the end I was left feeling they didn’t really hold much meaning. Being lazy, I did not decode the message at the end myself, but of course the internet delivers in such matters. The message suggests that (spoiler text) ‘The best people possess a feeling for beauty, the courage to take risks, the discipline to tell the truth, the capacity for sacrifice. Ironically, their virtues make them vulnerable[…]’. I assume that this message is also supposed to be the underlying message of the book, but actually I found the stories significantly less hopeful than this implies. Each of the stories ends in death, and I largely felt that these deaths were pretty meaningless. I’d prefer the life well-lived to the noble sacrifice.

There was some debate in my shadowing group about whether this was really a children’s book. Lots of people felt quite passionately that there was nothing in it that particularly oriented it towards children or young adults – some of the characters are teenagers, but they are clearly adults within the contexts in which they live. I’d agree that this could equally have been published on a general science fiction list, but I do think this is a young adult book in terms of appeal. The sense that there is some mystery out there to be solved, that the universe is full of unknown wonders and horrors, and that there are patterns linking everything – all this is catnip to a certain kind of teenage reader. It can appeal to adults too, of course, but speaking as someone who was exactly that kind of reader I think it does hold a special appeal for young people, who are more excited by the sense of possibility in the universe and perhaps less engaged with the question of how to find meaning in the quotidian. These sorts of generational generalisations are exactly the sort of thing that I chastise my students for, of course – but I’m struck by the fact that this is exactly the shift that happens across Ursula Le Guin’s Earthsea series. Speaking as someone who was bitterly disappointed by Tehanu as a teenage reader, and who now adores it, I can at least say this shift in mentality was true for this reader.

I think on the whole Sedgwick’s book is a flawed one, but I’m glad to see it on the Carnegie list. There’s an ambition here and a respect for the reader which I value.