Carnegie Shortlist 2016 – Carnegie Medal Winner – Crossan

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

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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 – Hardinge, Saunders, Ness

A belated round-up of this year’s Carnegie shortlist: Part 1 – Hardinge, Saunders, Ness.

The winner of the 2016 Carnegie Medal was announced today: the award went to Sarah Crossan for One, a verse novel about conjoined twins. In addition, the inaugural Amnesty CILIP Honour was awarded to Robin Talley’s Lies We Tell Ourselves, and the Kate Greenaway Award went to Chris Riddell for his illustrations to Neil Gaiman’s The Sleeper and the Spindle. Congratulations to all the winners.

I have been shadowing this year’s Carnegie award and had meant to blog each title as we went along, but these good intentions fell by the wayside. So instead I’m doing a brief round-up blog on all this year’s titles. This post and the next will deal with all the ‘runners up’, and then I’ll discuss One and Lies We Tell Ourselves, along with a few musings on the award as a whole. There will be spoilers here, though I’ll try to keep them to a minimum.

 

Frances Hardinge – The Lie TreeThe Lie Tree jacket image

A fantasy novel with a ‘alt Victorian’ setting, which deals with the crisis of faith occasioned by Darwinism and the constraints of Victorian gender norms. Faith and her family have moved to an isolated island community, ostensibly because her father, a noted expert on fossils, has been invited to work on an archaelogical dig on the island, but in reality (it becomes clear) because her father has suffered a blow to his reputation which will result in the family being socially ostracised. Isolation is not enough, however, and before long Faith’s father has been found dead and the island is alive with rumours about his exposure as a scientific fraud. Faith discovers her father’s secret: a mysterious plant known as the Mendacity Tree which appears to deliver revelations when ‘fed’ a diet of lies. Her father’s fake fossils seem to have been created in service of the Tree, and Faith quickly discovers for herself how lies and rumours can take on a life of their own.

I read this before the Carnegie shortlist was announced. I approached it with high expectations, partly because the novel won the Costa Prize this year but largely because I really like Hardinge’s writing. Her novel Cuckoo Song was on last year’s Carnegie shortlist and I felt passionately that it should have been the winner. Perhaps the novel suffered a bit from my high expectations, but I didn’t think it lived up to Cuckoo Song. I certainly enjoyed it, but both in terms of writing style and in terms of plot I found it a little clunky at points. One of the major themes running through the novel is the issue of gender: Faith begins the novel idolising her father and despising her mother, but as the narrative progresses it becomes clear to both the reader and Faith herself that her father is deeply flawed (and pretty unlikeable) while her mother’s apparent vapidity is a weapon she wields in the context of a highly gendered world. This gets hammered home a bit too hard, however: at one point Faith’s father literally tells her that ‘a girl cannot be brave, or clever, or skilled as a boy can’. I suppose that the target reader of this novel might need a little bit more help recognising the way Victorian gender norms operate than I do, but I found that the degree to which the novel tells rather than shows interfered with the development of Faith’s character. She never felt completely real to me, because she was always being used as a kind of ideological example. This is a rather harsh way of doing it – and in reality I enjoyed the book quite a lot more than this sounds – but it was disappointing because one of the things I really loved about Cuckoo Song was the way it very gradually and subtly asked both the protagonist and the reader to reconsider their understanding of the world.

The Lie Tree is a very good novel, and I enjoyed the ending, which was something of a romp (surprise lesbians as a deus ex machina!), but whereas last year I felt Hardinge was robbed, I didn’t feel passionately about her this year. In fact, I’m a little disappointed that it was this book that received the Costa, as I think this is neither Hardinge’s best work nor the best children’s literature has to offer.

Five Children on the Western Front jacket imageKate Saunders – Five Children on the Western Front

As the title suggests, this is essentially E Nesbit fanfiction. It picks up from the episode in The Story of the Amulet in which the children visit their own near future but – as the author says in her afternote to the book – she knew what Nesbit could not about what their future might contain. The book reintroduces us to the original four children, now almost grown up, plus one more – Edie – of Kate Saunders’ invention, and explores their lives in the context of World War One. The Psammead reappears once more, and it becomes apparent that he needs to reckon with the crimes of his own past while the children grapple with the problems of their present.

I bought Five Children on the Western Front shortly after it came out, and read the prologue, in which the children visit their friend the Professor in the future. The chapter closes with the children wondering why they could see no photos of the grown-up boys in the Professor’s study, while ‘Far away in 1930, in his empty room, the old professor was crying’. I found this incredibly powerful, and so sad that I closed the book and didn’t pick it up again until I came to it on the Carnegie shortlist. I love Nesbit’s books, and this prologue works perfectly as a piece of futurefic which reminds you of the tragedy which was to come to the generation portrayed in her books. It’s much harder to sustain this over the course of an entire novel, and while I liked this book I don’t think it entirely succeeds.

The best aspects of the book were in the characterisation. I absolutely believed in the five children and the way they interacted. I especially liked the way Saunders shows the Psammead colliding with their real lives and coming off the worse: whereas Nesbit’s stories are always set in the summer holidays, this book shows the children dealing with school, jobs, and army life. The Psammead is neither as important nor as interesting to them in this context, and their different reactions to him are nicely drawn and often quite humorous.

The historical commentary was less finely drawn. Throughout the novel, the Psammead is forced to deal with various revelations about his past life, when – it turns out – he was a rather despotic god-ruler. He’s forced to acknowledge that he treated his subjects / slaves poorly, that his blithe use of slaves as cannon fodder and his scorn for the ‘slave’ class was wrong. All this has clear parallels for the WW1 setting and serves as a commentary on the things the children are encountering (Robert and Cyril both end up as solders, while Anthea falls in love with a working-class boy they encounter while taking the Psammead to the British Museum). The book suffers from a similar problem to The Lie Tree: in making it clear to her readers where their ideological loyalties should lie, Saunders limits the nuance of her story. In particular, the children are all a little too twenty-first century in their views, and are ready not only to condemn the Psammead for his past behaviour but also to condemn the mores of their own times. It would have been more interesting if the Psammead had been allowed to give as good as he got in terms of criticising their society. In particular, the recurring slave narrative seemed like a missed opportunity: the children could have been forced to examine their own reliance on a society which (while no longer dependent on actual slave labour) actively exploited the poor and was still heavily dependent on the then-thriving Empire. A more subtle handling of this theme could have also given it more resonance for contemporary readers: the underlying implication of the book was that they did bad things in the past, but we are more enlightened now. This is an easy trap to fall into when writing about WW1, I think, but the book was good enough that it really felt like a missed opportunity not to make this a more uncomfortable narrative.

One thing that does make me forgive this book for being slightly less nuanced or daring than it could have been is the fact that it is genuinely for younger readers. It’s the only book on this shortlist which is really aimed at an under twelve readership, so while there was scope to do more with the narrative, it delivers something appropriate for its target audience. I also happen to generally like its ideological slant – but I think there could have been a bit more to it even within the bounds of its younger target audience.

Patrick Ness – The Rest of Us Just Live HereThe Rest of Us Just Live Here jacket image

A story about not being the Chosen One. Each chapter of The Rest of Us Just Live Here begins with a ‘chapter summary’ documenting the adventures of the ‘indie kids’ as they battle against supernatural forces. The chapters themselves follow Mikey and his friends, ‘ordinary’ teenagers who are simply dealing with their day-to-day lives rather than tryng to save the world. The book was described to me as ‘Buffy fanfiction about the people in the background’, which is a fair description of its conceit, although it also spoofs a number of other YA genre tropes (there are mentions of a plague of sparkly people, and of people dying beautifully of cancer).

I love Buffy and love fanfiction, and I also think Patrick Ness has produced some of the finest works published for young adults in recent years, so I was excited about this book. As with The Lie Tree, this perhaps meant I had overly high expectations going in, but while I liked this book I didn’t think it lived up to Ness’s earlier works (although to be fair I think the Chaos Walking trilogy is the kind of career defining work that is very difficult to ever match). I enjoyed all the little hat tips to various genre tropes, and it’s clear that Ness is writing from a place of deep affection for the genre even while he’s poking gentle fun at it. The fantasy elements and the realism gradually converge, but I found the degree to which Mikey remains disconnected from the adventures of the indie kids a bit unsatisfying. I’ve actually read quite a bit of Buffy fanfiction with a similar premise, and I think one of the things I enjoy most about that genre is the way it can show how the weird characteristics of Sunnydale shape the ways people live there even when they are not involved or even consciously aware of the supernatural. By contrast, Ness’s teenagers comment on the activities of the indie kids in a rather detached way, and even when they actually start to encounter the indie kids in serious trouble they don’t seem particularly moved by them or inclined to help them. The brilliant Aishwarya writes eloquently about the problems with this in her blog. The funny thing is that that this sense of disconnection is at odds with the message of the book itself, which is really all about community. Ness rejects the idea of the lone Chosen One in favour of a narrative which recognises that everyone is flawed and everyone has their own challenges, but suggests that the way to counter this is by paying attention to one another. So it’s a shame that this isn’t quite reflected in the merging of the two narratives.

I originally read this book in advance of an event with Ness at Seven Stories, at which Ness read  a section. I found the book much, much funnier when he was reading it, and it makes me feel it would be worth a reread to see if the humour might ‘sparkle’ a bit more if I were in the right mood. Even without the laugh-out-loud quality it had when he was reading it, I enjoyed the book, and I think teenage readers would definitely enjoy it. But for me, this wasn’t ‘outstanding’ and I’m glad it didn’t end up being Ness’s third Carnegie win.