The Story of Your Home

Back in time with the history of homes in Britain.


The Story of Your Home - first edition jacket1949 saw the second non-fiction winner of the Carnegie, Agnes Allen’s The Story of Your Home. The call for nominations at this time specifically included non-fiction as well as fiction, stipulating that it should be judged on ”i. Accuracy; ii. Method of Presentation; (iii.) Style; (iv) Format, etc.” (Library Association Record 16, December 1949, p. 396).

The Story of Your Home fits with some of the earlier Carnegie winners in its interest in the past. Beginning with early man, it takes the reader through the history of British architecture, showing how houses evolved over time. In the process, it gives some historical context, explaining how people would have lived within the houses and how the socio-historical context of the times helped to shape building practices. I can’t speak to the accuracy of the book, since I know very little about the history of architecture, but it certainly comes across as well-researched and detailed. There are multiple useful black and white line drawings (done by Agnes Allen and her husband Jack) which help the reader to visualise the houses described and understand the building techniques.

In terms of its appeal to children, I think the lack of colour illustrations is probably a point against it – certainly to a modern child, this rather lengthy book in which text dominates would probably seem unappealing.  It also lacks a real story (I understand the other books in the same series deployed a time travel device which allowed for characters within the narrative, which might have given this a bit more interest).  The writing style, however, is quite accessible and interesting. The direct address to the reader feels a little dated – the book opens ‘Have you ever wondered what the very first homes men made for themselves were like?’ – but I think would still not be out of place in an information book. I can see how well this book fitted the criteria for the Medal as they were then set out.

To some extent, the book follows earlier Carnegie winners in seeking to give child readers a sense of continuity through history. The chapter on ‘The Town House in the Middle Ages’ observes:

If you live in a house or flat in a great city I expect you feel that country houses have very little to do with the story of your home.

But that’s not really true. The ancestors of us all were farmers, living and working in the country. There were farms and villages long before there were towns and cities.

However, whereas earlier winners had sought to recapture old rural traditions (as with the dowsing incident in Pigeon Post) or to emphasise the stable and unchanging qualities of old buildings (a dimension present in both The Little White Horse and Visitors from London), Agnes Allen is more interested in change, and in the way change comes to be. Throughout the book she shows how houses have changed to suit the needs of the people in them, and emphasises the increasing comfort of British homes. She observes that while many people still live in old houses, and some new houses are built to imitate older architecture:

[…] architects, and some of the people who wanted new houses, got tired of always imitating the past […] So some of our architects began to design new homes that were not imitations of Gothic houses, or of Greek and Roman temples, but were built to suit twentieth-century people living twentieth-century lives.

These are striking sentiments given the context of postwar rebuilding, and certainly are in sharp contrast to the attitudes to the changing built environment in Phillipa Pearce’s later Carnegie winner, Tom’s Midnight Garden. This is a book which is interested in modernity, and which encourages its child readers to look to the future. At the end of the book Allen encourages the reader to imagine what the ‘up-to-date house of the year 2000’ will be like, suggesting that:

if you keep your eyes open, notice what new materials are invented, what new ways of heating and lighting are introduced, and the way people’s lives change because of new ways of getting about and so on, you will soon be able to make as good a guess as anyone else.


This is a future-facing book, then, and one which encourages the child reader to consider themselves as an active part of this future.

I was struck throughout the book by its emphasis on the different experiences of different classes, and on Allen’s willingness to draw attention to the suffering of the poor both in the past and the present. She comments on the social disparity of the seventeenth century, when ‘while the wealthy people were building great brick or stone mansions […] the really poor people round the village green, who held very little land, were living in one-room, cruck-built hovel’. In the chapter on contemporary towns, she offers the hope that such disparity might become a thing of the past, commenting:

Unfortunately, there are still far too many people living in the dark, dingy, overcrowded slums that were built during the early part of the nineteenth century when the big new factories were being started. But during the last few years great efforts have been made to clear away the slums and to put healthy houses in their places, with open spaces around them.

In its quiet way, then, this is quite a left-wing book, both advocating the provision of good housing for all, and encouraging the child to take an active role in envisaging how this might be designed to meet the needs of how people live.

It’s interesting that 1949 was the first year in which nominations were specifically solicited from children’s librarians as well as chief librarians (previous years had merely suggested that chief librarians should choose their nominations ‘in consultation with their children’s librarians’. The change probably reflected the growing number of specialist children’s librarians, as well as owing much to the advocacy of Eileen Colwell and others in the Association of Children’s Librarians (established in 1937, the year after the Carnegie Medal was inaugurated). Colwell notes that the ‘popular vote’ (probably based on the number of nominations) was for Martha Robinson’s A House of Their Own: I don’t know anything about this book (and it’s fairly pricey second hand) so I would welcome any comments on what it was like! Over the years I’ve shadowed the Carnegie I’ve noticed that the judge’s choice and the popular favourite often diverge, so it’s interesting (albeit unsurprising) to see this has long been the case.

The Story of Your Home is now out of print – we seem to have entered a run of ‘non survivors’, since Sea Change is out of print and so is the 1950 winner Lark on the Wing. Allen’s book did enjoy a very healthy afterlife, however (my edition is a fourth printing) and remained in print until 1972, which is pretty impressive when you consider the massive changes that occurred in architecture across this period (Worldcat lists the 1972 edition as a ‘new edition’, so it may have been slightly updated). A book of this kind is almost bound to go out of print due to the information becoming outdated; I think it would probably now also suffer with regard to the changing expectations of information books, which are now typically much shorter and much more highly illustrated. I’d love to see the Carnegie honour some equivalently solid and detailed work of nonfiction now, though (the current criteria do still include nonfiction, though they are heavily geared towards fiction in their details).


My overall rating: 7/10  -Detailed, informative, and fairly engaging, but not exactly gripping.

Plot: 5/10 – There’s not really a plot, but I liked the way the details of how people lived during each period were used to give it additional interest.

Accuracy and detail (replacing characterisation): 10/10 – I don’t know much about architecture, so can’t speak to the actual accuracy, but this certainly feels well-researched. The right level of detail is provided so that you get a good sense of what the important features of a building were and how they came about, but without getting too bogged down.

Themes: Architecture, home, history, future, change.

Publisher: Faber and Faber

Illustrator: Agnes and Jack Allen

Author’s nationality/race: White English? (Wikipedia lists her as English, but I haven’t gone digging enough to find any more reliable information on this point)


Prize fighting: the Carnegie Medal and Children’s Librarians – a short bibliography

This bibliography accompanies my article on the Carnegie Medal as a focus for the emerging field of children’s librarianship in Youth Library Review (2017). The article is a very brief set of thoughts, but I’m looking forward to returning to this topic in more depth in the future.

In addition to these print sources, I am indebted to Seven Stories: the National Centre for Children’s Books, who now hold Eileen Colwell’s papers. These were invaluable in helping me to identify Colwell’s various publications on the subject of the Carnegie Medal.

I’m keen to hear from those involved in the Carnegie Medal over the years – do comment here or email me at if you have thoughts you’d like to share.


Works Cited

Colwell, Eileen, ‘Association of Children’s Librarians’, New Zealand Libraries 8 (March 1945)

Colwell, Eileen, ‘Correspondence: The L.A. Carnegie Medal’, The Library Association Record 46 (January 1944), pp. 14-15

English, James, The Economy of Prestige: Prizes, Awards and the Circulation of Cultural Value (Cambridge, Massachusetts; London, UK : Harvard University Press, 2005)

Sayers, W.C. Berwick, The Children’s Library: A Practical Manual for Public School, and Home Libraries (London: Routledge, 1912)

Sayers, W.C. Berwick, A Manual of Children’s Libraries (London: Allen & Unwin, 1932)

No suitable book? 1945 passes with no Carnegie winner

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

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.





Little Grey Men

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

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 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.




The great Carnegie reading project…

I’m digging into the history of the (British) Carnegie Medal, ‘awarded annually to the writer of an outstanding book for children’. I’ll be reading every winning book in order and blogging my thoughts on them. I might read a few of the commended / shortlist books as well, depending on how things go (I might not worry about doing these in order). There’s a good chance I’ll drop in some thoughts on current Carnegie shortlists as I go, too.

Let the great Carnegie reading project begin!