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 Honour
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!