A Valley Grows Up

Front cover of a book titled 'A Valley Grows Up'. A full colour watercolour image of a train of carriags and horeback riders following a road down to a valley fills the entire cover.1953’s Carnegie Medal winner is the third of only four non-fiction titles ever to win the Medal. Like most of the others, it takes a narrative approach to non-fiction, telling the story of a valley and how it changes from the prehistoric era through to the twentienth century. Indeed, as the author admits at the end, the valley itself is fiction and ‘only exists in my imagination’, although its story is rooted in the facts of English history over this time. It’s certainly an engaging way of telling history: the book originated in a series of lectures author-illustrator Edward Osmond gave for students with learning difficulties, which he illustrated on a blackboard ‘by means of an imaginary village which, together, we created “from scratch”‘ (CKG Living Archive). The narrative voice of the book reflects this origin: the narrator directly addresses the reader, directing their attention to details of the illustrations with some of the same authority and familiarity you would expect from a teacher who has been working with a class for some time.

The pictures are thus at the heart of the book. There are 10 double-page colour spreads depicting the valley at 5000BC, 250BC, 250AD, 900, 1160, 1250, 1475, 1600, 1770, and 1900 respectively (in common with most British publications at this time BC/AD are used rather than BCE/CE). A discussion of children’s book illustration in the Times Literary Supplement commented

Double-page spread: colour illustration of a Saxon village in a valley, with a large river winding through the valley
Image of the valley in 900: Saxon village with strip farming

These are augmented by line drawings set into the text itself, including many detailed plans of the town and its buildings at different periods. I particularly liked the visual representation of time on a 12 inch ruler: some of the pictures which appear there are smaller versions of the ones which appear in the text at the relevant points.

Two pages from the book 'A Vallery Grows Up', discussing ice ages and the emergence of modern man, On the left-hand page is a line drawing of a ruler used to represent time: it shows that the last thousand years represent only the thickness of one of the lines marking the inches. On the right-hand page is a line drawing of early man (head and shoulders profile).
Opening pages in ‘A Valley Grows Up’. Note the use of a 12 inch ruler to convey the length of historical time between the formation of the valley and the emergence of modern man, and the repetition of the image representing ‘cave men’ alongside the text.

Despite the importance of the photos, however, there’s much more text than you would find in most information books written for children today. The copy I have happens to have a nice bit of book history attached, in the form of the original owner’s name written (with some embellishments) on the title page.

Judging by the handwriting, this reader was probably somewhere in the age range to whom we might offer a book like Usborne’s Encyclopedia of World Historywhich is much more heavily illustrated:

'Living in a Village' from 'Usborne Encyclopedia of World History'
Double-page spread of ‘Living in a Village’ from ‘Usborne Encyclopedia of World History’.

This difference reflects changes in printing technology, of course: combining colour images and text in this way would have been almost impossible (or at least staggeringly expensive) at the time A Valley Grows Up. It makes for a different kind of book, though, and I think probably contributed to the narrative form of the book: creating an imaginary village with a history and inhabitants brings the history to life and holds the attention even through long passages of text.

Using a fictional valley rather than a real setting makes it possible to ensure that something ‘happens’ in every period of history. By the same token, however, this means that when certain things *don’t* happen that’s a choice of the author rather than an accident of history. Having been thinking a lot over the last few years about the way we construct ideas of nationhood, I found some of these choices quite revealing. For example, the valley doesn’t suffer attack during the first Roman incursion, although it is burned to the ground by the Danes, a decision which makes it easier to focus on the Roman invasion as a civilising influence. Catherine Butler and Hallie O’Donovan have written about role of Rome in the British national imaginary since the medieval era: notwithstanding the Roman invasion of Britain, it is positioned as part of a noble founding myth rather than as a hostile invader, and narratives of the civilising Roman Empire have been important to narratives which cast the British Empire in a similarly postive light. This is certainly the case in this book, in which Danish and Saxon invasions are discussed in terms of pillage and destruction, and the Saxons described as ‘sea-robbers’, while the Roman invasion – when it comes to our valley – is portrayed as a triumph of superior military force: ‘The men of the hill-fortress fought bravely for a sort time, but they were only farmers and were no match for the professional soldiers of Rome.’ When they are defeated it was ‘naturally considered to be a great disaster at the time, but it was to be the beginning of one of the most prosperous periods our valley has ever known’. By contrast, even though the Norman invasion is also shown as bringing new innovations to the valley, the Normans themselves are not portrayed in flattering terms: the new Norman lord is a ‘hard ruthless man’ who adopts ‘bullying tactics’. Implicitly, then, the valley – and through it the nation – are able to claim a founding myth which allies them with a great and civilising imperial power, while more recent incursions retain a sense of hostility to the invading foreign powers. The way the narrative of the valley plays out in this book is, in fact, interestingly similar to the narrative offered up by the spectacular North East outdoor performance, Kynren, which takes a very similar approach to this book, telling the history of England through a specific place, and similarly negotiates a history of invasions in a way which allows for a narrative of enduring ‘Englishness’, and casts some invaders – but not others – as outsiders even while showing that they ultimately ‘become us’.

Although I think that the changes in expectations around non-fiction for children would make this book a harder sell today, it does hold up as an engaging read, and as a well put-together book. At this point in the Medal’s history, the format and printing quality of the book were still important elements of the criteria, and it’s easy to see why this stood out in this respect too. Interestingly, Eileen Colwell’s notes on the Medal show that this book got the ‘popular vote’ (i.e. a preponderance of nominations from librarians, not votes by children) along with Rosemary Sutcliff’s Civil War novel Simon. The number of librarians nominating at this point was still quite limited, but I think this does suggest that this might have been a book that was well-received by children. I’m glad to have had a reason to explore it!

SOME UNSCIENTIFIC RATINGS AND NOTES…

My overall rating: 8/10  – It’s a little difficult to rate in comparison to the fiction titles, but I found it a very engaging read and learned a lot!

Plot: 8/10 – Again, this is an odd measure for a non-fiction book, but I’ve kept it in because it is a story, not a purely non-fiction text, and it brings the valley and its history to life. I think this would be a fantastic way to learn the history of England (even if there are some historiographical issues associated with presenting history so neatly as this)

Quality of information (normally characterisation): 10/10 – My knowledge of history is not that brilliant, frankly, so this isn’t a comment on how accurate the facts are in this book (and I’m guessing that what was considered to be accurate in 1953 might not be so now anyway). But this does a great job as an information book in giving details about each period and bringing them to life, the illustrations are fantastic, and there’s a good level of detail (we find out about education, work, transport, etc). I’d definitely have bought this book as a school librarian in 1953!

Themes: History, heritage, landscape, building

Publisher: Oxford University Press

Illustrator: Edward Osmond

Author’s nationality/race: English, probably white (I haven’t any definitive information on his race but it is probable from the facts I have)

Intended readership: I find this a little difficult to gauge as I’m less familiar with information books of this period, but I think probably roughly 8-14.

 

 

 

The Borrowers

If 1951’s winner didn’t speak to me, 1952’s is one of the books of my heart. It has an

The Borrowers - first edition jacket image
First edition jacket for The Borrowers, illustrated by Diana Stanley

advantage, of course: I read The Borrowers as a child and still carry some of that childhood reading experience with me on rereads. But there’s no question that this is a rich and wonderful novel, whenever you are coming to it. Mary Norton’s tale of tiny people who live hidden in human houses, ‘borrowing’ what they need to live on, has had one of the longest and most robust afterlives of any Carnegie winner: continuously in print, it’s been adapted multiple times, in various different media.

From the very opening lines the book asks readers to think and to wonder:

It was Mrs. May who first told me about them. No, not me. How could it have been me— a wild, untidy, self-willed little girl who stared with angry eyes and was said to crunch her teeth? Kate, she should have been called. Yes, that was it— Kate. Not that the name matters much either way: she barely comes into the story.

What are we to make of this narrator who immediately disclaims herself? A narrator who immediately sets parameters for the kind of little girl who ‘should’ have heard the story, while simultaneously making it clear what kind of little girl actually did. The self-willed little girl sets us up for the heroine of the story itself, the Borrower Arrietty who yearns for a life beyond the cramped spaces below the floorboards. Yet she is also tamed by her exposure to the past, in the shape of Mrs May who tells her the story of the Borrowers:

Kate was never ‘wild’ with Mrs. May, nor untidy, nor self-willed; and Mrs. May taught her many things besides crochet: how to wind wool into an egg-shaped ball; how to run-and-fell and plan a darn; how to tidy a drawer and to lay, like a blessing, above the contents, a sheet of rustling tissue against the dust.

This sets up a tension which runs throughout the book, between a nostalgia for the past and the ways of the past, and the vitality of youth which drives towards the new and recognises the stifling presence of the old.

Much of this tension is embodied in the country house, which was a focus for much of Britain’s complicated feelings about its past and future in the early twentieth century. Like many country estates by 1952, the house in which the main narrative of the Borrowers takes place is in decline. Once a vibrant household with a full complement of servants, a lively family, and a host of visitors, it has dwindled to a single old lady – Aunt Sophy – two servants (a cook-housekeeper, Mrs Driver, and the gardener Crampfurl), and, for the duration of the action of the book, the Boy, sent to convalesce. And, of course – though most of the human inhabitants are unaware of them – the three Borrowers: Pod, Homily and Arrietty. The presence of the Borrowers in itself imbues the space of the house with a kind of magic, and Homily remembers the days when the house was inhabited with both many people and many Borrowers with nostalgia. But for Arrietty, the house is a prison:

It was only Pod who knew the way through the intersecting passages to the hole under the clock. And only Pod could open the gates. There were complicated clasps made of hair-slides and safety-pins of which Pod alone knew the secret.

If the gates serve to keep Homily and Arrietty safe from mice and other intruders from the outside, they also serve to keep them in – as Pod himself points out to Arrietty. The Boy also experiences his time in the house primarily as a period of confinement and loneliness. When Arrietty encounters the Boy, it is transformative for both of them, but these encounters ultimately lead to the discovery of the Borrowes, their flight from the house, and the Boy’s imprisonment in his room. The very story which serves to inspire in both ‘Kate’ and the reader of the book a desire to inhabit such a country house in fact turns on its oppression, decay, and ultimate dissolution.

These tensions are what make this book so narratively and conceptually rich. It’s possible to read the small, vulnerable Borrowers as children (believing unquestioningly that bigger people are for them, ‘like bread is for butter’), or as persecuted peoples (concealed fearfully in attics and under floorboards like the Franks in the Secret Annex). In their symbiotic relationship with the country house itself, they also mirror servants, deriving their social standing from the part of the house with which they are associated (the Overmantels, who lived in the morning room in times past, are – according to Homily – ‘stuck up’). This similarity is underscored by the fact that Mrs Driver, too, considers herself entitled to ‘borrow’: ‘A drop of Madeira here, a pair of old stockings there, a handkerchief or so, an odd vest, or an occasional pair of gloves— these, Mrs. Driver felt, […] were within her rights’. So the tension around the decline of the country house is in part the tension around the loss of community and livelihood for those people who worked in them – a loss which came about partly because the pay and conditions were so bad that young people  gladly abandoned service when other jobs were readily available after WW1. As the inestimable Aishwarya Subramanian pointed out in her doctoral work, there’s also a strong colonial dimension, although a complex one since the Borrowers unquestioningly exploit the ‘natural resources’ of human beings in a way which is reminiscent of the imperial British, but also occupy a vulnerable subject position. The country house itself is of course saturated with Empire, a link most clearly apparent through the presence of the Boy who has grown up in India. (In an mirroring of the Borrowers’ exploitative/vulnerable postion he will in fact ultimately die there, on the North West Frontier.) Rereading the book this time, I was particularly struck by the degree of violence: discovering the existence of the Borrowers, Mr Driver fantasises about how she will display them to her employer once they have been gassed, ‘laid out in sizes, on a piece of newspaper’.

All these complexity means this book is as satisfying on a 50th read as a first one. As a child, I was primarily captured by the idea of the tiny people living secret and intricate lives just out of sight (I can’t have been the only child to have left assorted small treasures under the floorboards just in case there might be someone there to enjoy them). Reading as an adult, I’m able to enjoy that aspect but am also still finding new things to think about on each read through.

Apparently Eileen Colwell (the first children’s librarian to serve as a Carnegie judge, and a major force in the history of the Medal) was dissatisfied with this choice in 1950. If this is true it’s now hard to imagine why, because almost 70 years later it still more than holds up.

 

SOME UNSCIENTIFIC RATINGS AND NOTES…

My overall rating: 10/10  – I can’t actually imagine how a book could be better than this

Plot: 10/10 – This is possibly the most action-packed book of the Carnegie winners so far, driven by first the perilous discovery of the Borrowers by the Boy, their near-extinction, and finally their flight. And the frame narrative adds further complexity.

Characterisation: 10/10 – Every character in this book is distinctly drawn – you get a real sense not only of Arrietty, Pod and Homily but of all the minor characters (I particularly love Aunt Sophy, who regularly talks to Pod under the belief that he is a hallucination brought on by Fine Old Madeira)

Themes: Growth, escape, heritage, decay, magic, class, imperialism

Publisher: Dent

Illustrator: Diana Stanley. Her detailed images of the Borrowers’ lives and the assorted small items they have repurposed as furniture are very satisfying

Author’s nationality/race: White English

Intended readership: Children’s, although Arrietty is actually 14 and the story of her desire to break away from the safety of family and grow out into the bigger world has some YA dimensions.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Wool-Pack

Jacket image for The Wool-Pack: beige background with three banner images, in the style of a medieval tapestry. Images show horses carrying wool-packs, horses with wriders, and three children alongside a shephered with crook, flock and sheep-dog.
First edition jacket image: Cynthia Harnett, The Wool-Pack

It’s been a long time since I updated this blog: there are a number of reasons for this but sadly one of them is certainly the winner for 1951, Cynthia Hartnett’s The Wool-Pack. I’m generally very fond of historical fiction, and I remember enjoying Hartnett’s A Load of Unicorn, so I am not sure why I really got hung up on this one, but ye gods, I found it dull.

It’s set in the 15th century, and follows the fortunes of 12-year-old Nicholas, son of a prosperous wool merchant. At the opening of the book, Nicolas’s father announces he’s betrothed Nicolas to Cecily, the young daughter of another merchant, and this forms one key narrative thread: Nicolas coming to terms with the idea that it’s time for him to transition from boyhood, his meeting with his betrothed, and their negotiation of the relationship. The second narrative thread is Nicolas’s discovery of villainy which threatens to ruin his father’s good name and business: his father’s wool-packer, Simon Leach, supposed to be responsible for ensuring the quality of the wool as it’s packed and sent away to be sold, is instead packing the bales with dross and stealing the good wool.  These two threads weave together, as Nicolas and Cecily work together to uncover the plot, and Nicolas moves from being perceived as a boy (his father dismisses his initial concerns) to greater maturity, successfully unmasking the plot. The book ends with his father’s recognition of Nicolas as ‘a man of honour’.

There’s lots to enjoy in this book: some of the detective work that Nicolas does to detect the plot is fun, and there’s also a genuine sense of menace from Leach and the Lombards. It also does a good job of conveying that people in the past were real people, while showing how they were shaped by the historical moment. For example, both Nicolas and Cecily are anxious about the betrothal, but it’s clear that the concept of having their marriage arranged for them is completely taken for granted. What they are worried about is whether they will actually like each other and how they negotiate moving into this more adult role while still being children. Harnett engineers a nice meeting for the two before they have a formal meeting under the eyes of their parents, in which they establish a genuine liking and understanding of each other as similarly lively; this contrasts nicely with the formal meeting in which they are both on best behaviour. Later on in the book, they try out the exercise of new agency because of their newly betrothed state: for example, Nicolas steps in to stop Cecily being punished for bad behaviour. All this feels very real and establishes how an early betrothal of this kind (to result in marriage only when both parties were adults) could have been the foundation for a happy marriage within this cultural context.

I also enjoyed the sense of England as part of a European community which is present throughout this book. by making the wool trade such a key part of the plot, Harnett is able to push against some popular misconceptions of medieval England as isolated, backwards, etc. International trade is key to the prosperity of Nicolas and Cecily’s families, they are shown as enjoying imported goods and priding themselves on their knowledge of and access to customs and goods from outside England. In the current political climate, all this seems like quite a crucial dimension of English history! This only goes so far, however, as the major antagonists are the Italian Lombards, who are conspiring with Leach to smuggle the stolen wool out of the country for sale on the Continent. This aspect serves to put forward an impression of Englishness as linked with integrity and honesty, while foreignness  is linked with trickery, plotting, and generally sinister behaviour. It’s not ahistorical to cast the ‘agent of the noble banking house of the Medici’ as less than 100% morally upright, but the presentation of his secretary as ‘sallow and pock-marked, with little eyes that peered under heavy lids, and a large flabby mouth’ works to cast the Lombards as intrinsically evil in a way that is quite xenophobic.

Where the book falls down, I think, is that its commitment to historical accuracy is *so* great that it starts to weigh down the plot. There are lots of expositional moments about particular historical details: there’s a long, detailed passage about Nicolas’s clothing, for example, which slows everything down. Most disappointingly, the plot is wrapped up largely ‘offscreen’: Nicholas sends a letter to his father which arrives in the nick of time, but the account of how it enables him to effect his release from prison and demonstrate that he is not responsible for the illicit sale of wool is told after the fact, when his father returns home. It makes sense that Nicolas isn’t present for these events – but if the story had built to a climactic moment in which Nicolas was there in person speaking in defence of his father, it would have been considerably more exciting. Ending the book with the information that Nicolas *will* be the chief witness in the coming trial is a little disappointing.

Having finally gotten around to writing about this book, I’m still not sure why I found it quite such a stumbling block, but it took me three goes to even finish what is a very short book. Oddly, I think I might have enjoyed it rather more as a child, because I did have a taste for stories with lots of details on ordinary life. So maybe the Carnegie committee were onto something. But it’s telling, I think, that this is one of the winners that’s not still in print (or even particularly remembered) today. C.S. Lewis’s Prince Caspian was also published in 1951, and while that’s definitely not an unproblematic read it’s a lot more fun than this. Plus (not to tip my hand) a win for that might have saved us from the award for The Last Battle later on.

SOME UNSCIENTIFIC RATINGS AND NOTES…

My overall rating: 5/10  – There’s stuff to enjoy here. But I didn’t enjoy it.

Plot: 5/10 – What starts out as an exciting plot goes  off the rails by moving the action away from the protagonists.

Characterisation: 6/10 – There’s some good character work, and I find that I do remember Cecily in particular, although I was occasionally annoyed by the obligatory ‘plucky girls like climbing trees more than needlework’ trope. I liked that trope as a kid, though, and it was a bit less tired in 1951!

Themes: Growth, cosmopolitianism, trade, adventure

Publisher: Methuen

Illustrator: Cynthia Harnett. The illustrations are quite charming, detailed line drawings of the type typical of books published in this period.

Author’s nationality/race: White English

Intended readership: Definitely children’s.

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Lark on the Wing

We enter the 1950s with Elfrida Vipont’s The Lark on the Wing, the first – but by far the last – Carnegie winner to emerge from Oxford University Press. Indeed, by the beginning of the 1960s, Oxford’s dominance was beginning to be almost taken for granted. It’s interesting, then, to consider the precent set by Vipont’s novel.The Lark on the Wing - first edition dust jacket

Vipont is probably best-known today for The Elephant and the Bad Baby, a picture book illustrated by Raymond Briggs which is still in print today. However, most of her books were for adults (mostly non-fiction books about Quakerism) or older children and young adults. The Lark on the Wing falls into the final category, and is the second of five novels following the same family. It is essentially a career novel: it follows young Quaker Kit Haverard from her dawning realisation that she wishes to become a professional singer, through to her first major professional triumph performing a major new piece of choral music. In this respect it’s something of a counterpart to 1948’s winner, Richard Armstrong’s Sea Change. Armstrong’s novel was explicitly presented as a novel for boys; Vipont’s can fairly be said to be one for girls, not only because its protagonist is a girl but because it is largely concerned with the challenges of making a career as a girl. Set at a moment when girls were making their way into careers, the novel is interested in what this means for them and how it conflicts with expectations that girls should be focused on the domestic sphere. Where in Armstrong’s novel the chief barrier to success is Cam himself, in Vipont’s it is clear that for Kit, many of the barriers come from societal expectations. Nevertheless,  Kit’s generation is shown to have more opportunities than that of her great-aunts: her experiences are contrasted with that of her Great-Aunt Henrietta, whose frustrated ambitions as a singer are shown to have deeply hurt her.

The Lark on the Wing is also a much more middle-class novel that Sea Change: Kit comes from a well-to-do home, has attended a private school and been provided with music lessons. Indeed, Vipont has to manufacture some of the challenges Kit faces by having her father die and leave too-large a share of his estate to Kit’s cousin Laura who – somewhat improbably given her overall characterisation as morally upright but unaffectionate – initially doesn’t seek to divert any of this money back to Kit. (This also allows for Kit to be rewarded for her hard work at the end of the novel when Laura’s new husband suggests they make over a share of her father’s estate.)

Despite the difference in milieu between this and Sea Change, there are a number of interesting commonalities. Although Kit is presented as rebellious inasmuch as her ambition to become a singer runs contrary to the wishes of her guardian, cousin Laura, ultimately much of the book is concerned with the need for careful and thoughtful hard work. Just as Cam is mentored by a wise second mate who emphasises the need to learn all the basics of seamanship before graduating to the ‘exciting’ work, Kit’s singing teacher Papa Andreou confines Kit to singing scales and practicing vowel sounds before she can graduate to ‘singing out’. Both these books speak to their 1950s context by addressing the experience of a lengthening adolescence and emphasising that there are more rewards in tolerating a long apprenticeship than in rushing headlong into the ‘adult’ portion of a career. Vipont’s Quakerism adds an interesting note here since it contributes to the general ethos of obedience and respect for elders, but also underpin’s Kit’s conviction that her singing is part of the ‘”real me” inside’ and is in some sense connected to the Quaker understanding of worship.

I have to confess that this book is much more to my tastes than Sea Change: I’m just inherently a lot more interested in the travails of a artistic teenage girl than I am in those of an adolescent merchant seaman. It’s also a much more ‘literary’ book in terms of style than Armstrong’s, much more complex in terms of writing style and narrative. Where this is a real strength is in its characterisation: Kit is well and sensitively drawn, and there are a range of other characters who are given some nuance and depth. To some extent Vipont does rely on the fact that this is a sequel to her earlier book The Lark in the Morn, and some of the subplots about different characters are a bit hard to follow if you’re not already familiar with them (as I wasn’t when I read this book), but I did like the sense that they were all real people with their own concerns. Kit’s cousin Milly, for example, falls in love with a Quaker missionary but knows she isn’t cut out for working in the field with him, while his passion for missionary work is such that he cannot give it up.

There is a romantic subplot running through the novel in the form of Kit’s very gradually evolving love affair with fellow singer Terry. Cadogan and Craig, discussing girls’ career novels as a genre, complain that they foreground the issue of romance too much and are often too concerned to demonstrate that girls can still be desirable and conventionally feminine even if they are pursuing a career. Although the book does show Kit blossoming into an attractive young woman, it doesn’t really fall into this trap – the romance is so very subtle that it would be possible to miss it altogether. Indeed, I think that it would have been a more rounded and realistic novel if we’d been allowed to also share in Kit’s growing awareness of her own sexual desire – this type of book was some way off, however!

in the 1960s Aidan Chambers was to complain that the Carnegie winners were ‘‘intellectual, sophisticated, over-written, unremarkable for anything in the slightest “questionable” in thought, word or deed’. This is too harsh a judgement of The Lark on the Wing, but I feel that it is very definitely the kind of book that he had in mind with this complaint. Certainly the pendulum had swung dramatically from the accessible, working-class centric, action focused Sea Change, and it was to stick on the Lark on the Wing side for quite a few years to come. It’s hard to imagine contemporary readers enjoying either book, though, and I think this is much to do with their intensely topical nature. The Lark on the Wing is a good, well-written book but what lifts it out of the niche audience for the ‘literary girl’s book’ is its sensitive treatment of the challenges associated with girls moving into the wider world of work at this particular historical moment.

As my student Jennifer has been showing in her recent work, this kind of book is part of a  longer tradition of novels for and about adolescent girls  which often gets  missed out of the narrative about YA literature. The Carnegie Medal may have skewed too much towards the YA side in recent years, but the presence of this book among these early winners is important, I think, and says something about how the market was developing at that time. It does feel a bit transitional – just as Sea Change was harking back to the nineteenth century seafaring story, this book has much in common with nineteenth century adolescent literature like The Daisy Chain and Little Women, especially in relation to the kind of moral lessons it wants to deliver. Just as Alcott’s Jo has her dalliance with writing ‘trashy’ literature, so Kit gets lured into the chance of performing more ‘commercial’ music in public against the advice of her music teacher, and like Jo she is duly chastened. But Kit is much more self-righteous and less richly drawn than Jo. While I think Vipont is similarly negotiating a fairly radical philosophy within a fairly restricted social context, the tensions of that don’t come across in quite the same way and would definitely escae most modern readers, I think.

 

SOME UNSCIENTIFIC RATINGS AND NOTES…

My overall rating: 7/10  – I enjoyed this, and there’s some fine writing, but it doesn’t quite take off. The whole thing is a bit more inclined to moralisation than I would like, in ways that make it feel a bit flat.

Plot: 6/10 – This is less a plotty novel than a character piece, and a lot of the big plotty moments are the weakest, I think.

Characterisation: 6/10 – The characterisation is finely drawn and the way Kit grows and changes is at the heart of the novel. Again, though, I think there’s a tiny bit too much moralising to make her feel 100% real.

Themes: Growth, work, music, religion, Quakerism, maturity

Publisher: Oxford University Press

Illustrator: My edition doesn’t have any illustrations.

Author’s nationality/race: White English

Intended readership (I’ve added this category since my ponderings on the representation children’s / YA in the Medal and it’s mostly based on my impression of the book on reading): YA

 

 

 

 

 

Take to the sea with Sea Change

A new voyage for the Carnegie Medal as it takes to the sea with Richard Armstrong’s Sea Change.

Jacket image of the first edition of Sea Change
Jacket image of the first edition of Sea Change

Following the old-fashioned lyricism of Walter de la Mare, 1948 saw a complete shift in tone with Richard Armstrong’s contemporary career novel Sea Change. The novel focuses on sixteen-year-old Cam Renton, an apprentice merchant seaman, and follows him from his arrival on board a new ship through to his acceptance as a valued member of the ship’s crew. Cam’s age and the focus on work in this novel make it the first of the Carnegie Medal-winners which can squarely be classed as an adolescent novel, albeit there is nothing in terms of content which would make it unsuitable for child readers.  It also marks a return to contemporary realism for the first time since We Couldn’t Leave Dinah in 1941 (if that book can be classed as realism, exactly), although with plenty of adventure in the form of powerful storms, a fire on board ship, and a perilous journey as part of the skeleton crew for a salavaged ship. Although W. Berwick Sayers had stated in the first year of the Medal that the winning book should ‘as far as possible’ appeal to both boys and girls, Sea Change is unapologetically (as you can see from the cover) a book for and about boys: there is not a single female character, nor even a mention of women (even in the form of mothers or sisters). This again was a departure for the Medal, although several earlier winners had focused primarily on female characters.

This is an interesting book in that it’s simultaneously very old-fashioned and very modern. It owes a great deal to the nineteenth-century seafaring adventure story,  giving us a kind of ‘bildungsroman by sea’, but its concern to map out the route to a successful career and to emphasise the skills which will be used in the world of work it very much reflects British sensibilities of the late 1940s and early 1950s, a period when the ‘career novel’ was at its zenith.

One element of the book which aligns with the tradition of nineteenth-century boys’ adventure narratives is its assertion of British superiority. This is paradoxically most apparent in the episode which constitutes Cam’s most ignominious point in the narrative. Chafing at the orders he has received to remain close to the ship, Cam and his fellow apprentice Rusty take an illicit trip to a fort in Port of Spain and end up getting arrested by the soldiers manning the fort. This episode serves as a climax to Cam’s feelings of discontent about the orders he has received and his erroneous belief that the second mate ‘has it in for him’, serving as the turning point for his attitude on board ship. The two boys have to be rescued from their scrape by the captain of their ship, but despite this  their strength, courage and quick wittedness is contrasted throughout with the slovenly, ill disciplined behaviour of the soldiers manning the fort. (It’s not completely apparent, incidentally, what nationality these soldiers are – can anyone tell me who would have been manning a fort in Trinidad in the 1940s?). The sentry guarding the fort – asleep on the job – is ‘the strangest soldier Cam had ever seen’: ‘his khaki tunic had no buttons and hung loose over a blue- and white-striped singlet; his trousers were creased and stained and the bottoms of them stopped short of his dusty ankles’. When Rusty trips over his rifle, the soldier awakes and attacks him with a knife, but Cam is swift and efficient in disarming him and the boys are captured only because more soldiers arrive and overpower them. They almost succeed in outwitting the soldiers and escaping from the fort on their own, and and when the captain does rescue them, he persuades the fort commander to drop all the charges by suggesting to him that this will involve losing face. The commander reflects that he does not wish ‘to admit that my command is so undisciplined that sentries sleep at their posts, so inefficient two beardless boys can defy all the force we can muster’. Thus the episode ultimately serves to impress on the reader as well as on Cam the value of British naval discipline and its inherent superiority to other nations. Hazel Sheeky Bird has argued (in work forthcoming) that the ‘navalist’ tradition is key to the construction of British national identity in children’s literature of the early twentieth century, and this is an interesting reflection in light of the focus on heritage which has been present in earlier Carnegie winners. There is, I think, some continuity of concern here, even though this is a very different kind of book.

Cam himself is inducted into this tradition over the course of the book, developing from an apprentice chafing under orders to do some of the most mundane tasks on board ship to a seaman whom the second mate – who is clearly presented within the novel as a model of the idea sailor – describes as ‘Tough as old boots, keen as mustard, and guts to spare’. Although he is still an apprentice at the end of the book, he is identified as the de facto mate of the skeleton crew who have salvaged a derelict ship and returned safely after a perilous journey. All this would fit well into the traditional adventure novel, but the way it is presented also clearly reflects 1940s concerns about  education, teenage identity, and the world of work. At several points Armstrong emphasises the value of skills learnt at school: lessons which may have seemed boring at the time but whose application is vital in the world of work. Cam is allowed a brief teenage rebellion, but Armstrong also emphasises the value of obedience and of trusting that adults know what is best, even if they do not share their reasoning with you.

All this is interesting from a socio-historical perspective, then, but how does it hold up as a story? I do have a bit of a taste for this kind of ‘authoritarian’ bildungsroman, although usually I enjoy i in the form of girls’ school stories (which tend to follow a similar pattern of first resisting, then embracing, the order and authority of the school). However, it’s fair to say that I am probably not the most appreciative audience for a book about adventures at sea. I don’t think, however, that this is the only reason that this is the Carnegie winner I’ve enjoyed least so far. In contrast to the beautiful prose of de la Mare’s book, this is something of a comedown: the dialogue especially is stilted and clearly suffers from the tension between reproducing the language of young sailors realitically and keeping the book within the perceived limits of what is appropriate for young readers. One of the key dramatic episodes in the book starts like this:

[…] Rusty pointed to the porthole through which the night could be seen full of red glare.

‘Suffering snakes! She’s on fire,’ he yelled, and made for the door.

‘Not in your bare feet, you chump!’ shouted Cam.

There’s something to be said for plain prose – and for representing a rather less middle-class millieu than had previously featured in most Carnegie winners – but I found this rather stilted. This is the first of the winners I’ve read which is now out of print, and it’s easy to understand why. Marcus Crouch praises the characterisation and realism of the book, but neither were especially vivid to me.

Despite these caveats, I think this does mark an interesting turn for the Carnegie Medal. Richard Armstrong was the first winner who could really claim to be a working-class writer: born to a blacksmith in Northumberland, he left school at 13 and worked first in the shipyards and then at sea. The book itself is also much more aimed at working-class readers than any previous winner: the kind of boys who would be likely, like Cam, to leave school at 15 and embark on an apprenticeship. This really broadens the definition of ‘childhood’ which the Carnegie Medal was catering to. For that alone, the book deserves an honourable mention, if sadly not a continuing life in print!

 

SOME UNSCIENTIFIC RATINGS AND NOTES…

My overall rating: 5/10 – It had something to offer me, but the clunky language and the rather thin characterisation made it a bit of a grind

Plot: 7/10 – There’s plenty going on here – maybe a bit too much. I felt I was moving from episode to episode rather than the plot really developing.

Characterisation: 4/10 – Cam does develop a bit, but in general there are stock characters rather than actual characterisation.

Themes: Seafaring, adventure, realism, work, nationhood

Publisher: Dent (the third win for this publisher)

Illustrator: None in my edition, but the first edition had line drawings by the marine artist Michal Leszcynski

Author’s nationality/race: White English

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Walter de la Mare – Collected Stories for Children

Old stories, but deliciously living language in Walter de la Mare’s 1947 Carnegie win

Collected Stories for Children
Jacket for 1957 edition of ‘Collected Stories for Children’ by Walter de la Mare, illustrated by Robin Jacques.

The 1947 award marked a new departure for the Carnegie Medal: it was the first time the Medal had gone to a collection of short stories. Walter de la Mare’s Collected Stories for Children was stretching the definition of ‘published in that year’, for it was a collection of 17 stories produced throughout de la Mare’s career. The decision to allow such previously published material, provided ‘a subtantial part of the contents’ had not ‘already appeared as a complete book’, had been taken only in 1944 (Library Association Record Nov 1944, p. 196). It’s possible that this revision was made with de la Mare in mind, for the opportunities to honour this grandee of children’s literature were likely to be limited. Certainly Eileen Colwell notes that the award itself was made partly because the committee felt that de la Mare’s contribution to literature should be recognised.  In a sense, then, this award was one which sought to consolidate part of Britian’s existing heritage of children’s literature.

The collection itself fits strongly within the trend for texts which deal with ideas of heritage and nationhood, since although the stories are original to de la Mare, they have the ‘feel’ of traditional tales. Some are explicit reversionings of well-known stories:  the opening tale, ‘Dick and the Beanstalk’, is a charming ‘making new’ of ‘Jack and the Beanstalk’, in which Dick, ‘what is called a lively reader’, discovers Jack’s beanstalk and sets out to find out the truth of the story, only to get considerably more than he bargained for.  Others create folk tales for particular areas, such as in the ‘The Sleeping Boys of Warwickshire’, the story of three maltreated chimney sweeps who fall into an enchanted sleep after their master attempts to entrap the, in their dreams in order to make them into more passive workers. (As far as I’ve been able to tell, the story isn’t based on any actual local legend.)

The ‘magicking’ of the British landscape which is evident in The Little Grey Men and The Little White Horse is evident throughout de la Mare’s writing. Each story is lush with description: who can resist Griselda’s seaside home by which:

On calm summer evenings unearthly dancers had been seen dancing between the dusk and the moonlght on the short green turf at the edge of the sands, where bugloss and sea-lavender bloomed, and the gulls had their meeting place, gabbling softly together as they preened their wings in the twilight.  – ‘A Penny a Day’

Throughout the collection, the beauty of the landscape retains a numinous quality, whether or not it is peopled with magical creatures.

Walter de la Mare is of course best known for his poetry, and the great joy of this collection is in the language. His description of a scarecrow, ‘nothing but a dumb, tumebledown, hugger-mugger antiquated old hodmadod’, is absolutely delicious, full of words you want to roll around in your mouth, and I love the description of Myfanwy’s possessive father, whose ‘dark brows loured at the very thought’ of losing his daughter. de la Mare often employs the quite formal, slightly archaic tones which are common to many Victorian tellings of fairy tales, but this is language which lives. Although the tone and the amount of description might initially be offputting to children more accustomed to the quick pace of contemporary children’s books, I think that the sheer joy of de la Mare’s language would win them over, especially if the stories were being read out loud.

The one uncomfortable aspect of this collection is the story ‘Sambo and the Snow Mountains’, which features a black British child who is consumed with a desire to be white. The story is more nuanced than this bald summary makes it sound: Sambo’s desire for whiteness is prompted by the racist comments of other chldren, which trouble him even though he knows that in his own country, ‘to be black was bliss […] it was white boys who would be laughable there’. He sets out on a journey to the snow mountains, where he believes he might become white through exposure to the white landscape, and poses as the doctor for a dying old lady who loves all things white, having disguised his black skin with whitewash. The old lady ultimately affirms the value of blackness, telling him:

White gives back all colours; black welcomes them in […] A black man whose mind is free from darkness and his heart from cruelty is in truth whiter than any one whose soul is in the shades.

Sambo responds ‘de blackest ob all dings, lady, dat is a lie’, and washes off the whitewash, resolving to tell the lady the truth about himself. But she dies in the night, leaving him all that she has with the wish that he ‘never put on anything but white for me’. We can assume she means him to wear white clothes, but Sambo interprets this as an injunction to once more whitewash his skin. He lives out his life as a rich man, and a kindly master, but always with whitened skin. But from time to time ‘a voice would cry out on him as if from the very recesses of his being. “O but for a moment, to be black again!”‘. In many ways, then, this is a tragedy about race and racism, and it’s clear that de la Mare’s ntentions were to decry racist attitudes. I think from the point of view of the Carnegie committee in 1947, it may have seemed relatively progressive. It’s marred, though, by the racist caricature of Sambo. As the quote above shows, despite being third-generation British, Sambo speaks a pidgin English, and he’s characterised as ‘slow’ (indeed, he suggests that being white would make him ‘quicker at his tasks’). As is the case with other stories of this type (such as Hoffman’s ‘Story of the Black Boys’) the binary of white as good and black as bad is largely preserved. Ultimately I think it’s hard (especially for a white writer) to write a story about a black child’s quest to become white without it ending up somewhat racist, whatever the intention. On the whole, this isn’t a story I’d be keen to share with contemporary child readers, at least not without some serious discussion. (I would be interested to hear the thoughts of other readers, especially those more equipped to discuss issues of race.)

Sambo aside, I think this collection was a worthy winner of the Carnegie Medal, albeit one which was clearly aimed at celebrating a tradition of children’s literature rather than promoting something new.

The Library Association Record which announces de la Mare’s win also includes a poem he inscribed in the copy of his book he presented to the LA. It’s rather lovely and I’m not sure that it’s very widely known (I’m not very familiar with his poetry but it doesn’t come up on a Google) so I’m reproducing it here:

 

The Harebell

In the clear sunshine, hour by hour,I’ve toiled, but toiled in vain, to paint this flowerBrushes, and box of colours from this shelf,And nought else with me but the flower itself.Nothing alive – so steadfast yet so frail – Could ever bloom on paper, I know well;But poor and clumsy though the copy be,I could not wish for happier company. 

It seems it might, if I gazed on and on -That wiry stalk, those petals, blue yet wan.The solemn beauty of that marvellous cup -At last, for very love, give its strange scent up.

 

SOME UNSCIENTIFIC RATINGS AND NOTES…

My overall rating: 7/10 – I couldn’t immerse myself in this in the way I can with some other winners, but SUCH delight in the language

Plot: 9/10 – This varies from story to story, but in general there’s the plottiness and suspense of a good folk tale

Characterisation: 7/10 – Folk tales aren’t necessarily character-focused, as a rule, but these characters do really live. de la Mare has a particularly good eye for his child characters, who could easily end up a bit twee but have a zest that makes them more realistic.

Themes: Magic, countryside, morality, evil, folk tales

Publisher: Faber and Faber

Brother John
Robin Jacques’ illustration of a disgruntled-looking brother John playing his bassoon, from the story ‘The Dutch Cheese’.

Illustrator: Robin Jacques illustrated the edition I had – I love the image of poor brother John in

‘The Dutch Cheese” trying to drive away the fairies by playing his bassoon – but the first edition was illustrated by Irene Hawkins

Author’s nationality/race: White English

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Little White Horse

The Carnegie Medal moves back into fantasy worlds with The Little White Horse.

Book jacket for Elizabeth Goudge's "The Little White Horse"
First edition cover of The Little White Horse

I was excited to get to the 1946 winner, Elizabeth Gouge’s The Little White Horse. I remember watching the TV adaptation, Moonacre, as a child, but I had never read the book and at the time didn’t even realise that there was a book. I don’t remember anything about the TV adaptation either, except the sense of something magical and exciting. The book certainly is magical and exciting, but what I enjoyed about it even more is its wry humour. The introduction of the protagonist (Maria), her governess Miss Heliotrope, and her dog Wiggins is a delight: contemplating her beautiful boots gives clothes-conscious Maria ‘a moral strength that can scarcely be overestimated’, virtuous Miss Heliotrope is afflicted by indigestion that has the unfortunate side effect of giving her the purple nose of an alcoholic, and as for Wiggins…

 

[I]t is difficult to draw up a list of Wiggin’s virtues… In fact impossible because he hadn’t any… Wiggins was greedy, conceited, bad-tempered, selfish, and lazy. It was the belief of Maria and Miss Heliotrope that he loved them devotedly because he always kept close at their heels, wagged his tail politely when spoken to, and even kissed them upon occasion. But all this Wiggins did not from affection but because he thought it good policy.

There’s a real savour to these descriptions that I love, and it carries on through the rest of the book. This, I think, is what makes this book really successful; it is also deeply concerned with questions of virtue and in the wrong hands this story could have become sickly, but the humour lifts it out of danger.

The Little White Horse returns to some of the themes we have seen in previous Carnegie winners, notably the emphasis on the pastoral and the interest in heritage. At the start of the book, recently orphaned Maria is travelling to live with her uncle in the West Country, a prospect she regards with dismay. Predictably, none of the discomforts she associates with country life materialise: in fact, she is stepping into a picture postcard world in which:

The cottages all looked prosperous and well cared for, and besides the gardens the gardens had beehives in them. And the people looked as happy and prosperous as their homes. The children were sturdy as little ponies, healthy and happy, their mothers and fathers strong-looking and serene, the old people as rosy-cheeked and smiling as the children.

Although she is ‘a London lady born and bred’ Maria fits perfectly into this rural world, so much so that she finds she has a bedroom with a door so small only she can enter, where she daily discovers clothes and other goodies which fit perfectly. Furthermore, she has a destiny to fulfil: she is the ‘Moon Princess’ who has the chance to right the wrongs and heal the old rifts which have marred the happiness of her ancestors. Just in case there should be any doubt about the symbolism attached to her healing of the land, she is assisted in her quest by a lion and a unicorn.

This is, then, a book which is concerned with national identity, and with a vision of Englishness (and I think in this case we are dealing with Englishness rather than Britishness) which is rooted in a particular rural idyll. The world that Maria is seeking to preserve is  also distinctly old fashioned – the book is set ‘in the year of our grace 1842’ and Maria is invested in ensuring that Silverydew ‘should never change’. By the end of the book, everyone is happily and heteronormatively paired off, religion rather than personal gain is in the ascendancy, and there’s a sense of happy stasis. This seems in contrast to some of the earlier books I’ve looked at where there was a strong sense of futurity.

At the same time, the book isn’t necessarily conservative. I was interested in the legacy of conflict Maria needs to deal with, which reaches back to the ‘Men from the Dark Woods’ (French – so certainly reproducing some age old British xenophobia) and her ancestor who may have tricked them, and has echoes in the generation immediately before hers. Although the ‘Men from the Dark Woods’ are clearly presented as a dark force, it’s also clear that Maria’s own ancestors have behaved badly and that children inherit the failings of their parents. Reading it as a metaphor for national identity suggests that the rural idyll isn’t an entirely innocent one and acknowledges the possibility of negative histories as well as positive ones. Although I’ve said that this book is not very future focused, it is concerned with resolving and atoning for past crimes in order to move forward. These are concerns that will recur (in a much more hard-hitting way) in a later Carnegie winner, Alan Garner’s The Owl Service.

This isn’t a book for everyone, although it’s very much a book for someone like me – everything from the fantasy elements, to the humour, to the recurrent descriptions of delicious food are calculated to please me. (They also pleased J.K. Rowling, who cites this as one of her favourites.) It’s slower and more descriptive than a typical children’s book today, which might deter some contemporary readers, but I think it does hold up for the right kind of reader. I’m certainly happy it is still in print.

 

SOME UNSCIENTIFIC RATINGS AND NOTES…

My overall rating: 8/10 – I really enjoyed this, and I suspect if I’d read it as a child my rating would have been even higher – all the fantasy elements would have seemed even more magical.

Plot: 8/10 – This is plottier than a lot of the other books I’ve read so far, and the plot is handled well, although I found the pairing off of everyone at the end a bit uncomfortable (Maria doesn’t actually get married, but I wish her eventual marriage hadn’t been quite so settled as it was)

Characterisation: 9/10 – As is probably already apparent, I love the characterisation in this. I particularly loved the fact that all the characters are quite flawed and that we’re supposed to recognise that. She does lose hold of her focus on character as the plot gets going, though.

Themes: Magic, countryside, nationhood, morality, evil

Publisher: University of London Press

Illustrator:C Walter Hodges (but mostly absent from my edition, alas)

Author’s nationality/race: White English