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

 

 

 

 

 

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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

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.

 

 

 

 

The Wind On the Moon

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Some unscientific ratings and notes…

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

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

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

Themes: War, tyranny, freedom, humour

Publisher: Macmillan

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

Author’s nationality/race: White Welsh / Orcadian

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Carnegie Shortlist 2016 – Carnegie Medal Winner – Crossan

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

UK hardback jacket for Sarah Crossan's One.

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

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

Here
We Are.

And we are living.

Isn’t that amazing?

How we manage
to be
at all.

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

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

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

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

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