War stops play: a year with no award

Some musings on a year with no award

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Mary Poppins Opens the Door: book jacket image
Mary Poppins Opens the Door: first edition jacket

No review this week, as we have reached 1943: the first of three years in which no Carnegie Medal was awarded. It’s pretty easy to guess why the committee struggled to make an award: World War Two was by this point well underway, and the depredations of the Blitz had had a significant effect on British publishing. Paper warehouses and printers were badly affected by the bombing, and the general paper shortage meant that publishers were severely restricted in how many books they could publish. Publishing firms were also hit by the loss of many staff to the armed forces – although children’s publishing was arguably better placed to cope with this since so many of the editors were women. War must also have affected the Library Association and its members, perhaps making the task of finding eligible titles more challenging: a problem compounded by the fact that the Carnegie Committee was not at this point made up of specialist youth librarians (who were mostly women) .

There were, however, books published in 1943, and despite the fact that the Committee recorded the ‘no book was considered suitable’ there are arguably some which might have fitted the bill had there been sufficient interest either in identifying possible titles or in bending the rules about eligibility. Before I proceed on to 1944’s award, then, I thought I’d briefly reflect on what might have been.

The most obvious contender for the prize, in terms of ensuring recognition, is Arthur Ransome’s The Picts and the Martyrs. I suspect this probably would have won by default had it not been for the fact that Ransome had already won the Medal in 1936. While there was no explicit rule against repeat winners, it wasn’t (according to Keith Barker) until 1968 that the rules were rewritten to make it clear that the same author could be honoured twice, and it took until 1980 for this to actually happen. So it’s fair to assume that there was at the very least a reluctance to honour Ransome twice. if so, that reluctance was perhaps solidified by the appeal of The Picts and the Martyrs relative to Pigeon Post. It’s a good book (in my opinion most of the Ransome books – with the exception of Missee Lee and Peter Duck – wouldn’t look out of place as winners).  It returns to some similar ground, though (in all senses) and it’s in some ways a quieter, less dramatic book. It has different qualities to Pigeon Post, but I don’t think it would be easy to make the case that it was so much better than that book that it merited a double award for Ransome so soon after he was honoured.

Another possible contender for the 1943 award was Enid Blyton, who published two books this year: The Mystery of the Burnt Cottage and The Magic Faraway Tree. From a contemporary perspective, Blyton might seem like an unlikely contender for the Carnegie, since she has been anathema to much of the children’s book establishment for a large portion of her career. In the 1940s, however, she had yet to attract the amount of opprobrium which was to be attached to her in later days: reviews from around this time are generally positive if not effusive. A 1941 review of The Babar Story Book in the Observer, for example,  praises  her condensed version of the stories, saying ‘ She has, by doing her work with  taste and skill, rendered a real service to M. de Bunhoff’s historic elephant’ (Lucas, A. (1941, Nov 30). FOR THE CHILDREN. The Observer (1901- 2003) ). The stylistic qualities of Blyton’s writing are out of line with what I’ve seen of the Carnegie list to this point, which has tended towards the fairly high literary; on the other hand we can certainly say her books have stood the test of time, since very many of them are still in print and selling well.

I’ve never read The Mystery of the Burnt Cottage and didn’t get around to reading it for this blog post. I did read The Magic Faraway Tree as a child and did NOT enjoy it, though I can’t remember why. I reread it this week and it created some of the same uneasy feelings that I associate with my childhood reading. I think this is to do with the fact Blyton’s fantasy world is so capricious and unpleasant: the book features a set of children who have discovered a magical tree which is populated by all kinds of strange people and which has access to magical lands, which periodically arrive at the top of the tree, stay for a short while, and then move on. They are often wish fulfilment type lands where you can take whatever you want or do whatever you want, although they are equally likely to be unpleasant lands, such as a land where everyone is angry all the time. As a child, I enjoyed the moral order of Blyton’s work a lot – I LOVED her school stories, in which there is a clear ‘right’ way to behave and any misunderstandings are always straightened out by the end of the book. In The Magic Faraway Tree, there are hints of moral didacticism – for example, there’s a world in which you can get whatever presents you want, as long as you want to give them to other people – but there’s also a lot of punishment which is either randomly delivered or wholly disproportionate. When the Saucepan Man goes into the Land of Toys, for example, believing it to be the Land of Take What You Want, he helps himself to toffees from a shop and is immediately apprehended and thrown in jail. In Blyton’s school stories, this kind of situation would be resolved by some kind of demonstration of his good intentions and his contrition; in this book it is resolved by the children breaking him out of prison and tricking all the pursuing toys into an exhausting and futile chase. I can see how this might be appealing to some readers – I think one thing the Famous Five books do well is convey the capriciousness of adult power and the pleasures of outwitting  those who wield it  – but I find it rather mean spirited and unsettling. It also seems to run counter to the Carnegie criteria, which did stipulate that books should offer children ‘a proper expectation of life’, which seems to have meant good moral values rather than realistic expectations (on which count Blytin might have won). All in all, I don’t think Blyton’s failure to win was a mere oversight, nor am I particularly sorry about this in retrospect.

The Magic Bed-Knob: first edition jacket
The Magic Bed-Knob: first edition jacket

The final two books which could have been contenders this year were Mary Norton’s The Magic Bed-Knob; or, How to Become a Witch in Ten Easy Lessons (the first of the two books which were eventually adapted to become Bedknobs and Broomsticks) and P.L. Travers ‘ Mary Poppins Opens the Door. I have read both these books, but in both cases it was a long time agao, and I  didn’t manage to pick up either for a reread. I remember The Magic Bed-Knob as a humorous book with an enjoyable strand of realism – the kind of book which could conceivably have deserved an award – and it’s still in print, so it has stood the test of time. However, had it won the Carnegie committee might have felt that they couldn’t award the Medal to The Borrowers, which (spoiler alert) is to my mind one of the great fantasies of all time. Mary Poppins is another book which has achieved modern classic statement, albeit arguably mostly because of the film. I get confused about which Mary Poppins book is which, but I think Mary Poppins Opens the Door is where things start to get weird(er). Still, reading I Go By Sea, I Go By Land reminded me that P.L. Travers is really a fantastic writer, and with Mary Norton and P.L Travers in the mix I think the Carnegie Committee could probably have awarded the Medal if they’d been inclined to really try. So this does seem a case of ‘war stops play’ rather than a true case of there being no suitable titles at all.

I’ve yet to delve into the Library Association’s records to find out what was actually going on that year. I am curious to see what I’ll find when I do so.

Next time… a book which arguably demonstrates that the charge of weirdness need not have been a barrier to winning the award: The Wind on the Moon.

 

Pigeon Post

Pigeon Post gets the Carnegie Medal off to a good start with a realistically plotted story which celebrates the rural landscapes of Britain.

The Carnegie Medal kicked off in 1936 with Arthur Ransome’s Pigeon Post, the sixth book in the Swallows and Amazons series. Whenever I see this mentioned, the general consensus always seems to be that it was a ‘safe’ award which was really recognising Arthur Ransome’s body of work as a whole. Keith Barker, in his history of the Carnegie, says that Arthur Ransome himself said it wasn’t his best work. Well, I’m here to say that all these commentators are wrong, wrong, wrong. This far exceeded my expectations.

This is one of the Lake District books, and brings together all the main characters from the previous five books: John, Susan, Titty and Roger Walker (the Swallows); Nancy and Peggy Blackett (the Amazons) and Dick and Dorothea (the D’s). There’s very little sailing in this book: instead, the plot centres around their efforts prospecting for gold up on the fells. There’s an enemy – the mysterious Squashy Hatted man who seems also to be  seeking gold – and a more realistic external threat in the form of a severe drought which has everyone in the area worried about fell fires.

I love the opening of the book, which gives a great ‘Previously, in the Swallows and Amazons series…’ via a dialogue between Titty and Roger and a farmer’s wife on the train, who knows Mrs Blackett:

“Aye, and her daughters too, and her brother Mr Turner that’s for ever gallivanting off to foreign parts …”

“We know him too,” said Roger. “We call him …” And he stopped short. There was no point in giving away Captain Flint’s name to natives.

“You’ve been here before, likely,” said the farmer’s wife. “Oh yes,” said Titty. “We always stay at Holly Howe … at least mother does … but Mrs Jackson’s got visitors for the next two weeks … Mrs Blackett’s having us till then because mother didn’t want Bridget to give us all whooping-cough.”

“We’ve come straight from school,” said Roger. “Eh,” said the farmer’s wife. “I know all about you. You’ll be the young folk that were camping on the island down the lake two years since when Mr Turner had his houseboat broke into. And you were here again last winter when the lake was froze over. But I thought there was four of you …”

“Five, with Bridget,” said Titty. “John and Susan must be here already. It isn’t so far from their schools.”

“And weren’t you friends with the two at Mrs Dixon’s?”

“Dick and Dorothea Callum,” said Titty.

We get a quick primer on all our characters, and set up a few things which are instrumental to the plot: the absence of Mrs Walker, (which results in a recurring anxiety on the part of Mrs Blackett about what the children are getting up to), the fact that the Swallows aren’t at the Jacksons (and thus won’t have access to their sailing boat), and Captain Flint’s penchant for foreign travel. It also subtly works to establish the Walkers as belonging in this community, which is a recurrent theme in this book.

Ransome is often criticised for writing essentially static characters – Geoffrey Trease was particularly vocal about this – but the care he takes to set things up here belies that. It’s important to Ransome to set up a reason why they’re not simply repeating the activities of the first book (which would be boring) – a love of sailing is really central to the Swallows’ and Amazons’ personalities, so it would be out of character if they just randomly decided to do something different. It’s also important that we know who these characters are, because they are slowly growing and changing and the adventures of the previous books actually matter. The whole book is actually full of lovely little character moments: one of the best scenes is when they are trying dowsing and it actually works for Titty, who totally freaks out. Her reaction is perfect for her character: she’s the most imaginative and sensitive of the Walkers, not used to being in the limelight (as second youngest), and  not really expecting anything to happen since the older children, whom she respects, haven’t managed to get it to work. I also love the way Susan is portrayed in this book: Susan is one of the characters who gets short shrift from a lot of critics because she’s a kind of ‘miniature adult’ who is mostly concerned with washing up and bedtimes. She’s definitely not the character who most readers identify with, and she’s partly there to fulfil a plot function by being the ‘serious’ one who grown-ups trust to make their undsupervised adventures safe. In Pigeon Post, though, we actually get a glimpse of what it’s like for Susan to be the one who plays this role: it comes across most powerfully in the moment when the older ones realise that the younger children are in the middle of a fell fire, and Susan reacts with the kind of horror that only comes with being the person who really feels responsible for everyone else’s wellbeing. I’m certain Susan’s character resonates more for me at 35 than she would have when I was 8, but I think it’s still important to the book as a whole that she’s there – and Ransome’s readers in 1936 were substantially more likely to have responsibility for the younger siblings than children of the same age are today.

I find Pigeon Post an interesting pick for the very first Carnegie Medal, because it is deeply concerned with the land, with ideas of belonging, and with heritage and history. The earlier books in the Swallows and Amazons series involve a lot of games in which the children imagine the British landscape as a foreign space, but that’s more or less absent here. The prospecting plot is motivated by their desire to prove to Captain Flint that rather than travelling overseas, he should ‘look for things here’, and the whole plot thereafter is concerned with uncovering valuable things in the landscape. Their prospecting does eventually bear fruit (although they find copper rather than gold), and Titty’s success at dowsing also allows them to find water, which in the context of the drought is even more precious. They draw on various bits of ‘traditional’ knowledge: a local story about finding gold in the fells, the water divining, making charcoal, and the use of homing pigeons for the titular pigeon post. The tension that runs through the book is also fundamentally to do with belonging: the farmer whose land they are staying on is deeply concerned about the possibility that they will accidentally set fire to the fells, and it’s clear that she sees them as lacking in a real appreciation of the importance of the land and the degree to which a fire would be devastating to local livelihoods. The climax of the book, in which the children save the farm from a fire with the aid of a well they have created and a homing pigeon who alerts the local fire volunteers, serves to resolve this conflict and confirm them as ‘belonging’ to the land. What we have here, then, is a beautifully constructed narrative about identity.

In case it is not clear, I LOVE this book and think it absolutely holds up after 80 years. I know from teaching Ransome’s books that my students, at least, tend to find him heavy going, and I think it’s probably the case that his appeal today isn’t what it was in the 1930s. This is a longer, slower novel than most children (or adults) are used to now. That said, I think that there are still children who would enjoy this book. There’s also nothing in it that would make me cringe at giving it to a child, which is nice for a book from 1936. A++ inaugural Carnegie committee.

Some unscientific ratings and notes…

My overall rating: 10/10 (let’s start by setting the bar high!)

Plot: 9/10

Characterisation: 10/10

Themes: Home, heritage, history, camping and tramping

Publisher: Jonathan Cape

Illustrator: Arthur Ransome

Competition

There were two highly commended books in 1936: Howard Spring’s Sampson’s Circus (Faber and Faber) and Noel Streatfeild’s Ballet Shoes (Dent). We’ll be hearing from Streatfeild again…