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.