The Lark ascends: being seen in the Carnegie Medal

Banner reading 'Winner: CILIP Carnegie Medal 2020 - Lark, Anthony McGowan, Barrington Stoke'. It is accompanied by a picture of the jacket image of the winning book, depiciting a lark flying over a snowy scene.

This year’s Carnegie Medal has been awarded to Anthony McGowan for Lark, the fourth in his series about Northern teenagers Kenny and Nicky. In a year with quite a few shortlisted books I would have been happy to see win, I was utterly delighted that the Medal went to this one. In a lifetime of rich reading experiences, this particular set of books touched me in a different way, speaking to a part of my life I rarely see represented in any media.

The books are set in Yorkshire, not too far from where I grew up in County Durham, and this alone makes them stand out for me. The last Carnegie winner to be set in the North of England was David Almond’s brilliant Skellig, which won the Medal in 1998. Nicky and Kenny’s life is pretty far removed from my own childhood (which was considerably more privileged) but it’s also immediately recognisable to me as a portrait of the places and people of my life.

Lark follows the naming convention of the three previous books: Brock, Pike, and Rook. The  series has a theme of caring: care for the eponymous animals; parental care, or the lack of it (when the series begins, Nick and Kenny’s mother has abandoned the family and their father is struggling with alcoholism); and the care of siblings for one another. Although Kenny is the older brother, for most of the series the emphasis is on Nicky’s role as his carer, because Kenny has a learning disability – or, as Nicky puts it in the first book, Brock, he is ‘simple’, in the sense that ‘He hasn’t got all the stuff going on that messes up other people’s heads. […] He thinks other people are as kind as he is, and he only has one idea at a time’. McGowan’s treatment of care shows it in all its messy reality: the boys’ father wants to do well, but for a large portion of the series is fundamentally failing; and Nicky is dedicated to Kenny but also frequently annoyed, impatient, and imperfect in inevitable ways. The books are told through Nicky’s first person narration, which means that Kenny’s disability is not always described in the ‘right’ ways (as in the passage quoted above) but that Kenny himself is described in the way that Nicky sees him: as rich and complicated human being who is amusing, irritating and lovable in the way of all siblings. The books negotiate what it means for Nicky to care for Kenny, in all the possible senses of the word ‘care’.

Lark, the final book in the series, depicts a turning point in this exploration of care. It’s appropriate that whereas the first three books open with a chapter from the point of view of the animal, and focus the plot around this animal, Lark breaks from this. In fact, it’s not until almost the end of the book that the lark actually makes an appearance – and not in the same very real and concrete way that the animals in the earlier books appear. Instead, the book opens with Kenny’s words – ‘I don’t bloody like it’ – plunging us straight into the plot of the book, in which the risk is not to the animal but to the boys themselves. Lost on the Yorkshire Moors, their planned adventure – a distraction from the impending arrival of their estranged mother – has begun to turn to peril.  As the weather turns colder, they begin to realise that they do not know how to get back to civilisation.

There are many lovely touches in the portrayal of the brothers’ relationship here, such as Nicky’s care to take a hat, scarf and gloves for Kenny while failing to think of warm clothing for himself. Whereas some of my Shadowing group found this a bit contradictory, I found this a very realistic note which highlights the way that caring for someone can often mean focusing on their needs first. It also provides the basis for the beginning of a shift in their relationship which is the real story of the book, since Kenny refuses to wear the woollies and suggests Nicky wear them himself. ‘And the truth is, it felt good having the hat and scarf and gloves on. Like having a cuddle from your… Well, like having a cuddle.’ This is the first hint that in this book the tables will be turned: while Nicky has always been the carer, in Lark it’s ultimately Kenny who has to care for his brother.

This shift is forced on them when Nicky breaks his leg, so that there’s no choice but for Kenny to make his way up the river alone in search of help. For the first time in the series, when Kenny says he’s scared, Nicky can’t protect him. Instead he has to push him away, saying ‘We’ll always be together. But to be together, you’ve got to leave me now’. The lark is an appropriate symbol for this book, for this is the lark ascending, which can be realised only through separation. To care for Kenny, Nicky has to let go of him, and allow him to be the one who takes care of him.

It’s while the boys are separated that Nicky finally sees the lark after which the book is named (and in search of which they have embarked on their walk). Lying huddled with their dog Tina, whose body warmth has helped him get through the night, Nicky sees the sun come up and then he hears the lark:

The mad ecstatic music of the lark. I peered into the brightness and saw the small bird straining upwards, its flight not like the easy, carefree swooping of the swallows and swifts. The lark’s flight was all effort, as if hauling itself up by sheer will – a wanting, a yearning. To fly and sing was work, it was grit. And it was beautiful.

Nicky comes to understand – or to believe – that the lark is a soul leaving the body, as Tina dies beside him. When he and Kenny are reunited, the dynamic of carer / cared for is partially reasserted through Nicky’s kind lie that Tina stayed on the moors, loving the farm life too much to return to them. But the final chapter of the book reveals that Kenny understood all along that this was nothing but a story. His willingness to accept Nicky’s protection of him is in itself part of his care for Nicky: his understanding that Nicky’s care for him means he needs to feel he has protected him from pain.  We come to understand, by the end of the book, that Kenny too has cared for and protected Nicky; it’s not an unequal relationship but what Marah Gubar might term a ‘kinship’ relationship in which each brother contributes in different ways.

This is a beautiful book, and it was also a profoundly meaningful book for me personally. Like Nicky, I have a sibling with a disability, and I don’t think I’ve ever read a book which captured the love and complexity of that relationship in the way these books do. As a white, able bodied, cis woman with a university education, I’m not exactly lacking in books which reflect my experience, so I was unprepared for just how deeply moving I would find it to be ‘seen’ in this way. I felt this reading the previous books, and this culminating story had me weeping uncontrollably through the last several chapters and beyond. (I’m weeping again now, thinking about them again.) I was hungry for this book without knowing it.

This reading experience made me feel in a more personal way what I already believed in a political way: that it’s hugely important for the Carnegie Medal to honour books which represent a wide range of experiences. Since 2017, when the all-white longlist and shortlist prompted widespread and well-founded criticisms about the lack of diversity in the Medal, CILIP has implemented a wide-ranging review of both the Carnegie and Greenaway Medals and has begun the process of change. The shortlists for the last two years have shown some of the effects of this: we’ve had several non-white authors shortlisted, and this year finally saw a Black British author (Dean Atta) make it to the shortlist. As Lark indicates, the shortlists have also made more room for other types of experience which aren’t often represented in mainstream literature, including disability and queer experience. In terms of race, though, the Carnegie has typically represented non-white experience as ‘outside over there’, as Karen Sands-O’Connor, Aishwarya Subramanian and I identified in an article last year (published version; open access pre-publication version if you can’t access the published one). There are so many British children hungry to be seen in the books they read – some of them, like me, probably aren’t even aware that hunger is in them – and I really want the Carnegie Medal to meet that hunger. I want to see the shortlist and the winners continue to grow richer, especially in relation to race – because for sure Black British children are starving for books about themselves – but also in relation to a whole wide range of experience.  Because it’s not incidental, this prize: it’s highly visible, and it really means something to be seen.

Visitors from London

A forgotten treasure: Kitty Barne’s Visitors from London

The first Carnegie Medal winner published during the war years (The Radium Woman having slightly predated the start of the war) tackled the war itself: Kitty Barne’s Visitors From London  is an evacuation story. It’s actually a sequel to Barne’s earlier novel Family Footlights, which is about the same family, but since I haven’t read Family Footlights I can say with some confidence that it stands alone. This is a summer holiday story with some genetic similarity to Arthur Ransome’s books, but with a wartime twist. The book takes place in the first months of the war, when Operation Pied Piper was put into action. The four Farrar children are spending the summer in the country with their Aunt Myra, but what promises to be a peaceful holiday is interrupted by the news that evacuees are to be billeted at the nearby farmhouse, Steadings. The Farrars and Aunt Myra are roped into preparing for the evacuees and taking care of them: hijinks ensue. By the end of the summer, the evacuees have mostly retreated back to London (as many did during the ‘phony war’) and the children return to their boarding school.

This is the first of the winning novels which isn’t still in print; according to Keith Barker it was the first of the Carnegie books to go out of print. Both Barker and Pat Thomson (writing in Carousel) seem to find this unsurprising and regard the book as rather dated. This baffles me, because I found it utterly fresh and engaging. One of the criticisms often levelled at children’s books of this period is that their child characters are preternaturally goodtempered, well behaved, and respectful to their elders. It’s a criticism I previously took at face value, but reading this book really underlines how lazy a characterisation of the period it is. All Barne’s characters are very distinct, realistic, and not above a bit of family discord: I particularly enjoyed the youngest girl, Sally, who has frequent burst of outrage when things don’t go her way. I also loved the evacuee Lily, an enormously competent twelve-year-old who has cared for her two younger siblings since the death of her mother. Barne does a great job of depicting the complex jockeying for position between the evacuees and the Steadings people, between members of the different families, and between children and adults. Typically, it’s the children who win out in these scenarios, often by subtly manipulating the adults – as when 10-year-old Jimmy succeeds in deflecting the wrath of a local warden bent on accusng them of breaking the blackout by informing him in a concerned manner that he’s left his car running – an offence during wartime.

Barker suggests that the book is rather patronising towards the evacuees, but although they are certainly a source of humour I found Barne’s treatment of all the working-class characters both respectful and (as far as I can judge from this historical distance) realistic. Lily is comical in her role as miniature mother, but Barne also makes it clear that she is in fact a very competent parent who loves her siblings and does a good job of looking after them. She has a moment of triumph right at the beginning of the book when it’s discovered that despite all the talk of ‘iron rations’ she is the only person who has had the sense to bring a  tin opener, and there’s also a nice indication that she is smart and has potential to do more than work in a factory (the fate she expects once she turns 15). Along with Lily – an honorary ‘mother’ there’s Mrs Fell, ‘pretty free with her slaps’ and deeply suspicious of the country; Mrs Jacobson, ‘dark, plump, good-humoured, inclined to make the best of things’; and Mrs Thompson, controlled by her husband, terrified of the bombs and just about everything else; all accompanied by their children. In other words, we don’t have a generic portrait of the working classes here, but a much more nuanced portrayal of diverse people from very subtly different backgrounds who respond in different but understandable ways to the strange situation in which they find themselves.

Some of the themes which were present in the other books I’ve written about so far resurface here. There is a strong sense of the value of the countryside as a source of enduring stability and tradition. At the start of the book, Gerda (the eldest Farrar girl) imagines the farmers’ wives who have inhabited the old house ‘whisking in and out of the doors, hanging up their bacon on those hooks, making their cheeses in that small dairy’, and the book is full of such details of country life. The knowledge of the shepherds  – Old Tolhurst and Young Tolhurst (like Ransome’s Billies, both are old men) – is given special respect both by the characters of the book and by the narrative voice. One of the evacuees, Fred Fell, is immediately drawn to the shepherds and proves to be a natural at keeping sheep; in an interesting linking of place and race, Young Tolhurst suggests that the name ‘Fell’ suggests it is in his blood. Yet the book is not solely backwards looking. Barne pokes a little fun at middle-class attempts to revive ‘traditional’ ways through the character of Mrs Meredith-Smith, who vainly attempts to persuade children to play the ancient Sussex game of stoolball, and is generally portrayed as well-meaning but rather sentimental. More fundamentally, the success of the whole community is derived not from a return to ‘traditional’ ways of being but from a willingness to accept change and work together. I share Kim Reynolds’ view (in her forthcoming book Left Behind) that Barne presents the Steadings community as a sort of democratic experiment: everyone has to work together and accept one another’s peculiarities in order to achieve a greater good.

Ruth Gervis, who illustrated the first edition, also deserves credit for her charming and lively pencil drawings. Her contribution to this means that the Carnegie Medal in its early years had something of a family quality: as I mentioned in my Ballet Shoes post, Gervis was Noel Streatfeild’s sister, and Kitty Barne was their cousin-in-law. (The literary connection, however, was that they were published by Dent.) She’s a brilliant illustrator, and surprisingly for a wartime book was given quite a bt of latitude: there are 40 illustrations scattered throughout the text.

Why did this book not ‘stick’ when it’s so lively? The last reprint by Dent seems to have been 1960, and then there was one by Cedric Chivers (who seem to be largely a book binding firm – anyone know more about them?) in 1972. This is about the time that books by people who were children in the war started to appear – Carrie’s War came out in 1973. So perhaps this didn’t quite chime with the vision of the war which was being created in retrospect. Or perhaps the impulse to create a new literature in the 1960s contributed to this being mischaracterised as rather more staid and nostalgic than it really is. Whatever the reason, this seems to me to be a prime candidate for a reprint.


Some unscientific ratings and notes…

My overall rating: 9/10

Plot: 9/10 – a little episodic

Characterisation: 10/10

Themes: Home, heritage, history, modernity, war, evacuation, change

Publisher: Dent

Illustrator: Ruth Gervis



The Family from One End Street

A charming family story that’s more radical than it might seem.

In my last post, I suggested that had the inaugural Carnegie gone to Noel Streatfeild’s Ballet Shoes, it would have set a very different tone for the Medal. However, the second winner – Eve Garnett’s The Family from One End Street – is  closer in spirit to Streatfeild’s book than Ransome’s. This is another family story, with an urban setting, and some of the same interest in change and modernity. Whereas Streatfeild’s family live in what can fairly be called ‘genteel poverty’ and have a generally middle-class set of values, though, The Family from One End Street are not only working class, but poor:

MRS RUGGLES was a Washerwoman and her husband was a Dustman. ‘Very suitable too,’ she would say, though whether this referred to Mr Ruggles himself, or the fact that they both, so to speak, cleaned up after other people, it was hard to decide.


There were a great many Ruggles children – boys and girls, and a baby that was really a boy but didn’t count either way yet.

The neighbours pitied Jo and Rosie for having such a large family, and called it ‘Victorian’; but the Dustman and his wife were proud of their numerous girls and boys, all-growing-up-fine-and-strong-one-behind-the-other-like-steps-in-a-ladder, and-able-to-wear-each-other’s-clothes-right-down-to-the-baby, so that really it was only two sets, girl and boy, summer and winter, Mrs Ruggles had to buy, except Boots.

The book consists of a series of gentle adventures: one for each of the older Ruggles children (Lily-Rose, Kate, twins Jim and John, and Jo Jr.), plus three which focus on Mr and Mrs Ruggles and/or the babies (Peg and William), and one story about the whole family to round the book off. It’s illustrated throughout with lovely pen and ink sketches by Garnett (who was actually an artist first). It reminds me a little of Milly Molly Mandy in its tone and the generally low-stakes adventures, but the characters feel much more real than Milly-Molly-Mandy and her friends (at least to me). Partly this reflects the fact that the adventures are genuinely rooted in the social setting.  Lily-Rose’s story, for example, is a ‘good deed gone wrong’ story of the kind that isn’t unusual in books from around this time. Arriving home early from school, she determines to do some of her mother’s ironing as her Girl Guide good deed for the day. Inevitably, she uses a too-hot iron on a customer’s artificial silk petticoat, and then memorably watches in horror at the petticoat ‘shrivelling… shrinking… shrivelling up… running away before her eyes!’ This is a scene that I could imagine in E. Nesbit’s The Wouldbegoods, or in Richmal Crompton’s Just William stories, but in both those series the main risk would be getting into trouble. In Garnett’s book, there’s the potential for a much more serious consequence: this is Mrs Ruggle’s business, after all, and damaging something compromises her reputation for skill and reliability. Of course it all ends happily, thanks to an understanding customer, but the anxiety about Lily-Rose’s mistake is much more real than it would be in the more middle-class narratives.

Eve Garnett was motivated to write the novel after spending time in London’s East End producing illustrations for Evelyn Sharp’s study of the urban poor The London Child (1927). By her own account, she was moved to do more to publicise the conditions poor children were living in, and on being told that it would be only possible to publish an illustrated book if it was for children, wrote The Family From One End Street herself. She later completed a book of illustrations called Is it Well With the Child? (1938), which comprised sketches of the children she encountered in the East End and brief captions. It portrays more extreme poverty than The Family From One End Street, but has some of the same charm and humour.

Portraying a working-class family groundbreaking at the time it was published – the Carnegie website notes that several publishers turned it down before Frederick Muller took it on. By the 1960s, though, it was beginning to be regarded as a rather patronising depiction. Rosemary Manning, writing in 1966, characterised it as a ‘perfunctory glance from outside’ at a working-class family. It’s certainly a cosy portrayal, and the book as a whole suggests that the family are poor but happy. It’s also fair to say that at times Garnett shifts perspective in a way that  makes it clear we’re seeing the Ruggles from outside, for example when the Ruggles visit an art gallery and puzzle over an army officer having time to paint; it’s clear that the reader is expected to recognise that ‘Sargent’ is a name.

Manning was particularly critical of Garnett’s description of Joe Ruggles as ‘a contented sort of man’ and her assertion that ‘So long as he had his job and his family were well and happy, and he could smoke his pipe and work in his garden, see his mates at the Working Men’s Club once or twice a week and have a good Blow Out on a Bank Holiday, he wanted nothing more’. This is problematic in its reproduction of the stereotype of the contented poor, but I think Manning’s criticisms overlook the radical edge of the book. If Joe himself is contented, this is questioned within the text, both directly (by the artist who is troubled by the fact that the small reward he gives Joe for returning some lost money is enough to secure the happiness of the Ruggles family) and by the general sense of aspiration within the book. Throughout the novel Garnett gives the impression that the Ruggles are no less intelligent, creative, or virtuous than any middle-class family: they are just poorer. The Ruggles don’t understand everything in the art gallery, but they are moved enough by Sargent’s painting Carnation, Lily, Lily, Rose to name their daughter after it. (In finding that link, I also discovered that I missed some of the cultural assumptions of that scene:  the Ruggles wonder what the title is supposed to refer to, unaware – as I was – that it comes from a song by Joseph Mazzinghi.)  Kate wins a scholarship to grammar school, passing the exam ‘ninth in the whole district’, and throughout the book Garnett suggests that the state has a role in ensuring that the poor are not only preserved from destitution, but also given the opportunity to pursue their aspirations. The foundations of the Welfare State are here.

Well-meaning political views don’t save a book from being patronising, however, radical, but to my mind the absolute realness of the characters and the sympathy with which they are portrayed does make such criticisms unjust. The Ruggles have a happy home, but their poverty is never forgotten about: from the opening mention of Mrs Ruggles’ worry about boots to her anxiety about Joe revealing the split in his Sunday suit by straphanging in the Tube with the ‘wrong’ arm, we’re given many little reminders of the way having no money shapes your experience of the world. The children are lively and vivid: as a child I particularly sympathised with ‘clever Kate’, dreaming about ‘Latin and geometry and things they didn’t “do” at the Council school’ but also passionately keen to wear her new uniform on an ‘outing’. (Yes, I was a nerd – and just as excited as Kate when I finally studied Latin during my MA.)

The Family From One End Street is still in print, and as is probably evident I both read and loved it as a child. So far the Carnegie committee seem to have done well on picking books with staying power (although of course winning the Medal may be partially responsible for them sticking around).It’s a much easier read than Pigeon Post, both in the sense that it’s less literary, and due to the fact that it’s really aimed at considerably younger children, but I think this obscures the truly ground-breaking qualities of the book. It was a radical choice for the Carnegie, especially in light of the fact that The Hobbit was a contender that same year (I believe it was nominated, though I can’t lay my hand on a reliable source for that just now). I think The Hobbit would have been much more of a continuation of the style and theme honoured the year before with Pigeon Post, and given the very favourable critical reception of Tolkien’s novel the choice of Garnett’s novel a brave one. The Ruggles may have had a ‘Victorian’ family, but this was a novel which looked to a new future for Britain. Bravo, Carnegie committee.


Some unscientific ratings and notes…

My overall rating: 10/10 (I’m starting to feel monotonous, but I love this book!)

Plot: 8/10 (It’s more episodic than a fully worked novel, though each episode is a gem in and of itself and the whole does hang together)

Characterisation: 10/10

Themes: Family, change, working class, socialism, adventure

Publisher: Frederick Muller

Illustrator: Eve Garnett



Ballet Shoes

Not a Carnegie winner, but certainly an enduring presence in the world of children’s literature: Noel Streatfeild’s Ballet Shoes.

The third book to be highly commended for the inaugural Carnegie Medal was Noel Streatfeild’s Ballet Shoes. Obviously, unlike Sampson’s Circus, this book is very much still in circulation today. In fact, in terms of an actual child readership I’m fairly sure it’s stood the test of time rather better than Pigeon Post: the fact that the latter is now being published with its original jacket design suggests that it’s really targeting the adult nostalgia / scholarly market, whereas the edition of Ballet Shoes  currently available on Amazon  sports a lurid pink cover with a photo of ballet shoes which is clearly intended to appeal to a certain type of contemporary child reader. (I like to think that the charming Ruth Gervis illustrations from the first edition would still appeal to children, but hey ho.) It undoubtedly holds a more prominent place in popular culture than Pigeon Post (and maybe even than Swallows and Amazons), with its latest TV adaptation in 2007. Possibly this proves that the Carnegie Committee did have some instinct for popularity as well as prestige (or it may have just been luck).

I didn’t read this book as a child (otherwise I might have been more receptive to the ballet lessons my mother insisted I take) but I can’t claim to be coming to this book without any preconceptions. Coming to Streatfeild’s books at some point in adulthood, I gobbled them up as if they had been childhood favourites, and I can still reread any of her books with blithe disregard for the weaker bits. She does tend to recycle quite a lot, hitting the same narrative beats and sometimes even repeating dialogue, but this doesn’t diminish my enjoyment in the slightest. So, fair warning that I don’t necessarily have a lot of critical distance from this book.

For those of you who have inexplicably missed out on Ballet Shoes, it’s the story of three orphans – Pauline, Petrova and Posy Fossil – who are ‘collected’ like Fossils by an eccentric elderly gentleman (Great Uncle Matthew – or Gum for short) who finds them during his travels around the world and essentially dumps them on his niece, Sylvia. They aren’t blood sisters and all have quite different backgrounds: Pauline is the survivor of a shipwreck, Petrova the daughter of a Russian soldier who Gum meets in hospital, and Posy the child of a ballerina who doesn’t really care for children. Being eccentric, the same day he acquires Posy, Gum disappears on a 5-year journey which turns out to last more like 10. As a consequence of Sylvia’s money running out due to his extended absence, the three Fossil girls end up training at a ballet school in order to ensure they have some prospect of earning money. The majority of the plot concerns their training and careers. There’s a degree of wish fulfilment in this, particularly in the case of Posy, who turns out to have a natural gift for dancing and becomes the protégé of the owner of the school. Really, though, this is a career novel, and Streatfeild is a lot more interested in the hard work involved in the performing arts than in the fantasy of the novice who turns out to be magically better than everyone else. This is probably partly a reflection of Streatfeild’s own background in the performing arts – she trained at RADA and worked as a professional actress for over 10 years – but I think that it also reflects a wider cultural preoccupation with the value of work. Pigeon Post is also very much a book about hard work (the earlier Ransome books are interested in play; the events of PP are explicitly contrasted with these when Nancy comments that the prospecting is ‘serious business, with no pretence about it’), and this is a theme we’ll come back to in some of the books to come.

Although Ballet Shoes shares this theme with Pigeon Post, in every other respect it’s very difference. Where Ransome’s book is about preserving heritage, Streatfeild’s is about radical change. At the start of the book, we’re introduced to Great Uncle Matthew, his habit of collecting fossils, and his house:

Collecting fossils, he naturally needed somewhere to put them, and that is how he came to buy the house in the Cromwell Road. It had large rooms, and about six floors, including the basement, and on every floor, and in almost every room, he kept fossils. Naturally a house like that needed somebody to look after it […]

Sylvia, his niece, is the person who ends up looking after the house, and she seems to be largely responsible for keeping it as Gum likes it, bar the occasional tussle over disposing of a few fossils when he collects too many. This is backstory, though, and by the time of the novel Gum has collected a different sort of ‘Fossil’: the three girls, who adopt this as their shared surname because they have been collected just like the fossils. Of course children are not fossils, though, and so both they and the rest of the household grow and change. When money starts to run out, Sylvia starts to take borders in order to earn money, despite her conviction that Gum wouldn’t like them. She ceases ‘keeping’ the house and starts making ‘a lot of alterations’. Her boarders also bring a lot of alterations: they include a dancer (who suggests the ballet school option for the girls), two female literature professors (who are surely gay, and gloriously self-fulfilled with their joy in Shakespeare and their delicious hot drinks which are heavily implied to be laced with spirits), and a couple who arrive with a motor car (of which more anon). The message runing throughout the book is that it’s not possible or even desirable to try to keep life just as it’s always been: when faced with change it’s better to roll with the punches and work hard to make something good out of your new circumstances. The book pushes back against the idea that the performing arts are not ‘respectable’ (much is made of how carefully regulated child performers are), and we’re given a beautiful alternative family made up of all these unrelated women (the three Fossil sisters, Sylvia,  and their nurse Nana) with the boarders as a kind of extended family.

The idea of change is most important to Petrova. Notwithstanding the great significance of the performing arts to this book, it’s really Petrova’s book. She’s the only one of the three sisters who doesn’t take to performing: she’s competent, but she finds it all a bore, and is really interested in mechanics. Streatfeild doesn’t typically linger on characters’ internal lives, but when she does delve into feelings it’s usually Petrova who she’s focusing on.  Petrova struggles the whole way through with her conviction that her desire to work with machines is unattainable, both because she’s a girl and because the family can’t afford for her not to make money on the stage. By the end, though, she’s able to pursue this dream (Gum returns and is very pleased with the idea of Petrova training as a pilot) and it’s vindicated as a really important thing for a girl to do. The Fossils have instituted a vow that they’ll put their name in the history books, but Pauline and Posy see their success in the performing arts as closing off this possibility (though I think the novel sets us up to feel that they’re wrong). The responsibility therefore devolves onto Petrova:

‘You’ll go into history books. That’ll put Fossil there all right; it doesn’t matter about Pauline and me.’

Petrova looked puzzled. ‘How will I?’

‘Flying, of course.’ […]

‘Would that?’ said Petrova.

‘Of course.’ Pauline spoke eagerly. ‘Don’t you see? It’s sort of exploring, like Frobisher, or Drake. Amy Mollison and Jean Batten will be there, but not as important as you. The books will say: “The greatest explorer in the middle of the twentieth century was Petrova Fossil, who found routes by which goods could be carried at greater speed and less cost, and so she revolutionized trade.”

The mention of Amy Mollison and Jean Batten works to emphasise that this is an achievable feat (both were notable aviators). The reference to exploring also fascinates me: I’ve suggested that Pigeon Post is all about valuing the British landscape, something which seems to me to be part of the response to the unravelling of Empire. Here Petrova’s future is framed specifically in terms of exploration: something which fits her into the imperial narrative. In one sense I suppose this is regressive, but it’s also incredibly radical: Petrova, who is both female and foreign-born, is presented as someone who can potentially step into the shoes of Drake. There’s a notion here, I think, of reinventing Britain’s identity through radical innovation.

Petrova’s character also provides the one thing Streatfeild’s book has in common with Sampson’s Circus: both books present British identity as something which can be completely and successfully assimilated. Like Jack in Sampson’s Circus, Petrova has been born as a foreign national but brought up in Britain from early childhood. When the ballet school put on a performance to raise money for a Russian hospital, it is seen as especially fitting that Petrova should have a role, but ‘Petrova thought to herself, that though of course she was very glad to help the hospital, it was not because she was Russian; for she was British by adoption, and had taken a British name, and felt very British inside.’ A topical and rather cheering statement in 1936.

Why didn’t this win in 1936 instead of Pigeon Post? The Carnegie committee stated at the time that one reason was that PP would appeal to both boys and girls, whereas Ballet Shoes and Sampson’s Circus were more likely to appeal to just one gender. I think there’s plenty here that a boy might enjoy, though to some extent it is a story about girlhood (especially when you come to Petrova’s narrative). I think Streatfeild’s characterisation isn’t quite so nuanced and fine-grained as Ransome’s, although in part this is a function of this being a stand-alone book rather than part of a series. Compared to Swallows and Amazons, there is considerably more character detail. As we’ve established, I love Pigeon Post, so while I think Ballet Shoes would have been an equally worthy winner, this isn’t a case where looking at it with the benefit of hindsight makes me think the Medal went to the ‘wrong’ book.  Ballet Shoes would have set a very different tone as the first Medal winner, though: less nostalgic, more radical; much more urban in its concerns; and much more concerned with change. You get the sense, in Streatfeild’s book, of shaking off the Victorian age briskly and cheerfully, with none of the urge to look back and reclaim British heritage which is such a central feature of Ransome’s. This says something about the Carnegie as part of that heritage-building project, a theme to which I suspect I shall return in future posts.


Some unscientific ratings and notes…

My overall rating: 10/10

Plot: 10/10

Characterisation: 9/10

Themes: Ballet, performing arts, modernity, family, change

Publisher: Dent

Illustrator: Ruth Gervis (Streatfeild’s sister, though the publisher didn’t realise this when she commissioned the illustrations. You can see Gervis’ original illustrations at Seven Stories, the National Centre for Children’s Books).