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.