A Valley Grows Up

Front cover of a book titled 'A Valley Grows Up'. A full colour watercolour image of a train of carriags and horeback riders following a road down to a valley fills the entire cover.1953’s Carnegie Medal winner is the third of only four non-fiction titles ever to win the Medal. Like most of the others, it takes a narrative approach to non-fiction, telling the story of a valley and how it changes from the prehistoric era through to the twentienth century. Indeed, as the author admits at the end, the valley itself is fiction and ‘only exists in my imagination’, although its story is rooted in the facts of English history over this time. It’s certainly an engaging way of telling history: the book originated in a series of lectures author-illustrator Edward Osmond gave for students with learning difficulties, which he illustrated on a blackboard ‘by means of an imaginary village which, together, we created “from scratch”‘ (CKG Living Archive). The narrative voice of the book reflects this origin: the narrator directly addresses the reader, directing their attention to details of the illustrations with some of the same authority and familiarity you would expect from a teacher who has been working with a class for some time.

The pictures are thus at the heart of the book. There are 10 double-page colour spreads depicting the valley at 5000BC, 250BC, 250AD, 900, 1160, 1250, 1475, 1600, 1770, and 1900 respectively (in common with most British publications at this time BC/AD are used rather than BCE/CE). A discussion of children’s book illustration in the Times Literary Supplement commented

Double-page spread: colour illustration of a Saxon village in a valley, with a large river winding through the valley
Image of the valley in 900: Saxon village with strip farming

These are augmented by line drawings set into the text itself, including many detailed plans of the town and its buildings at different periods. I particularly liked the visual representation of time on a 12 inch ruler: some of the pictures which appear there are smaller versions of the ones which appear in the text at the relevant points.

Two pages from the book 'A Vallery Grows Up', discussing ice ages and the emergence of modern man, On the left-hand page is a line drawing of a ruler used to represent time: it shows that the last thousand years represent only the thickness of one of the lines marking the inches. On the right-hand page is a line drawing of early man (head and shoulders profile).
Opening pages in ‘A Valley Grows Up’. Note the use of a 12 inch ruler to convey the length of historical time between the formation of the valley and the emergence of modern man, and the repetition of the image representing ‘cave men’ alongside the text.

Despite the importance of the photos, however, there’s much more text than you would find in most information books written for children today. The copy I have happens to have a nice bit of book history attached, in the form of the original owner’s name written (with some embellishments) on the title page.

Judging by the handwriting, this reader was probably somewhere in the age range to whom we might offer a book like Usborne’s Encyclopedia of World Historywhich is much more heavily illustrated:

'Living in a Village' from 'Usborne Encyclopedia of World History'
Double-page spread of ‘Living in a Village’ from ‘Usborne Encyclopedia of World History’.

This difference reflects changes in printing technology, of course: combining colour images and text in this way would have been almost impossible (or at least staggeringly expensive) at the time A Valley Grows Up. It makes for a different kind of book, though, and I think probably contributed to the narrative form of the book: creating an imaginary village with a history and inhabitants brings the history to life and holds the attention even through long passages of text.

Using a fictional valley rather than a real setting makes it possible to ensure that something ‘happens’ in every period of history. By the same token, however, this means that when certain things *don’t* happen that’s a choice of the author rather than an accident of history. Having been thinking a lot over the last few years about the way we construct ideas of nationhood, I found some of these choices quite revealing. For example, the valley doesn’t suffer attack during the first Roman incursion, although it is burned to the ground by the Danes, a decision which makes it easier to focus on the Roman invasion as a civilising influence. Catherine Butler and Hallie O’Donovan have written about role of Rome in the British national imaginary since the medieval era: notwithstanding the Roman invasion of Britain, it is positioned as part of a noble founding myth rather than as a hostile invader, and narratives of the civilising Roman Empire have been important to narratives which cast the British Empire in a similarly postive light. This is certainly the case in this book, in which Danish and Saxon invasions are discussed in terms of pillage and destruction, and the Saxons described as ‘sea-robbers’, while the Roman invasion – when it comes to our valley – is portrayed as a triumph of superior military force: ‘The men of the hill-fortress fought bravely for a sort time, but they were only farmers and were no match for the professional soldiers of Rome.’ When they are defeated it was ‘naturally considered to be a great disaster at the time, but it was to be the beginning of one of the most prosperous periods our valley has ever known’. By contrast, even though the Norman invasion is also shown as bringing new innovations to the valley, the Normans themselves are not portrayed in flattering terms: the new Norman lord is a ‘hard ruthless man’ who adopts ‘bullying tactics’. Implicitly, then, the valley – and through it the nation – are able to claim a founding myth which allies them with a great and civilising imperial power, while more recent incursions retain a sense of hostility to the invading foreign powers. The way the narrative of the valley plays out in this book is, in fact, interestingly similar to the narrative offered up by the spectacular North East outdoor performance, Kynren, which takes a very similar approach to this book, telling the history of England through a specific place, and similarly negotiates a history of invasions in a way which allows for a narrative of enduring ‘Englishness’, and casts some invaders – but not others – as outsiders even while showing that they ultimately ‘become us’.

Although I think that the changes in expectations around non-fiction for children would make this book a harder sell today, it does hold up as an engaging read, and as a well put-together book. At this point in the Medal’s history, the format and printing quality of the book were still important elements of the criteria, and it’s easy to see why this stood out in this respect too. Interestingly, Eileen Colwell’s notes on the Medal show that this book got the ‘popular vote’ (i.e. a preponderance of nominations from librarians, not votes by children) along with Rosemary Sutcliff’s Civil War novel Simon. The number of librarians nominating at this point was still quite limited, but I think this does suggest that this might have been a book that was well-received by children. I’m glad to have had a reason to explore it!

SOME UNSCIENTIFIC RATINGS AND NOTES…

My overall rating: 8/10  – It’s a little difficult to rate in comparison to the fiction titles, but I found it a very engaging read and learned a lot!

Plot: 8/10 – Again, this is an odd measure for a non-fiction book, but I’ve kept it in because it is a story, not a purely non-fiction text, and it brings the valley and its history to life. I think this would be a fantastic way to learn the history of England (even if there are some historiographical issues associated with presenting history so neatly as this)

Quality of information (normally characterisation): 10/10 – My knowledge of history is not that brilliant, frankly, so this isn’t a comment on how accurate the facts are in this book (and I’m guessing that what was considered to be accurate in 1953 might not be so now anyway). But this does a great job as an information book in giving details about each period and bringing them to life, the illustrations are fantastic, and there’s a good level of detail (we find out about education, work, transport, etc). I’d definitely have bought this book as a school librarian in 1953!

Themes: History, heritage, landscape, building

Publisher: Oxford University Press

Illustrator: Edward Osmond

Author’s nationality/race: English, probably white (I haven’t any definitive information on his race but it is probable from the facts I have)

Intended readership: I find this a little difficult to gauge as I’m less familiar with information books of this period, but I think probably roughly 8-14.

 

 

 

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.