Wednesday, 27 July 2011

Carnegie Shadowing - Elen Caldecott

One of the troubles with sharing a blog with so many other lovely people is that you have to wait in line for your turn. There's no pushing in. So, a few weeks late, I'm going to tell you about my experience of the Carnegie Medal this year.

For those who don't know, the Carnegie is probably the most prestigious award given to a UK children's writer annually. The longlist is very long, but the shortlist is usually whittled down to about 6 or 8 books by a team of dedicated children's librarians.
This year I was invited to visit a school in Swansea to spend a few hours with their Carnegie Shadowing students - a group of book-mad Years 7-9 with lots of energy, enthusiasm and some very honest opinions!
In advance of the visit, I had a lot of reading to do. The shortlist this year was:
  • Prisoner of the Inquisition by Theresa Breslin
  • The Death Defying Pepper Roux by Geraldine McCaughrean
  • Monsters of Men by Patrick Ness
  • The Bride’s Farewell by Meg Rosoff
  • White Crow by Marcus Sedgwick
  • Out of Shadows by Jason Wallace
I also promised the students that I would ask a few question of the authors on their behalf, more on that in a moment.

First we decided on our criteria for what made a good book. We had a huge list of everything from 'makes me laugh' and 'great cover' to 'inspiring characters' and 'feels like I'm there' (none of us could spell verisimilitude...).

Each student judged the books by choosing the three criteria that mattered most to them.
Then, the discussion began...

It became clear quite quickly that despite saying that they didn't judge a book by it's cover, they all had. Very few of them had read all six books, and the cover had had a huge influence on what they'd selected to read. None of the boys had read Prisoner of the Inquisition (I told them what idiots they were being, as this was in my own personal top three). The size of the book mattered too. Hardly any had read Monsters of Men; some of the smaller Year 7s could hardly lift it.

Hearing from the authors influenced their opinions too. After hearing that Geraldine McCaughrean's favourite bit of her book was a transvestite sailor, the students snatched copies of the book from one another searching for La Duchesse. The favourite answer of all though was Marcus Sedgwick's laconic response to a question about the title: 'read the book.' It became our catchphrase for the day.

While we had a great time, it was clear that the challenging nature of almost all of the books had intimidated the students. I'm not sure there is a solution to that. The award is intended to reward excellence and excellence is challenging. A shorter shortlist, perhaps?

Finally we had to declare a winner. After the votes were counted, we found we didn't agree with the official result (sorry, Patrick). Our winner was Marcus Sedgwick with White Crow. Possibly because of that very sage piece of advice 'read the book'.

Elen's latest book Operation Eiffel Tower is out now, published by Bloomsbury.
Elen's Facebook Page


Kate said...

My daughter was part of the Carnegie reading team at her school and what she said confirms your comnets. Her favorite was 'Prisoner of the Inquisition' which she loved. She found the subject matter fascinating. She also really enjoyed 'White Crow' even though she admitted that it wasn't the sort of book that she would normally read. However, she didn't get on with 'Monsters of Men' and never finished it.

The whole excercise was really good though beacue it made her read books outside her comfort zone. Now I think I'm going to have to read some of them myself!

Jo Cotterill said...

That's really interesting, and in a way makes a bit of a mockery of the process, doesn't it? If the kids shadowing the award don't read them can they make an informed decision? Very interesting too what you say about many of the books being too complex for the kids involved.

Elen C said...

I think it was the density really, Jo. They had all read a couple and really enjoyed them. And they weren't all the same couple, either. It was just that when the books were all lined up in a row, they were daunting. Especially for the year 7s. The librarian said she'd have liked more year 9, 10 and 11s, but that they didn't have as much spare time as the Year 7 and 8s to take part.
Without the Carnegie shadowing, they wouldn't have read any of the books (probably). So it was worthwhile.

Sue Purkiss said...

I spent an afternoon with a shadowing group, too - year nines. They too liked Prisoner of the Inquisition and White Crow, and hardly anyone had read Monsters of Men; but perhaps, like me, they hadn't read the first two books of the trilogy so to catch up was too daunting a task. Quite a few also praised Out of Shadows, which I hadn't read; it obviously had quite an impact on them.

Keren David said...

I'm surprised Y9s didn't have time to read the books - it's not a busy year exam-wise (maybe Wales is different). Once they are in Y10/11/12/13 it's as though the school curriculum has been designed to make sure they have no time to read.
This year I mentored a Y7 girl who'd fallen behind on her reading skills, and we started on Theresa Brelin's book - she loved it, even though she'd never read a historical novel before and had never heard of the Inquisition.

Linda said...

For quite a few schools, Year 9 is now an exam year, Keren: in fact, I've known some Year 10 pupils doing AS levels, although admittedly that was in a real 'push-em-hard-no-time-to-relax' grammar school. The same school, that is, that got rid of most of the books from the school library because the Head believed being faced with rows of books was off-putting for pupils, and besides, they could go to their local library if they 'just' wanted something to read!!

Savita Kalhan said...

Linda - I'm not sure the Head of that grammar school should be head! I mean, a school library without books!! I went to a girls' grammar years ago and the library was fantastic - still is I believe as it's lucky to have the same school librarian!
Out of Shadows is my personal fave of the shortlist. My teen son read it and loved it, and suddenly became very interested in history - a win win!

Miriam Halahmy said...

That's an awful lot of reading for that age group to get through. But interesting to hear about your experiences Elen. Thanks!

Katherine Langrish said...

I wouldn't have thought either White Crow or Monsters of Men were remotely suitable for Year 7s! But it reminds me of being made to read Lord of the Flies in First Form (as we called it then. We all hated it: none of us understood it.

Leila said...

The Carnegie does seem to favour books for the most advanced readers, which is logical - after all, the shortlist is not picked by children, but by librarians, and reflects their taste accordingly.