Sunday, 7 June 2015

The Carnegie Medal - A Golden Moment - by Dawn Finch

On June 22nd in a ceremony at the British Library, the 2015 winner of the Carnegie Medal will be announced, along with the winner of the prestigious Kate Greenaway Award for distinguished illustration in a children's book. Whilst the Kate Greenaway Award carries some financial remuneration, the Carnegie Medal brings with it only a small donation for your chosen library - and yet the Medal remains incredibly desirable due to the status that it confers on the winning book.

The Carnegie Medal was established in 1936 in memory of the Scottish-born philanthropist, Andrew Carnegie. Carnegie was born into poverty in Dunfermline in 1835 and lived in a one-room weaver’s cottage where, through his uncle, he discovered the world of poetry and books. After his family emigrated to the United States, Carnegie and his family gradually improved the quality of their lives. The young Andrew Carnegie, through hard work, smart investments and significant risk-taking, eventually made his fortune and was once listed as one of the richest men in America.

With his wealth established, Carnegie then turned his thoughts to his love of literature. He became friends with many of the great authors of the day, including Mark Twain and the poet Matthew Arnold. He set his thoughts to philanthropy, and established educational trusts, public services and libraries across America, Canada and the United Kingdom. By the time of his death in 1919 he had given away millions of dollars and, after his death, his charitable trusts continued to carry out his wishes. Before he died he had established almost 3,000 libraries across the English speaking world inspired by his use of libraries as an impoverished young man. His experience of using a library as a child led him to resolve that "if ever wealth came to me that it should be used to establish free libraries."

The Carnegie Medal was established in 1936 in his memory and, before its creation, little thought was given to awarding respectability or status to books for children. The Carnegie Award was originally designed to encourage raised standards in children’s literature, and to improving the perception of the genre as a whole. Respected children’s librarians would be selected to judge the award, and it would represent a gold-standard of children’s literature.

The first Medal was awarded to Arthur Ransome for Pigeon Post, but at this stage it was considered more of a recognition of Ransome’s entire body of work than just for this one book. During the early years of the Medal, this was the perception of the judging panel; that they were awarding based on body of work rather than for individual books.
W.C Berwick-Sayers (Chief Librarian and campaigner for children’s literature) described the purpose of the Medal in 1937 as one that should be “… in keeping with the generally accepted standards of good behaviour and right thinking”

Aidan Chambers, in his book The Reluctant Reader (Oxford 1969) said of the Carnegie that it was “… unremarkable for anything in the slightest ‘questionable’ … [reflecting] an adult’s rather sentimental view of childhood … passionless, cautious … conservative” and this was considered to be largely the remit of the Medal for many decades.

Time passed, and the literary world became inundated with other awards for children and the Carnegie Medal was at risk of sliding into obscurity. It was respected in the literary and library communities, but was not receiving recognition in the wider world of publishing and it was felt that the Medal needed to be stronger, and broader. In the early 1990s the Medal was given a facelift to take into account the new broader spectrum of children’s books, and the changes in publishing for young people. The Medal looked to support and recognise all writing for young people, and no longer stuck to the antiquated (and vague) rules limiting the Medal to what was “right thinking” and “proper.”

The Medal has never been without controversy and criticism, but such is the nature of anything as subjective as a panel-judged award. The new guidelines opened the Medal up to a vast array of new fiction and, in 1993, the panel jumped feet-first into scandal by awarding the prize to Robert Swindells for his controversial book Stone Cold. With its chilling imagery of murder and homelessness, the book was received with anger and shock in many quarters. Many regarded this as the turning point for the Medal as the titles awarded the prize in subsequent years often represented the darker and more gritty edge of writing for young people. There was pressure on the Library Association (now CILIP) to split or change the prize, and even to remove all books for older or teenage readers, or to create a separate prize. The Association gave this serious consideration but, after much consultation, it was decided that this would create a prize that would in practice be “restrictive” and this was not desirable and would not fit the conditions of the Medal. The fear was that this would be seen to be akin to censoring books simply because they were darker or more challenging.

Controversy continued with outspoken Christian groups objecting to Phillip Pullman winning with Northern Lights in 1995 (a book that he described as his act of "killing God"). However, it was not until 1996 when the Medal was given to Melvin Burgess and his extraordinarily powerful book Junk, that the controversy really hit mainstream media. From the moment Junk made the shortlist, this story of a fourteen year old heroin user caused scandal and outrage. Reviews showed passion and hatred for the book in largely equal portions but, as is so often the way, the outraged had louder voices.

Other books on the shortlist for the 1996 Medal were also considered to be “too strong for children” and the Campaign for Real Education regarded the list as representing a decline in social values. They blamed the Library Association for putting dangerous and potentially damaging books into the hands of children. Other books on the list, such as Anne Fine’s Tulip Touch (about a child arsonist) and Elizabeth Laird’s Secret Friends (in which bullies die as a result of cosmetic surgery) were regarded by the Campaign as “inappropriate for children.”

Thankfully, librarians are a tough breed and are not easily bullied into complicity, they are also not easily swayed by what others perceive to be “inappropriate.” Despite noisy outrage and protest, the Medal was given to Burgess (deservedly so) and over the ensuing years the judging panel continued to take on the most powerful and demanding books written for children and young people. This continues today, and the panel never shy away from what they believe to be the very best in children’s literature.

Agnès Guyon, Chair of the 2015 CILIP Carnegie Medal judging panel, believes such dark themes make moments of hope and optimism shine even brighter: “There’s no doubt our writers and illustrators do not shy away from difficult, often painful imagery and themes. There is darkness here, illuminated by the bright lights of optimism and hope. These incredibly strong shortlists are not just a showcase of talent, but of the skilful ways our greatest writers and illustrators introduce young readers to big ideas, always instilling hope as they set their characters against the harshest challenges.”

Today the Carnegie Medal is seen as a prize that honours work for its quality and, whilst not everyone will agree with every decision made by the panel, with past winners we have an extraordinary list of books by some of the very finest writers for children. In fact many of the books that once caused a scandal (including Stone Cold) are now regarded as respected modern classics and are studied in schools. There is no doubt that the Medal will evolve and change as children’s literature moves forward, and that is how it will remain cutting-edge and influential. There is currently consultation ongoing about the distribution of the overall prize fund, and a well-received campaign launched by illustrator Sarah McIntyre has helped to trigger a welcome change to the way books are listed for both the Carnegie Medal, and its partner prize the KateGreenaway Award.

At its inception the Carnegie Medal sought to raise the standards and perception of children’s literature, and there is no doubt that it has gone a very long way towards achieving that. The Carnegie Medal remains the most respected award for writers of children’s and young people’s literature and, year by year, the judging panel shortlist books that are powerful, challenging and important. Often this still causes controversy, but for decades the judging panel have boldly carried this weight on their shoulders and, because of this, we have a prize that is unique in that it carries the respect of not only literary community, but of the wider publishing world and readers too.

Article written by Dawn Finch (
Vice President CILIP
Children’s writer and librarian
CWIG Committee Member

The CILIP Carnegie Medal 2015 shortlist in full below.... click on the image to visit the CKG pages

The winners for both the CILIP Carnegie Medal and the CILIP Kate Greenaway Medal will be announced on Monday 22nd June at a lunchtime ceremony at the British Library in London. The winners will receive £500 worth of books to donate to their local library and the coveted golden Medal.
Carnegie Medal shortlisted books (in alphabetical order of authors)
When Mr Dog Bites by Brian Conaghan (Bloomsbury)
Apple and Rain by Sarah Crossan (Bloomsbury)
Tinder by Sally Gardner (author) and David Roberts (Illustrator) (Orion Children’s Books)
Cuckoo Song by Frances Hardinge (Macmillan Children’s Books)
The Fastest Boy in the World by Elizabeth Laird (Macmillan Children’s Books)
Buffalo Soldier by Tanya Landman (Walker Books)
The Middle of Nowhere by Geraldine McCaughrean (Usborne Books)
More Than This by Patrick Ness (Walker Books)

For full book and author details (and for more details about the partner award for picture books – the Kate Greenaway Award) visit the CKG website here


Anne Booth said...

That was very interesting. Thank you for writing that.

Nick Green said...

Playing Devil's Advocate, but my fear about the YA-fication and darkening of the Carnegie shortlist is that it creates a void for genuine children's fiction, what the Americans call middle-grade.

It's always far easier to write an 'issue' book and make it powerful because of the horrendous ordeals you put your characters through - kids taking drugs and dying or having sex and getting pregnant or diseased is always going to shock, and that shock factor compels readers and impresses critics alike for its drama and 'bravery'.

But these are all 'adult fears'. What's far harder to do is write a book that contains no adult fears but which recaptures the sense of actually being a child, which plays on the uniqueness of a child's imagination, while still managing (through that warping lens) to speak of real and powerful fears and desires. The classic children's writers managed to do it, they managed to write stunningly powerful and moving and disturbing works without a sniff of a drug or a teenage pregnancy in sight.

The criteria for a great children's book should not be how closely it resembles a book for adults. That's missing the whole point, I think.

Sally said...

Very Interesting post, thanks for sharing Dawn.