Thursday, 6 October 2022

Half way there by Paul May

It was on the 6th March 2020 that I started posting here about my plan to read my way through the Carnegie Medal-winning books, starting at the beginning. It's strange to think that it was two and a half years ago, and before the first lock-down. It's starting to feel like a long time, but at last I've reached the half-way point—42 down and 42 to go. So I think it's a good time to take stock and see what, if anything, I've learned from the experience.

The 42nd winner of the Carnegie was Peter Dickinson's retelling of Old Testament stories in City of Gold. Dickinson was remarkably down to earth in his assessments of his work. Of City of Gold he said: 'I was happy with the result, but at the same time flabbergasted when the book won the Carnegie Medal. When I'm asked what sort of books I write I say the sort that adults think children ought to read. That isn't my purpose. I intend them to be enjoyed, but I admit that a lot of my reviews contain the dreaded word "demanding". City of Gold is an extreme example, so there was a good deal of grumbling about it winning the medal, which I had some sympathy with, but not enough to refuse the medal.'

Those words—'the sort that adults think children ought to read'—sum up neatly the way Carnegie winners were selected. The winner was to be 'an outstanding book for children', but here's Alec Ellis writing in Written for Children in 1977: '... the Carnegie Medal has become widely recognised among parents, publishers, teachers, writers, as well as librarians, as a hallmark of quality.' Whether having the hallmark of quality bestowed upon your books was much help to most authors must be doubted. I related Lucy Boston's experience of receiving her award in an earlier post, and I keep thinking of something Annie Dalton said to me many years ago—her book The Real Tilly Beany was Commended in 1991. She said her books used to be 'beloved by sensitive librarians,' but now her Angels series was on sale in WH Smith with glitter on the covers and free T-shirts with a sparkly angel logo. The books the librarians loved didn't sell very well. The glittery Angels did. 

The Carnegie was all about adults choosing books for children, and perhaps that's why reading all those Carnegie winners felt at times like reading my way through a parallel universe that only occasionally intersected with the real one. A visitor from outer space who used the list of Carnegie winners to inform them about the books children read in the second half of the 20th century would know nothing about Richmal Crompton, or Enid Blyton, or Malcolm Saville, or Roald Dahl, or J K Rowling or Jacqueline Wilson. They wouldn't know about Horrible Histories, or Point Horror either. 

Because my childhood took place during a part this period I can report that the Carnegie Medal had no impact whatsoever on my reading habits, unless it was in the influence of the Carnegie on the choices of the librarian at my local library. But my library, fortunately, was well-stocked with pulp fiction and that was what I read. This probably explains why so many of the authors of those first 42 books were new to me. As is the way of these things, some books led on to other books and I think it's those leads I'm most grateful for. For example, without this project to spur me on I doubt if I would have read Walter de la Mare's Memoir of a Midget, or The Three Mulla-Mulgars, both of which are extraordinary books. I'd never read anything by Mollie Hunter before either, and while her winner, The Stronghold is a remarkable book, her semi-autobiographical novel A Sound of Chariots is a truly exceptional depiction of grief that manages at the same time to be funny and uplifting.

So there have been many good things, but at the same time I have found myself full of admiration for those people who read books professionally, whether they like them or not. Reviewers, that's to say, or librarians, or teachers. Though in my experience teachers don't read that much. I was lucky because I mainly taught four- and five-year-olds and so my reading consisted largely of picture books. I've spent most of my life giving up on books after a couple of pages if I don't like them and quite a few of these Carnegie winners have demanded a degree of perseverence! City of Gold is one such. It's very good, very well written, but I would be very surprised if more than a handful of children had ever read it from cover to cover.

You'd need to be a pretty good, pretty sophisticated reader to read most of Carnegie winners independently and it seems a shame to me that the Carnegie has never been awarded to a book designed for newly independent readers. The committee had a great opportunity to do this in 1981, the year after City of Gold, when the award went to The Scarecrows by Robert Westall. That year Jane Gardam's The Hollow Land was highly commended, and at the same time she received a commendation for Bridget and William. Bridget and William is a miniature marvel—a complete novel in six short chapters, moving, warm-hearted, full of rich characters and set high in the Yorkshire Dales. Books like this do an incredibly valuable job in helping children make the transition from being taught to read to being independent readers, and they are not easy to write! This is literary fiction of the highest quality which an eight-year-old can read easily and with pleasure. Books like this don't appear to be on the radar of the Carnegie committee, even today.

Peter Dickinson died in 2015 but his website is still active and is a mine of interesting articles and information about his books. I'd especially recommend A Defence of Rubbish. Among the things he says in the piece is this: 'I know very few adults who do not have some secret cultural vice, and they are all the better for it. I would instantly suspect an adult all of whose cultural activities were high, remote and perfect.'

 Well, so would I.  

Paul May's website


Nick Garlick said...

Excellent post. Sent me straight to Peter Dickinson's website to read A Defence of Rubbish. Couldn't agree more.
And than you for pointing me towards Jane Gardam. Had never heard of her before.

Keren David said...

I love these posts, so interesting.

Paul May said...

Thanks, Nick. You are very lucky to have all of Jane Gardam yet to read!
And thank you Karen, too.