The winners of this year’s Library Association Carnegie and Kate Greenaway Medals, the most prestigious children’s book awards in the UK, will be announced on 7 July. Rosemary Stones takes a look at the shortlists.
Harry Potter in Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban is, of course, the famous orphan whose parents were murdered by the evil wizard, Lord Voldemort, but only one of the other children featured in this year’s Carnegie shortlist novels fares much better than Harry on the parental front.
Kaninda’s parents (Little Soldier) are murdered in a genocidal conflict of the kind all too familiar from current world events while Nat (King of Shadows) is also an orphan. Dolphin’s single parent mum (The Illustrated Mum) is a manic depressive while Ashley’s (Tightrope) is disabled by rheumatoid arthritis. Both need a great deal of looking after by their daughters. Jacob (Postcards from No Man’s Land) has left the parental home and moved in with his grandmother in a novel in which family secrets are gradually revealed. After Eliot’s mother’s tragic death (The Rinaldi Ring) his father cannot cope and Eliot goes to live with some cousins. Kit (Kit’s Wilderness) at least lives in a (now minority) family unit which includes both a functional mother and father but the plot focuses on his relationship with Askew, a deeply unhappy child whose family life is a nightmare of suffering.
But if the parent, or lack of parent, is a unifying theme on this Carnegie shortlist, the chosen novels are otherwise a disparate bunch, not least in terms of literary quality. As the ‘Booker of the playground’ prepares to announce its winner, it appears that the debate about the function of the UK’s most prestigious children’s book award which raged last year, is probably far from over.
Perhaps the most traditional title included on this shortlist is King of Shadows, a time slip novel in which a boy involved in a production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream at the new Globe theatre goes back into the past to meet Will Shakespeare himself. Housekeepers ‘bustle’ and ‘skuttle’ as they are wont to do in this kind of children’s fiction and, seeing Shakespeare at work with a quill, Nat ‘longs to be able to hand him a ballpoint pen’. Yet this novel is agreeably done, with a real excitement about acting and Shakespeare that will engage young readers.
Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban starts well with home life at the Dursleys (Harry’s vile Uncle, Aunt and cousin) once more hilariously depicted. Rowling’s inventiveness does not flag but, while aficionados will not be detered, there is an off-putting unwieldiness to her action lead narrative.
In Little Soldier Bernard Ashley breaks new ground with assurance in a novel about two young soldiers – Kaninda the traumatised boy soldier refugee and Laura, his adoptive sister, dragooned into god’s army by her overbearing mother. As always, Ashley’s distinctive dialogue captures the tones of South London but his narrative style is sometimes in danger of becoming a self parody (‘Now she put down the knife, for steadying herself). At other times his sharp eye for detail conveys the essence of a situation with economy – a landscape is, for example, ‘dyed pink by the rising sun: the colour of blood wetting a dress’. This book is a considerable achievement.
Aidan Chambers’ Postcards from No Man’s Land is an ambitious saga in which identity issues are explored via family history. The text is overladen (homosexuality, euthanasia, the battle for Arnhem, the inner child) and often teacherly. It would have benefited from being cut by a third. However, there is much for older readers to enjoy here, in particular its European feel. Jenny Nimmo’s The Rinaldi Ring is another novel that links the present with a past conflict, in this case the First World War. Eliot is haunted by a young woman whose fiancé has been killed and who appears to lose her sanity. The novel is atmospheric if not entirely convincing.
Jacqueline Wilson’s The Illustrated Mum demonstrates her considerable talent for seeing events, in this case in all their awfulness, as they are for her child protagonists.
There is a passionate commitment in Wilson’s writing to the child but the neglected Dolphin and her sister remain curiously one dimensional. Events in this novel are desperately painful and yet the reader remains unmoved. Gillian Cross’s Tightrope covers similar territory for an older age group as Ashley devotes herself to her disabled mum. This novel has elements of the psychological thriller as Ashley acts out her need to escape in dangerous ways. Ashley is a character with a convincing inner world but Cross’s plot and denouement become increasingly implausible as they attempt to straddle reality and metaphor.
David Almond’s Kit’s Wilderness has a beautifully modulated narrative that resonates with meaning as he explores the impact of time on the present: ‘The beast called Time is our great predator’ says Kit’s geography teacher and death is unselfconsciously the theme of this subtle yet accessible novel. Almond won the Carnegie last year for Skellig. Had he not, Kit’s Wilderness would be vying for my vote with Little Soldier for this year’s Medal.
Thank goodness only one book on this year’s Greenaway shortlist is from a previous winner (Helen Oxenbury’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland) as opposed to four on last year’s shortlist. It is a radical reframing of a classic text that popularises it for a younger audience. There is a disconcerting disjuncture between Oxenbury’s ingenue Alice and the complexity of her thoughts but the interpretation is fresh and lively.
Chris Riddell’s Castle Diary is non-fiction disguised as a diary and while he is inventive and witty, the subject matter and design of the book cramp his style. This is very good Riddell but not the inspired, caustic, outrageous Riddell we know from his interpretations of Philip Ridley’s books and such picture books as Something Else and Angus Rides the Goods Train .
Lauren Child’s Clarice Bean That’s Me is a well observed portrait of contemporary family life which makes bold and wild use of the page and carries off its unconventionality with aplomb. It has its weak spots but would make a possible winner. Kevin Henkes’s Weslandia is zany in a more painterly way, his suburban back streets and gardens presented from challenging perspectives.
Simon James has the disadvantage of a style that is reminiscent of Quentin Blake or James Stevenson and thereby invites comparisons. His Days Like This is a pleasant collection of poems but one that lacks edge and perhaps it is this lack of bite that leaves me feeling so-whatish about his interpretations. Christian Birmingham’s Wombat Goes Walkabout makes intense use of texture and colour but there is an occasional uneasiness in his use of lighting which lends a static quality to some of the illustrations.
Kathy Henderson’s The Storm makes inventive use of the page in a well sequenced story but alongside Patrick Benson’s The Sea-Thing Child, her draftsmanship lacks edge. The sheer technical skill and verve that Benson brings to his interpretation of Hoban’s poignant story and in particular to the creature, is hard to match. The Sea-Thing Child is undoubtedly the most accomplished book on this Greenaway shortlist and it deserves to win.
Rosemary Stones is the Editor of Books for Keeps.
The Carnegie Shortlist
King of Shadows by Susan Cooper (The Bodley Head, 0 370 32620 2, £10.99)
Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban by J K Rowling (Bloomsbury, 0 7475 4215 5, £10.99)
Little Soldier by Bernard Ashley (Orchard Books, 1 86039 879 0, £4.99)
Postcards from No Man’s Land by Aidan Chambers (The Bodley Head, 0 370 32376 9, £10.99)
The Rinaldi Ring by Jenny Nimmo (Mammoth, 0 7497 2819 1, £4.99)
The Illustrated Mum by Jacqueline Wilson (Corgi Yearling, 0 440 86368 6, £3.99)
Tightrope by Gillian Cross (Oxford University Press, 0 19 271750 2, £5.99)
Kit’s Wilderness by David Almond (Hodder, 0 340 77885 7, £10.00)
The Greenaway Shortlist
Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland by Lewis Carroll, ill. by Helen Oxenbury (Walker Books, 0 7445 6124 8, £14.99)
Castle Diary by Richard Platt, ill. by Chris Riddell (Walker Books, 0 7445 2880 1, £14.99)
Clarice Bean That’s Me by Lauren Child (Orchard Books, 1 84121 029 3, £10.99)
Weslandia by Paul Fleischman, ill. by Kevin Hawkes (Walker Books, 0 7445 4099 2, £9.99)
Days Like This ed. Simon James, ill. by Simon James (Walker Books, 0 7445 6133 7, £10.99)
Wombat Goes Walkabout by Michael Morpurgo, ill. by Christian Birmingham (Collins, 0 00 198221 4, £10.99)
The Storm by Kathy Henderson (Walker Books, 0 7445 4435 1, £9.99)
The Sea-Thing Child by Russell Hoban, ill. by Patrick Benson (Walker Books, 0 7445 6743 2, £10.99)