Congratulations to both Kevin Brooks, winner of the 2014 CILIP Carnegie Medal and Jon Klassen for the CILIP Kate Greenaway Medal.
It is always exciting waiting to see which author or illustrator will win out of the shortlists. This year there has been a particularly fierce reaction, especially to The Bunker Diary. And this despite the somewhat bleak conclusion to Klassen’s tale of two fishes. Despite what outsiders might think, the Judging Committee does not award on the ‘shock value’ or the number of issues that a book might contain. The judging is done against a background framed by the stated criteria – the winner is outstanding not because it shocks, but because it stands out in terms of writing, plot, character, reading journey. And although readers may disagree about some of those elements, there will have been plenty of discussion. It was interesting meeting Shadowing Groups to listen to what they thought. If they didn’t like a book they said so, but everyone felt free to express their own opinion.
The Carnegie and Greenaway are frequently the focus of comment and criticism, as our oldest and arguably most prestigious award for children’s books, celebrating writing and illustration. They can draw attention to areas of concern that might be otherwise submerged in the flood of shiny new books being published over the year. Shortlists can only reflect what is available. Criticisms have been made against the Awards for being too girl oriented, too issue-led, too bland, too old – all of which may say something about the books being published.
Attendance at the Carnegie Kate Greenaway celebration – indeed attendance at almost any children’s book event, whether prize giving or book launch – throws up a very pressing concern. Why was Malorie Blackman, our Children’s Laureate, the only BAME* representative there? This was something she herself commented on. It is clear is that the publishing world is still very unrepresentative of British society in general. As Fen Coles of Letterbox Library, an organisation that works hard to provide access to a wide range of inclusive material, comments: ‘There is no question that the children’s publishing industry is resoundingly white and middle-class. This is reflected by the people who make up the industry – from authors to marketing teams – and by the industry’s output.’ What is particularly dispiriting is to reflect that this is a situation that was a concern thirty years ago. Indeed it was in response to such lack of diversity that Verna Wilkins set up Tamarind, still publishing today, as a voice in the wilderness.
Why is this so? Our schools are full of bright, lively, intelligent, imaginative young people from all backgrounds; not all want to become footballers or Alan Sugar’s apprentice. Some do want to work in the world of books. What happens? As Fen points out, ‘Many people entering the industry work on a voluntary basis or require financial backing which itself tends to lead to a white, middle class bias’. The general under -representation of BAME role models across the industry, with a few shining exceptions such as Malorie Blackman and Bali Rai, means there is little to aspire to.
What can be done? It is not a ‘problem’ exclusive to the publishing world. Lenny Henry recently had some forceful comments to make about BAME representation at the BBC. It may be that what he proposes for the BBC – quotas and ring-fenced funding – should be considered here. Drastic? Prescriptive? Perhaps. But in Fen Cole’s words, ‘Efforts to recruit a more diverse workforce have often been restricted to a one-off internship rather than a long term strategic planning to address the issue.’
*BAME = Black Asian and Minority Ethnic