What’s wrong with the Carnegie Medal?
From Anne Fine’s point of view, nothing. She’s just won this `Booker of the Playground’ for the second time in three years. `And I was just as thrilled as the first time,’ she said on Radio 4. Good for her … but is it good for Carnegie, I wonder? Not according to Julia Eccleshare in the Bookseller:
`All four of the finalists have won the Carnegie medal before: two out of the four have won it twice before. Should librarians be looking at some of the newer talents or do they really not measure up?’
In fact, the situation is even worse than Julia suggests: in the last 20 years or so, no less than six writers have won the Carnegie Medal more than once, yet in the previous 40 years of the Award’s existence not a single author managed this feat. And those, let it be remembered, were years when there was nothing like the volume and range of writing for children we see today.
Of course, for the More Means Worse brigade that probably says it all – a straightforward example of Excellence, vouchsafed to a dwindling band of devotees, warding off an Avalanche of Mediocrity. Since such Mediocrity apparently includes writers of the calibre of Adele Geras, Philip Pullman and Teresa Tomlinson – all of whom, in my opinion, have produced at least one novel in recent years of Carnegie-winning stature (and these are just the first three I’ve thought of) – those of us of less sclerotic critical disposition may well look elsewhere for an explanation.
It lies, I’d suggest, in the very reverse of the above proposition: that More, in fact, Means Better – not proportionately, perhaps, but certainly numerically. For amongst the undeniable and deepening dross of the last couple of decades, it seems to me, there’s actually been an increase in worthwhile writing for children. This leads to a double difficulty for today’s award panellists. In the first place, it’s harder to separate out the best titles … and in the second, it’s harder to evaluate them against each other. Hence the likelihood of a loss of critical nerve and the near-irresistible temptation to play safe. As a veteran of half a dozen different award panels myself, I recognise the psychological mechanism only too well. `The next one’s got to be outstanding, hasn’t it? After all, it’s a previous winner.’ In the case of Carnegie, I suspect, this tendency (which vitiates the basis of all awards) is compounded by the very elaboration of its otherwise admirable selection procedures. What we end up with are titles that have been strained through the sieve of far too many committees.
So what’s to be done?
Well, never let it be said that BfK shrinks from offering constructive advice. Here are two possibilities:
1) Winning the Medal should become strictly a one-off event on the grounds that what was good enough for the likes of Walter de la Mare, Mary Norton and Rosemary Sutcliff is surely good enough for anybody else. If in doubt the panel can always declare `Prize withheld as no book considered suitable’, as it did in 1943, 1945 and 1966 thereby adding instantly to the Medal’s allure.
Of course, such a radical approach has its drawbacks – notably the threat to those twin pillars of modern book promotion, Publicity and Sponsorship. So alternatively …
2) The Youth Libraries Group, which judges the Medal, should take a long overdue look at the current Carnegie criteria. A starting-point might be Jane Inglis’s article `Shadowing Carnegie’ on page 32 of this issue. Why, with a brief as flexible as the one adopted by the youngsters of Hillside school (much less biased than Carnegie’s towards the traditional adult novel), the YLG might even have arrived at the same winner: Jacqueline Wilson’s The Suitcase Kid, a tale so funny, sparky and sharp it could have come from the pen of Anne Fine herself.
Mind you, even with Anne’s name on the spine, The Suitcase Kid would never have won the Carnegie. Wrong age-group, you see. For the truth of the matter is that Britain’s premier prize for a children’s book ceased long ago to be `The Booker of the Playground’ and traded upwards in the direction of the teen-scene. These days `The Booker of Behind the Bicycle Shed’ would be an apter description. As a result, the Medal now routinely passes over the most important and perhaps most difficult of all writing for children: the kind that creates readers in the first place. So the message, alas, is all too clear for Jacqueline Wilson … or Annie Dalton, or Diana Hendry, or Philip Ridley or Ann Turnbull et al: to win The Big One age up your act.
Assuming it stays The Big One, that is. If the chief interest the Carnegie Medal can generate over the next few years is whether it will be Peter Dickinson, Berlie Doherty, Anne Fine, Margaret Mahy or Jan Mark who’s first to pull off a hat-trick, then it deserves to be overtaken by other, more open awards and probably will be. If I were a member of YLG right now, I’d be pondering this list of the first Carnegie winners as a matter of urgency:
1936 Arthur Ransome – Pigeon Post
1937 Eve Garnett – The Family from One End Street
1938 Noel Streatfeild – The Circus is Coming
Then I’d mutter three words to myself as a reminder of a decade or more of literary injustice fit to rank alongside Hollywood’s treatment of Steven Spielberg. The words are ‘Dick’, ‘King’ and ‘Smith’. After that, with next year in mind, I’d age down my act. For who knows, maybe it isn’t too late after all to right this particular wrong. Or to rescue the Carnegie Medal itself from terminal tedium.
Over to you, YLG.