In the Diamond Jubilee year of the Carnegie Medal, children’s books most prestigious award, Brian Alderson looks at its track record.
If you have a name like Streatfeild, or Vipont, or Philippa, you are bound to be misspelt from time to time. And if you publish something called The Little Bookroom, don’t be surprised eventually to find it called The Little Bookworm. What comes hard though is when the people who make these blunders are the ones who once gave you a gilded medal for your genius.
These elementary mistakes all disfigure a list which the Library Association has just put out with the press material that publicizes the Diamond Jubilee of its Carnegie Medal, and they are emblematic of the muddle and thoughtlessness which periodically assail this institution.* At the very start of things H J B Woodfield, in the newly founded Junior Bookshelf, complained about selection procedures, and criticisms of the administration have cropped up regularly ever since. Indeed, in 1973 Alec Ellis, a bigwig among the children’s librarians, questioned whether there was any need to prolong the existence of the award. So perhaps the chief thing that the Jubilee should celebrate is the doughty resilience of that lady in the nightdress who holds sway on the obverse of the medal.
An account of the award down to 1984 has already noted something of its melancholy history: Keith Barker’s In the Realms of Gold, published by Julia MacRae in association with the Youth Libraries Group of the Library Association (1986). Barker records such things as the long-running fuss over which officials should judge the award, the contradictions over the interpretations of its terms, and the occasionally disgraceful treatment of its winners – witness what Lucy Boston had to say in her autobiography Memory in a House in 1974.
At bottom however, as may be expected, the trigger for much of the anguish has been what critics have seen as the perverse and foolish choices made by the awards panel. That is, of course, an occupational hazard for judges of all prizes (except the Dodo) but where children’s books are concerned, there is the complicating factor of the award being chosen by one lot of people for a product which is primarily intended for another lot who – in this case anyway – have no say in the matter (and who may well not be able to articulate their say if they had).
The presence of child readers at the back of things has always worried critics of the award when the ‘outstanding’ book which the judges are bidden to choose has appeared to them to lack child-appeal. One of the earliest argued objections to choices which ‘satisfy a certain… very professional bookish minority’ came from Aidan Chambers in his Reluctant Reader of 1969 where he dismembered the 1965 medal winner, The Grange at High Force by Philip Turner. In 1972 the award to Watership Down provoked the library profession itself to rebel: ‘[another] Medal winner whose appeal to children will be limited’, ‘[another] winner which will join the ranks of the great unread…’ And when Robert Swindells’ Stone Cold was chosen in 1994, a member of the selection panel is quoted as crying out that she wanted to ‘recapture the Carnegie for children’. (Incidentally, nowadays, the judges mostly seem to be ‘she’s’. All eleven were this year.)
These accusations of a too-narrow regard for the readership can be paralleled elsewhere by despair over the selectors’ too generous view of what constitutes ‘an outstanding book’. The salient example is Dominic Hibberd’s rather belated nine-page assault on the 1970 choice of K M Peyton’s The Edge of the Cloud in Children’s Literature in Education (July, 1972). He agreed that the book was enjoyable but adduced multiple reasons for it being over-valued and sloppily described by the selection committee. This drew from the 1970 chairman a brief, but pained, reply in which he sought to gloss more fully what was meant by an ‘outstanding book’. This was not apparently to be determined solely by standards of literary criticism, but (in phrases that are a pre-echo of Peter Hunt’s relativistic views of ‘good’ in the March ’97 BfK) by a book’s ‘potential impact on the young reader, its ideas, its chances of being read and its individual aspects which make it stand out from the rest’.
The question-begging in all that exemplifies how trammeled children’s librarians feel in arriving at their decisions, and hence places an onus on them to explain themselves with something of the sustained effort shown by Dominic Hibberd in criticizing them. (One of the reasons for the Carnegie fiasco of 1967 was Janet Hill’s revelation that the committee had to make up its mind about 27 submissions in seven days, which obviously left little room for serious argument.) There are however precedents for a convincing procedure. Three of the most satisfying awards ever established for children’s books have been the Signal Poetry Award, the TES Information Books Award, and the Other Award,** and these achieved their distinction less through their final choices than through the detailed comparative assessments within which the choices were embedded. (Part of the strength of Aidan Chambers’s attack on the 1965 award lay in his comparison of Turner’s story with the merely ‘commended’ Elidor.)
Doubts persist though over the capacity of children’s librarians to apply themselves at this level. In their shortlist selections they persistently show an obsession with fiction (and often hybrid adolescent fiction at that) as if that was all that the Carnegie Medal was about – just as they show an obsession with picture books for the Kate Greenaway Award, which is actually for book illustration. Poetry, non-fiction, or the perilous craft of drawing do not figure much in their judgments, and rarely do they offer anything but facile accounts of their decisions. For instance, confidence in this year’s judging is instantly undermined by the statements in the shortlist that the (aptly-titled) Junk has ‘sensitive characterization’, or that Johnny and the Bomb is ‘meticulously plotted’, while anyone who thinks that Bad Girls is ‘very funny indeed’ has either a defective sense of humour or an insecure grasp of adjectival phrasing.
The chump who recently designated the Carnegie Medal ‘the Booker of the Playground’ is the one who gives the game away. Desperate for publicity (a persistent weakness until Peters Library Service came along) the Library Association feeds this daft phrase journalists for use as a headline (and is now tending to select headline grabbing, rather than ‘outstanding’ winners to go with it). But what the phrase throws into sharp relief is the fact that works assessed for the Booker Prize and for other adult awards have often been the subject of a varied and perhaps extensive discussion in literary journals and newspapers and that the judges are often versed in the skills of critical reading and may articulate the decisions with a fitting clarity. Where children’s literature is concerned there is no such culture of informed discussion and no certain route to a knowledge of anything that was written more than about a decade ago. Little wonder then that the critical powers of a succession of kingmakers have had little chance to mature in all of their sixty-one occasionally glorious years.
Recollecting that someone, a while back, implemented a ‘Booker of Bookers’, I wonder what sort of a result a ‘Carnegie of Carnegies’ would yield? With a degree of (surely appropriate haste and pin-jabbing I am inclined to nominate The Lantern Bearers (1959), Tom’s Midnight Garden (1958) and Pigeon Post itself (1936) for the top three slots.
Even the mathematics are skew-whiff. The first medal was awarded in 1937 for Arthur Ransome’s Pigeon Post, published the year before, so this year sees the sixty-first, not the sixtieth announcement.
** The Other Award was an ‘alternative’ children’s book award focusing on anti-sexist, anti-racist etc. titles. It ran from 197 to 1988.
Brian Alderson is the chief children’s book consultant for The Times.