The Carnegie medal? To a book most eight-year-olds could finish in twenty minutes? And a Banana Book at that? For some, the Library Association’s 1986 award (in their Golden Jubilee year, no less) will represent at best an astonishing slip-up and at worst the betrayal of those exacting literary standards which in 1966 lead to no award being offered at all – we had to make do with winning the World Cup, you may recall. Kevin Crossley-Holland’s Storm (Heinemann) is bound to dismay those Kid Literateurs for whom a prize-winning children’s book is a book which, as a member of this year’s Booker panel put it, `is insulted by its inclusion on a children’s list’. No adult reader will ever pick up Storm by mistake. I mean, it’s got pictures. In full colour. And the text, if read aloud, would be perfectly intelligible to a top infant. Whatever next?
One person completely free from this chronological snobbery is Kevin Crossley-Holland himself. Storm, he concedes, is `a miniature … a cameo’ but nevertheless is still `part of the same inward thrust I bring to all of my literary activities – poetry, re-tellings, anthologies, broadcasting or whatever.’ The story’s setting is Waterslain, the name he gives to the village on the north coast of Norfolk which he calls `my imaginative heartland’. It’s also the title of his latest, just-published, collection of poems for adults and draws not simply on the same order of inspiration but also on the same stringent technique thereby bringing a musical quality to the words, and to the `silences between them’, that’s as potent as their more overt meaning. He mobilises these resources, what’s more, in a manner which always implies a child reader. There’s no hint of the confusion of voice identified by Philippa Pearce, herself a distinguished Carnegie winner, when she wrote of another equally distinguished Carnegie winner that her objection to his work `is not that young readers (and adults, too, for that matter) may understand too much, but that they are likely to understand too little’.
Storm brings no such problem. The tale itself is straightforward enough: a young girl whose sister is having a baby fetches the local doctor with the help of a phantom rider who turns out to be as fair as the weather is foul. What counts is the telling. When, at the end of the book, Annie closes her eyes `as tight as cockleshells’ it’s not because she’s seen a ghost, but lived a legend. Of course, there’s a canny literary intelligence at work. Better than anyone Kevin Crossley-Holland recognises the paradox that flights of imagination are best sustained when feet – or in this case hooves – are kept firmly on the ground:
`The horses hoove’s clattered on the tarmac and Annie saw that several times they struck sparks from pieces of chert and flint.’
This is all-of-a-piece with a sense of location so exact you feel the only omission is a map-reference. Annie rejects the notion that her home and the great marsh are `miles from anywhere’ because to her `they were everywhere, everywhere that really mattered’. From the start, this is the reader’s feeling too. My own daughter, much smitten, insisted on hearing the whole tale at a sitting and declared it to be `very very very very very very very good’. Since this is as neat a way as any to calibrate the quality of a myth I can only say I very very very very very very very much agree.
The Carnegie’s Panel’s Special Commendation – Janni Howker’s The Nature of the Beast (Julia MacRae) – follows a similar pattern. Again, though this time for an older age-group, we’re presented with a leap of imagination so bold we’d be left stranded were it not for the precise delineation of a place. Haverston is a community doubly devastated: by the closure of the local mill and by a marauding beast on the moors surrounding the town. The fusing of the two into the same predatory image could easily have seemed far-fetched but for the gorse-and-concrete, flesh-and-blood reality of the writing. This brings the action seeringly close to home. The progress of Billy Coward from victim to vigilante is like a prolonged scream of agony – as indeed it was. `I hadn’t realised when I started writing just how much anger and pain I felt about unemployment which in many ways had destroyed my marriage and is destroying my town,’ said Janni Howker in a recent interview. `It was a strange experience writing it – I almost can’t remember doing it because I was getting up very early and working very late at night and just doing nothing else. And out it came. Like that.’ Well, almost like that. There was a conscious shaping, too, by a writer who despite the acclaim she’s received for this and her earlier book Badger on the Barge still regards herself as, `an apprentice to my craft’. Some apprentice. It’s hard to envisage a more eloquent protest on behalf of the Billy Cowards of our society. Or a more gripping narrative for them (and the rest of us) to read. In most other years we’d have looked no further for the Carnegie winner.
Not this year, though. This year belongs to Storm and to a Carnegie selection panel capable of its own leaps of imagination. Who would have guessed two years ago that Judith Elliott, inspired editor as she clearly is, would count a Carnegie medal-winner amongst her Banana Books? And who would have predicted such a come-uppance for critics like me who have long complained that the medal goes to books which assume readers rather than books which create them? Carnegie winners have always been worthy, dammit. Also, with few exceptions, they’ve been highly predictable. But after 1986 who knows?