Julia Eccleshare takes a look at this year’s winners of the most prestigious prizes in children’s books … the Carnegie and Kate Greenaway Medals
‘Children’s books still deal with the huge themes which have always been part of literature – love, loyalty, the place of religion and science in life, what it really means to be human. Contemporary adult fiction is too small and too sterile for what I’m trying to do.’
Fighting talk from Philip Pullman whose magnificent His Dark Materials: Northern Lights has just won the Carnegie Medal. ‘When you’re writing for children,’ he says, ‘the story is more important than you are. You can’t be self-conscious, you just have to get out of the way.’
Pullman believes that adult fiction was radically changed by E M Forster and his contemporaries who caused ‘story tellers’ to move into genre fiction while ‘novelists’ concentrated on style. ‘Luckily, in children’s books, story hasn’t been damaged in the same way.’
Northern Lights was a hugely ambitious concept. ‘What I really wanted to do was Paradise Lost in 1,200 pages. From the beginning I knew the shape of the story. It’s the story of The Fall which is the story of how what some would call sin, but I would call consciousness, comes to us. The more I thought about it the clearer it became. It fell naturally into three parts. Though long, I’ve never been in danger of getting lost because the central strand is so simple.’ It’s that central strand, based on the basic law that actions have consequences, that Pullman is so determined should underpin the best children’s books. ‘Children lack the understanding that you can do anything but that you’ve got to be prepared to accept the consequences. Some things cost more than others. Some things involve you in more pain. The language of rights encourages passivity and is not interesting. The language of responsibility is much more interesting. You must be subtle which is why writing is so good at dealing with it.’
The weaving together of story and morality is what makes Northern Lights such an exceptional book. Never for a moment does the story lose ground to the message it carries. Philip Pullman’s huge cast of characters sizzle on the page. His heroine, Lyra, who, he says, ‘just walked in’, is cunning, deceitful, loyal and brave – a rich mixture of attributes which make her, above all, a convincing child. The adults who surround her are equally well-rounded while the device of their ‘daemons’, their animal familiars which reveal their innermost natures, adds a fresh level of perception. His landscapes, from the almost-Oxford where the story starts to the strange Northern wastelands at the heart of the adventure, are superbly realised. Above all, Northern Lights reflects Pullman’s own love of storytelling. It’s an immense tale, richly told and wholly satisfying. Please Philip Pullman, hurry up with volume 2.
The Kate Greenaway Medal was won by P J Lynch who says, ‘even though I’m 34 and have been working for 11 years, I still think of myself as the new boy. Winning the Medal will change all that!’
In fact, PJ (as he’s always called) started out in the fast track winning the Mother Goose Award in 1987 for his illustrations of A Bag O’ Moonshine, a collection of stories by Alan Garner, and has been recognised as a major talent ever since. He’s delighted with his work for The Christmas Miracle of Jonathan Toomey by Susan Wojcieshowski. ‘I sat on the book for about a year, even though I loved the story. It’s the best book I’ve done so far. It’s very consistent and it works as a whole.’
PJ’s style is very distinctive with its strong line and painterly representation of photographs. Thus far it has mostly been used in fairy tales and fantasy. Moving into the realistic subject matter of this tender story about an unhappy and crabby man whose relationship with a young boy and his mother unlocks him from his past and brings out his true warmth was a big step to take and involved a great deal of research before the drawing begun.
‘I went to the United States and worked in the Vermont Museum of 19th-Century Americana. I looked at cups, saucers, chairs, furnishing – all the background details.’
He then settled down to the process which shapes all his books. ‘I always start by doing loads of sketches. Next I plan the shape of the whole book and work with the designers to get the layout exactly right. Then I get the models and the costumes and start work on the photographs. It’s like doing a movie. You have to plan the settings and get the drama right. Sometimes it’s hard to get the right expressions – especially with kids. Kids are difficult.’
Willing friends model, though they may find details added. PJ used to make up more than he does now, but he found that for real accuracy and authenticity he needed to photograph and work from the clear image that they give.
From the photographs he starts the line drawing onto paper and then stretches it ‘so that you can’t leave anything out’. ‘The fun bit is the painting because hard decisions have been made by then. I mostly use watercolours and then gouache over them. It was hard to achieve the kind of darkness I wanted …’
But achieve it he did and the illustrations for The Christmas Miracle of Jonathan Toomey have an exceptional range of texture and colour which give the book the intensity and warmth that’s made it stand out.
His Dark Materials, Book 1 : Northern Lights, Philip Pullman, Scholastic, 0 590 54178 1, £12.99 (the paperback is due in October, 0 590 13961 4, at £4.99)
The Christmas Miracle of Jonathan Toomey, by Susan Wojcieshowski, ill. P J Lynch, Walker, 0 7445 4007 0, £9.99