Clodagh Corcoran, online begetter of the Award (with a little help from her friends), looks back…
Is it only ten years? I seem to have lived both with the Mother Goose Award and, latterly, without it for a much longer lifetime. Conceived on the long drive home from exhausting book exhibitions and lectures, along flat, isolated roads in South Yorkshire, nurtured for nine months, the Award was finally born as a golden egg, designed and executed by a Yorkshire artist, who used a real goose egg as a model for the first hatchings.
Is it only ten years since Jan Pienkowski steamed off a train in Doncaster breathing fire and thunder about printers who couldn’t, or wouldn’t, carry out his instructions in the printing of the logo and lettering? I think he finally came to rest in Hull, finding there a printer who understood his need for perfection.
And that search for a ‘balanced’ panel of judges! God help me, how naive I was!
‘Not another bloody award.’
‘I won’t help unless you agree not to give an award when nothing deserves it.’
‘Will I get a fee – expenses – free books?’
‘I will if I can be chairman.’
‘Who are you? What are you getting from this?’ ‘It will never get off the ground.’
‘Publishers won’t co-operate, they don’t care, you know.’
But it did get off the ground, and publishers did co-operate (albeit to a greater or lesser degree), nobody got a fee, the chair was democratically elected, and one year we really didn’t give an award, on the principle that it’s a bad idea to encourage mediocrity (and this was well before Ken Livingstone’s ‘don’t vote it only encourages them’ policy).
Why an award for beginners in illustration? Well, by 1978 I had been steeped in children’s books and their illustration for some years. I recognised that a certain staleness was creeping in. Publishers were retrenching in the whole area of new writers and illustrators, preferring instead not to take commercial risks, and new artistic talent was not being nurtured. Such a policy could have denied children the experience of making contact with life-enhancing illustrations and books. I had no problems with the old artistic talent, but to quote from the philosophy of the Irish Children’s Book Trust, ‘Culture does not stand still. It is an amalgamation of the past and the present, leading into the future; a future where a strong sense of personal identity will be needed to preserve a balanced individuality.’
Our first hesitant Panel meetings established criteria for the Award, ‘the most exciting newcomer to British children’s book illustration’, and then set up an infra-structure to ensure we saw every book which fell within the framework of that criteria. On the whole publishers co-operated willingly, but we were occasionally exasperated enough to enquire from a recalcitrant one when they would be submitting a particular new illustrator’s work. And on these occasions we could be met with a blank, frustrating, ‘Oh! Yes. Mother Goose. Mmmmm. Have we details of that?’
In those early days of seeking to identify fresh new talent, it must be said that the publishers themselves frequently did not serve their illustrators as well as they might. Although as Panel members we knew exactly what we were looking for, there were some problems with the criteria ‘most exciting newcomer’. When was a ‘newcomer’ not a newcomer? What if they had illustrated a magazine article, or done some minor work for an encyclopaedia? What about nationality – did the criteria mean British-born? Each problem was chewed over and resolved as it arose, and the clarification passed on. Nevertheless, there were some submissions made which clearly fell outside the criteria. And, horrors, on one notable occasion we chose the work of an illustrator whose publisher omitted to tell us that she had indeed done substantial work on a series of children’s fully illustrated books. It was embarrassing, and disappointing for the illustrator, but we held fast to our guidelines and survived. Effectively what the criteria sought to identify was the first major, UK-published, illustrated book for children. The nationality of the artist was not an issue. If the first UK publication was part of an international simultaneous co-edition, we accepted that.
Looking back, our criteria served us extremely well. Within its framework we searched for vision, for empathy with the reader, for originality, for cohesion with the text being illustrated, if any, and above all we searched for the artist who could develop what we felt was exciting talent. What we sometimes found was poor colour register, bad binding, self-indulgence, stereo-typing and a very surprising amount of derivative work showing clear plagiaristic tendencies, where the illustrator had identified too closely with, for example, Maurice Sendak or Pat Hutchins and, in so doing, had lost sight of his or her own individuality. And there was, and is, a lamentable lack of both black and white illustration, or information books, despite pleas to publishers to consider this particular art-form. The other, positive, side of this problem was those publishers who clearly served their illustrators well, with excellent book design, inviting jacket, editorial advice, and a heartening belief that children deserved the best they could offer.
Racism, sexism and chauvinism quickly became matters of contentious (and, with hindsight, frequently hilarious) debate amongst us. In the early part of this decade these were not burning issues for writers, illustrators or publishers. But they were certainly being confronted in some quarters. ‘Debate’, particularly at the final selection meeting, frequently teetered towards hand-to-hand combat between Panel members, with the pacifists retiring to make coffee for everyone. Or to pour more wine. In the beautiful, couth drawing-room of Shirley Hughes’ home, set in a peaceful leafy part of west London, words like ‘patriarchy’, ‘ideology’, ‘gender’ and, most terrifying of all, ‘feminist propaganda’ were hurled into the fray, and ricocheted around the bemused walls. Eventually, however, consensus would shuffle forward, hands in air, exhausted, and another Mother Goose winner was announced. Now, a decade later, I think we have indeed learned to accommodate all these issues, on an informed level, and learned not to equate them with censorship.
In ten years, thirty-eight emerging illustrators were identified by Mother Goose as special, deserving support and encouragement. Ten Golden Years brings many of them together in stunning, exciting celebration. The roll of honour is an impressive one:
The Mother Goose Award Winners
Pippin and Pod
Michelle Cartlidge, Heinemann, 0 434 93140 3, £5.50; Magnet, 0 416 13682 6, £2.50 pbk
Mr Potter’s Pigeon
Patrick Kinmouth, illustrated by Reg Cartwright, Hutchinson, o/p; Pocket Puffin, 0 14 03.3103 4, £1.95 pbk
Green Finger House
Rosemary Harris, illustrated by Juan Wijngaard, Eel Pie, o/p
Jan Ormerod, Viking Kestrel, 0 670 80353 7, £6.95; Picture Puffin, 0 14 050.362 5, £1.95 pbk
Hiawyn Oram, illustrated by Satoshi Kitamura, Andersen, 0 86264 017 2, £5.95; Picture Puffin, 0 14 050.426 5, £2.25 pbk
The Red Book of Hob Stories, 0 7445 0120 2
The Green Book of Hob Stories, 0 7445 01210 William Mayne, illustrated by Patrick Benson, Walker, £2.95 each
Badger’s Parting Gifts
Susan Varley, Andersen, 0 86264 062 8, £6.95; Picture Lions, 0 00 662398 0,;1.95 pbk
A Bag of Moonshine
Alan Garner, illustrated by Patrick James Lynch, Collins, 0 00 184403 2, £8.95; 0 00 184449 0, £4.95 pbk
Listen to This
Laura Cecil, illustrated by Patrick James Lynch, Collins, 0 00 184403 2 £8.95; 0 00 184449.0, £4.95 pbk
Bush Vark’s First Day Out
Charles Fuge, Macmillan, 0 333 46280 7, £6.50
So many of the Award-winning artists have developed that indefinable something which instantly identifies them to the reader. There is no confusing the subtle style of Jan Ormerod’s illustration for ‘Haiku’ with Satoshi Kitamura’s exuberant, tongue-in-cheek interpretations for ‘Nice to See the Boys Playing So Well Together’. This year’s winner, Charles Fuge has succeeded in investing each animal with its own personality, complementing perfectly the zany verse of John Rice’s ‘Bears Don’t Like Bananas’. The most pleasant surprise, for me, however, in Ten Golden Years is the current phase of Patrick Benson’s work. Winner of the 1984 Award, I had lost sight of his progress, and here I find his bopping anarchic teddy-boy rats, complete with dayglo pink socks, a joy to behold in ‘Rattin’ It Up’. But particularly I loved the 100mm lens effect he uses to illustrate Shirley Hughes’ poem ‘Fishy’. Why does Susan Varley’s work move me in a most mysterius way, and why do I always feel so nostalgic about Michelle Cartlidge’s teddies? Juan Wijngaard’s Award-winning Green Finger House saw a wonderful combining of text, cameo sketches and full-colour illustrations, foretelling a great talent. As I look at his work in this book, I know our choice was inspired. Inspired too was Reg Cartwright, who introduced us to Mr Potter’s Pigeon in 1980, giving us the essence of sympathetic characterisations. Readily accessible for young minds is the delicate work of Emma Chichester Clark and Patrick Lynch (who is sadly unsung here in Ireland, in a country without a body of native modern illustration).
There are no ‘bests’ in Ten Golden Years – the standard of illustration throughout is excellent. I look at it, stroke its pages, in wonderment, and marvel at the verve, confidence and sheer exuberance of the illustrators. To be so talented and so uninhibited in that talent is a wonderful thing. If there had been no Mother Goose perhaps their creativity would not have found expression in this particular way. But there was, and it did, and so that rite of passage known to us all as childhood, has been enhanced immeasurably. To own it is a must for anyone who is remotely interested in children’s literature. But it is most particularly the child, lucky owner indeed, who will get intense pleasure for many years to come, through this collision of talent.
Do I have a favourite Mother Goose winner? I am in awe of all of them, but were you to put a shotgun to my head to encourage me choose just one, it would have to be Susan Varley. Or maybe Charles Fuge. Or, wait, maybe Patrick Benson. But then I love Jan Ormerod. Oh, hell…
Somewhere in the early eighties I closed up my shops, sold my home and returned abruptly to Dublin, in personal crisis. I left behind an embryonic Award and a flock of Geese who, to their enormous credit, carried on the work. In admirable generosity of spirit Rosemary Stones, Shirley Hughes, Jan Pienkowski and Chris Powling in particular steered it through these tricky times, sought and found a strong and courageous Mother Goose in Sally Grindley and Books for Children, and kept me informed, despite my ruffled feathers and deafening silence from Dublin.
Occasionally I spread wings and fly to London for the annual Award, hissing and feeling hostile towards everyone because I am no longer actively involved, but am nevertheless emotionally engaged at some deep level. As I write this, I remember the day, in 1985, when I found Jan Pienkowski’s original artwork for the logo and lettering (which I had carefully preserved, wanting posterity for ‘my’ Goose), and I sat down and wept for a long time. I weep no more, for ‘my’ Goose has grown up, stretched her wings and now flies successfully, year in and year out.
Clodagh Corcoran now lives in Dublin. She is Chair of the Irish Children’s Book Trust, and buyer for the Children’s Book Department of Waterstone’s, Dublin. She has recently edited Baker’s Dozen, an anthology of new Irish writing for young adults, published by Poolbeg Press.
Ten Golden Years, a collection of new verse illustrated by ten Mother Goose Award winners, is published by Walker (0 7445 1214 X, £9.95).