Nicholas Tucker appraises the eight books shortlisted for the year’s most prestigious children’s book award.
There are some excellent but very diverse titles on the Carnegie shortlist this year, so some sympathy for the judges having to choose between eight books going so many different ways. Children’s literature on this showing still remains very much alive and well, and medal-winners from the past in no way over-shadow these contemporary writers. But times are changing. Most of these stories are now set in different times and countries, so British young readers will not find a reflection of their own world as they know it. And the traditional family novel, where parents preside over children gradually coming to terms with themselves and their society as they grow older, seems virtually dead. Today’s fictional children and young adults tend to be individualistic and act largely on their own, with parents – if they still have them – often as much a hindrance as a support.
Four of these novels are set in the USA. Lauren Wolk’s Beyond the Bright Sea takes place in 1925 on an island off the Massachusetts coast. An unaccompanied baby arrives one day secured in the well of an old fishing boat. Rescued and then looked after by two island dwellers, she decides aged twelve to discover more about her past. This is a beautiful novel rich in marine description. To read it is to feel one is living on the same island oneself.
No such comfort in Will Hill’s explosive After the Fire, where eighteen-year-old Moonbeam is rescued from a cult based on the Branch Davidian religious sect involved in the murderous Waco siege in 1993. But while Moonbeam is now physically safe she remains imprisoned in the cult’s paranoid teachings. Gradually and gently she is brought round by a psychiatrist and a sympathetic FBI agent both working to return her to sanity. This is powerful stuff, expertly told.
Even stronger, Angie Thomas’s The Hate U Give is one of those stories no reader is ever likely to forget. Within it sixteen-year-old Starr, living in a poor and intermittently lawless American urban ghetto, is one of two black pupils at a respectable school in an adjoining, prosperous neighbourhood. While her family stay supportive along with her white boyfriend she still has to cope with dope-sellers, gun fights and an at times equally threatening police force. A former teenage rapper, Thomas writes in prose that burns off the page in this extraordinarily impressive debut novel.
Patrick Ness‘s Release is set in a small town in the state of Washington, also in our own times. It describes the up and down emotional journey taken by seventeen-year-old Adam when he decides to come out as gay. Even though his father is an evangelical preacher who does not approve, Adam still manages to provide a good humoured account of a life-changing time in one boy’s adolescence. As in Judy Blume’s famous coming of age story Forever, mentioned by Ness as one of his inspirations, sex here is described chiefly as fun and life-affirming, with ‘full penetration’ one particularly valued milestone. But an accompanying, mystical tale, flittering in and out of the main narrative involving the soul of a murdered girl, is less successful.
Still abroad, Marcus Sedgwick’s Saint Death is another unforgettable story, this time set along the US/Mexican border where life for the poorest can fairly be described as Hell on earth. Young Arturo, long abandoned by his no-good father, tries to raise a thousand dollars to save his friend from a terrible death. His efforts make riveting if painful reading, with Sedgwick adding his own comments in one-page essays on the dreadful realities of life in this region. This superb novel is not an easy read, but then, how could it be?
There are tough moments too in Geraldine McCaughrean’s Where the World Ends. Once again this genius writer has added another masterpiece to her already outstanding list. Set in 1727, it tells how the annual trip from the Scottish island of St Kilda to a nearby Sea Stac to harvest gannets and puffins goes horribly wrong. Marooned on bare rock with no rescue ship turning up, the community of young men is threatened by the presence of an older, messianic preacher capitalising on their growing despair. Wonderful stuff; how does she keep on doing it?
But hats off too to Anthony McGowan, whose novel Rook, is so good it practically reads itself. Written in easily accessible language, it opens on a compelling note and never lets up after that. Problems caused by bullying at school, Dad’s new lady friend, epilepsy, young love and brother Kenny’s learning difficulties all form the backdrop to a story whose optimistic ending is entirely appropriate as well as highly welcome. The third novel from McGowan involving the same characters, this is high-octane writing.
And then there is Lissa Evans’s Wed Wabbit, the only story in the short-list that is funny as well as brilliant. Aimed at a younger audience, this ingenious fantasy involves an alternative world peopled by toys and figures drawn from the imagination of four-year-old Minnie. Her older sister Fidge has to explore this new universe in order to bring Minnie back to full health after a road accident. She is accompanied by her cousin Graham, for many years deeply into therapy and always fearful of losing one of his ‘transitional objects.’ Only a children’s book could come up with this combination of fantasy and humour running alongside a story with an ultimately serious intent.
So who should win? For me, After the Fire and Release are both good stories that might have won in a less contested field. Saint Death is a hugely impressive and fearlessly confronting, but perhaps almost too honest for its own ultimate good. So this leaves me with Where the World Ends as the best piece of writing, The Hate U Give as addressing the most urgent contemporary problem, Beyond the Bright Sea as the most beautiful, Rook as the most instantly readable and Wed Wabbit as the most fun. Judges – over to you!
Nicholas Tucker is honorary senior lecturer in Cultural and Community Studies at Sussex University.
Wed Wabbit by Lissa Evans, David Fickling Books, 978-1910989449, £6.99
After the Fire by Will Hill, Usborne, 978-1474924153, £8.99
Where the World Ends by Geraldine McCaughrean, Usborne, 978-1474943437, £6.99
Rook by Anthony McGowan, Barrington Stoke, 978-1781127230, £7.99
Release by Patrick Ness, Walker Books, 978-1406378696, £7.99
Saint Death by Marcus Sedgwick, Orion, 978-1444011258, £7.99
The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas, Walker Books, 978-1406372151, £7.99
Beyond the Bright Sea by Lauren Wolk, Corgi, 978-0552574303, £6.99