Nicholas Tucker appraises the shortlist for the prestigious award.
The 2015 Carnegie Medal shortlist of eight novels provides an interesting snap-shot of current literary taste in the children’s and young adult books world. Those chosen are not necessarily representative of all the books published in that year, but their particular selection does give a glimpse of how the experienced adult readers who selected them are thinking about contemporary children’s literature. So let’s look for some common themes in this selection, wondering as we go how much may have changed and also how much may have stayed constant since the first Carnegie Medal judges assembled in 1936.
First, the books themselves. Sarah Crossan’s Apple and Rain (Bloomsbury) is a contemporary story involving a daughter’s dysfunctional relationship with a delinquent mother. Brian Conaghan’s When Mr Dog Bites (Bloomsbury) features a sixteen-year-old boy with Tourette’s Syndrome wrongly convinced that he is about to die. Sally Gardner’s Tinder (Orion), luminously illustrated by David Roberts, is a re-imagining of the traditional fairy tale The Tinderbox. Frances Hardinge’s Cuckoo Song (Macmillan) describes a girl whose body has become temporarily occupied by someone else. Tanya Landman’s Buffalo Soldier (Walker) is about the life of a freed young woman slave who, dressed as a man, joins up with the American army to finally put down the remaining tribes of indigenous Indians. Elizabeth Laird’s The Fastest Boy in the World (Macmillan) features an eleven-year-old contemporary Ethiopian boy on a first troubled visit to Addis Ababa with his grandfather. Geraldine McCaughrean’s The Middle of Nowhere (Usborne) is set in 19th century Australia, with a young girl in the outback trying to keep things going after her mother dies and her father goes into deep depression. And finally Patrick Ness’s More Than This (Walker) involves an adolescent boy transported to a dystopian future after apparently drowning.
What stands out in all of them is the continuing faith their authors have in the essential resilience of their young heroes and heroines, up to and including acts of enormous physical and/or psychological courage. Parents may let them down, teachers may not always understand them, other children may gang up against them, but these main characters are still telling their readers that obstacles, however threatening, can be overcome. There is also the message that even in the bleakest times it is worth hanging in there for that special friendship – not necessarily a love interest – that can finally make all the difference. Life may be grim, and indeed in all these novels it mostly is. But there is always hope.
This may seem an obvious point to make, but last year’s winner, Kevin Brooks’s disturbing The Bunker Diary, is a novel devoid of any hope or good feeling at all. So while previous Carnegie Medal author winners of not so long ago may have blinked at some of the swearing and frank sexual content on show this year, particularly evident in Brian Conaghan’s novel, they would still surely recognise and respect the positive image of childhood evident in each young hero and heroine here if not always in the other young people in their lives at home or school.
This brings me to a second common theme this year: a hatred of violence. For while the world of computer games continues to shower young people with violent images, children’s authors see things very differently. There is no room in any of these novels for the idea that receiving or inflicting pain and suffering is good for the soul, let alone in any way also exciting or praiseworthy. Nor is there any confident feeling that violence in itself is ever going to make things better. Sally Gardner adds sad and telling detail to the quick deaths familiar in fairy tales in order to show what life as an 18th century mercenary in lawless times could really be like. Tanya Landman describes the deadening effect on the personality once killing becomes a way of life. Given the current disillusion with Britain’s military involvement first with Iraq and then Afghanistan, this anti-war writing seems closer to current thinking than do the casual mega-deaths found in screen games. Children’s authors could once get away with a far more gung-ho attitude to violence in their novels. But not any more, at least on the evidence of these eight stories.
Selected time spans meanwhile remain various, with only Sarah Crossan and Brian Conaghan placing their stories in contemporary times. Young readers therefore searching for an accurate reflection of what they are seeing around them will have to look elsewhere. Writing a would-be state of the nation novel for young readers is becoming increasingly hard, given that developments in technology are so rapid that what seems the latest thing for a writer could quickly seem yesterday’s news even before publication. Composing a novel reflecting young people’s evolving interactions in social media is also a considerable challenge, given that each generation now tends to live within in its own technological world often with little idea of what is going on elsewhere. The continuity that once ran through all writing, with references to standard and largely unchanging 20th century technology of the type represented by phones, radio and later television, has now disappeared for ever.
These stories also have no common sense of place. Readers can instead learn a lot about life in America, Australia and mid-Europe at various times in history. Elizabeth Laird, who has done so much to make the Third World come alive in her fiction, paints a picture of Ethiopia in her novel that is both particular while also relevant to other undeveloped parts of the contemporary world. But there is less about life in everyday Britain here. Novels that once took on contemporary social issues like class or racial prejudice do not appear, save for historical moments in Tanya Landman’s and Geraldine McCaughrean’s novels. Instead, there is more of a feeling for all young people, of whatever background, who do not fit in mainly for psychological reasons. Frances Hardinge transforms this feeling of psychological dislocation into physical form in her novel. Patrick Ness explains his main character’s problems in terms of him failing to survive the break-up of an intense gay relationship. Sarah Crossan writes about the agony of being friendless at school. Main young characters in all these novels tend to be underdogs in some way. Literature of all sorts has been identifying with the dispossessed and lonely ever since the story of Cinderella. How ironic then that the only psychologically sound hero throughout in this present selection is an eleven-year-old boy from the poorest part of Ethiopia. Perhaps he will only develop psychological problems when, as the international runner he is going to become, he too has the time, money and leisure to take his mind off more immediate problems like poverty and starvation.
Love remains a preoccupation in most of these novels, either when it comes to loving or being loved by someone else, or when it is a matter of not receiving the love that is normally the due from parent to child. Issues of gender hardly arise, so taken for granted is it now that girls are not only the equal of boys but often their superior. Endings, while not always happy, are at least resolved in most cases. Patrick Ness’s young hero although facing an uncertain future still feels reasonably optimistic about his survival, and Frances Hardinge’s heroine Trista ends by glorying in life’s exciting uncertainly. So while the going in all these stories is certainly tough, sometimes very much so, there are rewards for those who stick it out. The moral nihilism found in Robert Cormier’s novels and a few others seems at the moment to be on the back foot.
Seven of these novels could be worthy winners. The exception, for me, is Sarah Crossan’s promising but ultimately light-weight Apple and Rain, increasingly marred by plotting deficiencies and stock characters. Patrick Ness, Sally Gardner, Frances Hardinge and Elizabeth Laird are all fine writers but none exceed their previous triumphs here. I would therefore choose as my winner either Geraldine McCaughrean, for her effortless skill in evoking atmosphere, Tanya Landman, for her passionate insight into one of American history’s darkest corners, or Brian Conaghan for his verbal exuberance while never selling his subject short. But we will have to wait till June 22 to see what the judges make of such a fascinating diversity.
Nicholas Tucker is honorary senior lecturer in Cultural and Community Studies at Sussex University.
The CILIP Carnegie Medal 2015 shortlist
When Mr Dog Bites, Brian Conaghan, Bloomsbury, 978-1-40883-836-5, £7.99
Apple and Rain, Sarah Crossan, Bloomsbury, 978-1-40882-713-0, £6.99
Tinder, Sally Gardner (author) and David Roberts (illustrator), Orion Children’s Books, 978-1-78062-149-4, £11.99
Cuckoo Song, Frances Hardinge, Macmillan Children’s Books, 978-0-33051-973-1, £7.99
The Fastest Boy in the World, Elizabeth Laird, Macmillan Children’s Books, 978-1-44726-717-1, £6.99
Buffalo Soldier, Tanya Landman, Walker Books 978-1-40631-459-5, £7.99
The Middle of Nowhere, Geraldine McCaughrean, Usborne Books, 978-1-40957-051-6, £6.99
More Than This, Patrick Ness, Walker Books, 978-0-76367-620-9, £7.99