As for most selection process that have taken place over many years there are all kinds of issues around the Carnegie Medal winner selection process, some of which have been understood for a long time, some which have gotten renewed attention recently. The question ‘why read the Carnegie Medal winners? is actually a very complext one on many levels. However, the great Michael Rosen, who was my professor at University, said you always have to situate yourself in what you read and write, so this is my starting point. As this post is all about me, me, me and not about the Carnegie Medal winners, please feel free to skip it!
This project originates from a love of children’s literature, in this context specifically English-language children’s literature, which is shaped by the fact that I am not a native Brit. In essence, I come at this as an outsider, an extremely interested one, but an outsider nonetheless. It is an attempt at acquiring and understanding a ‘canon’ of English children’s literature that I did not receive when I was a child. And in this process also to think about the issues around the concept of a canon, how and by whom it was shaped, and which parts of it remain relevant to modern readers.
I grew up in Denmark in the 1970s and the 1980s. There’s a strong Scandinavian children’s literary body. My childhood favourite reading was made up of lots of Astrid Lindgren and Tove Jansson with traditional stories thrown in amongst more modern novels. Though reading for pleasure was very important in my home, book-owning was not, and the reading experience was shaped and directed through our (excellent) local children’s library. So I was also exposed to a selection of the the English-language ‘classics’ – anything from Gullivers Travels to the Little House on the Prairie books and the Famous Five. However, that selection was based in part on what was considered part of the cannon, partly on what was translated into Danish and given that the Danish cannon was mainly oriented towards Scandinavian literature, English-language literature in translation was in the minority.
I have always been an anglophile, and studied Comparative Literature and then Anglo-American Literary Relations for my MA. In my early 20s, childhood still felt recent and I did not read any children’s literature. During my late 20s and early 30s I started collecting my favourite children’s books. Though book-owning had not been important to my parents, it was very important to me. Of all the vices, bibliophilia is probably fairly tame, and I felt I was filling a gap, physically and emotionally. The books I was collecting were mainly scandinavian children’s classics in the old bindings with a few British classics like Winnie the Pooh and The Wind in the Willows thrown in. Then I had children and was suddenly confronted with wanting to expose them to ‘the best’ children’s literature. I had clear ideas about the Danish children’s literature and though these totally and woefully out of date, at least my Danish friends could and would send over ‘the best of the best’ modern Danish children’s literature. But the British cannon – there were so many books that I was not familiar with and had no personal basis on which to pass it on.
I employed a number of strategies to try to find ‘good books’ for my children. The whole topic of what is ‘good’ and what is ‘good’ for my children and children in general are separate discussion points which I will come on to later. But for myself, this quest led to a part-time MA in Children’s Literature at Goldsmiths and then to this project as a summer holiday project. Reading the Carnegie Medal winners is an attempt at understanding aspects of British literary heritage. It is a way to begin a dialogue, if nothing else then with myself and any interested parties, about what may have shaped it, what the trends have been, how it has changed, how our perceptions have changed, what shortcomings it may have, which books are worth remembering and returning to and which are not.
Book publishing, also for children, seem to be a never-ending machine of responding to the latest trends and popularities. Of course, there’s a need for renewal and for responding to historical and political shortcomings, oversights, mistakes. That is a separate post. But I think there’s a necessary tension between the old and the new that we should respect. Not all of the old stuff is bad (or, indeed good) and not all of the new stuff is good (or, indeed bad). But from a personal point of view, I wanted to understand what’s gone before, to make up my own mind about what I think is good and bad about these books. I don’t want to take somebody else’s words for this, I want to see for myself.
There are som many books on the Carnegie Medal Winner list that I’ve not read before. And my hope is that somewhere along the journey I discover authors and books which are excellent and are able to transport me into that zone of reading for absolute and pure pleasure, the engine behind my love of reading to start with.