Reasons for reading Carnegie Medal Winners – Number 2: Literary History

My second reason for reading the Carnegie Medal Winners springs from the first: the attempt at understanding at least part of the literary history of British children’s literature. The selection criteria for the Carnegie Medal has always centered on trying to select ‘the best children’s book published that year’. How this is defined has been questioned and changed over time and I will reflect on this in a later post. However, for now, it remains true that the winners were considered to be ‘the best’ children’s literature in Britain in each year and as such it provides a framework for exploring the literary history of children’s books over the last 84 years.

Looking at the list of winners a number of themes are emerging. In my Carnegie book group, we are reading and discussing one book from each decade (our last book group was about Tom’s Midnight Garden from 1958). This has been very interesting and I try to reflect the discussion we have when I blog about the relevant books here. But apart from an interest in the individual books, I am curious to discover which patterns and themes emerge when you read across the time span of the entire list. Some of these themes are apparent from a cursory look down the list – in the early years some authors seem to have been awarded for their overall contribution to children’s literature rather than on the basis of the excellence of their latest book, the 1940s were particularly concerned with war, the 1950s have a surfeit of historical novels. Other themes I expect to be able to see clearly only after having read a greater number of individual winners. And I’ll collect statistical information as I go along on anything from the sex of the main character(s) to genre, from publishing house to diverse representation, to see which patterns I can discover. I’ll be looking at contemporary and current critics’ views of the books too.

As always, there are personal reasons for my interest in this particular literary history. Firstly, there’s a purely academic interest. To understand at least some of these themes will probably be useful for my MA in Children’s literature. Secondly there’s pleasure in reading a list of books that have been selected and recommended as ‘the best’ of any given year. I might not agree with all of them, but it would be odd if I didn’t like most of the books and loved a few. The thrill of finding a new favourite book, ideally one that can bear re-reading, is an immense driver for any bibliophile I think.

But there’s an even more personal one. I explained in my first blog post on ‘Reasons to read Carnegie‘ that I’m an outsider to British children’s literature. In fact, I’m a double outsider – I am not British born and my childhood was spent elsewhere. This means that I’m always interested in exploring what I’ve “missed out” on. What fantastic books and great authors are out there that I’ve never heard of, but which would provide me with outstanding literary experiences? And of course not only me but potentially also my children, who are British born and are spending their childhood here. They get to experience all this first hand and I, as parent and interested guide, am continually on the lookout for good books to put in front of them. They’ll easily enough find the books that are out there now, popular, but frankly forgettable, tosh (sorry!). Of course, they are exposed to some great books by their teachers and the school librarian. It’s easy to read reviews of current children’s books and listen to recommendations by librarians, booksellers and from friends and family. There are excellent current books. But my heart beats extra-hard for the forgotten gem. The book (or, joy of joy!) books, that somehow fell through the crack, the great, but underrated and forgotten books that deserve to be classics. Those are my favourite books and I hope to find a couple of these on the Carnegie Winner list.

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