As the Carnegie Prize was inaugurated in 1936, this decade only count 4 winners. Three of the authors were already known to me – Arthur Ransome, Eve Garnett and Noel Streathfield, whereas I didn’t know Eleanor Dooley at all. There’s a reason for this; the first three have produced several classics books which have been reprinted several times and are read and enjoyed to this day. In contrast, Eleanor Dooley wrote non-fiction and her books have disappeared and are out of print. This is generally the case with the few non-fiction winners on the overall Carnegie Medal Winner list – both our knowledge and ways of presenting that knowledge changes dramatically, particularly over an eighty-four-year time horizon.
All books had a strong ‘family’ element; family is important and a central premise to the books though not in the standard ‘Two adults, two children’ model. The Family from One End Street is most typical of the genre as it is about a large family with chapters given over to individual family member’s stories. But family is almost more important to Peter and Santa in The Circus is Coming – their uncle is all that stands between them and the orphanage. And although Ransome’s book takes place as far away from adult family members as the protagonists can get, an uncle is also a crucial plot element in Pigeon Post. Two of the books are about working-class families – The Family from One End Street and The Circus is coming (though, obviously, this is working class with a veneer of glamour), reflecting the first stirrings of rebellion against the predominance of upper-middle-class protagonists in children’s literature until that point.
All the books had several protagonists, and always at least one boy and one girl, except The Radium Woman, which, as it was a biography, obviously only had a single protagonist. These protagonists were all white, though The Circus is Coming had characters from many different (European) countries. The popular series fiction was given a nod with the selection of a book in the ‘Swallows and Amazons’ series. However, school stories, hugely popular in the 1920s and 1930s, are entirely absent for the entire list of Carnegie Winners.
The big surprise for me in this decade was The Circus is Coming. I had not expected to like it much but found it very enjoyable. In danger of mortally offending ardent Streathfield fans, I’d only ever read Ballet Shoes and considered Streathfield slightly frothy. The fact that all her books were named ‘Something Shoes’ also counted against her in my opinion. It wasn’t until I did a bit of research on her that I realised that the ‘…Shoes’ was a publishing gimmick rather than an expression of cookie-cutter sameness. I don’t think the books that won were that author’s best work and in fact, I’d only read The Family from One End Street prior to starting this project. I suspect they won in recognition of their contribution to contemporary children’s literature rather than for the actual work published that year. Nonetheless, my average score for the ‘decade’ is a decent 6.6.