The Story of Your Home by Agnes Allen was the 1949 Carnegie Medal winner. It appears to have been popular in its day – the edition I have is a 6th reprint (new edition) and was published in 1970. It is no longer in print. My edition also states that the book was first published in 1944 which is odd given that Carnegie Medals are usually given to books published in English in the previous year, and it was indisputably the 1949 winner. Maybe something went slightly awry post-war, maybe there was a pressing post-war need to look back at home building in the past, maybe the publisher printed the wrong information, but as I’m away on holiday I can’t do any detailed digging at the British Library at this stage.
It is one of the few non-fiction winners of the Carnegie Medal; it charts the development of the (British) house – for peasants as well as from lords from the beginning of the settlement of the British Isles until the ‘present-day’ (the 1970s). Allen covers building techniques, architecture and design considerations, furniture development, and the clothing worn by the inhabitants of the homes. In contrast to today’s non-fiction books, it is mainly written text supported by black and white drawings. It’s not all about the design of a house – there’s also a curious and informative section on secret hiding places in old houses (priest holes).
There is a lot of detailed information about earlier dwellings but less and less information, the closer to her present we get. Comments about clothing styles stop, for instance, after the 18th century and illustrations of the interiors cease after the Victorian period. While Allen covers the dwellings of people of all classes, there’s no real acknowledgement of how the servants would have lived in greater or smaller houses.
Allen reflects present concerns and conversations; she is not particularly keen on modern design but acknowledges that we have to find new ways of designing our homes, and she does not advocate recreating past styles. Her comments on the dangerously high cost of living and serious nature of homelessness sadly still resonate today. It is depressing that we’ve not come that much further! The text specifically refers to him/her and is not entrenched in a male-centred world-view, though of course, it is of its time.
Allen’s style is direct and engaging and directed very much toward the child reader with language aimed at allowing the child to imagine him/herself living in the past. Intra-book references ‘as you remember, xxx’ abound. Today, this type of language would probably place the book’s intended readership in primary school, but it appears likely that the book was initially aimed at secondary school children.
In a way, Eleanor Dooley’s biography of Marie Curie (the 1939 Carnegie Medal winner) was the precursor to the spate of non-fiction books published immediately after the war. Often these were biographies of ‘important people’ and took the form of series. Marcus Crouch calls it “the great age of non-fictional series” and its appeal to schools and libraries is explained in part by a quote by J.G Wilson, the librarian, writing in The Family Book “the primary demand of children is not for amusement, but for facts. Most children can amuse themselves if they are left to their own resources, but they cannot get at the facts about the world in which they find themselves without help”. So the non-fiction series was a way to furnish post-war children with the facts about the world and cementing the role of libraries as knowledge centres. The Ladybird books immediately sprang to mind as belonging to this tradition, but when I looked into their publication dates it was clear that they were published slightly later (from the 1960s onwards) and, I should imagine, was aimed at a paying public rather than the libraries.
Agnes Allen herself wrote a ‘stories’ series, which is generally cited as beginning in 1947 with The Story of the Village (though if the initial publication date of my book is correct, The Story of Your Home would have preceded it). Allen’s books reflect the conventional wisdom, which held that history was taught chronologically from prehistory to the present day. In Exploring Children’s Literature, Nikki Gamble explains that “The dominant narrative was concerned with the formation of Britain and the British Empire (…) a view that history was concerned with conveying the most important information to children so that they could learn about their place in the world and in society”. According to Gamble, this approach was contrasting with a more topic-based teaching method which was popular in the 1970s and 1980s (and, in my experience, in primary schools today).
Obviously, the advent of the internet has presented a challenge to the non-fiction publishing industry. Why buy books when you can have up to date information at your fingertips? Rising to the challenge, the non-fiction publishing industry has responded to advancements in technology; non-fiction texts can be multimodal, more affordable for the general public or aesthetic objects in their own right.
Nikki Gamble ends her chapter on children’s non-fiction with a very important point: “An alternative view that recognizes the many different purposes for reading non-fiction, including for pleasure and delight, also holds within it the notion that non-fiction texts are more than collections of facts, where one fact just follows the other. It promises that non-fiction books (…) can be a vehicle for a writer to talk directly to a reader about a subject about which they feel passionate; that it can incite a reader to use their imagination or to emphasize; that it can have the same literary qualities that are appreciated in fiction, drama and poetry.” Agnes Allen and the judges of the Carnegie Medal were in complete agreement with Gamble there. Though the book itself is old fashioned compared to today’s non-fiction books, text-heavy and low on illustrations, the aims of Allen is clearly to talk directly to the reader, inviting the reader to use their imagination, and the Carnegie judges obviously felt that The Story of Your Home had literary qualities on par with fiction.
Personally, I liked The Story of Your Home. It was informative, interesting and well written. Of course, it is an old-fashioned non-fiction text by now, and doubtless, some information is no longer correct. There is a reason why it is no longer in print, but it succeeded in keeping me engaged and reading all the way through so a 6/10.
Reading the Carnegie Medal winners has allowed me to begin to examine my own hidden bias’. One of the marks of an excellent book, for me, is that it transports me to a different world, body and soul. No book based on transferring facts can do that for me, however well written and interesting. The lack of later non-fiction winners seems to point to the fact that other people (or at least the judges of the Carnegie Medal) generally agree with me. Admittedly this is unfair to the many excellent non-fiction books out there who deserve to be held up high – there may be a gap in the market here for a medal for best non-fiction book for children.
In this blog I have referred to Exploring Children’s Literature – Reading for Knowledge, Understanding and Pleasure by Nikki Gamble, published by Fourth Edition/Sage, 2019, and to Treasure Seekers and Borrowers – Children’s Books in Britain, 1900 – 1960, by Marcus Crouch, 1962.