Books for children came of age in the 1930s. Many children’s books we now consider classics were published then and the inauguration of the Carnegie medal in 1936 reflected a growing awareness of standards in children’s books amongst teachers, librarians and parents. Then, in the 1940s, the first and most obvious effect of the war, concerning children’s books, was a sharp reduction in the number of new children’s books published. There was a shortage of materials for printing, and authors and illustrators were busy elsewhere. The fact that shortage of paper and of time reduced the output of most writers during the war is reflected in that twice, in 1943 and 1945, no Carnegie Medal was awarded. Given that the 1940 winner, Kitty Barnes’ Visitors from London retails consistently at abebooks.com at £50 (and the British Library has been closed because of COVID 19) I have only read seven books from this decade.
Most of the novels directly ‘relate’ to the war though in different ways. Visitors from London and We couldn’t leave Dinah, written early on in the decade, describe the impact of the war on children through stories of occupation and exile. Novels written and published later on in the war years or immediately afterwards take a different tack – here an escape into fantasy in various forms is a common denominator. While The Little Grey Men and The Little White Horse are both elegiac in their response to nature, a fairie world dominates one, while high romance dominates the other. Fantasy is also dominant in The Wind on the Moon, but the fact that it moves close to the time-honoured tradition of nonsense in true ‘Alice in Wonderland’- style may be the reason why this feels like a more successful literary piece of work. Even though Sea Change and The Story of your Home don’t directly respond to the war, they both do so indirectly. The first by celebrating the values of hard work, obedience and courage required in the post-war world, the other by describing and drawing lines back through time connecting all the people who have lived in the British Isles. Walter de la Mare’s “Collected Stories for Children’ feels like the odd one out in some sense. These are previously published stories and not directly related to the war, except in some way as an escape back to a timeless, earlier world. However, like Eleanor Farjeon (the 1955 winner) and CS Lewis’ win in 1956, these stories won as a recognition of the contribution of the author to children’s literature, rather than because the specific work was deemed outstanding that year.
The winning authors in this decade were evenly split between women and men; four men and four women. Obviously, as a work of non-fiction, The Story of your Home doesn’t have any main characters at all. However, when it comes to fictional protagonists, this decade saw more sharply drawn lines than the previous decade. Only Collected Stories for Children and We Couldn’t Leave Dinah has a gender-based mix of main characters – and as I discussed in the post on this book, the problem is that the female voices disappear midway through the novel as the action-based male-driven plot takes over. Two books don’t have any women in them at all (The Little Grey Men and Sea Change). Only The Wind on the Moon has two females as the main lead – and two strong, courageous, action-oriented ones at that.
In terms of other markers of diversity, all main characters are English, white and middle-class to upper-class (or, indeed, class-less, like the gnomes in The Little Grey Men). Working-class people don’t appear except in Kitty Barne’s Visitors from London which describes the clash between the country-dwellers and the working-class evacuees from London. Still, according to the contemporary reviews, the Londoners don’t seem to come off well unless they want to emulate the country-dwellers.
I think it is quite telling that of the eight winners in this decade, only three are still in print, and two of those still in print (The Little Grey Men and The Little White Horse) feel slightly old-fashioned and overly nostalgic. Looking back, The Wind on the Moon, in fact, seem to stand out as by far the most ‘modern’ novel of this decade by virtue of its gender portrayal, philosophical themes and literary lineage.
With only seven novels representing the 1940s, I don’t feel that this decade is representative of the Carnegie Medals overall, and my average score is only 3.5.