Sea Change (1948)

Sea Change by Richard Armstrong was the 1948 Carnegie medal winner. It has been reprinted several times, the last time in the 1970s I think, but it is not currently in print. 

Cam Renton has been an apprentice seaman for a year when he arrives to join the crew of the Langdale, a cargo ship heading for the Caribean. Because he is dissatisfied with the progress of his training, he asks the Mate for assignment to one of the night watches. The Mate gives him short shrift, and while Cam is rankling under a sense of injustice during the outward voyage, the two are at odds.

When they reach the Caribbean, Cam takes a rare opportunity to go ashore. He and his bunkmate Rusty find themselves in the local prison after a misunderstanding. Cam executes a daring escape, but the captain already has the matter well in hand. The captain manages to make Cam understand that he has been getting excellent training in seamanship under the Mate. From this point on, Cam starts to work and study in earnest, and his knowledge of celestial navigation is put to use when he becomes part of a skeleton crew aboard a salvaged ship which is successfully brought back to England.

As indicated by the subtitle, this is ‘a novel for boys’; the cast is all-male, and there are no references to any females, not even any family back at home. Given the historical setting and the milieu of the Merchant Navy vessel, the all-male environment is realistic and historically correct. As a female reader, I don’t mind reading about the male sex, but in this case, the specificity of the subtitle grates – this is for boys only. As a result, I doubt if I would have picked up the book to read if it hadn’t been for this challenge. We no longer signal quite so explicitly that a book is aimed at a specific sex, and I doubt a modern publisher would get away with such a subtitle today. However, there are plenty of other ways current publishers try to signal to a gender-specific audience. I feel that this has the same (detrimental) effect. It, subconsciously or consciously, checks what the reader picks up to read and thereby stops the reader from experiencing a different consciousness and space, surely one of the chief purposes of literature. Whether it’s the outdated mode of specifying it in writing or signalling it with colours and (the presence or absence of) glimmer, I am dead against it.  

On a positive note, it is written by somebody who clearly knew and loved life at sea. In fact, Richard Armstrong sailed in the Merchant Service for 17 years, and his books are all very authentic representations of his experience. In Sea Change he describes life aboard a coal-fired steam engine ship in realistic and factual detail. From a literary history perspective, it appears the adventure story of earlier seafaring books about adolescent boys gives way to a more realistic novel type. In a way, it is also a career book; like ‘the Sue Barton’ books about nursing, Sea Change provides a lot of details about the apprenticeship workings of the Merchant Navy. It praises hard work, the benefits of experience and the necessity of following orders. In ‘Carnegie Boys: 70 years of Boyhood in Fiction’, Michele Gill has suggested that the masculine values and the focus on maintaining the status quo within a hierarchy described in Sea Change resonated strongly in a society which was recovering from the upheaval of a world war.

In my experience, books about sailing are like pony books; full of detail about the subject matter at hand, with the narrative arch almost entirely subservient to the detail. This can be observed in the Aubrey–Maturin series, in the Hornblower books, even in the early Swallows and Amazon books. Sea Change is like this. For me, though, unlike pony books, it takes a more sustained interest in sailing than I can bring forth.  

I found Sea Change well written and historically interesting. I even found myself interested in the details about how cargo is taken on board, stowed and delivered at the other end. But in contrast to Keith Barker (1998) who found it “still provides a great deal of excitement”, the gender-specific signalling and amount of detail about sailing did not do it for me. For me, it is a novel that is left in the past, both in terms of gender expectation and in terms of the life it describes. 3 out of 10.

Collected Stories for Children (1947)

Collected Stories for Children was written by Walter de la Mare and published in 1947. My edition is a cheap Puffin collection reprinted in 1987 which contains illustrations by Robin Jacques. It was the first collection of stories to win the Carnegie award. The award was surprising since it was the first time that previously published material had been considered – but the award was given more in recognition of de la Mare’s outstanding contribution to children’s literature rather than for new and original work. The collection originally contained 17 tales but ‘Sambo and the Snow Mountains’ has been removed from the edition I have for extremely good reasons; apparently, the story is about ‘Sambo’ who doses himself with every kind of medicine in his attempt to become white (!!) 

The 16 strange tales are all ‘Kunstmaerchen’, i.e. folk or fairy tales which have not been passed down through an oral tradition and collected by people like the Brothers Grimm. Instead, they are written by and very much a product of a particular author – all Hans Christian Andersen’s tales are ‘Kunstmaerchen’, for instance. In the case of de la Mare, there’s a strong supernatural tone to the tales, in fact, they remind me very much of M R James’ ghost stories, but written for children. 

I have to confess that I could not finish this book. I suspected as much as I’m not a big fan of Walter de la Mare’s poetry – I can only take a ‘Romantic’ sensibility in tiny doses. Added to this, collections of stories, whether for children or adults, are just not my cup of tea. I kept making excuses to avoid reading Collected Stories, and when I started on the first tale ‘Dick and the Beanstalk’ (a retelling of Jack and the Beanstalk), I simply couldn’t finish it. In the end, I selected the three shortest stories to read; ‘Broomsticks’, ‘The Riddle’ and ‘The Dutch Cheese’ to get a taster. Of course, in doing so, I could have missed some masterpieces of storytelling but having read these three, I had no appetite to continue reading. The stories are not poorly written at all, just the opposite; they are very skilful tales. But they felt very Edwardian, without the arch of a story to pull you along like in The Secret Garden or any of E Nesbit’s stories. Though both Marcus Crouch (in Treasure Seekers and Borrowers) and Geoffrey Trease (in Tales out of School) were both highly complimentary of the book, it didn’t do it for me. The introduction reads ‘For the right sort of reader, this book may cast the most potent and rewarding spell of all’. I am afraid I am not that reader and all in all, this was not a happy meeting of minds. 2/10

The Little White Horse (1946)

There was no award in 1945. 

The Little White Horse by Elizabeth Goudge was one of the Carnegie Medal Winners I had read before embarking on this chronological project. It was given to my daughter by her Godparent as it was her favourite book as a child, and apparently, it was J K Rowling’s too. In my view, this is the kind of romantic fantasy that is the most dangerous of all – nicely wrapped in domestic and sartorial beauty and detail, yet with an utterly deadly morale. My daughter (at 9) sensed this too and told me it was ‘creepy’ when she saw I was reading it.

The Little White Horse is set in 1842 in a Devonshire countryside obviously beloved by the author. It was written as a temporary escape from the destruction and upheaval of WWII and, like The Wind on the Moon, is full of the things that contemporary Britain was short of; lovely and lavish food, beautiful clothes and pastoral landscapes.

Accompanied only by her dog and her governess Miss Heliotrope, 13-year-old orphaned Maria arrives in the beautiful valley of Moonacre to live with her uncle. The description of their journey there has more than a touch of the Gothic about it, but the second Maria reaches the house, the story slips from Gothic to fairytale. Her uncle’s beautiful estate and the perfect village nearby is shadowed an ancient feud and by the memory of the Moon Princess and the mysterious little white horse. Maria is determined to restore peace and happiness to Moonacre Valley. With the help of her newfound friends and magical animal helpers, she succeeds and everyone, literally, lives happily ever after.

Full of cosy, domestic details, lovingly described, the story is exceptionally seductive on one level. It is the sort of book to grab if you are feeling the world is against you, or you are ill in bed. The descriptions of the food alone does it. But for me, the seductive pull is interrupted too many times by an incredibly jarring view of femininity. First, there is the focus on clothing and outwards appearance: “she took, if possible, a more burning interest in her boots than in her mittens and gowns and bonnets”, coupled with class: “Maria was one of your true aristocrats: the perfection of the hidden things was even more important than the outward show. Not that she did not like the outward show. She did. She was a showy little thing”. From the outset, Maria is not exactly set up as the kind of heroine that I personally would warm to. Then there is Robin’s angry proposal to Maria, which eventually lead to them getting married when she’s 14. Worst, though, are the overt messages about ‘feminine virtues’: don’t be curious, don’t ask questions, wait for men to explain things to you and tell you where to go. And the most important moral lesson: don’t ever quarrel with someone you love, because they will leave you forever. These are not things I want my daughter to learn!

Some people will also find the overt Christian messages a bit hard to swallow. The valley of Moonacre itself is like Paradise entered through a door in a wall; it contains Paradise Hill which Maria makes her uncle give ‘back’ to God and Old Parson is forever telling people how they should behave. I personally don’t mind religious elements in books, per se, but Goudge’s treatment of it here bears no semblance to the complex and sophisticated examination of faith and what it may mean in Antonia Forest’s Marlow books. 

Plainly, I have issues with the book, but in the course of researching this blog, I looked at my collection of literary criticism from the 1960s and 1970s to see what critics who were more contemporary to Elizabeth Goudge thought. Not a single mention!* Only Marcus Crouch devotes space to it in Treasure Seekers and Borrrowers (1962) and is generally positive, though he does bemoan (rightly) the fundamental lack of humour. This kind of neglect always gets my antennae up – often women’s literature is dismissed as whimsical and not serious enough, ignored and forgotten, despite its actual popularity with the audience that keeps buying and reading it.

On the surface, The Little White Horse is a low fantasy romantic fairytale, and it is easy to dismiss it as only that. If, however, we dig a bit deeper, we might gain a deeper understanding by looking at it as belonging to the tradition of magical realism, like The House of Spirits or Beloved, books which we take very seriously indeed. This is Teya Rosenberg’s contention in an article Genre and Ideology in Elizabeth Goudge’s The Little White Horse. Though novels in this tradition usually have a strong left-wing political message, Rosenberg suggests that The Little White Horse is a political work but with a robust Ruskinian message – that Goudge is reacting against the disorder and upheaval of war by suggesting a return to a pastoral, utopian medieval feudalism favoured by Ruskin. 

In the chaos and scarcity of a postwar world, the themes of abundance, reconciliation and restoration must have had a powerful resonance when it was first published in 1946. With the seductive pull of lovingly described domestic detail and long lost lovers finally restored to each other, it still does to the many who keep buying it. However, I think this is one of those books where if you don’t read it as a child, you will never fully appreciate it as a jaded, cynical, literary-minded adult. Goudge fans everywhere, I’m sorry, but this was a 3/10 for me. 

The Wind on the Moon (1944)

The Wind on the Moon, written by Eric Linklater, originally published by Macmillan. It was awarded the Carnegie Medal in 1944. There was no award in 1943.

As is apparent from the picture above, I read The Wind on the Moon in the Danish translation. This was published as part of a series of international classics by Gyldendals Børnebibliotek and given to me by my mother when my children were very young. Apparently, The Wind on the Moon was the Danish Queen’s favourite book when she was a child, and she read it to her sons when they were little. The Danish Queen, Margrethe II, has translated the edition I read from English to Danish and provided the illustrations for the front cover. 

First an enormous disclaimer – I am not keen on translations, and particularly not of children’s books. Translating books is both a skill and an art and translators do amazing work. However, we know that texts have multiple meanings and interpretations, and the translator has to make choices about specific words which close (or indeed, open) these possible interpretations. As a general rule, I now altogether avoid books translated from any of the Scandinavian languages into English and vice versa as I find myself continually interrogating in my head what the original sentence might have been. 

There isn’t a vast tradition of translating children’s books into English for the British or American market. But where it happens, the books will need to be translated. In Children’s Literature Comes of Age, Maria Nikolajeva says: “The way in which children’s books cross boundaries into another cultural region is not merely a question of translation and publication in a new langue [it is] the young readers in the country and their ability to accept and utilise the book. It is, in other words, a problem of reception” (p27). 

Riitta Oittinen has written a book about translating for children and her contention, which Maria Nikolajeva agrees with, is that the best translation of a children’s book is not necessarily the one that is the most accurate and closest to the original but the one that is able to arouse in the reader the same feelings, thoughts and associations experienced by readers of the source text. The question is then how you do this and how much you have to change the underlying text to be able to arouse these feelings and thoughts. 

I hasten to add that the translation by the Queen is excellent, I don’t find myself stumbling over a sentence, but she has (by necessity) translated both the names of people and places and the songs that are sung into the Danish ‘equivalents’. Here I found myself questioning whether the translation was ‘right’ and started interrogating what names and songs might have been used in the original. I find this grating, and in my personal opinion, it removes the authenticity of the book. However, I am hardly the target audience: I am not a child, and I speak both the original and the destination languages fluently. Issues around translating children’s literature is something I want to explore more. I found Nikolajeva’s chapter on ‘World Literature for Children’ in Children’s Literature Comes of Age very thought-provoking and Riitta Oittinen’s book ‘Translating for Children‘ is on my reading list.

Now, on to the plot of the book: in the English village of Midmeddlecum, peopled with eccentric characters like the Happy Families playing cards, Major Palfrey asks his two daughters to behave themselves while he is off at war: 

“When there is wind on the Moon, you must be very careful how you behave. Because if it is an ill wind and you behave badly, it will blow straight into your heart, and then you will behave badly for a long time to come.”  

He proves to be right: before long the girls are drinking a potion provided by the local witch and turning into kangaroos, getting stuck in the zoo, solving the crime of who steals the ostrich’s eggs and staging an escape along with their new friends, a golden puma and a silver falcon. 

Dinah and Dorinda then turn their attention to freeing their dancing master, Casimir Corvdo, from jail by convincing a judge that minds must be changed as often as socks. And then comes their greatest adventure: Count Hulagu Bloot, the tyrant of Bombardy has captured their father and imprisoned him in the dungeons. The two girls, together with the puma, the falcon and their beloved dancing teacher, smuggle themselves from England to Bombardy in a removal van to stage the dramatic rescue of their father.

Apparently, the book began as a story told by the author to his two young daughters while out on a walk in the rain and though the narrative takes place over the course of a year it is split into four or five major subplots that could be read independently. The Danish translation emphasises this by being divided into two books, reflecting the two major narrative arcs; the plots set in the zoo and the later plot of freeing their father from the dungeons of Count Bloot. 

The Wind on the Moon is a wartime book – it was published in 1944 – and it dwells on those elements of life in short supply or under threat in Britain, such as food, and liberty, and fun. The overarching theme is freedom and confinement, both in terms of (false) imprisonment and independence of thought and action, even rebellion and ‘naughtiness’. The wind on the moon is the wind of change and destruction; it changes everything but met with courage and fortitude the situation can be turned to the better. 

There are definite similarities with Alice in Wonderland; the sense of surrealism and the interweaving of parody and a fictional, impossible world that reveal a great deal about our own world. Like Alice, it contrasts the often absurd world of the adults with the innocent but sensible views of juvenile female leads. Says Dorinda: “Very often, when we think we are behaving well, some grown-up person says we are really quite bad. It’s difficult to tell which is which.”

The overt moral didacticisms remind me strongly of ‘The Little Prince’ which was published in 1943. Some people love this kind of thing – witness the popularity of The Boy, the Mole, the Fox and the Horse’. As it happens, I like my moral lessons served up in slightly less conspicuous ways and this was the aspect I liked least in the The Wind on the Moon.  

I started reading The Wind on the Moon aloud to my daughter when we first received it, but we gave up pretty quickly. It just didn’t grab us in any way. Obviously, I had to try again for this challenge but promised myself that if I was still bored by page 100, I could give up. It was slow going, but once Dorinda and Dinah have transformed into kangaroos in the zoo, I found it both fun and engaging and had several laugh-out-loud moments. After all, it was a surprising 6.5/10 for me.

The Little Grey Men (1942)

The Little Grey Men, the first fantasy title to appear as a Carnegie Medal winner, was written by Denys Watkins-Pitchford under the pseudonym “BB” and illustrated by him under his real name. It was first published by Eyre & Spottiswoode in 1942 and has been reissued several times since – the latest is in an utterly covetable edition by Slightly Foxed Editions. My edition is the reprint from Oxford University Press with cover artwork by Edward Ardizzone and the author’s own scraperboard illustrations throughout. Watkins-Pitchford wrote more than 60 books for children and adults showcasing his enduring love and passion for the English countryside. He has a loyal and faithful readership; there’s even a BB society.

Illustration by Denys Watkins-Pichford

In The Little Grey Men, Baldmoney, Sneezewort, Dodder and Cloudberry are the last four gnomes in Great Britain. They live on the banks of the Folly Brook. They are perfectly happy with their quiet life, except, that is, for Cloudberry. Restless and longing for adventure, Cloudberry sets off to follow his dream. But when he does not return, the others build a boat and set out to find him. The book follows the gnomes’ epic journey up the Folly through the English countryside, beginning in spring, continuing through summer, and concluding in autumn, when the first frosts are starting to arrive.

If this reminds you of The Wind in the Willows, you would be right. There are many similarities; an encounter with the god Pan depicted as the protector of small animals, the central role of the waterways and messing about in boats, the loving description of homely details and the wonders of nature, and the absolute absence of females. In contrast to the episodic structure of The Wind in the WillowsThe Little Grey Men is a more coherent narrative of a voyage out and a return. In this sense, the obvious comparison is with The Hobbit but lacking the fantasy universe to give it richness and interest. There are echoes of other stories too. The Borrowers later picked up the same ideas of using seemingly disparate items to fashion miniature ‘human’ requirements and both Tarka the Otter and Watership Down also utilise the concept of ‘real’ animals having speech and thought without anthropomorphising them. Overall, The Little Grey Men feels faintly derivative in its storyline, but what sets it apart is the lyrical reflections on nature. It is clear that BB knew the countryside intimately and the book is a love-letter to a vanishing landscape. The detail is both beautifully observed and scientifically correct in every aspect. As a reader, you learn about the animals, habitats and the countryside through the story.

Illustration by Denys Watkins-Pichford

I do think The Little Grey Men is the kind of book that would have appealed to me as a child – I would have loved the little domestic details describing how the gnomes live and use the land around them. I was always attracted to books about animals and would have appreciated the descriptions of nature, minutely observed and detailed. Probably, I would have overlooked the fact that the characters are two-dimensional misogynists, the fantasy sedate. As an adult, I can’t, but I can still enjoy the descriptions of the natural world. Clearly, The Little Grey Men and Watkins-Pitchford himself has a loyal following. For adults, it would represent a return to a nostalgic Acadia, younger, less-worldly children would enjoy it too. For me, it was a 4/10, but then I didn’t grow up with it.

We couldn’t leave Dinah (1941)

I am indebted to an essay by Cheri Lloyd in ‘Out of the Attic – Some neglected Children’s Authors of the Twentieth Century’which helped me contextualise both the story and my thoughts about it.

We Couldn’t Leave Dinah is interesting because it is a book about WWII,
written at the outset of the war while Mary Threadgold was seeking refuge from
the Blitz in London’s public air-raid shelters. In a talk given at the
University of Reading in 1998, W Parsons pointed out that “Books (…)
become ‘cultural products’ which reveal some of the attitudes and assumptions of
the times in which they were written or read, and the ‘meanings’ which they
endorsed or challenged”. As such We Couldn’t Leave Dinah is to
some extend a more time-typical or accurate portrayal of the war (at least from
the point of view of a particular person) than many books which are written
retrospectively and/or by people who did not experience the war themselves. It
displays political and social attitudes that are outdated but it gives us an
understanding of the attitudes and thoughts at the time. This does not mean we
condone them, and it has been said that the longevity of Dinah is due
to its status as a pony book rather than a wartime novel (Peter Hunt, Children’s
Literature: An Illustrated History).

We Couldn’t Leave Dinah tells the story of the German occupation of a (fictitious) Channel Island through the eyes of the two Templeton children, Mick and Caroline. At the
beginning of the story, Caroline and Mick are both keen riders and preoccupied
with finding a new secret meeting point for the local Pony Club. The children
are accidentally left behind when their family evacuate and they take refuge in a
secret cave. From here they get involved in espionage and codebreaking and help
foil the Nazi invasion plans before finally getting evacuated by the Navy in
the dead of night.

Though it is clear that Threadgold was steeped in the ideology of the
period, with its concept of pulling together and stiff upper lips, Cheri Lloyd
points out that Threadgold uses the character of Peter Beaumarchais
didactically in order to reveal to readers something about Nazi atrocities; the
Tempelton’s responses to Peter’s questions about the situation in Europe show
they are in fact quite well informed about concentration camps.

To me, it is a book of two halves. The first half is clearly a pony book (a
genre I was very partial to as a young, pony-mad girl) and has Caroline very
firmly at its centre. However, following a nocturnal ride across the island,
girls and ponies become more or less incidental to the narrative thrust and Dinah, Caroline’s horse, is left behind after all. In a move which
Cheri Lloyd compares to the portrayal of Mary in Frances Hodgson Burnett’s The
Secret Garden
, Caroline is relegated to the sidelines as the
espionage/adventure element takes over with her brother Mick as the
protagonist. In my opinion, the two genres don’t mesh well in this
particular book; it falls between two stools and I have to admit I skipped a
chunk in the middle. Once Mick and the espionage story was foregrounded, I was less interested.

The book’s overall theme is one of displacement and the way that it invades
your privacy and challenges your identity. To me, this is the meaning of the title; at the outset it is inconceivable to Caroline that anything should change in her life and that she should be forced to leave anything behind, not least her beloved pony. At the end, she is happy to escape with only the clothes on her back. Displacement is a topic which resonates with children of all periods and maybe this is another reason why this book has
survived into several reprints. Of course, there is defiant (and, given that the war was still ongoing, brave) moment at the end: “Clerinel was already hidden in the darkness. Anyway, she thought, it didn’t much matter. Like the ponies, Clerinel would be there after the war”

To me, the interest stems from getting an insight into a historical period. Even though we might be uncomfortable with the values that are displayed, they are typical of the time and interesting to read, with the added guidance of hindsight and social and political awareness. As a children’s book, there are other, more recent books that are of greater value, both as historical documents and as literature. 

3/10 – my interest was simply not sustained through the book.

Visitors from London (1940)

Visitors from London by Kitty Barne is out of print and copies currently sell for £50 and more on abebooks.co.uk. As I have a self-imposed limit of maximum £15 per book, I’ve not read this yet.

According to Keith Barker in Outstanding Books for Children and Young People – the LA Guide to Carnegie/Greenaway Winners 1937-1997, this book has dated and was the first Carnegie Medal winner to go out of print. However, Cheri Loyd provides a spirited defence of it in Out of the Attic – Some Neglected Children’s Authors of the Twentieth Century so I will definitely seek it out when The British Library opens up again!

The Carnegie Winners – 1930s

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.

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.

The Radium Woman (1939)

The Radium Woman by Eleanor Doorly

My copy is in the lovely yellow Puffin Story Books cover from 1953, but it was originally published in 1939. It is based on Marie Curie’s daughter’s book Madame Curie, retold for children by Eleanor Doorly.

I didn’t have anything but the vaguest knowledge of Marie Curie prior to reading this book, which is shameful given that she was the first woman to win a Nobel prize and then the first person and only woman to win it for the second time, and the only person to win it in multiple sciences (chemistry and physics). That’s aside from the enormous difference her work made to the soldiers in WWI where she outfitted x-ray machines and drove them to field hospitals and trained staff in how to use them, and to science and mankind in general. If this achievement wasn’t enough, she was born in Poland when it was under Russian rule, the use of scientific tools was disallowed, and women were not allowed to study beyond age 16. Yet she spoke 5 languages fluently and clearly managed to make up for her lack of early education. She believed in science and the quest for knowledge, not in personal gain, and did not patent the radium-isolation process to allow the science community to use her discoveries for further research.

What is even more remarkable that she seems, to use that old feminist adage, to ‘have had it all’. She was deeply in love with her husband Pierre Curie (with whom she won her first Nobel Prize) and had two daughters. She apparently still managed to keep house and be a loving mother to her daughters without employing any help at all. And at work, her genius was widely recognised, and a number of hitherto all-male domains were opened to her without her having to, seemingly, make any special issue about it. Even if private pains and problems may be glossed over in her biography, she was by all accounts a truly remarkable woman!

So, on the one hand, the book made interesting reading, and I didn’t begrudge the afternoon I spent reading it as I definitely learnt something new. On the other hand, this is the first book I’ve come across on the Carnegie list where I definitely feel they must have scraped the barrel ever so slightly to find a winner that year.

Officially all categories of books, including poetry, non-fiction and graphic novels for children and young people are eligible for consideration for the Carnegie Medal. The judging panel is asked to consider plot, characterisation, and style “where appropriate”. Furthermore, CILIP (who instructs the judging panel) used the ask that the book that wins the Carnegie Medal should be a book of outstanding literary quality (This has now been reworded, something I’ll discuss in a future blog entry). Therein lies part of the problem; I am not sure that a non-fiction book truly belongs on a list of books selected for literary value and with expectations of plot and characterisations. However, at the beginning of the Carnegie Medal, several non-fiction books won, but none (I think) since ‘The Making of Man’ in 1960. I’ll be interested to see how The Radium Woman compares to the other non-fiction winners.

The other problem is with the quality of The Radium Woman as a biography. It is very flattering and uses a single secondary source – flaws that might even disqualify it as strictly non-fiction. It is not badly written though extremely flowery and very, very kind to its subject who is described as intelligent (which she undoubtedly was) – and very beautiful and multitalented and ethereal besides. In short, it is a hagiography and would not, I think, stand up to today’s more stringent expectations.

The Radium Woman won in 1939, and at the outset of another war, there may have been a need for this kind of story. Marie Curie (as described in the book) displayed all the characteristics that were necessary for society in general to absorb; grit, determination, loyalty to family and country, hatred of the occupying forces, possession of a strong work ethic and a disregard for luxury.

While I was not wowed by the language, I was seriously wowed by the subject. As a feminist icon, and a person to admire she’s close to a 10, but as a work of literary value, I would give this book 3.5/10