Why read the Carnegie Medal Winners? Number 1 – Personal Reasons

As for most selection process that have taken place over many years there are all kinds of issues around the Carnegie Medal winner selection process, some of which have been understood for a long time, some which have gotten renewed attention recently. The question ‘why read the Carnegie Medal winners? is actually a very complext one on many levels. However, the great Michael Rosen, who was my professor at University, said you always have to situate yourself in what you read and write, so this is my starting point. As this post is all about me, me, me and not about the Carnegie Medal winners, please feel free to skip it!

This project originates from a love of children’s literature, in this context specifically English-language children’s literature, which is shaped by the fact that I am not a native Brit. In essence, I come at this as an outsider, an extremely interested one, but an outsider nonetheless. It is an attempt at acquiring and understanding a ‘canon’ of English children’s literature that I did not receive when I was a child. And in this process also to think about the issues around the concept of a canon, how and by whom it was shaped, and which parts of it remain relevant to modern readers.

I grew up in Denmark in the 1970s and the 1980s. There’s a strong Scandinavian children’s literary body. My childhood favourite reading was made up of lots of Astrid Lindgren and Tove Jansson with traditional stories thrown in amongst more modern novels. Though reading for pleasure was very important in my home, book-owning was not, and the reading experience was shaped and directed through our (excellent) local children’s library. So I was also exposed to a selection of the the English-language ‘classics’ – anything from Gullivers Travels to the Little House on the Prairie books and the Famous Five. However, that selection was based in part on what was considered part of the cannon, partly on what was translated into Danish and given that the Danish cannon was mainly oriented towards Scandinavian literature, English-language literature in translation was in the minority.

I have always been an anglophile, and studied Comparative Literature and then Anglo-American Literary Relations for my MA. In my early 20s, childhood still felt recent and I did not read any children’s literature. During my late 20s and early 30s I started collecting my favourite children’s books. Though book-owning had not been important to my parents, it was very important to me. Of all the vices, bibliophilia is probably fairly tame, and I felt I was filling a gap, physically and emotionally. The books I was collecting were mainly scandinavian children’s classics in the old bindings with a few British classics like Winnie the Pooh and The Wind in the Willows thrown in. Then I had children and was suddenly confronted with wanting to expose them to ‘the best’ children’s literature. I had clear ideas about the Danish children’s literature and though these totally and woefully out of date, at least my Danish friends could and would send over ‘the best of the best’ modern Danish children’s literature. But the British cannon – there were so many books that I was not familiar with and had no personal basis on which to pass it on.

I employed a number of strategies to try to find ‘good books’ for my children. The whole topic of what is ‘good’ and what is ‘good’ for my children and children in general are separate discussion points which I will come on to later. But for myself, this quest led to a part-time MA in Children’s Literature at Goldsmiths and then to this project as a summer holiday project. Reading the Carnegie Medal winners is an attempt at understanding aspects of British literary heritage. It is a way to begin a dialogue, if nothing else then with myself and any interested parties, about what may have shaped it, what the trends have been, how it has changed, how our perceptions have changed, what shortcomings it may have, which books are worth remembering and returning to and which are not.

Book publishing, also for children, seem to be a never-ending machine of responding to the latest trends and popularities. Of course, there’s a need for renewal and for responding to historical and political shortcomings, oversights, mistakes. That is a separate post. But I think there’s a necessary tension between the old and the new that we should respect. Not all of the old stuff is bad (or, indeed good) and not all of the new stuff is good (or, indeed bad). But from a personal point of view, I wanted to understand what’s gone before, to make up my own mind about what I think is good and bad about these books. I don’t want to take somebody else’s words for this, I want to see for myself.

There are som many books on the Carnegie Medal Winner list that I’ve not read before. And my hope is that somewhere along the journey I discover authors and books which are excellent and are able to transport me into that zone of reading for absolute and pure pleasure, the engine behind my love of reading to start with.

The Circus is Coming (1938)

The Circus is coming by Noel Streatfield (1938)

“Still perhaps Noel Streathfield’s most popular book” said Margery Fish in 1964. I would think that this accolade now belongs to Ballet Shoes which is currently available both in hardback and paperback and following the success of Ballet Shoes, The Circus is Coming was reprinted under the title ‘Circus Shoes’. The version I have read is in the original title, a reprint from 1939 and with illustrations by Steven Spurrier. Circus Shoes is not currently in print but the latest reprint was in 2006 so there are plenty of copies in circulation.

Like The Family from One End Street, this is also a book about working class families though in a completly different and in some ways much more exotic context. Peter and Santa face being sent to an orphanage but run away to live with their uncle who works for a circus. Peter and Santa have been brought up by a prim aunt to feel they are better than everyone else but quickly realise that they have no skills and no way of looking after themselves. This is set in constrast to the detailed description of dedication and hard work of all members of the circus who pitch in and help get the show on the road every day.

The circus is made up of people of all kinds of different nationalities, each with their own skill and expertise. In contrast to some contemporary books, it is not jingoistic at all; Peter and Santa are portrayed as ‘backward’ because they are neither good at school (in contrast to the international circus children who go to school in every town they come to and do exceedingly well) nor do they have any skills with which to make their living. The story is really about the journey they make to understand that they are not automatically ‘superior’ to everyone else they meet, as they have been brought up to think, and overall the storylinee feels quite multi-cultural and inclusive.

Keith Barker mentioned that the choice of The Circus is coming was controversial at the time, particularly when children’s librarians discovered that ony two members of the selection committee attended the meeting when it was chosen. Now it is probably more controversial because public opinion on the use of wild animals in a circus has changed. This was not so much the case when the book was published, though there is a discussion on the morality of using wild animals in the book, and all members of the circus are exceedingly loving and understanding of their animals.

Noel Streatfield’s books tend to be described as ‘career books’, a popular genre in the 1940s and 1950s about superficially glamorous careers in various professions, like Streatfield careers in dance or the theatre or for instance with books about nursing (the ‘Sue Barton’ books). But some of the glamour is stripped away to show the hard work that lies behind any successful career.

There’s lots of technical detail based on Streathfield’s own research when she herself went ‘tenting’ but the story is first and foremost character-driven. This makes it a really enjoyable book for those of us who are not that interested in the circus as a performance while the technical detail adds a sense of reality and historical interest – a 8.5 out of 10.

The family from One End Street (1937)

The family from One End Street by Eve Garnett won the Carnegie Medal in 1937. It is the earliest of the “Carnegies of Carnegies” voted for by a national poll in 2007 to select the public’s favourite Carnegie winner of the past 70 years. It is also a favourite book of mine. There’s a ‘series’ of three books about the family from One End Street, and I was given the third one, Holiday at the Dew Drop Inn (1962), in the Danish translation when I was a child. My love of that book reflects back onto the predecessors in the series, though I prefer Holiday for its description of life in the countryside.

Garnett was also an illustrator and self-illustrated all her own books as well as works by other authors (A Child’s Garden of Verse amongst them). She illustrated a book by Evelyn Sharp The London Child (1927) and the work apparently left her with a persistent interest in reflecting on the life of working-class children. She completed a book of drawings with commentary called Is It Well With The Child? (1938) which has some very sharp reflections on the life of working class children, for instance this drawing:

Friend (to first twin): “Wot’s ‘e cryin’ for?’ Frist Twin: “‘Cos he can’t come to Sunday School – it ain’t his turn for the tidy troussis”

Eve Garnett did have trouble finding a publisher for The Family from One End Street, as it was not considered suitable for children (!). The enduring success of the book has proven this wrong. Further, Margery Fisher (Intent Upon Reading (1967)) speculates that Eve Garnett enabled a generation of authors to write about working-class experience without the stories being specifically ‘about class’. We also read this book in my university ‘Carnegie Study Group’ and one person, a teacher, commented on how she could easily see how the episodic nature of the book could work well in the classroom and be used to spark all kinds of conversation amongst the students.

On a completely different note, like in Pigeon Post, it is striking to see how much more freedom (some) children had in the 1920s and 1930s. In The Family from One End Street, it is not an expression of idyllic escapism into the countryside, nor of neglect, but the natural effect of lack of space at home combined with a greater expectation of the self-sufficiency of children. This too is a salutary lesson!

Score: 8/10

Pigeon Post by Athur Ransome (1936)

Published in 1936, Pigeon Post was the first Carnegie Medal Winner.

My initial experience of Arthur Ransome and the world of Swallows and Amazons was on holiday at my grandmothers house in Denmark. Sadly, they were not considered ‘good enough’ for my local library to stock. As a result, for me, Arthur Ransome is associated with illicit holiday reading which is slightly ironic considering his very wholesome subjects of sailing, camping and general outdoorsy-ness.

I don’t think my local library was alone in condemning Arthur Ransome’s books, this was the late 70s, early 80s after all, a period in which everything middle-class and wholesome was very much out of fashion in favour of more ‘realistic’ and gritty novels. And then, the final nail in the coffin, his books were part of a series which, as Victor Watson points out in “Reading Series Fiction’ (2000), has always been considered slightly suspect and ‘second-rate’.

As a child I loved series fiction. Is there anything better than falling in love with a new author or series and then discovering that there are more? In fact, I still feel like this as an adult. Victor Watson describes how one of his Year 6 students explained that reading series fiction is like walking into a room full of friends and I think this is such an apt description of the attraction of series fiction.

Pigeon Post was very much of its time. Camping and tramping novels were popular from the 1930s to the 1960s. They were devoted to the excitements of hiking, exploring, boating, map-readingand the practicalities of camping. They were an expression of their age – Scouts and Girl guides flourished and were popular, (some) children had more freedom to be out and about on their own, and children needed to develop more self-sufficiency in the face of WWII.

Pigeon Post has a large cast of the usual Ransome characters from previous books, is set in the Lake district and is primarily concerned with camping (away from the adults) and goldprospecting with the danger element provided by uphill fires. Focus is on practical matters and it is not very introspective. It is interesting to read about the use of pigeons for messages and these are central to the plot as is the landscape that surrounds the children. Of course it suffers from old-fashioned sexual stereotypes – Susan gets a mincing machine for her birthday (!!) and appears to be thrilled with this which is inadvertently quite funny to a contemporary reader. I am pretty sure I didn’t read Pigeon Post as a child. As an adult, I find it perfectly readable, but not engrossing. In my personal view, probably a 5/10, though Ransome fans might be up in arms about this score.

Victor Watson points out that for about “thirty years children’s literature was for the most part a version of pastoral and sustained and essentially adult elegy on a massive scale for dearly loved and vanishing rural ways of life, mediated through fiction intended for young readers ” (p 79). I think it may have been longer – it is clearly evident in The Wind in the Willows (1908) and in the Carnegie Medal winners, we see it in Pigeon Post and it suffuces books like ‘The Little Grey Men’ and ‘The Little White Horse, both Carnegie Medal winners in the 1940s. I will be able to trace this as I read on and discover the themes of the later Carnegie Medal books. Advertisements. For me, though, this is not one of Ransome’s best books, so a 6.5 out of 10.

Reading the Carnegie Medal Winners

I have started on a big but exciting project: I am going to read all the Carnegie Medal Winners from the inception of the medal in 1936 until the present day and blog about my progress and thoughts on the books. I will start from the beginning and read in chronological order where possible. Quite a few of the early Carnegie medal winners are out of print and not available secondhand or too expensive (more than £15 or so).

This is both a personal and a professional project. I’m currently doing a MA in Children’s Literature at Goldsmiths, but I don’t have any lectures until October and this seems like a perfect opportunity to investigate what has been considered some of the best children’s literature written in the English language through the last 70+ years. I want to look at the themes which are emerging and to form my own impressions and opinions of the literary history of Children’s Literature. I have persuaded some fellow students to keep me company at least some of the way and we are selecting one book from each decade to ‘meet’ and discuss. One intrepid fellow student is also reading as many of the books as she can, like me.

Margery Fisher wrote in the introduction to Intent upon Reading – a critical appraisal of modern fiction for children’: “Today it is hard to keep abreast of new publications, let alone keep a sense of proportion about them. There is little time to look back at the classics, to recommend them to children who, following the habit of their elders, take the easy way out and ask for the latest story by So-and-so”. This was in 1967 and Fisher was in part looking back on an earlier time where, according to her, Harvey Darton had managed to create a ‘definitive work’; Children’s Books in England. Obviously, this now raises all kinds of questions around who are the tastemakers, how cannons are formed and so on but I also recognise Fisher’s quest for trying to understand what has gone before, to hold on to what is ‘good’, however we define it, and not just look to what is ‘just out’ and newly published.

The Carnegie medal is given to children’s books published in the UK and recognises outstanding literary quality that year. This reading project and this blog is my way of looking back at what has gone before and to understand what is still, in my purely personal opinion, ‘good’ and what time has moved on from. There’s a similar award given to books published in the US, the Newberry Medal – maybe I’ll get on to that list afterwards!