Exciting times for the world of children’s literature; the Carnegie shortlist is out, and there are some very good books out there. In fact, one might call these rawther very good books indeed (thanks Eloise!). I’m always excited by this shortlist, as I am with every award list I come across, because they allow a chance to take the temperature of the children’s literature world. I’m perhaps a little bit more excited about the Carnegie because, as a member of CILIP, it is an award I’m eligible to vote in and I do. I very much do.
One of the things that has struck me over the past few years, and I suspect this is directly in relation to the continual swell of rawther very good books in the children’s literary world, is that there’s a recurrent discussion of the nature of the books nominated for the Carnegie – and winning. A brief, somewhat reaching and terribly sweeping, statement, would be to characterise the Carnegie as increasingly favouring the hard-hitting young adult novels and denying the reach of middle grade novels. Reaching and terribly sweeping statements aside, I think this is a valid discussion to have and to also acknowledge that its a discussion that doesn’t solely apply to the Carnegie. It can’t. It doesn’t. Any award that deals with the apparently innocent and immensely complicated concept that is children’s literature can’t. Whilst this isn’t a piece around the definition of children’s literature, nor the death of the author, it is a piece that requires an acknowledgement of the reach of the discussion.
And so, caveat caveat, I return to the Carnegie and the shortlist. In 2014, Agnes Guyon wrote about the nuances of the evolving Carnegie and how it considered introducing a separate category for teenage fiction but ultimately discounted this. The reasons she gives are valid, valid things: the difficulties of defining the audience for a book and the difficulties of deciding on those borderline cases are two of the most paramount. And from a taxonomical perspective (a sentence I have longed to write for years), I agree. Classifying children’s literature is a hard, complex thing and it’s one of the reasons that when I’m asked to recommend something I will almost never ask the age of the reader. I will ask what they’re reading now, what they’ve enjoyed and what they’ve disliked, and then I will reccommend something contextually. I’ve never read what I was meant to read. I’ve never been the specific audience for something and indeed, I’d happily argue with you for hours over the very concept of an intended audience for something.
So, separating the Carnegie into young adult and children’s? It’s not something I instantly subscribe to. The practicalities and theoretical complications around implementing and maintaing such a division are something that do not sit easily with me And yet, I acknowledge the validity of such a discussion from a different perspective, and can’t deny the incredibly complexity of my reading experience of the 2014 winner. Are we defined by such books now? Is that the world of children’s literature?
I don’t think it is, but I do sometimes wonder if we inherently privilege the literature that is closer to our own experience? Do we as adults read adult(ish) children’s literature and find that more relateable than middle grade? Do we find ourselves in fiction that mimetically represents that process?
Please do note that in the preceding s paragraph, I talk as an adult reading children’s literature and not as an adult participant within the Carnegie’s specific judging criteria, nor the criteria of any other award. The distinction is vital and something I emphasise, quite clearly and definitely. I pose these questions as challenges, as concepts to grasp within the framework of an adult discussion of children’s literature.
I’ve nominated middle grade books for two years in a row for the Carnegie; not for the fact that they are middle grade books, but rather for the fact that they did something quite vital and brilliant with their respective genres. These books changed their sector and they may have done it quietly, or they may have done it with fireworks, but they did it. They reshaped the space that they were in and made something bright and vivid and new, and they made me feel that when I read them. They were literary gems and they still are. I chose them because of this gem-like value and because of their literary language both within themselves but also because of their dialogue back and forth within their respective genres. They way they shone light on literature that had been sat in the darkness.
Good books work their way to the surface. They always will.
Awards reflect our sector of literature; they refract it and challenge it and provoke it. I do wonder if, in a few years time, the Carnegie will shift once more, and I’ll be interested to see if it does. I support this award wholeheartedly. I’m proud of it. It’s one of the best parts of being part of CILIP.
And I will keep nominating the books that I want to be part of that discussion.