Carnegie Medal

The nominations for the CILIP Carnegie and Kate Greenaway Medals were published today.  As a former judge, I’m always excited, interested and sometimes disappointed.  Like any other young people’s book enthusiast I have my own opinions not only of the books that make it but also of the general trends in the award.  It’s a long time now since I was on the judging panel and almost inevitably I have a suspicion that it was better in my day!  However, even if I could define what I mean by ‘better’, the truth is that the entire process is highly subjective.  Yes there are guidelines and criteria but it would be disingenuous to suggest that personal preference is entirely laid aside during the judging process.  After all, the panel is made up of readers who are all affected in different ways by books.

Having said all that, though, there have been some recent nominations and/or longlists that have left me feeling distinctly uneasy about the way the Medal seemed to be going.  In my opinion they were full of worthy books dealing with some kind of topical issue reminding me very much of the didactic novels of a former time that were roundly slated.  I don’t mean to suggest that none of the titles was worthy of inclusion but the lists made me feel weary.

All this means that I was nervous about today’s unveiling.  But I needn’t have been!  With reservations (see below), the nominations list (available at https://www.carnegiegreenaway.org.uk/press.php?release=pres_2020_nominations_carnegie.html) is one of the best, most diverse I have seen in a long time.  For those who don’t know, any member of CILIP (the Chartered Institute of Library and Information Professionals) may nominate one title.  In practice, most of those who do so are children’s and young people’s specialists working in public and school libraries.  They’re the ones who see (and hopefully read) a wide range of books throughout the year.  Many of the nominators are members of CILIP’s special interest group the Youth Libraries Group (YLG), the body that actually makes the award on behalf of CILIP.

Every year I nominate a book that I deem worthy.  Only once has a book I nominated won.  That was Buffalo Soldier by Tanya Landman.  But I persevere.  It’s tricky though as there are so many excellent books to choose from.  Even in the days when I could nominate two titles I swithered until almost the closing date.  Now it’s almost impossible and I find myself second-guessing what might be nominated by my fellow professionals.  This year I had four titles in the running and actually I was fairly sanguine as I felt they were all books that others would nominate.  BUT I HAVE BEEN CAUGHT OUT!  Two of the four are missing from the list and I want to shout at someone but I’m not sure whom.  Maybe myself.  Did I make the wrong choice?  But who’d ever have thought that no-one else would nominate the superlative Elizabeth Laird’s A House Without Walls?  I’m pretty sure it’s eligible in terms of publication date and it is brilliant.  I’m less surprised that The Light Between Worlds by Laura Weymouth is missing.  Not, I hasten to add, because it isn’t good enough; just because Laura is less well-know than Liz Laird.  As anyone who reads this blog regularly will know, I loved The Light Between Worlds.  One of the criterion for the Carnegie Medal is that the book should live with you after you’ve finished reading it.  Laura’s book didn’t do that; rather I continued to live in it.

On a more positive note I am relieved that The Skylarks’ War by Hilary McKay has made the list.  And so have a number of other books I enjoyed: Rosie Loves Jack by Mel Darbon, Clownfish by Alan Durant, The House of Light by Julia Green, The Way Past Winter by Kiran Millwood Hargrave, The Closest Thing to Flying by Gill Lewis, All the Lonely People by David Owen, Armistice Runner by Tom Palmer and Anna at War by Helen Peters.  If you haven’t read these make them your reading list for the rest of the year.

And, of course, to those add my nomination.  The Key to Flambards by Linda Newbery.

 

 

Exposure by Mal Peet

The lovely people at Walker Books have just sent me a copy of Mal Peet’s new book, Exposure.  I’m a huge fan of his books and I could hardly wait to read this one.  But it might all have been so different had I not been judging the Carnegie Medal back in 2004.

As a judge for the Carnegie Medal, one of the things I learned was how important it is never to judge a book by its cover.  My heart sank a number of times as I ploughed through the longlisted titles.  Often, reading the book didn’t change my initial opinion but there were some glorious exceptions. 

One of those was a thin book with a green and black cover that had a picture of a footballer on it.  The blurb compounded my prejudice by telling me where it was set.  Great, just what I needed:  a story of football in South America.  Not, I thought, my kind of book at all.  However, there was no option but to read it and there wasn’t enough time to put it off.  So I started and found to my surprise that it wasn’t too bad.  I kept going and gradually realised that I was hooked; I really wanted to know what happened and I couldn’t put it down. 

That  book was Keeper by Mal Peet.  In spite of the cover, it is only sort of about football.  I know that’s not good English but it’s true.  One of the main characters is a footballer but, really, that just provides a backdrop for the unfolding action.  The South American setting is more important but that didn’t detract at all from my enjoyment.  We didn’t short list the book but there was general agreement that it was well-written and that we’d like to read more of Mal Peet’s work.

A few months later, I was at the Youth Libraries Group conference where I picked up a proof copy of Tamar, Mal’s next book.  Having a few minutes to spare before the day’s first session, I began reading the first chapter. 

Tamar is a hugely different book to Keeper.  Think of resistance fighters of the Second World War and you will almost certainly have France in mind.  This novel, however, focuses on the intertwined and inter-dependant lives of one cell of the Dutch resistance during the cold, hungry winter of 1944.  It tells two stories: that of the eponymous present-day heroine alongside her SOE agent grandfather’s.  The shift between the two is skilful and unobtrusive, the one often coming as a relief from the other.  For this book is not an easy or undemanding read.  It is powerful and shocking but it is also memorable and compelling.  As Tamar uncovered her grandfather’s tragic and terrible story, I was as surprised and horrified as she was. 

Tamar  was much more obviously my kind of book and I took it into the conference with me and read it all the way through the first session and at other points throughout the day, finishing it before I went to sleep that night.  It has become one of my all-time favourite books and I was delighted beyond expression when it won the Carnegie Medal.  After this Mal Peet came to speak at a number of events I organised and I was charmed to meet him and his wife. 

But back to the books.  Tamar  was followed by The Penalty, the second title (after Keeper) of what are now known as the Paul Faustino books.  It’s much darker than Keeper and, I think, a much more complex novel.  It deals with slavery and the occult as well as football and, like Tamar, moves backwards and forwards in time.

The Penalty  was published in 2006 and so I’ve been waiting more than two years for Mal’s next book.  Exposure is another Paul Faustino book.  Perhaps I should explain who Paul is.  He’s not the main character in any of the books but he always plays a significant role.  He’s a sports journalist working for a respected national newspaper.  He’s a likable character without being flawless.  In Exposure, he plays an important part and was one of the few characters I knew I could trust.

This is another book with a football background; it tells the story of Otello, a brilliant striker who has just joined Rialto.  He is black and from the north of the (un-named) country.  Rialto is in the south and is almost exclusively a white club.  The story is about racism but only partly.  Intertwined with Otello’s story is that of Bush, a street kid.  But the book isn’t just about the chasm that divides these two people.  There’s corruption and deception and lack of trust.  Good people make mistakes and the wicked prosper but the opposite is also true.  And that’s what I liked about Exposure – and what frustrated me.  It’s not neatly tied up and characters don’t all get their just desserts.

Mal Peet’s writing is excellent and the way he manages the different strands of his plot is masterly.  I can’t recommend the book highly enough.  As far as I’m concerned, this is the best of the Paul Faustino books and nearly as good as Tamar.  If it’s not at least short listed for the Carnegie I’ll be outraged! It’s emotionally compelling and realistic and there’s no jarring happily-ever-after ending.  Or, at least, not for all the characters…

Morris Gleitzman

A few weeks ago, I was at the Youth Libraries Group conference in Lancaster.  It was a great conference, probably the best YLG conference I’ve been at, and one of the highlights was meeting Morris Gleitzman and hearing him speak.

I’ve always liked his books, especially Two Weeks with the Queen, which I often use with school groups in my Ways Into Reading sessions.  I like it so much that I bought another copy of it at the conference so that I could get it signed.  I’ve never really lost my excitement at meeting authors even after all these years as a librarian.  There’s just something so special about talking to the people who’ve created the books I love.

However, Morris was at our conference at least partly to promote his forthcoming book, Then.  It’s the sequel to Once which tells the story of Felix and Zelda, two children in 1940s Poland.  Once is a good book (I feel I should maybe give that capitals) and it’s a deceptively simple one.  The language is simple and the plot is simple but there’s nothing simple about the book.  It deals with horrific situations and dreadful choices and real-life history.  I think the power of the book lies in its simplicity.  But Then is even more powerful.  It’s published in the UK in January but I have a proof copy.  I have no intention of spoiling the story for you but I do want to encourage you to read it.  I also want to warn you that some of the scenes will haunt you for a long time.  The words might be easy but the book is a very difficult read.  But read it – and remember that some people lived it.