It’s all about the when

This year, the Carnegie Medal for children’s literature turned 70. It’s unique in that books are listed each year not on the basis of publisher submissions or public purchasing, but because they’re nominated and judged by librarians. I have a deep and abiding love of this system. Some of my fondest childhood memories are of librarians*; they put up with me spending hours in quiet corners building castles of books, endured the agonising decision-making process of which I’d actually take home with me, turned a blind eye to me using my mum’s tickets, and generally adopted me like some stray waif. The short walk up to the library was one of the few I was allowed to take unaccompanied; these days I suppose my mother would be hauled in front of social services for that (and worse, for letting me play in the park on my own), but at the time kids were encouraged to be independent. And smalltown Somerset had no fear of Bad Men.

But anyway, back to the Carnegie. Of the children’s books that I keep on my shelf today, only one author never won one (Lloyd Alexander); and of the authors I loved best as a child, most feature on the list of past winners: Arthur Ransome, Philippa Pearce, Mary Norton, Robert Westall (although I admit I was a Cats of Seroster girl, and never read The Machine Gunners), Richard Adams, Peter Dickinson (although again, he didn’t win for the books I loved best – The Weathermonger and Heartsease), Penelope Lively, BB, Rosemary Sutcliffe, Alan Garner, C. S. Lewis… It’s a fine tradition and I’m in no way ashamed to have read far more of these than I have of any of the adult prizewinners.

To honour the Medal’s birthday, the CILIP (the chartered institute of library and information professionals) held a “Carnegie of Carnegies” awards. For once, this was a public vote across all past winners of the prize. And here’s where it all arguably falls apart, just like every “Top 100 of all time”. As soon as you try to pick favourites from a list that spans 70 years, bias sets in. With books as with films, there’s a chance you may have been exposed to some of the older classics (if you had that kind of school library, parental bookshelf, or enquiring mind); but the majority of voting will be helplessly biased towards something in the past 20 years.

Sweeping generalisation? Yes, of course – it doesn’t actually hold true for Literature-with-a-capital-L, where we tend to force authors to die before we’ll add them to the list of True Greats, and even fantasy voting will tend to come down on the side of Tolkien because it’s the middle ground in a fractured audience.

All of which must sound like I’m winding up to a massive rant about the winner of winners. Shockingly, I’m not. The public have voted and I think I have to agree with them. The many novels of my childhood (including those still on my shelf) were all excellent: well-written, with strong characters, poignant situations and occasionally some bigger to say than what kind of knot is best for a small sailing vessel. The winner does all of this, but also challenges received thinking (“that’s not a story for children”) and encourages free thinking. All of this, plus armoured bears.

Ladies and gentlemen, I give you: Philip Pullman.

I’ve said it before, I’ll say it again: if you haven’t read Northern Lights, go out and fix that. Trust me, you’ll enjoy it. Even if it provokes shock or rage, it will make you think. But if you’re reading my blather, you’ll probably love it.

Full list of winners can be found here – there’s plenty of others in there I’d recommend too.

Top ten (in no particular order) can be found here. 4 of 10 were written/won in the past twelve years (that’s 40% of winners from 17% of the period), proving my brash generalisation. That skew aside, every decade except the 40s** is fairly evenly represented, so I am both right and wrong – we are still reading, loving and voting for the oldest things on the list.

A good book is timeless.

*Now there’s an excellent opening line for an Ian McEwan short story, don’t you think?

**A poor period for publishing as the world had other concerns; the CILIP refused to award Carnegies in ’43 and ’45 on the grounds that there was nothing suitable.