I was once nominated for the Carnegie medal; it was back in 1999 for Simone’s Letters. I can’t tell you how delighted I was – the Carnegie Medal was the children’s book award as far as I was concerned and to be nominated was the ultimate accolade (although I suppose winning would have been the ultimate, ultimate accolade but sadly Simone didn’t make it to the longlist). Seventeen years later and thirty two books down the line and I haven’t had a sniff of the medal since. I thought I might have had a chance with Never Ever (2001) or Accidental Friends (2008), two of my Young Adult novels but nah. I was disappointed but tried to heed Paul Arden’s advice in It’s Not How Good You Are Its How Good You Want To Be . ‘Do not try to win awards,’ Arden states, ‘… awards are judged in committee by consensus of what is known. In other words, what is in fashion. But originality can’t be fashionable because it hasn’t, as yet, had the approval of the committee. Do not try to follow fashion… that is where true art lies.’ Exactly – Never Ever and Accidental Friends were works of true art. The Amazing Maurice and his Educated Rodents by Terry Pratchett (2001 winner) and Philip Reeve’s Here Lies Arthur (2008 winner) weren’t original at all – they were merely ‘on trend.’ Yeah – as if! Both are excellent books, both are on my bookshelf, both stayed with me for a long time after I had finished reading them. Both, without a shadow of a doubt, were worthy winners of the Carnegie Medal.
What I’m trying to say is that being nominated for the Carnegie Medal, let alone making it to the next stage, is a real achievement for any children’s writer. Ask J K Rowling if you don’t believe me. She hasn’t won it, either.
All of which brings me on to the controversy that has broken out over this year’s Carnegie longlist. Having whittled the initial list down from about 50 titles to 20, the CILIP judges , all widely experienced librarians, proudly announced who was still in the running for the 80th medal. Here they are:
2017 CILIP Carnegie Medal longlist (alphabetical by surname):
- Aubrey and the Terrible Yoot by Horatio Clare (Firefly Press)
- Sputnik’s Guide to Life on Earth by Frank Cottrell Boyce (Pan Macmillan)
- Unbecoming by Jenny Downham (David Fickling Books)
- The Bone Sparrow by Zana Fraillon (Orion Children’s Books)
- How Not to Disappear by Clare Furniss (Simon & Schuster)
- The Smell of Other People’s Houses by Bonnie-Sue Hitchcock (Faber & Faber)
- Whisper to Me by Nick Lake (Bloomsbury)
- Beetle Boy by M.G. Leonard (Chicken House)
- The Stars at Oktober Bend by Glenda Millard (Old Barn Books)
- Pax by Sara Pennypacker (HarperCollins)
- Railhead by Philip Reeve (Oxford University Press)
- Beck by Mal Peet with Meg Rosoff (Walker Books)
- Orbiting Jupiter by Gary D. Schmidt (Andersen Press)
- The Marvels by Brian Selznick (Scholastic)
- Salt to the Sea by Ruta Sepetys (Puffin)
- Island by Nicky Singer (Caboodle Books)
- Dreaming the Bear by Mimi Thebo (Oxford University Press)
- Time Travelling with a Hamster by Ross Welford (HarperCollins)
- Wolf Hollow by Lauren Wolk (Corgi)
- The Serpent King by Jeff Zentner (Andersen Press)
It’s quite a cohort and I see that pesky Philip Reeve’s on again, curse his teeming talent. What you don’t see are any writers from a BAME background (Black, Asian, Minority Ethnic) and this is where the trouble began. I’m not on Facebook but my timeline on Twitter went into overdrive, with many reacting to this Guardian piece. It was the quotation by Nick Poole, chief executive of CILIP, that proved the most contentious. Forced into defending the all-white longlist he wrote:
“The books on the longlist are judged on merit and on an equal playing field. This year’s longlist represents, in the opinion of the judges, the very best books of the year, with no consideration of gender or ethnicity of either the writer, illustrator or audience,” said Poole. “The broad subject matter of this year’s longlist – stories about refugees, disability and migration – illustrates the breadth of range that the medals are known for.”
On the surface, this seems reasonable and nothing less than we’d expect. Every school librarian worth their salt tries to find ‘a breadth of range’ that reflects and challenges their pupils’ reading habits. Sometimes they struggle to find a range but that’s down to what’s being published, not lack of awareness by librarians. But are judges truly ‘blind’ as to who writes the book? Many thought not. ‘It’s not an equal playing field, my friend,’ wrote Nikesh Shulka and called for a boycott of the award.
While I feel a boycott would be unhelpful and over-the-top, I think there is a real issue here that needs addressing because CILIP is one of the most important gatekeepers of children’s literature in the UK. CILIP needs to address this matter promptly and with honesty. I want to believe that judges do look for ‘the very best books of the year’. I have met two of them – Tricia Adams and Jake Hope – on many occasions and I defy anyone to name two greater advocates of books and writers. But the omission of BAME writers is a serious matter. It sends out subliminal messages that perhaps BAME writers are not producing good enough books to be longlisted for this prestigious prize. This is clearly not the case. Malorie Blackman, Narinder Dharmi, Candy Gourlay, Catherine Johnson, Bali Rai and Benjamin Zephaniah have all carved out successful careers as children’s writers. Their books are excellent, their voices are heard. In fact, Blackman’s Pig Heart Boy was shortlisted for the Carnegie in 1997 and was serialised by the BBC. Some might use this as evidence that, see, BAME writers do get recognised and this whole thing has been blown out of proportion by the ‘political-correctness-gone mad-brigade’ but the reality is, there aren’t enough Malories, Catherines and Balis coming through or, if there are, they are not getting the same recognition as their white counterparts. For many BAME writers, the playing field must seem a long way away and, for the few who make it to the boundary, there appears to be double the amount of fencing to climb before they can begin to check out how level the thing is.
So what’s the answer for the Carnegie Medal award? Positive discrimination? To automatically include at least one BAME writer on the longlist every year? I’m not sure. As a writer, I’d want to be on the list through merit, not because of the colour of my skin. What might be more useful is a look at whether there are underlying, subconscious reasons for our gatekeepers’ selections. Do the librarians who nominate the books read with an implicit bias without realising it, given the vast majority of the librarians and judges are white? Again, I don’t have any answers but I think this is worth examining. Have any studies been done on this? I’d be interested in any links, if so. The reverse could also apply, of course – BAME writers may also have their own implicit bias.
Other troubling issues emerged from my Twitter feed, not related to the Carnegie as such but are part of the wider picture. One of the observations Malorie Blackman (photo left) made was how some publishers have certain expectations of BAME writers. They want black writers to write about ‘black issues’, for example, not about football or the perils of first dates. Stay in your box in other words. It’s a similar gripe Denbighshire Reading Services Manager Bethan Hughes (inset below) has about books set in Wales. Basically, too many dragons. ‘There’s more to the Welsh than dragons,’ she once told me. Hear, hear. And there’s more to British Muslim kids than curry and the Qur’an and there’s more to Yorkshire folk than flat caps and whippets. This pigeon-holing needs challenging robustly. It’s wrong. It’s damaging and it limits both storytelling and storytellers.
Then there is the accusation (not made by Malorie – I forget who) that organisations are happy to promote books by white writers with BAME characters and BAME ‘issues’ but not those by BAME writers themselves. The stories of ‘refugees, migration and disability’ Nick Poole alluded to. Zana Fraillon’s The Bone Sparrow, for instance. I suspect books such as Welcome to Nowhere by Elizabeth Laird would come under that category or 2015’s winner, Buffalo Soldier by Tanya Landman. My books too, to some extent. In Girls FC, I had a girls’ football team made up from all kinds of ethnic backgrounds. There was Eve, whose parents were originally from Ghana; Nika from Ukraine and Tabinda, whose father is Gujarati and mother Punjabi. Those backgrounds weren’t issues in the plots – the plots were all about the footy – but having a multi-cultural team was a no-brainer. No doubt I missed many cultural identifiers through ignorance but I tried, and will continue to try, to be inclusive in my books. It’s the idea that my books might be favoured over a BAME author writing about a girls’ football team that concerns me. Could that really happen? It’s an uncomfortable truth, if so. However, I’d defend every writer’s right to write about any character of any colour and culture they choose, as long as they do so with respect and for the right reasons. There are enough problems in writing without denying us the creative process.
What might help is if the Carnegie Medal were only open to UK-based writers. On the longlist of 20, there are 2 Australians, 7 Americans (I’ve excluded 2 American-born writers now residing in the UK ). Such a restriction would mean children miss out on hearing about some terrific books but the smaller pool might give more UK-based BAME writers a greater chance of inclusion. Or is the system so biased it still wouldn’t make any difference?
I don’t really know how to address any of this – I am, after all, a white writer – but I want a level playing field and I hope this furore goes some way to looking at how to achieve one.
Matt Imrie, a school librarian and former judge added this well-balanced piece on his Teen Librarian blog here.