Carnegie Medal: a few thoughts

carnegie

I have to say, I have some very mixed feelings about Maggot Moon winning the Carnegie Medal. On the one hand, I love Sally Gardner for writing books that do not patronise kids, point out that being dyslexic is not necessarily a disadvantage & for saying what she said about Michael Gove and education.

On the other hand, I am hugely disappointed that the medal, yet again, seems to have gone to a book that adults seem to like far more than children do. 

We have been following the award with our year 7 and 8 reading group. This group consists of all abilities, so it can sometimes be hard to get all of the children to read the same book; they are all working at different levels and enjoy different things. This year we promoted the Carnegie shadowing heavily within the group, buying multiple copies and talking about each one with the children.  All books were taken out by at least one child, but the only one that they all managed to read was “Wonder” by RJ Palacio. When it came to our vote, every single member voted for this book to win. Not a single vote for anything else. Now, I’ll admit, Wonder is slightly maudlin, a bit saccharine; I’ll also admit that my school liking it is far from scientific, universal proof that all kids do. However, after speaking to others and hearing the thoughts of many, many professionals, including a bookseller, it does seem that “Maggot Moon” didn’t go down as well with children as many of the other books on the shortlist.

Does this matter? The Carnegie Medal is an award for an “outstanding” book for children and young people. This means that it probably has to have a level of literary merit. There are so many ways of reading, even as an adult, from reading a gossip magazine in the dentist waiting room to studying Shakespeare at PhD level. And, of course, popularity does not necessarily reflect literary quality (I do love Diary of a Wimpy Kid, but would it get taught in English lessons? Probably not).

However, I do feel that there is a balance that needs to be struck in the world of children’s book awards. I enjoyed Maggot Moon as an adult; it was a sparse and terrifying dystopian tale and I completely understand what Gardner was trying to get across. I appreciate that authors such as her and Patrick Ness write books to challenge children. This is an idea I definitely like. What I do not like, however, is that in doing so, I think, in the case of Maggot Moon especially (not so much with Ness), Gardner has rendered her vision completely inaccessible a great number of children. Even our brightest children (a year 8 who reads Julian Barnes, for example) did not fully understand what Maggot Moon was about and, where they did, they hated it.

I do understand that finding the balance between popularity and quality must be difficult for those who run such book awards to achieve. The Carnegie medal is voted for by Librarians, which is the reason, it seems to me, that it is so popular with Librarians and, indeed, booksellers, the media and, ergo, the public. These people must know what they are talking about, surely, if they work with books and kids and then yet more books? Not to mention that they know, they really know, the world of ideas and great literature and knowledge.

But what does the award reflect these days?

I may, in future, look to the Carnegie medal as a barometer of what adults think children ought to be reading. I will probably read the books I find interesting, will take cues from the reviews online. Occasionally I will find a gem that really does challenge children, but that they grow to love through this challenge; that can be taught in lower set English lessons without being patronising (The Weight of Water, this year, springs to mind) or else a book that children just straight up fall in love with as well as having some literary merit too (Wonder).

But I will definitely be wary of ever buying a Carnegie winning book that I haven’t already read for a child and then expecting them to enjoy it.