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.

Maggot Moon by Sally Gardner

maggotmoon

Maggot Moon is set in a dystopian vision of the past. It is not immediately clear when the story is taking place, only that people’s lives are tightly controlled by the totalitarian regime of the “Motherland” and that theirs is a brutal, harsh world characterised by fear, poverty and violence.

It was only afterwards that I read that Gardner’s inspiration for the setting was thinking about historical “what if” questions: for example, what if the weather had been different on a particular day? What if this meant that London had become an inferno? What if this had altered the course of a war?  It’s an interesting thing to think about.

It is in this alterative version of history that we are introduced to Standish Treadwell, a 15 year-old dyslexic boy with different coloured eyes, and his Gramps. Everyone thinks Standish is stupid because of his dyslexia, and he is constantly facing the threat of bullies (both children and adults) because of this. Standish and his Gramps live in Zone 7, which is reserved for outcasts and political anarchists. Standish’s parents have been “taken away” because of their beliefs. All the while, the Motherland is attempting to prove its might by achieving the first moon landing, but Standish and his Gramps think something is not right.

Standish speaks fondly of his friend Hector and his family, who moved next door and then got taken away themselves. The story is not told in chronological order and can, at times, be difficult to follow. Not everything is explained. You have to work at understanding things, and there are lots of different layers to everything.

Standish talks about his life in a very sparing way, but his narrative voice is completely clear. The language Gardner uses is vivid and colourful, but also sparse and precise. This matches the mood of the world she creates perfectly; the contrast between Standish’s colourful, imaginative inner world and the grey, bleak world of his reality. The chapters are short and to the point. It’s a quick read, but challenging, and it is rare to see language used in such a compellingly simple way to express such complex ideas.

I also think that Maggot Moon is the sort of book that needs to be talked about and thought about to be fully appreciated. I found myself puzzling over it for days afterwards, trying to figure out what I thought of it. The more I thought about it, the more I liked it. Because it is short, you do end up feeling like you want to know more about the characters, their relationships and their lives. This was something I found a little frustrating. However, the power in Maggot Moon is contained within what it does with very little, and how it makes you think.

The only thing that really bugged me was abundance of made-up swear words (just swear if you’re going to swear! If you’re not, there are existing words that will suffice) but that is a particular bugbear of mine and doesn’t necessarily reflect anything other than my own particular tastes.

All in all, Gardner creates some moments of sheer brilliance. I can’t even possibly go into them all without giving too much away, and, despite its flaws, this is definitely one of the most interesting children’s books I’ve read in a very long time, and for this reason alone, you should give it a go.

Thoughts on the Carnegie Shortlist 2013

It’s been such a busy week that this is the first time I’ve had chance to sit down and fully give my attention to the books that are on Carnegie shortlist. I must say, I’m pretty impressed.

Last year was my first librarian experience of the Carnegie medal and, at first, although I liked some of the books, I felt it didn’t reflect the things that the children were reading in my school library at the time. This did change, for primarily three reasons:

1. Urging, nay,  harrassing kids to take out particular shortlisted books.
2. Kids getting “Between Shades of Gray” confused with a different shade/s of grey (I read an article somewhere about how parents could capitalise on this confusion to get their kids to read a good quality children’s novel. I cannot locate it now, but if anyone can point me in the direction of it I will link to it here.)
3. Using/discussing the books with our reading groups.

My personal favourite was Between Shades of Gray, however the overall winner was the librarians’ favourite author, Patrick Ness with his beautiful book A Monster Calls. Bad librarian alert: I do think that Ness’s book is beautiful, and I am pleased that Jim Kay won the Greenaway award, however, and I’m really sorry about this, I know I may be wrong, this is just my opinion, etc., but I am not a huge Ness fan. In theory I am. The way he deals with gender in the Chaos Walking books (well, the first one. I haven’t read the rest. See above RE: bad librarian). The way he talks about how doesn’t want to patronise kids, but challenge them. I love that stuff. But there is something, and I can’t quite put my finger on what, that doesn’t click. Our kids hardly ever take his books out too, which obviously doesn’t necessarily reflect on their quality, but does make me think a little. I always do this in my head: “yes, but do the KIDS like it?”

This said, I am glad that he won, because I know I was in a minority, but I am also glad that someone else gets to have a go this year.

MIXED FEELINGS.

Anyway, tangent aside, I am pretty excited about this year’s selection. I have read two so far. Here is what I thought:

WONDER

wonder

I absolutely loved this. I thought it was going to be a little maudlin, and it was, a really tiny bit, when I forgot that I’m an adult reading from an adult’s perspective and what I really need to do is be an adult pretending that I am reading from a child’s perspective. Again, that question: “yes, but will the KIDS like it?” Here the answer is a big yes. Every single kid (and that’s quite a lot of kids) who has borrowed this book from the library has loved it. It’s funny, touching and it’s major theme of not judging people by appearance is fantastic. (And in the end, even when reading it from an adult perspective, I would still give it 5 stars.)

MIDWINTERBLOOD

midwinterblood

I liked this before I asked myself the question. After I asked myself the question, I wasn’t sure what I thought. Sedgwick is undoubtedly a fantastic writer with great mind, but I’m just not sure whether this book really connects with the kids I work with. It’s barely been taken out. The seven interlinked stories and themes of death, love and eternal life are fascinating and atmospheric, but there is barely any character development and the entire thing feels a little cold. This was fine by me as an adult reader; the atmosphere was brilliant enough to make up for this. However, for the kids? I’m not so sure.

I am currently reading Maggot Moon by Sally Gardner and will endeavour to read and review all of the titles before the winner is announced in June.

What book do you think will win? Do you have any general thoughts?

Book Groups

One of my favourite parts of my job is running our book groups. We have three reading groups here at school: on Mondays, for years 7 and 8; Tuesdays, for years 9, 10 and 11, and half-termly for staff and 6th formers.

These groups mostly involve book-related discussion and, especially with years 7-11, many imaginative conversational tangents.

With the year 7 and 8s we tend to follow book awards such as the Red House Book Award. Each pupil will take one of the shortlisted books out and then we discuss what we have read during the reading group. We also have a bank of book related questions which we use to focus the group when conversation goes slightly awry! These are things like “where is the strangest place you’ve ever read a book?” and “do you ever re-read books?”

With the year 9, 10 and 11 book group we tend to follow the Carnegie award or do themed reading, such as when we had the author Matt Dickinson visiting school. At the moment, we have selected some books from the long list for them to read (the longlist is so long this year that it would be almost impossible to use all of them!) However, somewhat inevitably, the conversation often ends up returning to its default “Harry Potter” setting.  We also have a majority of boys in this reading group, so computer games and zombies are also recurring conversation topics.

I have learnt that, when confronted with a group of teenage boys who won’t speak due to impending Maths exams, all you need to do is mention zombies and they will perk up almost immediately. An important life lesson!

The staff and 6th form reading group takes on the more traditional reading group format, whereby we choose a book, all read it and then discuss it during our next meeting. Choosing the books tends to alternate between staff and pupils and takes on a loosely democratic form – a few books will be suggested and the most popular will be chosen as the next book. This half term we have been reading “The Help” by Kathryn Stockett. We buy lots of cake and treats for this book group, which always adds to the general enjoyment; cake and books go together incredibly well, I think.

Does anyone else run or attend book groups?