Carnegie Medal: a few thoughts

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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.

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Maggot Moon by Sally Gardner

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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.