Musings on Medals

I had every intention of using this week’s blog to offer some deep insight into this year’s CILIP Carnegie and Kate Greenaway Medal shortlists, both published earlier this week.  This introduction therefore serves as a disappointment spoiler to anyone continuing to read any further and expecting such a post.  For several reasons.

The first I considered an embarrassment initially: with respect to the Carnegie list I have not read any of the shorlisted books, yet, although in a bizarre twist I am familiar with many on the Kate Greenaway list for once.  Since re-evaluating my own opinion on my failings here however, I have begun to look at this fact not as a failure, but as an indicative potential problem of many of the awards given to books in our field.  That they are largely, though not exclusively, chosen by adults not children.  My own corpus of personal children’s book reading is drawn from asking groups of readers to recommend texts for me to read.  Yes, I try to keep up with current releases as best as I can in addition to this, but in a similar pattern to the readers I work with, these books tend to be written by authors that I am already familiar with and enjoy their work, or through personal recommendation, or simply because I like the sound of the ‘blurb’ when I pick it up in a bookstore.  As I am keen to match the reading patterns of those children who serve as my ‘book buddies’, I also tend not to veer too far from the age range of texts that they might be reading; for me the indicator YA novel, or anything labelled as 11+, tends to make me return a book to a shelf.  I also like ‘cheerful’ books, preferably fantasy in nature (though these are not exclusive factors if the right author or plot premise is offered to me); I am not overly keen on books about death…or dystopias.  Sorry, but that is my personal taste.  According to those criteria therefore, the Carnegie shortlist already becomes truncated to just one that I might have read (Dave Shelton’s A Boy And A Bear In A Boat). And rather disappointingly I haven’t read it yet (though I have just ordered it from Amazon!).

The second, although I dearly love the CILIP awards and their associated shadowing scheme for young readers in particular, is my disillusionment with the matter of ‘the prize’.  In a country that awards the author of the Man Booker prize (for books for ‘grown ups’) the princely sum of £50,000, with each shortlisted author receiving £2,500 and (somewhat cornily) a ‘designer bound’ copy of their book, I find it somewhat disappointing that the winners of the Carnegie get a golden medal and £500 worth of books to donate to a library of their choice.  Admittedly the winner of CILIP’s Kate Greenaway medal also receives £5000, but at a tenth of the Man Booker prize this on first appearances sets a disappointing precendent for the field of children’s literature as the ‘poor relation’ to its ‘adult’ counterpart.  This set me searching for the amount received by the ALMA (Astrid Lindgren Memorial Award) recipient, arguably the largest prize awarded in children’s and young adult literature annually.  This amount is set at 5 million Swedish Crowns, or for my multi-national colleagues: about 700,000 USD, or 540, 000 EURO, or £518,425 according to today’s currency exchange rate.  This is just over ten times the amount awarded by the Man Booker (get my maths!), but is not awarded for a single writing act, but a lifetime of work dedicated to the promotion of quality children’s literature and reading by and for children.  It is giving recognition to an author, illustrator, oral storyteller or individual or organisation involved in reading promotion, chosen by a high profile jury from nominations made by selected nominating bodies (including our centre at Cambridge) around the world.  The purpose of the prize is “to strengthen and increase interest in children’s and young adult literature around the world.  The award also aims to strengthen children’s rights on a global level.” (ALMA).  Because of this it becomes impossible to compare the awards: although the aim of the Man Booker was to “increase the reading of quality fiction and to attract ‘the intelligent general audience’.”, the orginal press release also stated that the “real success will be a significant increase in the sales of the winning book...”.  I have a real problem with that on two levels, first the suggestion of  “an intelligent general audience”, which is quite a disciminatory statement, and secondly on the increase in sales.  I don’t deny that authors need sales of their books, but that is a far cry from the humanitarian aims of the ALMA.  The founding of the Carnegie medal in memory of the Scottish philanthropist Andrew Carnegie, who desired to establish free libraries, also echoes the humanitarian aim of bringing reading to every child, but £500 is a drop in the ocean when compared with what could be bought if the £50,000 of the Man Booker was the given prize.

The ALMA states the importance of children’s access to literature in a much better way than I ever could: “Children’s literature has the ability to boost understanding and exchange between cultures and people.  Children’s and young adult’s access to literature is a precondition for democracy and openness.  The award is designed to strengthen children’s rights at a global level.  The attention garnered by the award leads to more translations and to more children having access to high-quality literature.”  Book sales are not what it is about. The manner in which the CILIP and ALMA awards recognise the liberating power of reading make me proud to be a small cog in the promotion of children’s literature’s wheel.  Just imagine if every adult in the country donated just one book each month to a school or local libarary.  Just think what might begin to be achieved.

I might just make sure that my children’s school library has copies of all the age appropriate Carnegie and Kate Greenaway shortlisted books – that might just be a start.

By Clare

Quotations and images from the Astrid Lindgren Memorial Award, CILIP Carnegie and Kate Greenaway Medals and Man Booker Prize websites.

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