The Carnegie & Greenaway Medals are highly prestigious annual British awards, this year celebrating their 80th and 60th anniversaries respectively. The judging process is conducted entirely by librarians.
Until 1969 – that is during the first 30 plus years of the Carnegie (named after Scottish-born American philanthropist Andrew Carnegie) – winners of the awards had to be British. It is still a requirement of the Newbery and Greenaway Medals (America’s equivalent of the Carnegie & Greenaway) that eligible authors are “citizens or residents of the United States”. Since 1969 there has been no such restriction here.
“To be eligible for the Awards, titles must have been first published in the UK between 1 September and 31 August of the previous calendar year. Books first published in another country must have been co-published in the UK within three months of the original publication date.” The first person to benefit from this opening up of eligibility was Ivan Southall of Australia in 1972, for Josh. Since then a significant but not dominating number of winners have been international rather than British. This is the first occasion both awards have been won by Americans and it may well mark a point in time when British authors and illustrators will find it more difficult to feature prominently in the shortlists.
I do not have any data at my fingertips, but I’m fairly sure the number of books now eligible under the clause “Books first published in another country must have been co-published in the UK within three months of the original publication date” is very much greater than it was in 1969. Of the eight books on this year’s Carnegie shortlist only three were by British authors.
The award ceremony took place in London yesterday, at RIBA. A large number of previous winners of both medals were present. When I arrived my eyes were already streaming and unbearably itchy with hay fever. I took myself to the edge of the gathering area with a coffee and a glass of water and found myself next to a larger than life young black woman, facing the wall, swaying from side to side and muttering under her breath. I thought at first she was on her mobile phone, conducting a conversation through earplugs and mic. Then I saw that she kept glancing down at a sheet of paper, apparently memorising lines. I presumed she was a librarian due to give a speech at some point.
It proved to be Amy Leon, an American poet and singer, who had been invited as one of the warmup speakers. She sang a short song Daydream and in a stirring speech about the power of words and reading spoke about how liberating it had been when she was given a blank notebook with no subject written on the cover, freeing her to record any daydreams that came in to her head. [I remembered this later that afternoon when another young poet passed me her notebook outside a bar in Camden Town and let me read the carefully hand-written poems inside.]
It turns out Amy Leon is well-known and a fairly regular visitor to literary events in the UK. It was my first encounter with her. I’m a fan.
MC for the occasion was Cerrie Burnell, children’s TV presenter, who ensured the audience was suitably responsive.
The first award announcements were for the Amnesty Honour titles. This category, coinciding with the beginning of Refugee Week, was announced by Kate Allen from Amnesty. The Amnesty CILIP Honour from the Kate Greenaway Medal shortlist went to Francesca Sanna for her debut, The Journey, a picture book depicting a family fleeing their war-torn country in search of refuge. From the CILIP Carnegie Medal shortlist, the Honour went to Zana Fraillon for The Bone Sparrow (Orion Children’s Books), the story of a boy living in an immigration detention centre in Australia. In her acceptance speech Fraillon was fiercely critical of those who hold up the Australian rules on immigration as worthy of emulation.
Ruta Sepetys won the CILIP Carnegie Medal for Salt to the Sea (Puffin), a New York Times-bestselling novel that explores the events leading up to the sinking of the Wilhelm Gustloff, the worst maritime disaster in history in which over 9,000 people, mainly refugees, perished. The daughter of a Lithuanian refugee, with a family connection to the disaster, Ruta spent three years researching the book.
57-year-old Lane Smith, still best known for his collaborations with JonScieszka, such as The True Story of the Three Little Pigs, The Stinky Cheese Man and Maths Curse, won the CILIP Kate Greenaway Medal for his illustrations in There is a Tribe of Kids (Two Hoots), a picture book exploring the power of collective nouns and the importance of play and exploration. In his speech, Smith credited leading British illustrators, including Brian Wildsmith, Quentin Blake and Helen Oxenbury as his inspiration as a young illustrator starting out. “Years ago, when graduating from art school, I was told that my work was too stylised-looking for the kids’ book market in the States and I would probably have to move to London where they took a more enlightened view of quirky artworks. I told my instructor that he was wrong, and that there were many wonderful books being published in the States, and showed him my books by Wildsmith, Blake, Browne, Steadman, Cousins, Oxenbury, Foreman and Burningham. And my instructor politely informed me that those were all British artists. To be acknowledged from the land of many of my favourite illustrators is an enormous honour.”
Ruta Sepetys, who had previously been shortlisted for the Carnegie Medal in 2012 for Between Shades of Grey, commented: “When I began work on [Salt To The Sea] years ago, I had no way of knowing that when it was published, we would be amidst a refugee crisis. Then and now, my thoughts return to the children.” She added: “History allows us to examine decisions. Yes, history can be full of sadness and pain but it also shines light on hope, freedom, courage and the miraculous nature of the human spirit. History divided us, but through reading we are united in study and remembrance. That is the power of books.”
Sepetys and Smith each receive £500 worth of books to donate to their local library, a specially commissioned golden medal and a £5,000 cash prize from the Colin Mears Award.
Eyes still streaming with hay fever, I was ill-disposed to taking photographs after the announcements. Hence, for once, this is a words-only report. And it was a pleasure, actually, simply to stand and observe as the two winners, Sepetys especially, were thronged with groups of young students eager to get autographs and selfies. Interesting too to observe the effect that becoming Laureate has had on Lauren Child, who was also present, and was hardly able to take three stops forward without having to stand still for selfie moments, and not just with children.
It is a little ironic that the first floor auditorium of RIBA was light and airy, perfect for photography and portraiture, in contrast to poorly lit areas such functions are often held in. Damn you hayfever!
I was very pleased that Jake Hope introduced me to Chris Moore, blogger and co-founder of @YAfictionados, and one of those instrumental in helping to organise last weekend’s celebratory Carnegie/Greenaway #YATakeover Twitter Festival. I’d like to have talked with him at more length but he sidled off when Keven Brooks came up for a chat and before I had a chance to see if both of them knew one another. Brooks, I learned, has a new novel coming from Egmont next February. “A bit of a departure for me,” he said, just as he was leaving for home. “A happy ending?” I called out. He hesitated, teasingly. Then shook his head.