ACHUKA
News
Chat
Teen/YA
Fic
Non-Fic
Chap
Pic
Profiles
Media
Educational
Poetry
Guides
Notices
Interviews
Specials
Aidan
Chambers

Winner of the Carnegie Medal for a book published in 1999.


Order Postcards From No Man's Land
by Aidan Chambers is the worthy winner of the Carnegie Medal for a book published in 1999. To read what ACHUKA had to say about it on publication, jump to this Teen/YA page.


A
idan Chambers is one of the most significant writers for Young Adults in the UK. If an American wants to know whether the UK has an author of the same power and durability as Robert Cormier, the response has to be Chambers (although the two authors are very different in style and approach).

It is a scandal that most of Chambers' books are out of print or difficult to obtain. The Carnegie win will surely bring about a wave of reissues in due course, but now, just when the announcement of the award will send interested readers back to Chambers' earlier novels, the books are unavailable. Do a search on amazon.com or amazon.co.uk to find out just how dire the availability is.

It is easy to predict one facile wave of reaction to this Carnegie result. Out-of-touch librarians choose sexually explicit novel by out-of-print and unpopular author... The kids buying Harry Potter in their droves know what's best - it's innocent, it's fun and it sells.

The kind of books Chambers writes will never be best-sellers. But they should sell better than they do and they should stay in print for longer. It is too easy to blame the publishers alone. If Chambers were an American author he would already have won the kind of awards that lead to books being studied in school. In America Young Adult/Teenage Fiction (for that is what Postcards From No Man's Land is - not a children's book) is promoted much more forthrightly by teachers and by librarians than it is in the UK. And it is better marketed.

Chambers himself was not expecitng to win. "The shortlist is so strong and my book is long and complex," he said before the announcement. "Some people call it difficult, but I refuse to sell young people short by compromising on language or subject matter." The 13 children's librarians from the Library Association Youth Libraries Group who make up the Carnegie judging panel were unanimous in their choice. They hailed Chambers' book as "exceptional - a book that poses crucial questions, and doesn't patronise by giving easy answers. Postcards is compulsively readable, superbly written, and challenging both emotionally and intellectually. It's the kind of book that gives you hope for the future of literature for children and young people, the kind of book we all wished we had been able to read in adolescence".

The Carnegie Medal is awarded annually by The Library Association for "an outstanding book for children and young people". The announcement was made on 7 July at Imperial College as part of Under The Covers, a major Youth Libraries Group conference celebrating children's books.

Out-of-touch librarians choose sexually explicit novel by out-of-print and unpopular author...

 

It is a scandal that most of Chambers' books are out of print or difficult to obtain.

 

The thirteen children's librarians who make up the Carnegie judging panel were unanimous in their choice.


"I refuse to sell young people short by compromising on language or subject matter."

The bulk of what follows, bar the final paragraph, is a lightly edited version of background information dispatched by the Library Association:

It has taken Aidan Chambers 25 years to write the sequence of six books to which Postcards from No Man's Land belong. He says he has nearly mined the "neurotic raw material in myself" that makes writing from a teenage point of view compelling, and now wants to explore the "whole new territory where people are going to start behaving very oddly because for the first time a generation of old people will be healthy, ambitious and sexually active".

Chambers born in 1934 and brought up in Co. Durham. His father was a joiner, and the rest of his male relatives miners. He hated primary school, failed his 11+ and went to the secondary modern in Darlington. Everything changed when he was moved to the grammar school and found his "intellectual father" - an English teacher called Jim Osborn. "He was the first adult I'd met for whom living with literature was the most important thing you could do - he said things like 'J B Priestley is the kind of author you do not have time to read' ". Aidan decided he was a writer at 15, the moment he finished reading Sons and Lovers.

Order He became a teacher of English and drama, eventually merging this work with being a monk for seven years. Having given himself until 30 to make it as a writer, he wrote a play, Johnny Salter, for his pupils. It became a huge hit, and about the same time he published two novels. Very quickly writing took over, along with a lot of journalism and public speaking. He married Nancy Lockwood in 1968; together they founded The Thimble Press and published Signal, a critical journal devoted to children's books. In 1982 they were joint winners of the Eleanor Farjeon award for their contribution to the world of children's books. In 1975 Aidan began the sequence of novels of which Postcards is part. The first book, Breaktime, took him completely by surprise ("I hadn't a clue what was going on") and contained sexually explicit material which he felt Bodley Head was brave to publish. He feels very strongly about writing for young people: "I will not compromise on language or content. At 15, people can handle the same language as me, they're just as complicated as me, and are very interested in thinking about important questions for the first time."

OrderChambers says he has not set out to write novels specifically for young people - "the books happen to be from the point of view of teenagers but anyone can read them". He has a reputation for exploring form, and for writing about the big things in life - death, sex, language, art, war.... He believes young people need and welcome difficult books that make them think, and bemoans the current "mad, uncritical populism". Critics single him out as important for just these reasons. Writing about Postcards in The Independent, Nicholas Tucker said, "This is the type of serious teenage fiction that should be cherished lest we lose it altogether to the lure of trivial series or film tie-ins".

OrderAstonishingly, by today's instant best-seller standards, Postcards From No Man's Land took eight years to write. It weaves together two stories One is Jacob's - a 17 year old alone for the first time in a wonderful city (Amsterdam), having come to commemorate his grandfather who was killed in the Battle of Arnhem. His story starts when he is picked up by a girl who turns out to be a boy, and his whole stay is characterised by powerful but confusing encounters with art, death and sexual identity. His story is entwined with that of Geertrui - an old Dutch woman who is dying of cancer and about to have an assisted death. Hers is a straightforward love story, centred around another Jacob, a married English soldier whom she nurses and loves passionately before he dies in 1944. Jacob's and Geertrui's alternating stories are linked by family ties that turn out to be closer than suspected. The book is sophisticated but also compulsively readable; it marvellously captures the teenage experience of standing alone for the first time. It deals unflinchingly with subjects like euthanasia and homosexuality, although Aidan says is it more about the city, history and falling in love with a place. The judges of the Library Association Carnegie Medal have this to say: " Postcards From No Man's Land is a rites of passage book that supports young people in dealing with life's emotional geography. The writer trusts young readers to make up their own minds about life's big issues. This is an outstanding novel which lingers in the mind; every word is well chosen."

From 1972 until 1984, Chambers wrote a regular column for Horn Book Magazine about British children's books and has written much else besides about children's literature and reading in general. Given this added dimension to his work as a novelist, what an apt successor he would be to Quentin Blake as the next Children's Laureate. Here's hoping that this thought plants a seed in the minds of those who might influence the choice.

 

 

 

© copyright 2000 ACHUKA