On Monday, CILIP (the Chartered Institute of Library and Information Professionals) will award the Carnegie and Kate Greenaway medals for the two books that represent (narratively and illustratively, respectively) the “gold standard in children’s literature” (according to their website). I was fortunate enough to participate in a Carnegie Shadowing group this year run by the UK’s Young Bookseller of the Year, Mariana Mouzhino. The group included academics, writers, and education professionals, and the discussions we had over this year’s Carnegie Shortlist (you can find the list here: http://www.carnegiegreenaway.org.uk/carnegie-current-shortlist.php) proved quite thought-provoking—not to mention enjoyable.
One of the issues we revisited a number of times was the selection process. There’s quite an extensive list of criteria (you can find it on their website), but the basic summary is as follows: “The book that wins the Carnegie Medal should be a book of outstanding literary quality. The whole work should provide pleasure, not merely from the surface enjoyment of a good read, but also the deeper subconscious satisfaction of having gone through a vicarious, but at the time of reading, a real experience that is retained afterwards.” Everyone will have their opinions about the books (both shortlisted and winners) that have been chosen, now and in the past; and if you’re interested in thinking about past winners, do have a look at Lucy Pearson’s Carnegie Project website, https://carnegieproject.wordpress.com/. Within our shadowing group, however, we thought not only about what might win, but also about the kind of books that were and weren’t on the list. Black Britons are in decidedly short supply.
That’s not to say that the Carnegie selection team ignores issues of race. Last year’s winner was Tanya Landman’s Buffalo Soldier, a book about a young African-American and former slave who dresses as a man and becomes a Buffalo Soldier in the American west of the 19th Century. And this year’s shortlist includes Robin Talley’s Lies We Tell Ourselves, about the desegregation of schools in the American south in 1959. These books are both interesting narratives, and directly confront issues of racism, difference, and the laws that governed the separation between Black and white people. But the fact that they are both set in America allows readers to distance themselves from these issues; it is possible for a reader (particularly a young reader) to conclude that slavery and its aftermath and/or racial segregation are American problems that have nothing to do with Britain. This follows a pattern found in many British history books (not to mention school curriculums) that suggest that other countries (Spain, the US) started or maintained slavery, while the British merely “abolished” it. The US certainly has a troubled racial history and a troubled racial present for that matter, but it is not the only country that does.
The Carnegie has in fact occasionally recognized the presence of Black people in Britain. This was perhaps most notable in 2000, when the medal went to South African-born novelist Beverley Naidoo’s The Other Side of Truth. Naidoo’s book tells the story of two young refugees escaping a politically-volatile Nigeria and seeking asylum in the UK. Given the current state of debate over refugees from the Middle East (particularly Syria and Lebanon), Naidoo’s story is perhaps even more relevant for child readers now than it was then. The fear felt by Femi and Sade in the novel as they try to find a safe space in Britain is palpable. Naidoo wrote, “Seeing events, personal to political, through the eyes of a young person encourages a freshness of vision. It forces me to research from a particular viewpoint, to be extremely observant and to make leaps of imagination. The child’s perspective often throws up sharp contradictions between what the child’s expects and what happens. What child getting ready for school, preparing her schoolbag, expects to hear her mother screaming, followed by gunshots?” (http://beverleynaidoo.com/truthcommentary.htm). It’s a powerful novel, and one that certainly meets the Carnegie criteria. Unlike the novels set in America, Naidoo’s book also encourages young British readers to think about their own country’s laws and reactions concerning “illegal immigrants” into their country.
But none of these books tell the stories of Black British citizens. The Carnegie has never awarded either migration stories (Floella Benjamin, Grace Nichols, Valerie Bloom, Trish Cooke have all written novels for children about the experience of children from the Caribbean joining or accompanying their parents to Britain in the Windrush era and their subsequent adjustment to British society) or stories about Black Britons born and raised in the UK (Benjamin Zephaniah, Andrew Salkey, and Catherine Johnson are among many writers who have written books in this category). And Children’s Laureate Malorie Blackman has won multiple awards, including the Eleanor Farjeon award for her contribution to children’s books and an OBE, yet she has not been nominated for the Carnegie. The history and stories of Black people living in Britain, their triumphs as well as their experiences with racism and struggle against/within the system, these stories matter. They are part of the history of Britain, and they should not only be told, but recognized.
These stories are being written, by skilled and lauded Black British writers. I look forward to next year’s Carnegie shortlist—when I hope to see something new on it. Black British writers shouldn’t just be chasing the stars (hint hint, CILIP), they should be the stars.