The longlist for the Carnegie Medal came out last week. The Medal, offered by the Chartered Institute of Library and Information Professionals (CILIP), is the equivalent (for American readers of this blog) of the Newbery Award. CILIP describes it and its partner award for picture books, the Kate Greenaway medal, as “the UK’s oldest and most prestigious children’s book awards. Often described by authors and illustrators as ‘the one they want to win’, they are the gold standard in children’s literature” (http://www.carnegiegreenaway.org.uk/). This year, the Carnegie celebrates its 80th birthday.
Unfortunately, it will not be celebrating by awarding the medal to a Black, Asian, or Minority Ethnic writer for the first time. We can be sure of this, even though the medal will not be awarded for some months, because the longlist does not contain any of the nominees from those communities. Of course, the prize is not awarded to authors, but to books, and the Carnegie defends itself in an article in The Bookseller by Natasha Onwuemezi by saying that while CILIP “acknowledges and respects the concerns expressed,” the nominees were “judged on merit and on an equal playing field” (“CILIP fends off criticism over lack of BAME authors on Carnegie longlist” 16 February 2017). Nick Poole, the CEO of CILIP, added that the books on the longlist were “selected by youth librarians who work with children and young people every day in schools and communities” (“CILIP fends off”). These statements are troubling, as they imply that books by writers such as Alex Wheatle, Malorie Blackman, Kiran Millwood Hargrave, and Patrice Lawrence have less merit than those by white writers. By saying this, and arguing that the playing field is “equal,” all writers and all readers suffer. The damage to BAME writers is obvious—their books are not promoted as award-winning, and thus will often fall out of print faster, not to mention any knock to self-confidence in being passed over again. BAME readers do not get to see themselves truly represented in award-winning books. But white readers also are encouraged to think that quality belongs to white authors only, and this will affect the choices they make about books. Their world will be limited that much more. As for white authors—well, I would not want to win the Carnegie this year, as I would always feel that I had won partly because BAME authors were excluded. However, I worry least about white writers—to make a parallel with another cultural industry, Adele may have thought that Beyoncé should have won her Grammy award, but she didn’t refuse it or give it back.
To take CILIP’s arguments one at a time, we can start with equality. If the playing field were “equal” then by the law of averages, BAME writers would appear on the longlist (at least!) on a regular basis. Britain is 87% white, and even if you take into account the fact that white British are overrepresented in children’s publishing AND children’s librarianship (but don’t forget that the playing field is equal, ahem), they are not 100% of the writers out there. And if BAME writers are never represented, then that suggests that the playing field is not, in fact, equal. The people choosing are not choosing blindly.
In terms of merit, most of the nominated books have been put up for—and indeed, have won—other children’s book prizes. Alex Wheatle’s Crongton Knights won the Guardian Children’s Fiction prize in November (Blackman’s Chasing the Stars was also nominated). Orangeboy by Lawrence has been nominated for the Costa Book Awards and shortlisted for the Leeds Book Prize. Kiran Millwood Hargrave’s The Girl of Ink and Stars has been longlisted for the Branford Boase Award. Hargrave’s book along with Malorie Blackman’s Chasing the Stars and Patrice Lawrence’s Orangeboy were all nominated for the inaugural Jhalak Prize, which includes adult and children’s fiction and nonfiction from BAME authors. According to the Guardian’s Danuta Kean, “The Jhalak was launched following publication in 2015 of Writing the Future, a damning report from writers’ development agency Spread the Word about BAME representation in UK publishing” (https://www.theguardian.com/books/2017/jan/05/first-british-books-prize-for-bame-authors-unveils-inaugural-longlist). (But the playing field is equal, don’t forget.)
Finally, with regard to Poole’s comment about librarians working with children “every day,” this suggests that somehow librarians choices are partly reflecting what children like and want to read (somewhat muddying the argument about books being selected on “merit”—children like all sorts of books, but what they like and what is good quality literature are not always the same). This again plays upon the “majority rule” argument. Librarians select books for the longlist based on what kids respond to—but if what they respond to is what they are taught to respond to, they will never read out of their comfort zone. They will continue to want books written by white authors from a white perspective, because that is what they are used to. This goes for BAME readers as well as white ones. The BAME readers who want something different often turn away from books altogether if they can’t find ones that, at least sometimes, represent their experiences and perspectives. Librarians need to model the value of being challenged in their reading, and not always reinforcing the status quo. (But the books are judged on merit, just as a reminder.)
Last year, I participated in a Carnegie shadowing group, where we read all the books on the shortlist and discussed their merits (the Carnegie encourages these, but as far as I know they do not take any shadowing group’s opinions into account when judging). One of the books on the shortlist, though written by a white author, had not-white characters in it, and was admired by many in the group—until the sole BAME person in the group mentioned some of the ways that the author missed the mark. Having listened to her, we agreed that it was still a good book, but not one we would award the Carnegie Medal. It is this kind of feedback that is critical in broadening the perspective of award committees. At the end of the day, if the Carnegie Medal going to truly represent the best in British children’s fiction, CILIP needs to listen to the voices of all of Britain.