Tag Archives: children’s literature prizes

Carnegies So White: The (Lack of) Progress of a Children’s Book Medal

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BAME authors are still chasing the Carnegie star. Malorie Blackman’s book was nominated, but not longlisted.

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.

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Alex Wheatle’s Crongton Knights won the Guardian Prize for Children’s Fiction, and was nominated for the Carnegie–but not longlisted.

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.

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Kiran Millwood Hargrave’s book has been longlisted for the Branford Boase–but not the Carnegie.

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.

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Patrice Lawrence’s Orangeboy has been shortlisted for the Leeds Book Prize–but it wasn’t longlisted for the Carnegie.

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.

Questioning Normal: Children’s Literature that reminds you what is, and should be, ordinary

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Blackman has long played with the idea of “normal” for Black British children’s books, partly through embracing the genre of science fiction.

Have you ever read a book and had to remind yourself about some aspect of a character because they seemed so “normal”? Oftentimes, though not always, this idea of the normal simply means “this character seemed so much like me that I forgot about *insert attribute that is not like you*”. If the attribute that you insert is about the color of the color of the character’s skin or their ethnicity, the idea of “normal” becomes more than just a curiosity. Often in books (at least those published in the UK and the US), characters are presumed to be white until proven otherwise. Child readers, and many adult readers as well, do not always question the consequences of presuming that characters in books will be white. But assuming whiteness as normal has an effect on individual readers, as well as what gets published, particularly for children.

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How do readers define normal? Kay’s Birthday Numbers Book by Verna Wilkins, pictures by Elaine Mills, offers one definition.

My own interest in Black British children’s literature came from a discussion with a Black British friend (now my husband) who said he didn’t read any kids’ books growing up because he wasn’t in them. This is a story that I have come across in my research more than once, not only in terms of what kids read, but what kids write. Both the philosopher Darren Chetty (in multiple articles, which you can find listed here: https://www.tes.com/news/author/darren-chetty) and the publisher Verna Wilkins, have discussed how children’s literature is perceived by child readers to be a “whites only” world. In an article in the Guardian, Wilkins links this realization to her decision to become a publisher: she “explained that she was moved to launch the publisher when her son came home from school with a booklet, on which he had coloured a picture of himself in pink. She offered him a brown crayon to fix it. “It has to be that colour. It’s for a book!” he told her.”I had no choice. I had to become a publisher,” said Wilkins” (article by Alison Flood, https://www.theguardian.com/books/2014/mar/20/diversity-children-books-colour-young-people). Wilkins wanted to normalize the Black British experience in her books for all readers.

That desire to make the Black British experience normal occasionally brought Wilkins in for some criticism, however. In a review of Wilkins’ first book, Kay’s Birthday Numbers Book (1987), Ama Gueye worries about “the lack of “reference pointers . . . which make any strong statement about Kay’s Afro-Caribbean cultural background” (“Review: Tamarind” Dragon’s Teeth Summer 1987: 22). Wilkins, however, did not want to write/publish books that highlighted otherness; for her, writing Black British characters in situations that readers from many backgrounds (including the dominant one) would also identify with and understand was the best way to make Black British children’s literature “normal”.

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Charlotte Pomerantz’s The Chalk Doll tells the story of a Caribbean birthday–different, but still “normal”? Pictures by Frane Lessac.

Another, almost opposite, way to approach the same question is by introducing experiences of people from outside the dominant (racial/gender/ability/ethnic) group as normal too. Author Chitra Soundar, for example, blogged about the idea of the birthday in children’s picture books, and her search for books that would show birthday experiences that go beyond the British birthday party (http://picturebookden.blogspot.com/2017/01/celebrating-birthdays-from-many-cultures.html; if you know of any that she may have missed, I know she would love for you to comment on the site!). She makes the point in her blog that too many picture books show only one version of normal, and this can alienate children from their cultural background. The downside of this approach is not in the books themselves, but in the way that publishers and booksellers often “exoticize” these alternative normalities, marketing them as only interesting to particular groups or teachers wanting a culturally diverse book collection. The result, as Soundar’s blog points out, is that these books often go out of print quickly, because they are not seen as books for “all” or “normal” (both adjectives which generally are code words for “white”) readers.

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Nina is Not OK–but she’s not “ethnic” either.

For authors who are not white, the idea of “normal” can have an effect on how they think about their own work. Last week, I was very excited to see the longlist for the Jhalak Prize, a new prize exclusively for writers of color in the UK. It follows in the tradition of other prizes, particularly for children’s literature such as the Collins/Fontana Award for Multi-Ethnic Literature (awarded in the 1970s) and the Other Award (from the 1970s to the 1980s), which highlight the achievements of writers and books about characters from outside the dominant group. The Jhalak Prize is not exclusively for children’s books, but their judging panel includes two authors who have written for young people, and considers children’s literature as well as adult literature. Most of the authors longlisted, including YA authors Malorie Blackman (Chasing the Stars), Patrice Lawrence (Orangeboy) and Kiran Millwood Hargrave (The Girl of Ink and Stars) expressed their pleasure at being nominated, but Shappi Khorsandi, author of Nina is Not OK, asked that her book be withdrawn from consideration. She explained on Twitter that she was flattered, but “my novel is nothing to do with ethnic identity” (for more, see Katherine Cowdrey’s article in The Bookseller, http://www.thebookseller.com/news/shappi-khorsandi-withdraws-book-jhalak-prize-long-list-463586 or listen to Khorsandi’s interview on BBC’s Radio 4 Today programme from Saturday 7th January). So if a book is about non-ethnic—or normal?—topics, then it cannot, in Khorsandi’s mind, be considered for an award for authors of color. This suggests that the “ethnic” experience is definable, and different, than the experience of the dominant majority. And sometimes it is, as Chitra Soundar’s experience attests—but sometimes it isn’t, as Verna Wilkins tries to show in her books. When I made my list of “50 Books to Diversify your Classroom” for the Times Educational Supplement in October (https://www.tes.com/teaching-resource/50-books-to-diversify-your-class-reading-list-11397499), I tried to consider multiple types of experiences. Because normal is not a single point on the continuum of children’s literature and experiences, but a range—and as readers, and selectors of books for children, we need to expand our own definition of what constitutes normal.