Thursday, July 03, 2014

Abduction, Abuse, Brutality, Hope: The Abingdon Carnegie Forum 2014

Of the four words in the title, can you spot the odd one out?


The annual Abingdon Carnegie Forum is one of the highlights of our year - something we have been involved in for six years now, ever since our first forum back in 2008. The forum sees Carnegie Shadowing Groups from six school in Abingdon come together, with a day of workshops and frenetic activity to celebrate the culmination of this year's Carnegie award. As well as a vote amongst students as to their favourite book, schools are mixed up into different groups, and they are given one of the shortlisted titles for which they have to put on a 4-minute performance in front of all the other students.

Terrifying huh?

The aim is to 'pitch' the book to the audience, using the performance to convince us all that their book deserves to win. It works brilliantly, even though for some of the students they are having to pitch a book that they may not have necessarily liked.

This year had a very different feel to it for several reasons. Firstly, I was chair of judges this year for the first time, which meant I had to concentrate extra hard to make sure I didn't screw up in announcing the winners at the end of the day (I have 'previous' in this area).

Whilst I missed the opportunity to take a Jim-Al-Khalili-style audience selfie, I did perhaps the next best thing...

Secondly, this is the first forum I have been involved in where the winner was known before the actual event. The Abingdon forum is notorious for never voting for the winner, so would this be different this year?

Finally, it cannot have escaped anyone's notice that the shortlist this year has been, well, a tad controversial. Four of the books deal with abduction and abuse in some form and certainly in the shop, we have had more conversations with (and concerned emails from) parents this year concerned about the content of the books that children involved in the Shadowing were being asked to read.

Stand out titles in this regard were the brutal and bleak 'The Bunker Diary' by Kevin Brooks (abduction, torture, murder), 'Blood Family' by Anne Fine (alcoholism and drug-abuse), 'All The Truth That's In Me' by Julie Berry (abduction, mutilation) and 'The Child's Elephant' (elephant poaching, child conscripts).

A jolly old roster of themes to get stuck into. And it was notable - and we judges made the point in our summing up - that several children had had difficulty sticking with the books. Phrases like 'it will shock and disturb you no end' (All The Truth That's In Me), 'his mother, beaten and crazy' (Blood Family) and 'pointless and crushing' (Bunker Diary) were accompanied by a general sense of unease and a surprising amount of guidance in terms of how old readers should be to deal with the violence.

(For an excellent collection of reviews on each of the shortlisted titles, head on over to Space on the Bookshelf, which has been reviewing each title and the competition in genera, for the last few weeks)

And yet, and yet...

"I think [it is] is a gripping, skilfully written novel. I felt that every word that had been printed was true and spoken directly to me, as if there was no book, just Eddie and the other characters standing in front of me talking" (Blood Family)

"...an amazing, well-written, unforgettable story that kept me reading almost non-stop from three o'clock in the afternoon until I finished at one o'clock in the morning" (Bunker Diary)

"This book proves the true significance of friendship" (The Child's Elephant)

The 'Rooftoppers' group and
infamous 'Chelsea Buns'!
Talking to some of the children, may had mixed emotions about books that hadn't exactly 'enjoyed' but felt were 'amazing'. In that regard, some of these young readers had had wonderful literary experiences, which many adult readers may never have had.

Many of the reviews described reading late into the night to finish what were gripping books.

The unprecedented outpouring of hand-wringing and condemnation of The Bunker Diary in particular (notably being described as 'vile and dangerous' by Lorna Bradbury in The Telegraph) has been met by a robust defence by the CILIP judges and from his publisher Puffin. Children's book critic Amanda Craig, hugely respected throughout the publishing world, has tried to provide some context by looking at the history of the Carnegie in this article in The Independent. However, she refused to review The Bunker Diary on publication because it was so bleak.

This definitely feels like battle lines being drawn up - and booksellers are increasingly finding themselves on the front line of this battle, having to listen to the concerns and alarm of parents, and - increasingly- school librarians (under pressure IMHO to take the side of CILIP and defend books they feel uneasy about).


The reality is that many of the children actually doing the Shadowing tend to be 11-13, because the older children get, the less time they have to read generally, and the more focused they tend to be on studying for exams (we know this anecdotally from the shop: nothing kills reading for pleasure more effectively than exam pressure). Several of these books are for teens - indeed Kevin Brooks' own defence is that he's written for teens, and 'they can handle it'. But a significant number of the readers aren't teens. And even when age guidance is given by school librarian, those confident bright readers who are up for a challenge don't want to be left out. Remember peer pressure at school? Difficult to resist.

CILIP can't pretend that this isn't an issue, and they have a responsibility not to put children, parents and librarians in positions where children are under pressure to read what they can't handle.

Recreating a scene outdoors
ahead of the performance
But there is also the commercial pressure from publishers to 'up the ante' in terms of content to tap into the current sweet spot of publishing ('Young Adult'). We recently had a big argument with one of our reps, who age-guided a particular book as 12+, and then (sotto voce) hinted that it was really 'at the upper end' of that age range [sic]. Given the brutal content of the book, we decided to formally complain about the age guidance to the publisher (who, to be fair to them, responded sympathetically and are looking into changing this).

Right, time to dismantle the soapbox. I think the most considered and sensible comment on this comes from the extremely wise and sensible Frank Cottrell-Boyce who has said "The Carnegie was instituted as a prize for children's fiction. Brooks is a YA writer. YA fiction is extremely lucrative for publishers...Could not some of the publishers who have done so well out of the category stump up for a YA prize instead of predating on one of the few places where children's books aimed at children can still get some attention?"

(Well said. And splitting the prize would neatly address the 'young shadowers' issue. Will be interesting to see how CILIP respond)

An Abingdon Carnegie Forum tradition - cake!
The vote was taken at the end, and - perhaps unsurprisingly - for the first time, the popular vote matched the actual vote, with The Bunker Diary being the winner. Kevin Brooks deserves a lot of credit for writing such a superb book with great skill - it has had a great, and mostly positive, impact on many of the children who read it.

As always, thanks to the tireless efforts of the Abingdon Schools - particularly the librarians - for creating such a fantastic day, The judges read through an extremely high-quality shortlist of book reviews. What is always impressive is the quality of the reviews, across all the schools, and the language, passion and flair of what is a skill in its own right.

And that odd word out? Hope. Left at the bottom of Pandora's Box, and something we feel all children's books, no matter how dark, should have a little of...

(Update 4/7/14 - the splendid Gerald Dickens, great-great-grandson of Charles Dickens - was the guest of honour, and you can read his blog of the day here. And Griselda Heppel, author of Ante's Inferno, has written a rather excellent, succinct piece on YA fiction, the Carnegie Medal, and how we got here, on her blog).

3 comments:

  1. Thoughtful, balanced, informative - a really good account of all the issues, thank you for writing this. The Carnegie Shadowing is an excellent idea but I'm afraid I had the same reaction as many of your customers at the list of topics handled by the books. I agree with Frank Cottrell Boyce - have a separate YA prize and don't force children to grow up through fiction before they are ready.

    I've always found the YA pigeonhole of 13 - 18 years a weird one. In my experience they are devoured by twenty and thirty year-olds! They strike me as adult novels dealing with big issues, beautifully written by a number of truly great, powerful writers.

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  2. Thanks Griselda, we very much appreciate this. Sometimes as a small indie we shy away from getting involved in controversial issues, but in this instance it goes to the very heart of what we do. With the best will in the world, we cannot read everything in our shop (although we try!) and therefore we rely a lot on publishers, critics, customers and professional organisations to provide help in curating a selection for our customers. We feel the children/YA 'mission creep' (!) has been an issue brewing for a few years now, and - ironically - given the subject matter of some of the books in recent years, you could say that we have 'trust issues' with some of these groups...

    And in terms of the age range, going from 12 to 18 is possibly the biggest change you will ever experience in terms of your own development as a person. But that's the challenge, because some 12 years might be able to handle themes that a 15 year old wouldn't, depending on who they are. It's not an easy problem to solve - but specifically for the Carnegie it's something they have a responsibility to solve (IMHO).

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  3. You're absolutely right. It used not to be a problem - people were expected to move from children's books to adult fiction (Dickens, Brontes, John Wyndham, Daphne du Maurier, whatever). This left a big gap in that teenagers weren't really being catered for, and the flowering of YA fiction has been fantastic in remedying this. The downside is that committed booksellers like you are increasingly under pressure to make judgement calls for worried customers/parents!
    It can also be limiting in another way e.g. my next book (wip but nearly there), The Tragickall History of Henry Fowst, is a semi-historical murder mystery with a Faustian theme (can you guess?). The ideal reading age I feel is 11 - 14, so it comes under the YA umbrella. Yet it's clearly for younger readers than many YA books, so how to classify it? Do bookshops have an Early Teen section as well as a YA one?

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