‘A Caucus-race and a long tale’: prizes for children’s literature

By Debbie

“The race is over!” and they all crowded round it panting, and asking “But who has won?” … At last the Dodo said “Everybody has won, and all must have prizes.”

Chapter 3 of Alice in Wonderland, sometimes read as a critique of nineteenth-century politics, is also the source of that quotation conscripted to the cause of right-wing educationalists: “all must have prizes”. At this time of year, when literary awards come thick and fast, perhaps it might also assist us in a brief, seasonal reflection. Must all have prizes? Should any have prizes?

“The driest thing I know”

The problem faced by Alice and the various creatures in Chapter 3 is how to get themselves dry after swimming in the pool of tears. The first remedy is suggested by the mouse, who begins by recounting some history – “quite the driest thing I know”. His monologue is indisputably dry in the metaphorical sense of the word, but Alice points out with childish directness that it is not dry in a physical sense: "it doesn't seem dry at all". The question arises as to whether children, Alice-like, might point out that the recipients of children’s literary awards “don’t seem like the best children’s books at all”. To which the adult judges, Lory-like, might reply, “I’m older than you, and must know better”. Of course, there are some children's book awards judged by children, but most are judged by adult 'experts' of various kinds. As ever, it all points back to those perennial questions of children’s literature definition and ownership. What do we mean by dry? What do we mean by a good children’s book? Who’s to say?

A Caucus-race

At the Dodo’s suggestion, the creatures then take part in a Caucus-race. This could be read by the cynical as a metaphor for the modern awards industry, reflecting as it does on the sheer arbitrariness of the process; the lack of clear rules or criteria for winning; the participants’ ignorance about what is actually going on; the confused excitement on the part of the masses; the unwarranted flap and fuss over the prize-giving; the show of deference to the sponsor, in the book's case, Alice, who provided the comfits; the discomfiture about the actual prizes; and the absurdity of the whole, serious business to critical outsiders. Perhaps the all-must-have-prizes lobby have a point.

On the other hand, the race was entirely successful in achieving its all-but-forgotten end: the creatures were now dry. As in the Caucus-race, the side-effects may therefore be seen as the real point. Children’s Literature awards do attract media attention, thereby raising the profile and status of children’s literature; they stimulate healthy debate; and they may even encourage actual reading amongst real children. Whether separate awards for children’s literature improve its standing relative to literature generally is, of course, a debatable and indeed debated point, especially at moments when the possibility of a general literary prize is dangled over the head of a Rowling or a Pullman: why, oh why are children’s authors consistently passed over for these awards? There again, nearly everything nowadays has its own separate award. Again, all absolutely must have prizes. (Best work of non-violent detective fiction with an ornithological theme by a new writer under 37, anyone?) So perhaps we needn’t be quite so fretful.

A [surprisingly] long tale

Finally, after the prizes have been handed out, the mouse gets to tell his long and sad tale; Alice, meanwhile, mentally shapes story into the form of mouse’s tail. So what can the history of children’s literature awards tell us and how can we shape it?

For the Children’s Literature Open Day, I created a sort of tail of children’s literature, a timeline, for which I researched the children’s literature awards and prizes. The mania for awards feels quite modern, so I was surprised to discover that the first one for children’s literature was instigated 90 years ago by the American Library Association. The Newbery medal was named for the British publisher and bookseller, and the first one was awarded in 1922. That’s before Winnie the Pooh made his first appearance in 1923, before the first children’s literature journal in 1924, and also before the establishment of most of the general literary awards that make headlines today. The first British children’s literature award, the Carnegie medal (announced last Thursday) was instigated in 1936.

The lists of winners make fascinating reading: a glorious mixture of the great and the good and the largely forgotten. The first Newbery medal went to Hendrik Willem van Loon for The Story of Mankind. I knew nothing about this title, and was astonished to find that the book is exactly what it claims: in other words, it is a non-fictional account of world history. The list of winners also includes a number of poetry volumes. Similarly, the Carnegie roll includes includes series fiction, non-fiction and short stories, so less celebrated genres have featured historically, even if fiction has recently predominated. And in 1943, ’45 and ’66, the Carnegie judges exhibited considerable strength of resolve in declaring that no book was a worthy winner, and the prize went unawarded.

So children’s literature awards, like its criticism, seem to have been innovative and resourceful. And their tale is different from mouse’s in that it travels in the opposite direction. Rather than tailing off, it gets more substantial as the number of awards and the attention given to them has increased considerably in recent years.

And with this increasingly

strained analogy this

odd reflection

comes to

an incon




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