For over 80 years, the Carnegie Medal has been one of the most respected and coveted awards, recognising authors such as Arthur Ransome, C.S. Lewis, Neil Gaiman, Terry Pratchett, Phillip Pullman and Sally Gardner. Yet the publication of the 2016 longlist last week was met with bafflement and outrage. Out of twenty longlisted authors, not one was from a BAME background.
According to the Writers and Artists Year book, there are over 10,000 children’s and young adult titles published each year. I have been unable to find a figure for how many of these are written by BAME authors (which is a story in itself) but the consensus is Not Very Many. Even so, 2016 was a strong year, with books that have met with critical and popular acclaim including Orange Boy by Patricia Lawrence, Crongton Knights by Alex Wheatle, The Girl of Ink and Stars by Karen Millwood Hargreave and Where Monsters Lie by Polly Ho Yen.
So what happened?
I was not on the panel but can only imagine three possible scenarios to explain how the all-white 2016 longlist was published last week:
Scenario one: The CILIP Judging Panel received the nominations from the Youth Librarians, collated them, considered and debated them individually and in the round and reflected that despite the clear absence of any BAME authors, this list of twenty books truly represented the very best of children’s literature in 2016.
Scenario two: The CILIP Judging Panel received the nominations from the Youth Librarians, collated them, considered and debated them individually and in the round and observed that there were no BAME authors on the list. Perhaps some expressed concern. But after some debate it was decided that the despite the poor press this would likely generate, such issues were not relevant and the panel should therefore stand by the nominations and consequent longlist, which they believed truly represented the very best of children’s literature in 2016.
Scenario three: The CILIP Judging Panel received the nominations from the Youth Librarians, collated them, considered and debated them individually – but not in the round. Perhaps the panel were too busy arguing over the merits of individual books that they did not have time to step back and look at the entire list. Perhaps they did not consider this to be their role. For whatever reason, in this scenario, the panel simply did not notice that the longlist only included white authors.
We will probably never know how the longlist was reached. But we do know the reaction it provoked, as industry, authors and readers expressed their bafflement and outrage. At this point, the CILIP had two choices: it could have listened to the concerns expressed and reflected on both the perception and reality of its longlisting and announced a review and a commitment to do better.
Sadly – and inexplicably – it launched into a defence of its own processes, saying, ‘Whilst we acknowledge and respect the concerns expressed, the longlisted books were judged on merit and on an equal playing field.’ Others more qualified than I have pointed out that we live in a society where the playing field is anything but level. More worrying was the comment by the CEO of CILIP who explained that the longlist reflected the opinion of the judges ‘with no consideration of gender or ethnicity of writers, illustrators or audience.’
This, I believe, displays a fundamental misunderstanding of our society, the role of books within them and the ability (and responsibility) of decision makers in the publishing world to influence matters for good or ill. If we lived in a world where there was no racism and where the 14% English BAME population was reflected in the Board rooms of our public and private sectors, then maybe CILIP could defend a ‘blind’ judgement process. If we had anything like 14% of the 10,000 books published each year being written by BAME authors and if there had been a single BAME winner of the Carnegie Medal for the past eighty years, then perhaps CILIP could defend a blind judgment process. If children and young adults from the 14% of our non-white population felt confident and happy that they and their stories are reflected and valued in literature, that they do not feel their experience is at best ignored and at worst dismissed, then perhaps CILIP could defend a blind judgment process.
If we could put our hands on our hearts and say that books do not influence ideas and that ideas do not shape actions then perhaps we could pretend that none of this mattered. But none of the above is true. A ‘blind’ judgement process is based upon a misunderstanding of our current society and an abdication of our collective responsibility within it. Any judging panel that confers greatness on a cultural product has a duty to consider the signals it is sending and the culture it is creating through the judgements that it makes.
So what is to be done?
Firstly, it is important not to blame anyone. Blame creates fear and fear is the biggest obstacle to change. The ethical principles of the librarians and judges are not under question here, nor should we challenge the merit of the marvellous authors who have been longlisted. But we do need to ask how can we do better? What processes can we put in place to support better judgements about the best of children’s literature in 2017? What can we learn from other book awards, other industries? Following the uproar after the 2016 Oscars where there were no BAME nominees, they reviewed and changed their membership. This year seven out of the twenty nominees for acting are from a non-white background.
The Carnegie Medal was established in 1936 in memory of the nineteenth century philanthropist, Andrew Carnegie. His experience of using a library as a child led him to resolve that “if ever wealth came to me that it should be used to establish free libraries.” He was an immigrant from Scotland to America who was a member of the American Anti-Imperalist League, promoted independence for the colonies and supported black businesses. I find it hard to imagine such a man clinging to the past or defending the current processes in the award scheme that bears his name.
Award schemes are, by their nature subjective but it is perfectly possible to improve them. But only if we accept that there is a problem and challenge ourselves and each other to do better. I am not a published author. I am not a BAME writer. But this issue has disturbed me enough to wake me up at 5.30am to write this.
I hope that the CILIP will reflect on and listen to the debate that has raged over the past few days. I urge them to welcome the conversation and lead the way through this difficult territory by announcing a review so that in 2017 we can embrace a longlist that truly reflects the best children’s books published in English.