Wednesday, 22 February 2017

Carnegie Controversy: Thoughts from the 5%

The CILIP Carnegie and Kate Greenaway Medals celebrate its 80th anniversay celebrating the best Children's books and with these longlist announcements, comes a wave of controversy. There's been much talk around the lack of BAME (Black Asian and Minority Ethnic) authors, particularly on the Carnegie list. I'm here to explore and combat the snub claims and controversy.

1. This is a prize based on literary merit, NOT the author.

Firstly, I invite you to take a look at the CILIP judging criteria for the Carnegie Medal. Nominations for the 2017 awards opened on 1 September 2016 and ran until 14 October 2016. The award is judged on style, plot and characterisation, not based on theme or the author. There have been some questions around the bias of these criteria but these are the criteria that CILIP have put forward; criteria that CILIP hold as being objective. No set of judging criteria will ever be 100% free of bias. When you look at literature, how do you put in place a set of criteria that ensures the best books (in terms of literary merit) appear on the longlist? It is impossible but CILIP have set out the criteria that allows the judges to award the best books and limit bias.

"The book that wins the Carnegie Medal should be a book of outstanding literary quality. The whole work should provide pleasure, not merely from the surface enjoyment of a good read, but also the deeper subconscious satisfaction of having gone through a vicarious, but at the time of reading, a real experience that is retained afterwards." – CILIP website

If we were to take into consideration, the cultural background of any author, it would shift the focus of the award, moving it from the story to the storyteller. Including an author on a longlist based on the colour of their skin or their ethnicity is incredibly patronising and moves the goalposts of the award.

114 titles were nominated by librarians and only 20 of these made it onto the longlist. That's 17.5% of the nominated titles or to put it another way, for every 5 titles that did not make it onto the list, 1 title did. The 20 titles that were selected by the judging panel were deemed to better meet the criteria than the other nominated titles. One Twitter user commented as follows (image, right).

Twitter can be a social vacuum and while it works for some things, I'm not sure it serves as the right platform to debate this issue  as this string of tweets shows. The first tweet talks about diversity generally  not diversity of the authors or the books. There is a wealth of diversity when it comes to the longlisted titles. I'm currently working on a spreadsheet and will post this when my research has been concluded.

No books by BAME authors were ignored and to suggest this damages an award that for 80 years, has promoted incredible Children's and Young Adult (YA) literature and encouraged a broad breadth of themes to be explored. It is worth remembering that all of the nominated titles were recognised and championed by librarians.

To suggest that judges haven't noticed the BAME authors on this list or that they "haven't seen the missing pieces of the puzzle... [and] have never experienced not being included" is ludicrous and damaging. How much research has this person done into the Carnegie Medal - the nominations and judging processes, the criteria and the judging panel itself? She is right in one respect though. The judges have ignored the fact that some of the writers are BAME as they judged on the books alone. To suggest they had time to read all of these books and research which ones where BAME and deliberately ignore them  or anything of the sort  is a bitter pill to swallow while they looked after their families, worked and carried out the everyday responsibilities that their lives dictate alongside the careful reading and judging (not to mention the meetings) in narrowing down 114 books to the 20 featured on the 2017 longlist.

The reference to "the Britain that the Carnegie wants to narrate" (image, left) is ridiculous. 50% of the authors on the longlist are British and many of the stories on the list are not set in Britain and it's this inclusiveness that makes the Carnegie Medal such a special award.

2. The BAME argument is flawed since there ARE BAME authors featured on the longlist.

Let me back-track slightly. I previously mentioned that BAME stands for Black, Asian and Minority Ethnics but the inflammatory tweets of the majority seems to suggest that there is no authors of ethnic minorities featured on the list when, frankly, this is a lie. Oxford English Dictionary defines an "ethnic minority" as:

"A group within a community which has different national or cultural traditions from the main population."

Ruta Sepetys (author of Salt to the Sea) is Lithuanian. Glenda Millard (The Stars of Oktober Bend) and Zana Frauillon (The Bone Sparrow) are both Australian. The Carnegie medal is awarded in the United Kingdom  the same country where CILIP is based  and so, in this context, these authors would be considered BAME authors. However, the argument seems to be less of one around BAME authors than it does Black and Asian authors and as my previous point outlined, the author him/herself is irrelevant in the judging of the nominated titles.

3. Every author should have the opportunity to write about whatever they choose to.

I don't think it's entirely fair to suggest that themes encompassing immigration, refugees, detention centres (etc.) are only rewarded if you're white in relation to the Carnegie Medal. It casts a negative light on the prize when it's one of the more inclusive awards out there. It looks at all books that have been published in the United Kingdom. It does not discriminate against authors outside of the U.K..

The kind of thinking implied by this tweet suggests that only Black and Asian authors should be able to discuss themes of immigration, refugees (etc.). This mentality that you should only write what you experience is dangerous thought because it limits the different lenses with which we can view important issues in our world and also limits discourse and discussion. This kind of thinking also has the potential to sway the kinds of stories that an author might tell rather than allowing them freedom to write from the heart.

If we had a write-what-you-are/write-what-you've-experienced mentality, then I should only write stories that feature a protagonist that is a gay man with a chronic illness. It's the equivalent of saying that I cannot write about witches because I am not a witch or because I am not female, I shouldn't write about female characters. This limits the infinite possibilities and perspectives that fiction offers us for both authors and readers.

4. Attacking the Carnegie questions 80 years of celebrating the best Children's and YA literature.

The criteria for this award are completely different to that of any other award as are the judges. Looking at the Costa Children's Book Award 2016, there were four books on the shortlist and no longlist published. Patrice Lawrence's Orangeboy was shortlisted for the award though only one of the titles on this shortlist, Ross Welford's Time Travelling with a Hamster, made the Carnegie longlist. The winner, Brian Conaghan's The Bombs that Brought us Together, did not make it onto the Carnegie longlist.

The judging panel also differed greatly from that of the Carnegie - an author-illustrator, a journalist/writer and the owner of a Children's specialist bookshop. The judging criteria too are also different:

"The judges’ brief is to select well-written, enjoyable books that they would strongly recommend anyone to read."

This is just one example but if you compare both prizes, the Costa Book Award is awarded to a well-written, enjoyable book (and there is nothing wrong with this) whereas the Carnegie is judged beyond surface enjoyment.

I'm quite saddened that The Guardian and particularly The Bookseller – the leading book industry media channel and magazine, have taken inflammatory opinions from Twitter and pasted them into an article alongside the generic opinion from CILIP's Nick Poole without looking at some of the other opinions on Twitter that counter and contrast the snub claims. All they have done is accelerate and misdirect attention towards damaging one of the world's oldest and most prestigious book prizes rather than allowing a platform for those that disagree. I'm annoyed too that CILIP released a generic reply to the controversy instead of producing an engaging article that tackles the claims of racism and inequality head-on. I understand that the judges are not allowed to comment which is unfortunate since some of the comments are targeted towards the judges who are unable to defend themselves.

One of the nominated authors raised an important point about the gatekeepers or diversity who, ultimately, are the publishers and everything is a ripple effect to this. A writer pens and submits their story, An agent only makes money when the author makes money and so, if the publishing industry dictates certain kinds of stories, the agent will likely supply these kinds of stories to publishers.

The lack of diverse stories on Children's and YA bookshelves would reinforce the claims this author makes but regardless of whether you agree or not, there is a clear lack of BAME stories on bookshelves. Instead of focusing on this issue, we're attacking the Carnegie; damaging 80 years of literary merit and recognition in the field. Inflammatory tweets are problematic and sometimes misleading, and do not provide a solution or a way forward so that we can focus our energies onto the positive ways we can push for change.


You're welcome to challenge my points and I suspect I may get some rather fruity comments tweeted my way. However, my opinion is my opinion and it is backed up by research. I won't be bludgeoned into submission by people that can shout the loudest and are suggesting a boycott of an incredible award that has done so much for Children's literature over the years and spit in the face of Andrew Carnegie, for whom the award is established (in his memory). What will a boycott achieve? What satisfaction will that bring other than to take away an accolade that rewards Children's author and further shrink the media coverage and awards that Children's books receive?

Matt Imrie, former CILIP Carnegie Medal judge, wrote an article on the controversy which I would strongly advise you to read. Matt raises some really important points and shines a light on the judging process for the Carnegie Medal.

To those that are "appalled" and "disappointed" by the longlist, I ask you:
  • How many of the longlisted titles have you read before you tweeted your views?
  • How many of the nominated titles did you read?
I'm willing to bet that the only people that read all 114 books are the judges themselves.


  1. Imagine for a moment if only men wrote novels, there would be some great ones, some beautiful ones, some really sensitive ones. There would be male authors who wrote fantastic female characters but we would think it odd. Wouldn't we? We'd think can women really not write any good books? And we'd think about what it might say to society about who had the right to tell stories. We'd worry that girls growing up might think writing was not for them.
    Also from your argument it would seem that bame authors have never written any books worth shortlisting since 2000? Are BAME authors really so lacking in quality that only TWO books have ever been written that deserve the accolade of the shortlist?
    This year at at least three fantastic books were overlooked. The reason people are shouting so loudly is because this never happens.
    To include australian authors as BAME is disingenuous and provides another example of how difficult stories are always more acceptable when relayed through an ameliorating intercedent.
    I have been a writer for years. I am not in this Carnegie race so I am not grinding an axe here. I understand the difficulty of judging. And I never usually reply to blog posts like this. But your naivety is stunning and very unhelpful.
    As I quoted last week when this blew up 'equality feels like oppression to those in power' and you clearly feel that 'quality writing' is under attack from black and ethnic writers who cannot produce the goods.

    1. I think the very fact that BAME authors are getting their books published shows achievement and belief that children can follow in their footsteps. I don't think having a Carnegie Medal is necessarily a measure of success or something that most children will even know about versus an award like the Lancashire Book of the Year award where it is awarded by the children (more appropriate to say teenagers, I feel) and is something they are aware of, can decide for themselves and having being involved, can visibly see children from all backgrounds coming together to decide on a winner. I think it's important for anyone to be able to write a story about whatever they want as I've stated in my article and yes, I would find it bizarre if only men wrote female characters however, I feel this point has a hole in it in suggesting that BAME children won't believe themselves able to write a book and achieve recognition because a BAME author hasn't been listed for the Carnegie Medal.

      I read two of the BAME books and one in particular, I loved, but I also feel it has downsides. I'm not here to openly critique an author's work but I'm trying to establish the literary nature of the award versus a popularity contest. If it was a popularity contest, J. K. Rowling and Michael Morpurgo would have won the Carnegie Medal.

      I think the parameters of BAME are not set in stone. I think it's difficult to state that my interpretation is disingenuous but you're entitled to your opinion but I'll give you an example that hits closer to home. The LGBT community stands for Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender (community). Now, in recent years, there have been extensions of this and the correct term to use differs by country (LGBT, LGBTAI, LGBTQ, LGBT+ etc.) and community. If I were to stick to my strict definition of LGBT, then it would exclude asexual and intersex identities. To me, I think the term needs to evolve and include asexual, intersex and other sexual orientations. Now, if we look at BAME people and white ethnic minorities (e.g. the Jewish or Irish gypsy communities), are we saying that all ethnic minorities that are white are excluded? That this term is strictly an exclusive term? I find that a bit problematic, personally.

      To claim my naivety is “stunning” and “unhelpful” actually hurts. I'm standing up for what I believe in. I'm not telling everyone to sweep BAME authors under the rug. I champion diversity in ALL its forms. I believe there are censorship issues and dams when it comes to BAME authors relaying their stories in Children's and Young Adult literature by gatekeepers. I don't think it's fair to call me naive as I have done a lot of research and put a lot of time into this post and I'm having a lot of hatred fuelled my way and I'm fine with that; I'm not going to smother my opinion to appease others and frankly, people calling me racist, naive, ignorant, ill-informed has made me even more committed to encouraging discussion. I'm not going to back down on my opinion no matter how much hatred gets rocketed my way. (By the way, I’m not saying that you are calling me racist or otherwise or that these comments are even public but they are been voiced at me.)

      I'm not going to reiterate my opinions because I feel as though I am being dismissed and not listened to. I would probably advise against looking at the video I'll be posting in the coming week(s).

      I'm focusing my energies on working to promote diversity and highlight it in all of its forms. I want to find solutions where I believe this Carnegie controversy has created a problem instead of addressing the root problem.

      Anyway, I wish you all the best.


  2. Publishers are, gradually, getting more books out there by BAME authors and some bloggers are loudly talking about them. But they also need to be represented on prize lists, not least because they deserve to be there due to their excellent quality. But there's a wider question here, about the way people are being asked to think, and who is doing the thinking, about which I think you're missing the point/spreading misinformation.

    I have not read every novel on the nomination or long list - nor do I need to in order to have a view on this - but I have read novels by BAME writers that were on the nomination list and have not made the all-white long list.

    Part of the reason we now have much better parity (although by no means equality) for men and women in the U.K. in terms of employment is positive discrimination. You may not realise that and I'm sure - I know - it was highly unpopular in some quarters but now it's generally not needed, although some companies still have stated quotas for female employees and there's still a way to go.

    The reason I mention this is that to have judging criteria based on quality is great and idealistic but it doesn't take account of the unconscious bias people have, which means that - *without even realising* - they may make choices which exclude those unlike them, and the things those people create.

    Without a stage which reminds people to check and realise, "Hold on - this is an all-white list!", or the type of open (and, yes, critical) discussion happening on Twitter, if the people who make the discussion are mostly a very similar ethnic group - and stats say the relevant librarians are almost all white-British - where is a change going to come from?

    This is a serious issue. Dismissing it by saying librarians have read over 100 books in order to judge a prize doesn't make it go away. Surely, at a time when society is becoming more divided along lines of race, it's more important for people who influence and inform the reading of young people to be as informed as possible themselves about their own conscious or unconscious bias?

    Everyone deserves to have the opportunity to read about characters who resonate and to see themselves represented. That includes on the list of people who might win the award for writing the book, as well as on the page.