Thursday, 24 June 2010

Carnegie thoughts

Writing a book is all about goals. The first, in some ways, the hardest – is thinking of an idea that will sustain a book. An idea that no one’s made their own before. An idea that’s worth writing.
Then there’s writing a first chapter, developing a plot, writing some more, developing characters, finding time to write regularly…all thundering towards the final goal – actually finishing a book, which reads as a coherent story from page 1 to the end.
But then there are a whole load more goals and targets, to do with finding an agent, finding a publisher, working with an editor…until one day – yes! – you hold a shiny new copy of your book in your hand. That’s it, surely? Goal achieved, targets reached.
But no. There are book sales figures to worry about. There are school visits to notch up. There's a load of self-promotion to do. And there are awards.
The most prestigious award in the UK for children’s literature is the Carnegie Medal, which today was awarded to Neil Gaiman for his beautifully written The Graveyard Book. Loosely based on The Jungle Book, it’s full of strange and mysterious characters and stories, a plot which weaves in and out of focus, and a moving and hopeful ending. A worthy winner, up against stiff competition.
I was involved peripherally in the Carnegie process, because I was asked by the Islington schools library service to compere its annual Carnegie shadowing event, where reading groups in the borough’s schools come together to hear each other’s presentations on the shortlisted books.
One school created a ‘Big Carnegie’ diary room sketch, with girls representing a character from each book and arguing why they should be the winner (I liked the argument put forward by Izzy, from Laurie Halse Anderson’s book, Chains: ‘Because I have suffered the most.’) We had a series of dramatisations - and the audience then had to match each scene with the book it came from. One school concentrated on one book – Marcus Sedgwick’s Revolver - talking about setting, characters and themes. Another made a film about one of the books on the Kate Greenaway medal shortlist – the illustrators’ award. It was fantastic to see all these keen readers, thinking and responding to such a wide range of books.
Seeing the readers’ very different responses to the shortlist of very different books, I wondered about the worth of putting these books in competition with eachother. Can you judge a list of books and find a winner? Is it a meaningful contest?
And yet, that’s missing the point. The Carnegie isn’t really about the eventual winner - nice though it is for Neil Gaiman to be honoured yet again for his wonderful book. It’s about the reading groups in schools all over the land, being introduced to a list of books picked out by the nation’s librarians. It’s about children reading books which challenge them, books which are different from the best-sellers they see in supermarkets and chain stores, books which challenge them with their ideas, their prose and their ambition.
Sometimes I get overwhelmed with worry about all the goals and targets that I set myself as an author. It’s difficult to enjoy the experience as I should when, I’m wondering if I’ll get long-listed for any awards, or how sales are going, or whether I’m on target to finish my work in progress on time, or if I’ll ever think of any new ideas for any more books.

Then I open up my email and see that a stranger has written to tell me that they’ve enjoyed the book. Or a friend who’s been ill tells me that she was reading it when undergoing nasty treatment in hospital, and it took her mind off things. Or someone gives it a good review on Amazon, or on their blog.
And I remember what my real goal was. I wrote a book. I enjoyed writing it. People are reading it. It might even be a book that they remember, that changes the way they look at the world. That’s enough. Everything else is secondary


  1. I agree, the enjoyment of someone reading my work is what I look for every time. Otherwise you're just another sales statistic on a PowerPoint presentation somewhere.

  2. Like you say, the thing to focus on is the writing. Everything else is just chaff.

  3. The schools' Carnegie work sounds like an excellent project. Very cool, and very cool that you got to help out with it.

    And yay for the goal attained! A very worthwhile one.

  4. That's a really good point. i think sometimes life drives us to be really competitive when actually things like books are hard to measure and getting people reading is a great thing to do.

    Kate xx

  5. I have only recently worked out what bangs are (probably Googled it), but that sort of confusion makes American books seem more American, and helps 'place' them in my imagination.
    American spellings or phrases in books ostensibly featuring Brits in Britain grate terribly, and spoil my enjoyment of books; it shouldn't bother me but it does.