Last week, the Carnegie Medal longlist was announced and not a single black, Asian or minority ethnic author made the cut. Words & Pictures Co-editor, Ellie Brough, discusses the response to this snub.
‘The prize itself has never been won by a BAME author.’
When I read that sentence in the Guardian article discussing the outrage of children’s authors in response to this year’s Carnegie Medal longlist, I had to stop reading for a second. Never? Really? The award has been around for eighty years; surely we must at least be making progress? But no: there’s outrage because this year’s longlist does not feature a single black, Asian or minority ethnic (BAME) author. The typical response I would have to this is, ‘It is 2017, surely we’re beyond this?’ But in light of the political events of the last year, we seem to be going backwards and not forwards when it comes to equality.
I also couldn’t help but recognise my own privilege when I realised I wasn’t aware of this fact. I hadn’t thought of it, because I didn’t have to. So I’m thinking about it now as I’m currently rereading Noughts and Crosses by Malorie Blackman, a book that delivers the same emotional response from me as a grown woman as it did when I was 14, staying up to 4 am to get to the end, my pillow damp with tears, and causing me in some embarrassment when reading on the tube... How did this outstanding novel not win the Carnegie Medal when it was published? How is Alex Wheatle’s Crongton Knights, winner of the 2016 Guardian Children’s Fiction Prize, not on this year’s Carnegie longlist?
Several BAME authors were included in this year’s nominations, including Malorie Blackman, Patrice Lawrence and Nicola Yoon but none of their titles made the shortlist. CILIP (the Chartered Institue of Library and Information Professionals) who are responsible for the Carnegie have defended the longlist, saying while it ‘acknowledges and respects the concerns expressed’, the longlisted books were ‘judged on merit and on an equal playing field’. The old argument, ‘maybe they just weren’t good enough,’ is being flung about on Twitter. But really? Malorie Blackman’s Chasing the Stars wasn’t good enough? Patrice Lawrence’s OrangeBoy, shortlisted for several other prestigious awards including the Costa Book Prize, wasn’t good enough? Quality is not an issue. So why are these authors not getting the recognition they deserve?
Patrice Lawrence said to The Guardian:
Patrice Lawrence said to The Guardian:
‘There is still a really big issue that if you are a white author who writes about black lives you get on [awards lists], but if you are a black author then you don’t. It really comes down to the powerful role of gatekeepers in prestigious literary prizes. If they are not looking for diverse authors, there is an issue.’
This issue of gatekeepers not seeking out diverse authors is unfortunately true of all of the publishing industry, not just literary prizes. Minority writers aren’t getting publishing deals, they aren’t getting shelf space in shops, they aren’t getting awarded and we don’t seem to be making any progress in addressing this issue. At the recent SCBWI PULSE event, We Need to Talk about Cultural Appropriation, discussion of this issue was the most heated part of the evening, with blame for the lack of representation being flung across the room at publishers, at retailers and at authors themselves. The main obstacle to making progress in this matter seems to be fear. Fear that including a minority title on a shortlist will result in less profit, accusations of tokenism or being labelled controversial, and these fears, unfortunately, are enough to make people say, ‘why invite the hassle?’ Changes are being made, roads are being forged, but it is always with baby steps. But isn’t enough, enough? Why can’t change happen now and why can’t we shout about it?
That is what children’s authors Alex Wheatle and Sunny Singh are asking for and they have called for a boycott of the award. Wheatle has already asked his publisher not to submit his upcoming novel, Straight Outta Crongton for next year’s award, but Singh adds that there needs to be a collective action to the boycott and white authors must join if we hope to see any change. As she says:
‘It’s all very well for already marginalised people to do a boycott, but if you’re already excluded, what difference will it make not to enter?’
So what do you think? Is a collective boycott of one of the UK’s most prestigious children’s awards likely to happen? If it does, will it make a difference? I would like to be optimistic and say that the wonderful community of children’s publishing could pull together to make change happen, but in a world where shouts for progress and change are being drowned out by fear and bigotry, my optimism may be misplaced. Maybe this issue will be the turning point? The naive child in me, who cries reading a children’s book on the way to work, hopes so.
Ellie Brough is Co-editor of Words & Pictures.