The 2020 CILIP Carnegie Medal Winner Speech

Anthony McGowan, June 2020

Well, this is an extraordinary, delightful and unexpected thing: my little book Lark has only gone and won the CILIP Carnegie Medal.

I need hardly say that this is the greatest moment of my professional life. I’ve been writing for a long time now – certainly for longer than most of my readers have been alive – and I’ve churned out over 40 books. In that time I’ve had some great experiences, and picked up a couple of awards, but I’ve never had an honour like this.

Every writer for young people dreams of winning the Carnegie. Its incredible history, the many truly great writers who have won it, the rigour of the selection process all make this, for my money, the greatest book prize in the world. And, heck, you get an actual medal made of the PUREST GOLD!

It is also a magnificent way of connecting with the people who really count. The hundreds of shadowing groups in schools and libraries around the country provide that one thing that writers can’t do without: a living, arguing, debating, biscuit-munching population of brilliant readers!

On one level, Lark is a simple adventure story. Nicky and Kenny, two woefully ill-equipped teenage boys, and Tina, their old and grumpy Jack Russell terrier, go for a walk on the North Yorkshire moors. A blizzard descends and their fun day out, their ‘lark’, turns into a desperate battle for survival …

On another level, the book is about the unshakeable love between two brothers, one of them with special needs. Nicky and Kenny have undergone much in their short lives. They have endured family break-up and poverty, bullying and cruelty. But that love has always seen them through. Until this, their greatest challenge … 

On a third level it is a story about the way we interact with the natural world, how the sublimities of nature are a source of wonder and joy, but also, at times, peril …

And on yet another level – yes, I know, this is too many levels! – Lark is a story about the power of stories, about the narrative cords that weave like sinew through our lives. The meaning of us emerges from the stories we tell, the stories we live. Lark ends with Kenny murmuring gently the words,‘Tell me a story,’ and with that final utterance we are led back again to the beginning.

Lark is the fourth book in my series about Nicky and Kenny. Their story begins in poverty and ends in hope but also, as our human stories must, in sadness. But there’s a certain irony, given the nature of the Carnegie medal, in that Lark is the only book in the series in which libraries and librarians don’t loom large. In Brock, Pike and Rook, Nicky finds not just information but refuge and consolation in his small local library.

Over the first three books, we see, in the background, the damage caused by cuts to the library service during those terrible, futile and destructive years of austerity. Our library service is truly one of the glories of our civilisation, and we’ve had to sit through a period when it was wounded to the core. If the Covid-19 lockdown has taught us anything, it’s the value of books, and as we emerge from the crisis, libraries are our beacon in the murk. And that flame must never be allowed to go out.

One of the great things about the Carnegie over the past decade is the way it has embraced, as we all must, diversity. It’s vital that young people can see versions of themselves in books – characters who look and sound like them.

And although I may look like the epitome of the dead white male, I think that my quartet does strongly feed into the idea that books are for everyone. One of the formative moments in my writing life came when a bunch of us scabby schoolkids in Corpus Christi High School in Leeds were picking our laborious way through the text of A Kestrel for a Knave by Barry Hines. You know that awful way that some kids have of reading where each Word. Is. Entirely. Isolated. From. The. Ones. That. Come. Before. And. After. It …

Then one of the kids – a lad called David Tordoff – suddenly picked up the rhythm of it, found the voice and began speaking the text, not like a robot or in what he took to be the ‘posh reading voice’ but in his own true Leeds voice.

And then he stopped and said to the teacher, gesturing at the class, ‘Miss, it’s us! It’s us!’, his voice full of wonder and joy at the fact that kids like him were allowed to be in books.  

And that’s what I wanted most of all for this book, and its siblings – to do all those things which literature can accomplish, to enthral and entertain, and frighten and dismay and amuse, but also I wanted the text to open its arms to those schoolkids in Leeds or Canvey Island, or Rochdale or Blackburn, or Motherwell, or Newport, and say to them, Yes, it’s us.

I’ve said before how I’d long dreamed of winning the Carnegie medal. And with that bizarre optimism of youth, I kinda thought I would. As I’ve said, I’ve published 40 something books now, most for young people, and for each of the first few I wrote a little Carnegie acceptance speech in my head. Gracious and simple to begin with, but as each one entirely failed to even be nominated, they became increasingly baroque. One took the form of an interpretive dance. Another was a country and western song; another a ballad opera in the style of Bertolt Brecht.

And then, as I kept being ignored by the judges, my imaginary speeches became more and more rancorous and angry, until at the end my speech was just a rant, made up of score settling against the people who’d annoyed me on Twitter.

But now that I find I have, miraculously, won this wonderful prize, there is one job I can’t ignore. The thanking.

Judging a book prize like this is an incredibly gruelling process, and so I’d first like to thank the Carnegie judges, but also all the Youth Librarians who have been involved in this monumental task. If I had to read so many books in such a short time, I know I’d come to hate literature.  And yet you manage to retain your joy and your enthusiasm. Those of us who write for children know that we have on our side – and, more importantly, on the side of the young readers – a body of people brimming with knowledge, passion and, most of all, love for children’s books.

Writing itself is a solitary vice, but publishing a book is a communal enterprise. Without my friends and colleagues in the business, I’d just be an old man in the corner of the pub muttering guttural curses at the punters and shaking his gnarled fist at the jukebox.

So I’d also like to thank all the brilliant team at Barrington Stoke, my fantastic publisher. There’s Ailsa Bathgate, my great editor. She’s worked on two of my books now, one shortlisted for the Carnegie and one that’s won it – given that I’d failed 40 times before she took charge of me, you can see who’s really responsible!

And there’s also Kirstin Lamb, my tireless publicist, who worked her fingers to the bone trying to winkle a little media attention for my poor books.

And most of all, there’s Jane Walker, who’s been a much-loved friend for all my time at Barrington Stoke. It was Jane’s tears during a Zoom meeting that first alerted me to the fact that I might have some good Carnegie news …

And I must thank my brilliant agent, friend and cricket team captain, Charlie Campbell, who picked me up at a low point in my career, hoisted me on his shoulders and carried me to publishing safety. I mentioned that Charlie is also my captain, so I should thank my team-mates in The Author’s XI cricket team for the bants and the sporting joy at our slightly sub-elite level.

One of the reasons why prizes like the Carnegie are so important to children’s writers is that we tend not to get many reviews in the newspapers. So I’d also like to thank a couple of journalists who have always been supportive of those of us writing for young people: Nicolette Jones and Julia Eccleshare, and, in particular, for all her kindness and critical acumen over the years, Amanda Craig.

There are also a couple of writer mates I’d like to thank. Phil Earle has been an inspiration for years. It was reading his books Being Billy and Saving Daisy that made me think it was time to add a little heart and emotional intensity to my work. And Andy Stanton, who’s made me laugh – through his books and in the flesh – more than any other human being.

And I certainly couldn’t get away without a word about my amazing wife, Rebecca, who has put up with much and whose crucial role has been right-sizing my ego – inflating it when it’s, er, flaccid and deflating it when it bulges in an unsightly way. She’s always been my first and my best reader. Ably abetted these days by our beautiful daughter, Rosie.

I’ve already praised the work done by our librarians, but I’d also like to mention one or two by name. I was lucky to come through during a golden age of youth librarians – Margaret and Trish and Agnes and Ferelith,  and too many others to mention. But I owe a particular debt of gratitude to Joy Court, who organised one of my very first school events, fifteen years ago, and who has been tireless in her support of children’s authors and young readers. 

Finally, Nicky and Kenny have a terrible start in life, coming from a broken and chaotic home. My own childhood couldn’t have been more different. It was joyful and loving, and never, ever boring, and for that I’d like to thank my amazing parents, Margaret and Patrick. We lost our beloved mum last year, but my dad ploughs on, still as sharp and funny as ever, at nearly 92. I quite literally learned the art of storytelling at his knee.

Once again, thank you all.