2022 Yoto Carnegie Medal Winner Speech

Katya Balen, June 2022

First of all, I must say the obvious – what an honour it is to be receiving the Carnegie medal. I can’t quite believe it, and even saying the words out loud feels unreal. But it’s not just me winning – October, October was crafted by so many brilliant people. My team at Bloomsbury, and in particular my incredible editor Lucy and publicist Bea. My illustrator, Angela Harding. My agent Catherine, and my wonderfully supportive family, friends, and my partner, Patrick. And of course the judges themselves, who are so dedicated and passionate about children’s literature. Thank you all so, so much.  And thanks to the sponsors – Yoto, CILIP, Peters and ALCS – thank you for making this all possible. I’d also like to mention my fellow authors on the shortlist. We are living in a golden age of children’s books, and this was abundantly clear as I read the other seven books on the list. They are full of life, loss, heartbreak, love, passion, beauty, brutality, and above all flawless writing. I loved them all.  

In my book, October is a child who is isolated and disconnected from normal society. She grows up wild in the woods, not knowing other children, not knowing schools or roads or buses or mars bars. But she reads everything she can get her hands on, and she tells stories by firelight. She finds scraps of objects hidden in the woods, and she imagines their lives and moments that have made them. Stories help her find her place. They keep her safe and they give her a thousand worlds other than her own.  

When October’s world is turned upside down, and she is a mix of fury and confusion and fear and guilt and grief, the one thread that weaves its way through the old and the new is stories. Telling them, finding them, listening to them, understanding them. Stories start to spin fragile webs between October and those around her. They start to anchor her and conversely they start to open up her world. They shape her and they connect her. They give her freedom and they give her wildness. They make her part of something and they make her herself. Stories save October. 

When I first began working, it was in a variety of schools for children and young people with profound and multiple disabilities. Their needs were complex and varied, but something we could all share and delight in at once was a story. Every person in the room was involved, engaged, delighted, in the same and different ways. In that space on the page, we could find a common ground that perhaps wasn’t present at any other time in the day. We were all explorers, astronauts, having tigers over for tea, going on bear hunts, finding Gruffalos and learning spells.  

Stories are for everyone, and for every child, regardless of their social circumstances, their postcode, their race, their sex, their abilities. They are so much more than words on a page. They are an equaliser. They create empathy. They create connection. They create freedom. They create escape. They create joy. They create change.  

And this is not a privilege. This is a right.  

 And so it seems to me a particular cruelty that in the last decade, funding cuts have closed nearly 800 libraries. Because stories can only be all of these wonderful things if they can be accessed. Denying generations of children free and fair access to books feels like the most short-sighted decision any political party could make. Stories change lives, in a thousand huge and tiny ways. Yes, we all know that better literacy equals better outcomes. But I’m talking about the bones of stories and what they give us. Freedom. Wildness. Connection. Understanding. Something small and private and beautiful that you can never quite name but that burns inside when you read something that feels like it was written just for you.   

My local library in South Norwood was recently threatened with closure. A library in the London borough of Croydon, where around 35% of children speak English as a second language, and nearly 30% are on free school meals. In short, exactly where public money should be funnelled into public services which can be accessed by all, for the benefit of all.  

One solution that is often touted by councils is that members of the community volunteer to run libraries themselves. This seems heartwarming. A community comes together in a time of need and the library stays open. Problem solved. But this solution is wrong. It is an insult, championed by councils because it is free. But the one thing that makes libraries so vital is those who run them. Librarians are experts, and we are not sick of them. They are the ones who know which book will bridge, which book will broaden, which book will comfort, which book will inspire. They care about the right books being in the right hands, they know the stories that will strike a chord and create all of the magic I’ve spoken about. Their job is so multi-faceted, passionate, and informed. It deserves investment, and children deserves librarians.  

Just like October, every child deserves to find their place through stories, to feel anchored, to feel safe, to feel connected, to feel joy and freedom and wildness. Every child deserves to know a thousand worlds other than their own. That’s why winning the Yoto Carnegie is so special – to be recognised by people who understand the true value of stories. What a privilege it is to play a small part in the alchemical magic of stories, and to be able to share those stories with the world.