Geraldine's Carnegie Medal Speech 2018

Anne Fine says to be wary of starting a speech with ‘I’ – which makes it difficult to express the sheer delight of being here, holding this.  But she’s right, because it is a communal effort that brings any book into existence.  Where the World Ends was much improved by good editing, beautifully designed and illustrated, noised abroad, vetted by experts, sold by bookshops, reviewed by journalists... It only exists because real men and boys lived through a nightmare, never thinking to have their suffering exploited three centuries later.  And of course, as Ursula leGuin said, “The unread story is... little black marks on wood pulp.  The reader, reading it, makes it live.” Thank you, readers, for breathing life into our books. My contribution always seems the easiest.  It’s not the same for all writers, I know, but for me writing is one immense pleasure -  a delectable, selfish, satisfying, frustrating, absorbing handicraft, like marquetry – very like marquetry, in fact.

Increasingly, writers-for-young-people are looked to to tackle the world’s dilemmas - which is a lot to ask, you’ll admit.  But this year in particular, authors much braver than I have been prepared to wall themselves up in grueling interior worlds to bring us books that give a true insight into injustice, impending danger, other people’s lives and hardships.... Their stories stick like burrs and won’t be shaken off any time soon.Fiction can achieve marvellous things, especially inside individual heads, not least when it subtly nudge-nudge-nudges the reader towards minding more, thinking more, asking questions.

 

I realise that the book industry is not the product of a single brain, but to me a very odd rift seems to have opened up.  Clearly, at last it is possible to tackle (with older readers anyway) any subject at all, however harrowing, taboo, difficult or controversial... Butjust as that became possible...publishing censorship turned all its guns on WORDS.  Vocabulary must not be too challenging. Books will not be published unless they are accessible.

Accessible language is, to me, a euphemism for something desperate.   Most of its tyrannies are brought to bear on younger books right now.  But blink twice and today’s junior school readers will be in secondary school,armed only with a pocketful of single syllable words, and with brains far less receptive to the acquisition of vocabulary than when they were three or seven or nine...

We master words by meeting them, not by avoiding them.The only way to make books – and knowledge – accessible is to give children the necessary words.  And how has that always been done?  By adult conversation and reading.Since when has one generation EVER doubted and pitied the next so much that it decides not to burden them with the full package of the English language but to feed them only a restricted diet, like invalids, of simple words.“Look: We’re not going to trouble you with too many words, dear, until you have enough vocabulary to understand them.”  That puts me in minds of the notice in the post office that said, “Pencils will not be provided until the public stop taking them away”.

Worst and most wicked outcome of all would be that we deliberately and wantonly create an underclass of citizens with a small but functional vocabulary:    easy to manipulate and lacking in the means to reason their way out of subjugation, because you need words to be able to think for yourself.

Forgive the strength of feeling: it comes of disgust at my failing memory.  It takes me ten times as long these days to write a page of script, as I rifle through my brain for words I know exist but can’t find. That’s okay. It’s an age thing. It happens.  At least, in the past I’ve walked through orchards of words, like Andrew Marvell among the nectarines and curious peaches.  I’ve heard in my head (as I read them)sentences that rolled like deep ocean, and met with metaphors that turned prose into pictures.  It’s tough to lose words... but never to have even MET them in the first place? Never to have had kind parents and teachers deliver them to your door like a truck load of Lego bricks - to build your very own thoughts and hopes out of?  How terrible would that be?  To have only enough to get by on? 

In my opinion, young readers should be bombarded with words like gamma rays, steeped in words like pot plants stood in water, pelted with them like confetti, fed on them like alphabetti spaghetti, given Hamlet’s last resort:  “Words. Words. Words.” 

So one thing makes me happier than anything else today – apart from this ‘ticket-of-leave’  to go on calling myself an author.  It’s the impression I get from the whole shortlist – that the gloomy prophecies haven’t come true.  Research has been saying for years that ‘literary children’s books’  will soon be as extinct as the dinosaurs.    But look!  The Carnegie says that we’re still allowed to use interesting vocabulary and architectural sentences and parcel up our stories as stylishly as possible and not be banished for it.

Many congratulations to  Amnesty Winner and Kate Greenaway winner. Thank you to my fellow authors for the pleasure their books have given me.  Thank you Anne for making the book better, Rebecca for publishing it – everyone at Usborne, in fact. Thank you Ailsa for causing me to write it, and Joel, for wanting to make it into a movie. Thank you to the shadowers for daring to read books without knowing whether they would enjoy them or not.  Thank you to the RNIB for making it available to the blind.   Thank you to my husband for putting up with the vacant woman who’s brain was temporarily impaled on a rock in the North Atlantic.  Thank you God for the joy of writing.  And thank you all for today.

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