Tuesday 17 March 2015

We interview Dawn Finch, CILIP Vice President about Carnegie and libraries

Today the shortlist for the Carnegie Medal was announced, and that means the launch, up and down the country of shadowing schemes where schools compete to read and review the shortlist – and pick and debate their own favourite titles.

To mark the occasion we are very lucky to be able to interview Dawn Finch, CILIP Vice President, about the very special place libraries and books have played in her life – and a glimpse behind the scenes of the tortuous road to picking the Carnegie winner.

What was your favourite children’s book as a child?

Oh dear, I'm always being asked this one and it's so hard to answer because I loved so many books. I chose books that fitted with my moods and current tastes and often chose with a random point of my finger when I was in the library. That's the wonderful thing about libraries - no price tag! I could choose whatever I wanted and never had to worry about the cost. I think if I am pushed for an answer I'd go for Arthur Ransome's Swallows and Amazons books. I so wanted to be Nancy and to be able to just go off and row across a lake. Those books encapsulate such a sense of freedom and exploration, and that really appealed to me as a child.

What is your favourite children’s book as an adult?

Whatever I’ve just finished! I used to stick a book out to the end even if I wasn’t enjoying it, but I no longer do that. If I’ve finished a book then that means I enjoyed it. I’m such a sucker for a good book that I do tend to fall in love with the last one I finished. I wouldn’t like to say which is my current favourite as by the time you go to print I’ll be on to the next one and will be in love with that.

 What do you think makes children’s books so inspirational?

For me it’s always been about the voices that speak to us. Young people are looking to be listened to, but they also want to be spoken to as well. A book is inspirational if it touches something inside the reader and says “yes, me too, you are not alone.” I don’t feel that young readers want to be preached to, or to have some great moral message explained to them, they just want to feel less alone. A book that can do that is inspirational.

 Why did you become a librarian?

I always wanted to be either a librarian or a writer, and I’m lucky enough to have achieved both of those things. Who wouldn’t want to be a librarian?! I grew up pretty poor and libraries changed my life. If it wasn’t for libraries I would not be me, and I kind of like me! There is no way my parents could have afforded all of the books that me and my sister ended up reading, but the library let us have them for free. In the school library I had a safe haven from bullies and unhappiness, and I found a place where I felt I belonged.

I always knew that I belonged in a library and I can’t remember a time when I didn’t want to work in one.

What is the best thing about the job? And the worst?

BOOKS! That’s easily the best thing about the job. No, really the best thing is teaching a child how to read and seeing that glorious epiphany moment when they get it, when everything clicks and they become a reader. There really is nothing like that. Recently I had a young man stop me in the street and tell me all about what he was reading and told me it was all down to me because ten years earlier I hadn’t given up on him when he’d given up on himself. He thought he’d never learn how to read, I knew he just needed the right books. That’s pretty special.

The worst thing is the current fight we are in to save libraries from people who haven’t got a clue how important they are. I’m so tired of having to explain that libraries are more than just a room with books in. I’ll never give up on that fight, but I dream of a day when we don’t have to face that struggle.

What is your vision of what a children’s library will look like in ten years time.

I try not to think of the negative aspects of library futures and prefer to dream of a buzzy and lively place full of people using their library for all sorts of things from using the computers, to studying, to reading and learning and just enjoying a vibrant and welcoming place that belongs at the heart of every successful community.

 How did you get involved with CILIP?

When I started off as a casual assistant in a public library a very long time ago, I wasn’t eligible to join CILIP and I saw membership as a validation of being a professional. I studied hard and being accredited was one of the proudest moments of my life. I felt like I’d finally arrived and was a real librarian. I’ve spent a lot of time on committees and campaigning as I wanted to put something back and, in January 2015, I was elected Vice President and now I can properly give back to the organisation that changed my life.

What are the biggest challenges in being a judge for the biggest and most prestigious children’s writing prize– the Carnegie Medal?

As part of the Presidential team we don’t actually get a vote in the Carnegie or Greenaway, but obviously we are involved in our own way. I’ve been on the reading groups in the past and it is incredibly difficult in the regional reading groups to bring it down to a decent number. I’m very glad that I don’t have to bring the list down to the final few, that would break my heart every time my favourites didn’t get through. I think it takes a very special person to be able to separate their personal opinion from those of others.

What do you look for in a good children’s book, and how does this differ from judging an adult book?

I don’t think that there is any difference between judging a book for young people and a book for adults. A good book is one that speaks to you and one that lives in your mind after you’ve put it down. I think that some people feel that it’s all about issues and adversity, but it’s really all about a book that bursts from the page and into your life and your imagination. That’s what makes a Carnegie Greenaway book.

What is the best thing about being involved in the Carnegie prize?

Well, the best thing for me is that I get all the cool stuff like chatting to other authors and reading the books without the weighty responsibility of making final decisions!

So. Let us into the secret – how do they decide which books will make it onto the shortlist? Is it terribly civilised, or is it more heated arguments and smoking guns?

The panels can get quite heated as librarians are incredibly passionate about the books chosen and can get quite protective about the ones that they love. These are not just regular readers remember, these people live and breathe children’s books and so it’s inevitable that their passions will come through. I wouldn’t want to divulge any secrets about the decision making, but it’s by fair and balanced discussion by the final judging panel. As far as I know it has never come to blows!

Children’s fiction and publishing never stands still and we guess judging such a prestigious prize CILIP YLG has to be seen to move with the times. A decision was made this year regarding ensuring joint authors both get nominated – are there any other changes you are looking at?

As you say, the award will move with the times but the criteria for selecting titles are quite clear and fair. I’ve no idea what other changes will be made but any changes would be arrived at by open discussion with CILIP YLG

How many books do you have to read in order to pick a winner?

It depends on how much quality fiction has been published in that year. I believe that members of the regional panels read around a thousand titles overall, more if it is a good year. It genuinely is a massive task, and that’s why YLG rely on the input of librarians from all over the country. It’s a colossal thing to take on, but I do believe that it’s one of the fairest awards because lobbying and marketing have no sway over the librarians – they really can’t be bribed, even with chocolate and cake.

The Carnegie Shadowing scheme is hugely popular in schools and great for getting children reading and reviewing. The shadowing is aimed at 11 and 12 year olds, just getting to grips with more challenging fiction. Do you ever feel they should steer away from having books on the shortlist aimed at 16+ because of the content?

As a school librarian myself I’ve sometimes found it frustrating that the Carnegie books are often too old for my readers, but that’s just the way it goes some years. If the best books in that year are written for older children we shouldn’t exclude them. We are in the midst of a golden age of YA writing and so many of the best books published are indeed for older readers. It’s happened in the past too (remember that Melvin Burgess won it with Junk back in 1996) and I’m sure in future years it will include a good mix as always.

It is always possible to follow the Greenaway Award in schools, and I think that this often gets swamped by the Carnegie. The Greenaway represents the very best illustrated fiction and picture books and is an amazing showcase for the best illustrators in the business. It is a particularly fine list this year and I have lots of favourites on it.

The Carnegie Medal is for the best children’s and young people’s fiction. It’s widely acknowledged that more adults now read YA than children. How do you define young people when allowing nominations for the prize?

I try not to define young people, that’s a rocky road and I’m not travelling it! The publishers define the age group for the books that they publish, but sometimes the judging panels disagree. I’m not convinced that more adults read YA than children. I work with countless schools and the pupils I meet all read books for young adults, as well as books for children and adults. I think that YA is now often read by the 18-25 bracket and that stacks the figures. My own daughter is 21 and I’m still not thinking that she’s quite an adult yet. In any case, it’s fine growing older but I see no reason why anyone should grow up!

What’s your favourite book that has ever won?

That’s actually quite an easy question – Mal Peet’s Tamar from 2005. I so love this book and I slightly embarrassed myself at the ceremony by shouting “yes!” when the announcement was made. To be honest I think that the entire Carnegie backlist is a perfect representation of the very best in writing for young people. For the Greenaway I think that my favourites are probably The Whale’s Song by Gary Blythe and Dyan Sheldon (1990), or maybe Pirate Diary by Chris Riddell and Richard Platt (2001)
It is a remarkable award and every year I look forward to seeing what will win, and to reading the extraordinary books that make the lists.

Thank you Dawn, for such illuminating answers and inspiring us all to fight to keep out libraries. SOTB

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