Reading the Carnegie Medal Winners – Pigeon Post by Athur Ransome

Published in 1936, Pigeon Post was the first Carnegie Medal Winner.

My initial experience of Arthur Ransome and the world of Swallows and Amazons was on holiday at my grandmothers house in Denmark. Sadly, they were not considered ‘good enough’ for my local library to stock. As a result, for me, Arthur Ransome is associated with illicit holiday reading which is slightly ironic considering his very wholesome subjects of sailing, camping and general outdoorsy-ness.

I don’t think my local library was alone in condemning Arthur Ransome’s books, this was the late 70s, early 80s after all, a period in which everything middle-class and wholesome was very much out of fashion in favour of more ‘realistic’ and gritty novels. And then, the final nail in the coffin, his books were part of a series which, as Victor Watson points out in “Reading Series Fiction’ (2000), has always been considered slightly suspect and ‘second-rate’.

As a child I loved series fiction. Is there anything better than falling in love with a new author or series and then discovering that there are more? In fact, I still feel like this as an adult. Victor Watson describes how one of his Year 6 students explained that reading series fiction is like walking into a room full of friends and I think this is such an apt description of the attraction of series fiction.

Pigeon Post was very much of its time. Camping and tramping novels were popular from the 1930s to the 1960s. They were devoted to the excitements of hiking, exploring, boating, map-readingand the practicalities of camping. They were an expression of their age – Scouts and Girl guides flourished and were popular, (some) children had more freedom to be out and about on their own, and children needed to develop more self-sufficiency in the face of WWII.

Pigeon Post has a large cast of the usual Ransome characters from previous books, is set in the Lake district and is primarily concerned with camping (away from the adults) and goldprospecting with the danger element provided by uphill fires. Focus is on practical matters and it is not very introspective. It is interesting to read about the use of pigeons for messages and these are central to the plot as is the landscape that surrounds the children. Of course it suffers from old-fashioned sexual stereotypes – Susan gets a mincing machine for her birthday (!!) and appears to be thrilled with this which is inadvertently quite funny to a contemporary reader. I am pretty sure I didn’t read Pigeon Post as a child. As an adult, I find it perfectly readable, but not engrossing. In my personal view, probably a 5/10, though Ransome fans might be up in arms about this score.

Victor Watson points out that for about “thirty years children’s literature was for the most part a version of pastoral and sustained and essentially adult elegy on a massive scale for dearly loved and vanishing rural ways of life, mediated through fiction intended for young readers ” (p 79). I think it may have been longer – it is clearly evident in The Wind in the Willows (1908) and in the Carnegie Medal winners, we see it in Pigeon Post and it suffuces books like ‘The Little Grey Men’ and ‘The Little White Horse, both Carnegie Medal winners in the 1940s. I will be able to trace this as I read on and discover the themes of the later Carnegie Medal books.


Reading the Carnegie Medal Winners

I have started on a big but exciting project: I am going to read all the Carnegie Medal Winners from the inception of the medal in 1936 until the present day and blog about my progress and thoughts on the books. I will start from the beginning and read in chronological order where possible. Quite a few of the early Carnegie medal winners are out of print and not available secondhand or too expensive (more than £15 or so).

This is both a personal and a professional project. I’m currently doing a MA in Children’s Literature at Goldsmiths, but I don’t have any lectures until October and this seems like a perfect opportunity to investigate what has been considered some of the best children’s literature written in the English language through the last 70+ years. I want to look at the themes which are emerging and to form my own impressions and opinions of the literary history of Children’s Literature. I have persuaded some fellow students to keep me company at least some of the way and we are selecting one book from each decade to ‘meet’ and discuss. One intrepid fellow student is also reading as many of the books as she can, like me.

Margery Fisher wrote in the introduction to Intent upon Reading – a critical appraisal of modern fiction for children’: “Today it is hard to keep abreast of new publictions, let alone keep a sense of proportion abouth them. There is little time to look back at the classics, to recommend them to children who, following the habit of their elders, take the easy way out and ask for the latest story by So-and-so”. This was in 1967 and Fisher was in part looking back on an earlier time where, according to her, Harvey Darton had managed to create a ‘definitive work’; Children’s Books in England. Obviously this now raises all kinds of questions around who are the taste makers, how cannons are formed and so on but I also recognises Fisher’s quest for trying to understand what has gone before, to hold on to what is ‘good’, however we define it, and not just look to what is ‘just out’ and newly published.

The Carnegie medal is given to children’s books published in the UK and recognises outstanding literary quality that year. This reading project and this blog is my way of looking back at what has gone before and to understand what is still, in my purely personal opinion, ‘good’ and what time has moved on from. There’s a similar award given to books published in the US, the Newberry Medal – maybe I’ll get on to that list afterwards!

My Cookbook

I am in the company of Elizabeth David, Claudia Roden and many other famous cookery book writers. I started my own cookery book 15 years ago when when I lived in Brussels and suffered from duL homesickness both for the UK and for Denmark.  I am afraid mine is much more prosaic, but in these 15 years it’s grown steadily and it now amounts to 315 pages. I add to it every time we eat something we either say ‘let’s have that again’ or, better, where I find that I’ve returned to a cutting or a recipe again, usually within a short period, to cook it, again. Then I know it is a winner. It is amazing how quickly you forget to do something which during certain periods you do quite routinely – I had to look up exactly how it is I make yoghurt the other day, last summer I made it at least 10 times, but now I’d already forgotten again. I also use it to capture food cooked by my aunt or my mother, stuff that my grandmothers would have cooked for me as a child but at that time I was not sufficiently into cooking to ask for the recipe, I was just in the kitchen, helping, absorbing, enjoying.

Elderflower season


The Elder is flowering, at least in the protected environment of London Parks and I went and picked earlier this week, enough to make a batch of my elderflower cordial. This makes the best cordial ever and I make one or two batches every spring and freeze to use during the summer. It is lovely served with normal or sparkling water (my favourite) or mixed with white wine. It can also be used as an ingredient in all kinds of cakes and desserts – but mainly we drink ours.

I have used various recipes over the years but this is the best and the one I’m now sticking with. You can make a kind of jam from the leftover lemons and elderflowers, it has a very intense taste, and is nice in small batches.

40 heads of eldersflower

2 lemons

2 kgs sugar

2 liter water

50 g ascorbic acid (buy this from the chemist)

Carefully cut the flowers off the stalks into a large bowl that can take the liquid later. It can be a bucket or a bowl, but mustn’t be made of aluminium. It doesn’t matter if small pieces of green stalk is included but the less there is, the better the taste. Peel the lemon with a carrot peeler and add to the bowl of flowers. Remove the white peel from the lemons and throw this out. Cut the lemons into slices and add to the bowl.

Heat up the sugar and the water until boiling. Add the ascorbic acid and pour over the flowers. Leave for 3-5 days, covered with a cloth, stirring once or twice a day. When ready, decant into bottles and freeze.


Isle of dreams

We went to Isle of Wight for the May Bank Holiday and had the most wonderful time! I think I might have been there before, but couldn’t remember how utterly beautiful it was. Winding lanes, lovely views over hilly farmland criss-crossed with hedges, decidious woods carpeted with bluebells and wood anemones. Everybody kept telling me it is ‘old worldly’ but I hadn’t realised how much I’d love it. And not only me, also the children. My youngest just wanted to move there, and I’m kind of with him! Surely that lottery win must be imminent!


Looking for dinosaur footsteps on the beach. Fortunately we bumped into a group who were doing a walk and so we managed to spot a print or two with the  help of the tourguide.



Visiting the steam railway. Again, such a lovely, charming old-fashioned experience, being run by real enthusiasts.

IMG_3548Quarr monastry. Just did a whistlestop tour of the farm shop (I bought a Boysenberry bush) but definitely want to come back here next time to have a proper look around.


A bluebell wood, this one at Mottistone Gardens, where we went for a couple of walks both within the garden and up onto the hills behind.

Isle of Wight, I’m definitely coming back soon!

And that was that Half Term

We did not, much to the children’s initial disgust, go away this half term. But looking back, the entire family is happy with what we managed to do.

We were outside – we spent a day at Wisley, the RHS’ garden, which is just a great place to take children, we went to Brockwell Park Greenhouse Community Garden and did a workshop on Land Art (which was amazing, and just right for my 7-year old).

We did sport – the children did two days at Kinetic Sports Club at school and we went to the park to practice rollerblading and cycling and we went to the swimming pool at the lovely Camberwell Baths.

We did culture – we went to the cinema and saw Ghosthunters (the children loved it, the adults were bored) and to the theatre and saw I believe in Unicorns as part of the Southbank Childrens Festival.

And in between we managed some playdates, some tv time and lots and lots of drawing and creative time. All in all I think we can look back at a break well spent!

The Magic of The Magic Schoolbus

71HZ-fXNyYL._SL1094_.jpgIn our family we’ve just recently discovered the cartoon ‘The Magic Schoolbus’. It’s an American-Canadian science cartoon for children and it has my two mesmerised, and learning, for hours. It is just fabulous – from the range of scientific subjects to the attitude of the teacher. The science topics we’ve enjoyed to date include several episodes about various functions of the body (the respiratory system, muscles, white blood cells) to what happens when salmon migrate and how to build a bridge. I think the series is from the late nineties and it is voiced by Lily Tomlinson in usual gravel-voiced style. I now find my 4 year old informing me about viruses and how the body fights them, in quite graphic detail but it is all true. Both children literally beg to watch more – learning about science used as a reward for good behaviour – it’s win-win in my book!

A climbing party

Today we’ve been busy celebrating my daughter’s 7th birthday. Her actual birthday is on Christmas day, so we normally have a party for her friends sometime in January. This year it was a bit later than usual as her and her classmates are all doing assessments for the next schools and we wanted the party to come after all the assessments.

While they are still so young I like to invite the entire class to the party. I don’t like the thought of some children feeling left out or not being invited to parties held by their classmates so until she’s old enough to object strenuously we will be inviting everybody, both girls and boys.


It was a climbing party at a local health centre and they could only take 16 children. As there are 18 in the class, my daughter included, I had to invite everybody and cross my fingers that at least 2 couldn’t make it. Luckily it worked out – both in terms of numbers and in terms of the activity. All the children loved it and we had no broken bones, no crying or being scared and returned a bunch of tired out children to their parents at the end of the party.

We had all the usual English party food – which is very different to the children’s party food I grew up with in Denmark – but my daughter had requested a Danish ‘cake man’ – a kagemand – which is one of a couple of very traditional Danish birthday cakes (the others are lagkage (layer cake) and kringle (a pretzel shaped sort of patisserie). I’m not sure it was that easy to see that it was a cake man, but the cake and the decorations of sweets went down very well. For instructions on how to decorate I always use this video (in Danish, but I think it is pretty self-explanatory). The cake itself is a rich yeast dough with a remonce topping made of 250 g dark sugar and 150 g butter). Here’s our finished version in any case:



Lean in / Lean out

Last night I went to hear Dawn Foster talk about her new book Lean Out. It took place at the London Book Review bookshop in Bloomsbury. I love this part of London – it reminds me of my university days, spent just around the corner at UCL, but unfortunately I go all too infrequently. It has appeared as a bit cumbersome to get to from Herne Hill, but yesterday I realised that there is a bus from Holborn practically to my front door. So now I’ll be going a bit more frequently!

Anyway, the talk by Dawn Foster (which turned out to be a talk between Zoe Williams and Dawn Foster) was interesting. I have read Lean In, which Lean Out is a polemic response to, and thought that Sheryl Sandberg made some good points (though you could read the introduction as a synopsis and not have to read any further). In particular her point on how women deselect opportunities and challenges because they are preparing for the day in the future when they’ll have children is absolutely something I’ve observed in ‘real life’. Dawn and Zoe made some good points of criticism of Sheryl’s book, specifically that Sheryl Sandberg doesn’t rock the boat very much and doesn’t really offer any structural challenges to bring about change. However, in the conversation Zoe and Dawn weren’t providing any either. Nonetheless, I was sufficiently intrigued to buy the book so watch this space!

I was lucky enough to be invited to this event by my friend Olivia who is involved in the ‘Let Toys be Toys’ campaign which I learnt last night has just won the Brio price 2015. This is fantastic news and well deserved! I SO believe in the spirit of this campaign!

Source: Lean Out — Dawn Foster