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!