1950s Medal Winners
Carnegie Medal Winners
1950 Elfrida Vipont: The Lark on the Wing | 1951 Cynthia Harnett: The Wool-Pack | 1952 Mary Norton: The Borrowers | Edward Osmond: A Valley Grows Up | 1954 Ronald Welch: Knight Crusader | 1955 Eleanor Farjeon: The Little Bookroom | 1956 C. S. Lewis: The Last Battle | 1957 William Mayne: A Grass Rope | 1958 Philippa Pearce: Tom's Midnight Garden | 1959 Rosemary Sutcliff: The Lantern Bearers
Kate Greenaway Medal Winners
1955 No prize awarded | 1956: Edward Ardizzone Tim All Alone | 1957: V H Drummond: Mrs Easter and the Storks | 1958 No prize awarded | 1959: William Stobbs A Bundle of Ballads / Kashtanka
Everyone claims that the fifties were a pretty drab time. The decade is referred to as "The Age of Austerity", and austerity means not chucking your money about. But libraries can't have been all that broke, because I remember seeing almost all of this decade's medal winners on the shelves of my local library when I was in primary school.
I'm not taking the winners in order. I'm starting with the two books that have lasted best, The Borrowers by Mary Norton (1952) and Tom's Midnight Garden by Philippa Pearce (1958). If you haven't yet read them, get cracking. Don't just reckon that having seen the films of them is enough.
Had I been Norman William,
With orchards such as these,
With fields so green and flowery,
With such tall poplar trees;
And with the bright broad Seine
Curling through hill and plain,
The thought of Harold's England would have tempted me in vain.
Had I been Norman William
Possessing for my goods
Fairytale thatched cottages
And fairy-haunted woods,
I would have spent my days
Afar from battle frays,
Drinking sweet apple cider
At the Inn of the Four Ways.
In 1955, Eleanor Farjeon won with twenty seven short stories, mostly new fairy tales. She called it The Little Bookroom after a small room in her home which was knee deep in stuff to read. She came from a whole family of writers and was educated at home. Some of her writing is a little dense, but her style as a poet is deceptively simple and appealing. I'm putting one of my favourite poems of hers in a box, so you can see what I mean. It's about William the Conqueror (1028-1087) and how he would have been much more sensible to have stayed in lovely France. And our favourite song in Assembly was always her Morning has Broken. (Ask your granny to warble it to you. Even if she didn't have the same Assemblies as we did, she'll know it from the great Cat Stevens hit in the seventies - though he makes the mistake at the end of pronouncing Re-creation as Recreation, as if he meant going out to play. Someone should definitely have put him right on that.)
Edward Osmond's A Valley Grows Up (1953) is an enlightening book, and very different. It starts with an illustration of a simple, untouched valley, then, page by page, shows all the stages of growth and transport, through to the modern day. It's a terrific way of getting an ongoing sense of cultural history, though the text is a little dry. (If you have one, don't for heaven's sake throw it out. Copies are pretty valuable now.)
The Last Battle was the last in C S Lewis's Narnia series and the 1956 medal winner. My elder daughter read all seven books over and over again when she was around ten years old. Personally, I can't be doing with the series at all. To me, they're the sort of books which, once put down, can't be picked up again. But I've never cared for fantasy.
I adored historical novels, so the 1959 winner, The Lantern Bearers, was right up my street. (Please start this series of Rosemary Sutcliffe's with The Eagle of the Ninth. Brilliant!) I live with a bloke whose dad was her doctor. As she had chronic medical problems he saw her frequently, and thought she was entirely as enchanting as I found her books.
Ronald Welch was another writer of historical fiction. Knight Crusader, which won in 1954, is set around the time of the Third Crusade. It combines real and invented characters, is historically accurate and particularly strong on the Islamic culture of the time. It rattles along at a tremendous pace and by all accounts is the reason why huge numbers of young people who read it developed a passion for history. Welch served in the second world war (he even took his pen name from his own regiment) and the battle scenes are marvellously written.
I was also a great William Mayne fan, though his work is often harder to read. His 1957 winner, A Grass Rope, is set on a Yorkshire Dales farm, and all I remember is that it had treasure and unicorns. You could give it a go if you can find it.
I'm no star on the the other two winners of this decade. I've never read The WoolPack by Cynthia Harnett, though I know the story starts in 1493, and Nicholas's father is a wool merchant who has firm ideas about whom his son should marry. I think the cover put me off when I was young. (I know! I know!) and I've not bumped into the book since.
Similarly, I don't know Elfrida Vipont's The Lark on the Wing (1950), one of five family stories following a boy's musical career. (Everyone knows her most famous picture book, The Elephant and the Bad Baby.) This author was a committed Quaker and attended The Mount School, York. Authors like me are always astonished by Quaker schools. Those almost silent meetings with which the children start the day seem to settle everyone down and put them in a calmer, more open frame of mind. When morning assembly ends in most secondary schools, electric currents of tension fly down the corridors. I suppose everyone's been bossed stupid from the moment they got up ("Hurry up! You'll miss the bus!") to the moment before they file out of the school hall. ("And if I see any more litter...") In a Quaker school, you can almost feel the tranquillity drifting along towards you as the children take their own time to gather their own private thoughts and then amble quietly back towards their home rooms.
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I'm hopeless at talking about illustration, so although the Kate Greenaway Medals began to be awarded in the middle of this decade, I'm not going to give my opinion. My problem is that I trained myself never to look at the illustrations in stories because they so often gave away what was about to happen in the plot. I wish I could claim that I regret that, but if I'm honest it doesn't bother me (though I certainly wouldn't recommend that habit to others).
So instead of running through all the Greenaway winners, I'm going to just pick out one or two outstanding ones for each decade and tell you what others say makes them the most loved. Edward Ardizzone's Tim All Alone won the very first prize, in 1956. Tim arrives home to find his parents aren't there, and resolves to find them wherever they've gone. The minute you see these cross-hatched ink drawings, you'll tell yourself, "Oh, I remember that book!" The water colour wash brings colour to the larger spreads, and the poise of Tim means that his emotions are conveyed in an understated but affecting way.
In 1957, V H (Violet Hilda) Drummond won the prize with Mrs Easter and the Storks. Mrs Easter has a taste for adventure, and the storks are marvellously haughty. The melodrama and humour veers between the absurdist and the surreal, both in text and illustration. The rich reds, yellows and blues embody the spirit and energy of the story and the architecture of London life is realised with precision, without losing any of the warmth. If this book brings another to mind, it will, of course be P L Travers' more famous Mary Poppins, written in much earlier, in 1934.