And so …. drum roll …. (you probably know this by now) … Tanya Landman was announced the winner yesterday of the most prestigious prize in UK children’s fiction: the Carnegie medal. Her story about a runaway ex-slave girl who dresses up in the clothes of a dead soldier to join the US army and stay alive is thrilling, brutal, touching and unforgettable.
It was a good shortlist this year. There were lots of books I’d have been happy to see win. And others I’m still looking forward to reading.
Tanya gave a strong and impassioned speech yesterday, when she won. Not just a ‘thank you very much’, but a plea for schools to encourage creativity in children, not stifle it with ‘tickboxes’. Along with many other writers, including some from Girls Heart Books, I’ve recently signed an open letter to the Education Secretary, organised by the writer Celia Busby, calling for a less prescriptive approach to teaching creative writing, which would allow children to learn to write in clear, simple prose.
In July, I’ll be doing creative writing workshops in schools and I can’t wait. But what I really want to see from the students is zaniness, wildness, uniqueness – ideas that make my brain pop. Not necessarily the longest words they can think of, or the most complicated grammar.
After all, some of my writing heroes worked hard on making their prose seem as simple as possible, so the story shone through. (Think of Elmore Leonard: never use ‘exclaimed’ or ‘interjected’ when a simple ‘said’ will do.) I spend more time on my own work taking adjectives out, rather than putting them in. As I say to students – they’re special tools with extraordinary powers, so use them carefully.
In her Carnegie acceptance speech Tanya said, ““I’ve watched teachers tied in straitjackets by the demands of the national curriculum and Ofsted, and students imprisoned in boxes that need to be ticked. Our system is in danger of squeezing every scrap of imagination out of our children.”
We mustn’t let that happen! Our children have the most extraordinary imaginations. What’s your experience, and what do you think? Oh, and which Carnegie book did you want to win?
UPDATE: A piece in the Guardian’s creative writing section has since been published, going into more detail about the letter: http://www.theguardian.com/books/2015/jun/23/national-curriculum-is-damaging-childrens-creative-writing-say-authors. Can you imagine banning the word ‘big’ in the classroom? What would the BFG do?