Children's Laureate 2001-2003
Carnegie Medal 1989, 1992
Whitbread Award 1993, 1996
Guardian Fiction Award 1990
I'm thrilled to be here for such a lovely reason. There's nothing more heartening than coming to fetch an award - especially an award as prestigious and valued as this one; nothing that cheers an author more than knowing that the book she wrote is not only being read, but appreciated as well. I'm well aware of the contribution made by my illustrator, the very distinguished and excellent Penny Dale, who's done so much to make this book inviting and accessible. I wish she were here, too, to thank in public. I owe her a great debt. And I'd very much like to take this chance to thank both of the publishers concerned, Walker Books UK and Candlewick Press here, for taking such tremendous editorial care, both of me and the text, and producing such lovely, smooth, pick-up-able editions.
Those of you who know my work well may have been a bit surprised by The Jamie and Angus Stories. Compared to the rest of my books published here, it may seem untypically gentle. To be fair to me, this is in large part because the younger end of my work doesn't, as they say, "travel" well to the States. Recently, a critic pointed out that, for readers up to age eleven or so, I tend to write as if home is the safe, and school the testing, place; and in the novels for older child readers the position reverses, with school usually providing the safer psychological area, and the family providing the tension. This critic suggested - accurately I think - that I go to great efforts to protect the younger end of my readership.
It's certainly true that my inclination to protect my readers lessens radically in accordance with how old those readers grow. (Indeed, only one of my five adult novels has ever been published in this country. The other four - all black comedies about families - have been variously seen by American publishers as "too cruel" and "far too near the bone" for American readers.) Reviews of my books for older children quite justifiably tend to feature words like ruthless, uncomfortable, knife-edged, and mordant. And often my topics are harsh. The Tulip Touch and Step by Wicked Step are emotionally demanding. Although it's a comedy, so is The Book of the Banshee - not least for adult readers: those of us who've had teenagers will never forget that they can be no joke. The Granny Project, Flour Babies, Alias Madame Doubtfire, My War with Goggle-Eyes - all these books, though comedies, have a deeply serious side.
So I think we can safely agree that, here in this country at least, I'm known more for my edge than my kindness. It's therefore a double delight for me that it is this book - The Jamie and Angus Stories - that has won the Boston Globe-Horn Book Award.
As soon as I'd finished these stories, I sent them in to Jane Winterbotham, of Walker Books UK. A day or so later, she phoned up, and in a moment of unguarded editorial over-enthusiasm, let slip the sentence: "Oh, Anne! I didn't know you could write a nice book!"
For a moment, I was mortified. Was I going soft? Soppy? Halfway to Guess How Much I Love You? But then I realized, No. I'm told that what people value in my work is that sort of honesty that sees things how they are, rather than how we'd like them to be. And I suspect that what the readers - and possibly even the judges of this prize - liked best about this book is its honesty about young children. What's made clear through these stories is that even the youngest children have a far wider emotional range than many people are willing to give them credit for.
Ask a dentist how he or she deals with patients, and you will often get a reply along the lines of, "Treat the adults like children, and the children like adults." Similarly, if you reflect for a moment on the old journalist's dictum "Never overestimate your readers' knowledge; never underestimate their intelligence," you will realize that you have just been offered, in a nutshell, the best advice going for a children's writer. When I was living in California, one of the neighbors was a children's therapist. Once, sitting on the stoop, I asked her, "So what's the secret, eh?" And what she said was, "Well, every single time the child opens its mouth to speak to me, I ask myself, 'What age is this child being now?' and then I respond accordingly."
That night I remember listening to one of my own children through my neighbor's ears. At the time, my daughter, Cordelia, was in actual fact five. But not when you listened. First, she sounded about forty, ticking me off about the old black lungs because she caught me having a quiet cigarette out on the back porch. Then she slithered down to sixteen, fussing about the way she wanted her hair for the kindergarten field trip the next day. At that point, in strolled her older sister, carrying one of Cordelia's precious plastic animals, so Cordie hastily reverted to age two in order to gain every possible advantage of youth in the spat they had about who was going to play with it. She slid back even further, to eighteen months or so, for the ensuing thumb-sucking comfort cuddle on my knee. And then unwittingly slipped forward to twenty or so, for a really rather interesting and sensible conversation about methods of bodily interment, sparked off by my ex-hubby's casual reference to some childhood goldfish that had been flushed down the lavatory.
There was nothing special about that evening. Or about Cordelia. She was simply into the serious business of growing and learning. Children are not obsessed with "fun". And many more than we think are not enthusiasts for childish things. (I myself, for example, was born forty, and have loathed "fun" with a passion all my life.)
In this book, Jamie is learning. Like any author, I've used a mixture of observation, imagination, and experience. I am the one who put the beautiful silky soft toy into the washing machine and ruined it forever. That well-respected academic, Professor Kit Fine, is the one who finally lost his temper with "that great fat tub of lard still idling in that bloody stroller," and tipped her out and stamped the stroller into pieces. It was in my local paper, the Teesdale Mercury, famous for riveting headlines like "Sheep Found Safely in Neighbor's Field," that I read of the person who, stuck in hospital as a child back in the forties, lost his temper with the doctors and demanded payment for each press of his swollen appendix. And everyone has a merry, easygoing, constantly even-tempered relation like Uncle Edward. In many households with very young children, they're referred to as "people who get enough sleep."
And all through, Jamie is learning, learning, learning - right through from the trivia of finding out whether or not he likes the taste of olives to how to be brave and resourceful in hospital, and courteous and (up to a point) selfless at weddings. He is a fortunate child. His parents are confident. In this family, as your gonzo journalist P. J. O'Rourke so aptly put it, there is no casting call for who is to be the parent and who the child. Jamie's parents are kind with him, but they are firm, and Jamie knows his boundaries. His bedtime. The manners that are expected from him. I say again, he is a fortunate child.
And, in a way, so are the children who get to read stories like these, because it is usually through books that even the youngest child perceives that there are other ways of living and loving - that, in short, there will always be choices. It may be in a book that the child of an unthinking bigot first comes across a sustained description of liberal ways of thinking. It may be in a book that a girl who cowers under her teasing or overbearing father's hand first comes across the portrait of a warm, supportive family man.
So books work rather like the wish of the last fairy at Sleeping Beauty's christening. They can soften the curse. Perhaps you drew the short straw with your own family, surroundings, and supports. But maybe, once you can read or find someone to read to you, learning about a family like Jamie's can offer the shaft of light that shows the way out of a dark place. We know from our own experience, and that of others, how very often even the unspoken "I wish things were like that for me" has been translated, by sheer human grit and determination over years, into "but I have made things very different for my own children."
In this respect, I owe a particular debt to this country. Some of you know the story of how my children attended Burns Park Elementary School in Ann Arbor, Michigan, and when all the kindergarteners spilled out at going-home time, clutching their little alphabets copied so carefully in stubby-nosed pencil onto the three-lined paper, the parents at the gates lined up to praise them: "Oh, that is lovely." "That is so good and neat." "Oh, I am going to put that straight up on the refrigerator door!"
Then we went back to Britain. I put the children in an equivalent school, and stood with an equivalent gang of parents at the school gates. Out came the tiny hordes. And what was I hearing around me now? The British form of encouragement: "Look at all these mistakes! Your g has gone all wobbly. And you've left out the q."
It was an eye-opener. It led to my novel Round Behind the Ice-House. And it made me think about the way I was raising my children, for which I will always be grateful.
Writing a sort of semi-autobiography for Something about the Author about ten years ago, I said of the power of fiction, "It changes people, and it changes lives. When we are young, we read about the miller's daughter spinning her straw to gold. And that, I believe, is the writer's great privilege. We only gain from letting our childhoods echo down the years, and we're allowed to spend our lifetimes spinning straw." I still believe this. To me, it still seems miraculous every morning that I can do what I most want to do with every day. I probably speak for all the fortunate authors and illustrators here tonight when I say that even if the awards you gave us were made out of straw, to us they would be gold. Pure gold.
So my thanks to the Horn Book. My thanks to the Boston Globe. My thanks to everyone.
Originally published in the January/February 2004 issue of The Horn Book Magazine
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