‘A Fascinating Sample’

60 Years of the CILIP Kate Greenaway Medal

A personal reflection by Nicolette Jones

A cupboard in the CILIP headquarters in Ridgmount Street in London contains the books that have won the CILIP Kate Greenaway Medal over the past 60 years. A browse through them reveals a great deal: changes in taste and techniques; some inspired choices that recognised talent early, or at its peak; some lost treasures; some surprising omissions; and some errors of judgement.

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The prize got off to an admirable start in 1956 by honouring Edward Ardizzone for his Tim All Alone, a choice validated by posterity, which still appreciates his ink line and soft-toned watercolour creating three-dimensional scenes – whether cosy rooms or vast seascapes – that take the reader into the action. Like stage sets, they make each page a little world. The archive also reveals that Ardizzone designed a black-and-white book plate especially for the Library Association Youth Libraries Section, with a lot of cross-hatching and three children poring over books in front of the library shelves.

Not all the names in the list, though, are so familiar. William Stobbs, who won for two books in 1959 (one of which is missing from the archive), was head of design at the London School of Printing for the previous eight years, but his fame waned despite the skilled and charming caricatures and lively colour plates with which he illustrated Chekhov’s 1887 story Kashtanka, about a dog frightened by a marching band. Stobbs, originally published by OUP, is one of the talents I would be glad to see republished, though the text may need a bit of tinkering: the story begins “A little red-haired bitch ...”

Also still appealing, from 1960, is Old Winkle and the Seagulls (maybe change the title of that too?), written by Elizabeth Rose. It is about a fisherman disdained by his fellows for his old-fashioned methods, until his knowledge of the habits of seagulls saves the day. Gerald Rose illustrated it with blithe, free brushstrokes and eventful, stylised cartoons; it looks like a rougher early draft of John Burningham’s Borka.

Who now remembers the late V H (Violet Hilda) Drummond, whose Mrs Easter and the Storks won in 1957? Born in 1911 and trained at St Martin’s, she still has a following in the auction houses for her London street scenes, and although her story is dated, her playful images have energy and retro appeal. The early judges had, it seems, a good eye. 

They also recognised C Walter Hodges, better known for illustrating Rosemary Sutcliff’s The Eagle of the Ninth and Elizabeth Goudge’s The Little White Horse, who turned his knowledge of theatre (he designed costumes and scenery for the Everyman in Liverpool and the Mermaid in London) to use in his skilled and authoritative illustrations for Shakespeare’s Theatre, which won in 1964. Again, though, opinion has left him behind despite his facility: an image of an African with a bone through his nose is unacceptable now.  

And Antony Maitland’s gloriously drawn line in the rich pictures of his 1961 winner, Mrs Cockle’s Cat, has lasting appeal. This book resonates from my own childhood, and clearly from Frank Cottrell Boyce’s: he wrote the introduction to Jane Nissen Books’ recent new edition of Philippa Pearce’s story. Also a lost gem is Krystyna Turska’s The Woodcutter’s Duck (1972), a tale set in a Polish village and illustrated with dexterity and a delightful quality of folk art.

The first decade or so of the CILIP Kate Greenaway Medal was particularly creditable. It honoured Brian Wildsmith (1962) for his exuberant animal ABC, which is still in print; it discovered John Burningham in 1963, appreciating that an important new talent had arrived with his enduring Borka; and it did the same with Raymond Briggs’s substantial 1966 children’s book The Mother Goose Treasury, a tour de force of 800 images in a surprising assortment of styles (his earlier Fee Fi Fo Fum had also been commended).

Sometimes the choices were not so durable, although, as in the case of Hodges, the talent was undeniable. Pauline Baynes, original illustrator of The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe, won in 1969 for her illustrations to A Dictionary of Chivalry. The pictures owe much to mediaeval painting, and are truly beautiful, but the book they adorned (a whole dictionary about chivalry?) is too scholarly and recherché to have been a lasting hit.

The great Victor Ambrus, who combines draughtsmanship, humour, a way with character and zinging colour, won for three books (one in 1965 and two in 1975) which are all now out of print (and rare). Horses in Battle is spectacularly drawn, but, like the Baynes, too specialist. And his circus story Mishka, featuring elephants, lions and seals, has, for all its high-spirited opulence, become obsolete along with the animal acts. But Ambrus’s first published book, The Three Poor Tailors, with its comedy and lovely mediaeval townscapes, though perhaps in need of a light edit (“they had a gay time”), would be on my comeback list. Fortunately Ambrus is still illustrating – see for instance The Seal’s Fate, by Eoin Colfer (Barrington Stoke 2015).

From the 1970s onwards things got a bit more hit-and-miss. The CILIP Kate Greenaway Medal can be proud that it has rewarded some of the greatest illustrators of the age. Among the 14 illustrators who have won the award twice, the following appear: Helen Oxenbury, John Burningham, Raymond Briggs, Shirley Hughes, Michael Foreman, Anthony Browne, Janet Ahlberg and Chris Riddell, who has won the medal three times. Among the books they won for are lasting favourites: Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, Mr Gumpy’s Outing, Father Christmas, Dogger, War Boy, Zoo, Each Peach Pear Plum and Gulliver. Not only did the judges recognise skill, they picked books that were highlights of careers. Similarly, Quentin Blake’s Mr Magnolia and Barbara Firth’s Can’t You Sleep Little Bear? were deservedly crowned. And it ‘discovered’ Burningham with Borka, the superlative draughtswoman Emily Gravett with her debut, Wolves, and Jim Kay with his astonishing multimedia illustrations to A Monster Calls.

More detailed records, though, reveal the books that were commended or highly commended, and, from 1995 only, full shortlists. This supplementary information shows that the also-rans often included great and enduring books. There were some years when books we now think of as classics were up against each other: bad luck, for instance, that Jill Murphy’s Peace at Last was published in the same year as Mr Magnolia (1980). Helen Oxenbury’s We’re Going on a Bear Hunt (the first of four of her shortlisted books that did not win) was beaten by Michael Foreman’s War Boy (1989). Raymond Briggs’ The Snowman was pipped by Janet Ahlberg’s Each Peach Pear Plum (1978), while Ahlberg’s Burglar Bill succumbed to Dogger (1977). And Jane Ray’s beautiful volume of Fairy Tales was ousted by Lauren Child’s I Will Not Ever Never Eat a Tomato (2000).

In 1987 Adrienne Kennaway won with her Crafty Chameleon, over, among others, Jill Murphy’s All in One Piece and Babette Cole’s Prince Cinders. The book’s Lion King aesthetic and graphic design style might have looked original then; now it seems an improbable selection. 1994’s winner, Gregory Rogers’ Way Home, was edgy and filmic – the story of a boy and a kitten in tough city streets, with challenging images in charcoal and pastel. A daring choice – but it was in contention with Chris Riddell’s Something Else (by Kathryn Cave) and Helen Oxenbury’s So Much (by Trish Cooke), both of which still make hearts sing.

But there are a few years when, in my opinion, the choice was not just contentious, but wrong. In 1986 for instance, Fiona French’s Snow White in New York won. It sets the story in the Jazz Age, and adopts an Art Deco style. Quite an interesting idea, carried through diligently, but it was up against Babette Cole’s Princess Smartypants, Tony Ross’s I Want My Potty and Janet Ahlberg’s The Jolly Postman. Neither Cole nor Ross has ever won the CILIP Kate Greenaway Medal. Both work with a vigour and skill that surpasses French’s, and the overlooking of Ahlberg had to be made good a few years later when, oddly, the seasonal sequel The Jolly Christmas Postman took the prize (1991).

And in 1974, when there is no complete record of the competition, Pat Hutchins’ The Wind Blew won the CILIP Kate Greenaway Medal. It may have ticked boxes for movement through the book, or interaction of its (half-rhyming) text and image, but it is not a thing of beauty, with its stiff, squat, large-headed, slightly grotesque figures, and repetition of characters and postures to the point of dullness. It would not make the cut as a Sunday Times Book of the Week, let alone a picturebook of the year.

The judges have sometimes been, perhaps, susceptible to fashion in illustration. It can be hard to see the mannerisms of a time without hindsight. 1974 was, after all, a year for exaggeration, at least in dress.  Some images are timeless; some date. Charles Keeping’s The Highwayman, which won in 1981for its monochrome and sinister images, now has the look of its period, rather than the time at which the poem it illustrates is set: the face and hair of the innkeeper’s daughter are out of a 1980s magazine. Keeping was a skilled artist, but his work evolved, more than others’, as a reflection of his era. His 1967 winner, Charley, Charlotte and the Golden Canary, has a quite different, psychedelic look, to go with its 60s social conscience.

The shortlists reveal some interesting bridesmaids. Many recurrent shortlistees have also won, but the following (if I have missed none) have been twice shortlisted (and in some case commended or highly commended), without ever being the bride: Russell Ayto, Simon Bartram, Nicola Bayley, Ken Brown, Rebecca Cobb, Babette Cole, Ross Collins, Alexis Deacon, Roberto Innocenti, Jill Murphy, Colin McNaughton, Graham Oakley, Jan Ormerod, Jane Ray, David Roberts, Tony Ross and Chris Wormell. Caroline Binch and Ruth Brown have been shortlisted three times, Dave McKean four times and Oliver Jeffers five. One wonders if these were Marmite illustrators – loved by many but unappreciated by someone or several on the (now large) judging panel.

Many acclaimed illustrators have made a shortlist once but never received the medal, among them Emma Chichester Clark, Satoshi Kitamura, Korky Paul, Charlotte Voake… But Judith Kerr, recipient of the second ever Booktrust Lifetime Achievement Award, has never even been shortlisted (her The Tiger Who Came to Tea was published the year Pauline Baynes’s chivalric illustrations won). And the esteemed Eric Carle (eligible since 2000) has never got further than a longlist.

The shortlists also reveal names that have fallen from glory. Notable among them is William Papas, who was commended for five books in the 1960s, as well as, unusually, for his lifetime’s work. His work, Google reveals, was indeed distinguished, and, like Chris Riddell, he was known as a political cartoonist as well as a children’s book illustrator. He lived in Greece and then the US before his death in 2000, and most of his work is now out of print. But one book, Tasso, a story set on a Greek island and originally published in 1966, will be republished in March 2017 by Hertfordshire-based independent Pikku Publishing.

The collection is a record not only of talent and taste, but also of changing techniques. To generalise, the 50s were notable for their line, the 60s for colour, texture and freedom. The 70s were eclectic, embracing Jan Pienkowski’s silhouettes (1971 and 1979), Raymond Briggs’s innovative cartoon strip Father Christmas (1973) and Gail Haley’s Art Nouveau pastiche The Post Office Cat (1976). Over the 80s and 90s the librarian judges fell back in love with realism, favouring, for instance, Juan Wijngaard’s minutely detailed, pre-Raphaelite- influenced Sir Gawain and the Loathly Lady (1985), Gary Blythe’s photorealist The Whales’ Song (1990) and two books by P J Lynch, whose autumnal and atmospheric pictures are built up from photographs (1995 and 1997). The 21st century marked the rise of two-dimensional images influenced by graphic design (such as Jon Klassen’s 2014 winner This is Not My Hat) and brought in computerised images – as in the work of Lauren Child, who combines drawing and graphic backgrounds. Grahame Baker-Smith’s FArTHER was the first winner to look digitally made, and it was a long way from Violet Drummond’s inky strokes. Good old-fashioned draughtsmanship has always had its place, and still does in recent winners – it is the strength, for instance, of Freya Blackwood’s Harry and Hopper from 2010 and a feature of William Grill’s pencil crayon in 2015’s winner, Shackleton’s Journey. The story of the CILIP Kate Greenaway Medal is not a comprehensive history of 60 years of illustration, but it is a fascinating sampler. The only thing that seems certain about the prize is that you cannot be sure what the judges will choose next.

Nicolette-Jones

Nicolette Jones is a writer and journalist who has been the children’s books reviewer of The Sunday Times for more than two decades. She chaired the panel that chose the All Time Top Ten CILIP Carnegie and Greenaway Medal winners for the 70th/50th anniversary.