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Carnegie Medal
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Carnegie Medal Acceptance Speech

Philip Pullman's The Golden Compass, His Dark Materials book I, was the 1996 winner of the prestigious Carnegie Medal, England's highest honor for children's literature. This text is from his acceptance speech for that prize.

“There are some themes, some subjects, too large for adult fiction; they can only be dealt with adequately in a children's book.

The reason for that is that in adult literary fiction, stories are there on sufferance. Other things are felt to be more important: technique, style, literary knowingness. Adult writers who deal in straightforward stories find themselves sidelined into a genre such as crime or science fiction, where no one expects literary craftsmanship.

But stories are vital. Stories never fail us because, as Isaac Bashevis Singer says, "events never grow stale." There's more wisdom in a story than in volumes of philosophy. And by a story I mean not only Little Red Riding Hood and Cinderella and Jack and the Beanstalk but also the great novels of the nineteenth century, Jane Eyre, Middlemarch, Bleak House and many others: novels where the story is at the center of the writer's attention, where the plot actually matters. The present-day would-be George Eliots take up their stories as if with a pair of tongs. They're embarrassed by them. If they could write novels without stories in them, they would. Sometimes they do.

But what characterizes the best of children's authors is that they're not embarrassed to tell stories. They know how important stories are, and they know, too, that if you start telling a story you've got to carry on till you get to the end. And you can't provide two ends, either, and invite the reader to choose between them. Or as in a highly praised recent adult novel I'm about to stop reading, three different beginnings. In a book for children you can't put the plot on hold while you cut artistic capers for the amusement of your sophisticated readers, because, thank God, your readers are not sophisticated. They've got more important things in mind than your dazzling skill with wordplay. They want to know what happens next.

Now I don't mean children are supernaturally wise little angels gifted with the power of seeing the truth that the dull eyes of adults miss. They're not. They're ignorant little savages, most of them. But they know what they need, and they go for it with the intensity of passion, and what they need is stories. Why do they spend so much time watching TV? They're not watching documentaries about Eastern Europe or programs about politics. They're watching drama, film, story. They can't get enough of it. There's a hunger for stories in all of us, adults too. We need stories so much that we're even willing to read bad books to get them, if the good books won't supply them. We all need stories, but children are more frank about it; cultured adults, on the other hand, those limp and jaded creatures who think it more important to seem sophisticated than to admit to simplicity, find it harder both to write and to read novels that don't come with a prophylactic garnish of irony.

But those adults who truly enjoy story, and plot, and character, and who would like to find books in which the events matter and which at the same time are works of literary art where the writers have used all the resources of their craft, could hardly do better than to look among the children's books.

And there's a spin-off too, a social benefit. All stories teach, whether the storyteller intends them to or not. They teach the world we create. They teach the morality we live by. They teach it much more effectively than moral precepts and instructions. The current campaign for moral education being waged by the Archbishop of Canterbury and the Secretary of State for Education and Training could achieve all it wants in the field of moral education (and we all want a more moral society) by simply making sure that the schools' library service didn't die out. Give the books to the teachers, and then leave them alone; give them time to read and think and talk about the books with one another and with their students, so that they can put the right book into the hands of the right child at the right time.

We don't need lists of rights and wrongs, tables of do's and don'ts: we need books, time, and silence. Thou shalt not is soon forgotten, but Once upon a time lasts forever.”