Two verse books that shine light on forgotten voices and words win UK’s oldest book awards for children and young people

June 18, 2019

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The winners of the prestigious CILIP Carnegie and Kate Greenaway Medals, the UK’s oldest book awards for children and young people, have today been revealed at a ceremony at The British Library, hosted by broadcaster and writer Konnie Huq.

The Poet X by Elizabeth Acevedo (Electric Monkey) scoops the Carnegie Medal for writing, whilst The Lost Words illustrated by Jackie Morris and written by Robert Macfarlane (Hamish Hamilton) takes the Kate Greenaway Medal for illustration. They have been chosen by 14 volunteer Youth Librarians, from over 254 nominations this year, as the very best in children’s writing and illustration published in the UK.

This is the first time both Acevedo and Morris have won a prestigious Medal in either category. The Poet X is Acevedo’s debut novel. Morris has previously been shortlisted for the Kate Greenaway Medal in 2016 for Something About a Bear. The winners will each receive £500 worth of books to donate to a library of their choice, a specially commissioned golden medal and a £5,000 Colin Mears Award cash prize.

It is the first time in the Medals history that both winning titles have been written in verse: in The Poet X, in verse influenced by slam poetry; in The Lost Words, in the form of spells. Only one verse novel has previously won the Carnegie Medal: Sarah Crossan’s One, in 2016.

In both cases, the books use verse to create space for forgotten or marginalised voices and words. Acevedo conceived The Poet X whilst working as an English teacher at a secondary school in Maryland, USA. The daughter of Dominican immigrants, she realised that most of the books she had been teaching didn’t contain characters of colour that reflected the pupils she worked with, and that this feeling of being unseen consequently led to a marked disinterest in reading.

In her speech, Elizabeth Acevedo paid credit to a particular student who inspired her to write the book: “I felt like this student had given me a challenge, or at least permission to grab the baton. She gave me permission to write a story about young people who take up space, who do not make themselves small, who learn the power of their own words.” Closing her speech with an empowering poem celebrating girls of colour, Acevedo said: “I think we should have poetry in every room as much as possible, and because I fundamentally believe in Dr. Rudine Sims Bishop’s words that children’s literature should be a mirror and a window.”

The Lost Words was born in response to the removal of everyday nature words, such as ‘acorn’, ‘bluebell’, ‘kingfisher’ and ‘wren’, from a widely used children’s dictionary on the basis that they were not being used enough by children to merit inclusion. Since its publication in 2017, The Lost Words has gone on to become a ‘cultural phenomenon’ (Guardian) and adopted by environmental activists, most recently during the Extinction Rebellion protests in London, with actress Dame Emma Thompson reading one of the poems to crowds alongside Morris’s composition, ‘Letter to the Earth’. A proportion of the proceeds from each book are donated to youth charity, Action for Conservation.

In her speech, Jackie Morris, said: “The times ahead are challenging. It seems to me that artists, writers, musicians have one job at the moment – to help to tell the truth about what is happening to this small and fragile world we inhabit, to re-engage with the natural world, to inspire and to imagine better ways to live. Because there is no Planet B and we are at a turning point. And because in order to make anything happen it first needs to be imagined. And as writers and illustrators for children we grow the readers and thinkers of the future.

“I’m learning so much as I watch our young people call politicians to account. Together we can make a change. And we must. While politicians nod and pretend to listen to Greta Thunberg, declare Climate Emergencies, then continue with ‘business as usual’ finding money always for bombs and seldom for books we need to stand beside these children and hold our deceitful leaders to account.”

In a speech that paid tribute to the recently departed John Burningham and Judith Kerr, Chair of judges Alison Brumwell praised the immeasurable, lasting impact children’s books and illustration have on our minds, both as young people and later as adults.

“2019 marks the 30th anniversary of the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child. The right to an education and to be able to read are fundamentals. We know how much power a book holds between its covers. This year’s two Medals winners are a case in point, each offering a rich, layered reading experience and an enduring power to inspire.

“Carnegie Medal winner The Poet X by Elizabeth Acevedo offers a searing, unflinching exploration of culture, family and faith within a truly innovative verse structure. We follow the emotional odyssey of its heroine, Xiomara, as she rails, cries, laughs, loves, prays, writes, raps and, ultimately, offers hope. Xiomara comes to life on every page and shows the reader how girls and women can learn to inhabit, and love, their own skin. This is a powerful novel on every level:  its vivid evocation of a Harlem neighbourhood, the challenges, disappointments and often misdirected love of motherhood and intimate glimpses of a young woman’s interior life are laid bare for the reader. The novel’s inventive use of language celebrates life and Dominican heritage.

“In Kate Greenaway winner The Lost Words, illustrated by Jackie Morris, life cycles of the natural world are celebrated in vivid detail. Every tiny movement and variegated fleck of colour is rendered exquisitely and gives vibrance to author Robert Macfarlane’s spells. The illustrations test our acuity and make us all think on a much deeper level about scale, colour and proportion; also, about representations of loss and absence. We are invited to “read” on more than one level and to reflect upon a world in which change can mean irreparable loss, impoverishing both language and the environment. This is an astonishing book, which deserves the highest accolades.”

In a first for the Medals, the winners of The Shadowers’ Choice Award – voted for and awarded by members of the 4,500 school reading groups who shadow the Medals – were also announced at the ceremony. The shadowing groups’ choices matched those of the Carnegie and Kate Greenaway judging panel. Jackie Morris and Elizabeth Acevedo took home the Shadowers’ Choice Award for the Kate Greenaway and Carnegie categories respectively.

This new award has evolved out of CILIP’s recent Diversity Review, which identified opportunities to empower and celebrate the young people involved in the Medals through the shadowing scheme by giving them a more significant voice and visible presence in the process and prize giving.

In recognition of the 30th Anniversary of the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, 17-year-old Serena Jemmett, a young activist for Amnesty International UK, also spoke at the ceremony about the importance of young people’s right to a voice. Amnesty International UK continues to support the Medals in partnership with CILIP, providing educational resources and training to raise awareness and understanding of the power of children’s books to explore human rights, encourage empathy and broaden horizons.

The 2019 CILIP Carnegie and Kate Greenaway Medals are sponsored by Peters and ALCS, and funded by Carnegie UK Trust.