Landscape, Class and Competition in Scottish Children’s Literature


July 31, 2020

This year’s Carnegie Medal – one of the UK’s most prestigious prizes in children’s literature – was won by a book called Lark, written by Anthony McGowan. The author is English-born and lives in London, and his beautiful novel is set in Yorkshire – but the publisher, Barrington Stoke, is Scottish. It’s the first time that a title from a Scottish publishing house has won the medal in its 84-year history. As such, it’s been hailed a success for Scottish publishing.

This raises some fascinating questions. What IS ‘Scottish’ children’s literature? Is it distinct from literature south of the border, and if so, how and why? Are there core themes that run through books written in or about Scotland, or by Scottish writers?

Lark is a stunning book, the fourth in a quartet (it can also be read as a stand-alone piece). It’s main characters are from a working-class background, underrepresented in children’s literature. Are children’s writers responsible for ensuring children ‘recognize’ themselves in stories? How do writers approach issues of diversity and inclusion in their writing?

As part of Virtual Europe in July, Arcadia Edinburgh Center held a panel discussion with seven writers of children’s fiction whose books have been published by Scottish presses. They were joined by author and educator, Professor Gretchen Haertsch, who has taught on classic Scotland children’s literature: she was able to offer a perspective on the rich themes of history, landscape, folklore and myth that have been threading through Scottish children’s tales from the eighteenth century. Professor Haertsch is from the US, where another of our panelists now lives: Claire McFall has written award-winning novels for Young Adults, most of which (so far) are set in Scotland and draw heavily on Scottish landscapes.

So, too, do books by Barbara Henderson, who gave a short reading from her Highland Clearances novel, Fir for Luck, widely used in Scottish schools. We discussed how landscape in Henderson’s historical fiction differs from A Pattern of Secrets by Lindsay Littleson, which is set in the same era but draws on an urban, industrial scene – a ‘built environment’.

Littleson’s characters – in historical and contemporary stories – include people from working-class backgrounds, a theme that was picked up in our panel conversation by Victoria Williamson. Author of the gorgeous novels The Fox Girl and the White Gazelle and The Boy with the Butterfly Mind (both out with Floris Books), Williamson engages with themes she has been confronted with in her work as a primary school teacher. She doesn’t shy from ‘big issues’, but neither does she seek them out for her fiction.

Caroline Logan introduced the importance of diversity in children’s literature, and shared her perspective as a writer of fantasy (The Four Treasures Series), in which she talked about the freedoms afforded by setting a story in a made-up world, and the constraints of writing characters that are all ‘the same’. My own debut novel, Tiger Skin Rug is written in first person from the perspective of a young boy from India. We acknowledged the importance of writing characters from minorities, of Own Voices and the need for stronger presence of authors from underrepresented backgrounds.

Unexpectedly, a strong, shared feeling was that Scottish children’s literature is itself underrepresented. It’s a lean set of published books based in Scotland or featuring Scottish characters that ‘break through’ to the wider UK or world markets. The panel discussed the (mis)perception that Scottish children’s books are intended solely for a Scottish readership or listening audience – which, of course, is unlikely to be either the author’s or publisher’s intention. There are big-name exceptions to this, of course, but these mask rather than address the issue. And there are exceptions to the exception: debut novel A Kind of Spark by Elle McNicoll, set in the Edinburgh area of Scotland is currently dazzling readers up and down the land. It’s out with small, English-based indie, Knights Of, which focuses on publishing books featuring diverse characters. The protagonist in A Kind of Spark is autistic. So, too, does the title lead in Anna by Laura Guthrie (a novel for teens based on the US classic, Pollyanna). Anna is out with tiny, island-based Scottish press, Cranachan Publishing. One of Cranachan’s aims is to redress an imbalance by focusing on Scottish children’s books in the market. 

It’s important the UK children’s book and prize industry continues (or begins in earnest) to support Scottish writers and publishing. It’s important, too, that we all cheer especially loudly at any successes, such as the recent Carnegie win by Barrington Stoke, that place the world of Scottish children’s books at the forefront of a wider – and worldwide – arena.