Ruta Sepetys has won the CILIP Carnegie Medal while Lane Smith has scooped the CILIP Kate Greenaway Medal, meaning that for the first time both awards have been taken by Americans in the same year.
Tennessee-based Sepetys won the Carnegie for Salt to the Sea (Puffin), inspired by the sinking of the Wilhelm Gustloff, a German military ship transporting refugees which sank in 1945 resulting in the biggest maritime disaster in history. Sepetys spent three years researching the tragedy which saw 9,000 people lose their lives and to which she has family connections - her father was a Lithuanian refugee.
Meanwhile Smith, from Connecticut, scooped the Kate Greenaway award for illustration, beating triple winner and former children’s laureate Chris Riddell, for There is a Tribe of Kids (Macmillan Children's imprint Two Hoots), about the power of collective nouns. In his speech, Smith credited illustrators such as Brian Wildsmith and Quentin Blake as his inspiration.
At the awards ceremony held at London's RIBA today (19th June), Sepetys and Smith both received £500 worth of books to donate to their local library, a specially commissioned golden medal and a £5,000 Colin Mears Award cash prize.
Sepetys said: "What a meaningful way to commemorate an important anniversary [the Carnegie is 80 this year], with a commitment to inclusivity, diversity, and advocating to address issues that divide our societies. We must constantly challenge ourselves to do better, to be gentle with one another, and be willing to look through another’s eyes and consider their heart.
“As a writer, I am drawn to underrepresented stories and history in hiding. When I began work on the novel years ago, I had no way of knowing that when it was published, we would be amidst a refugee crisis. Then and now, my thoughts return to the children.” She added: “History divided us, but through reading we are united in study and remembrance. That is the power of books.”
Sepetys was previously shortlisted for the Carnegie Medal in 2012 for Between Shades of Grey (Puffin).
In his speech, Smith revealed how he was discouraged from a career in America because his work was “too quirky”. He said: “Years ago, when graduating from art school, I was told that my work was too stylised-looking for the kids’ book market in the States and I would probably have to move to London where they took a more enlightened view of quirky artworks.
"I told my instructor that he was wrong, and that there were many wonderful books being published in the States, and showed him my books by Wildsmith, Blake, Browne, Steadman, Cousins, Oxenbury, Foreman and Burningham. And my instructor politely informed me that those were all British artists.” He added: “To be acknowledged from the land of many of my favourite illustrators is an enormous honour.”
Tricia Adams, chair of the 2017 CILIP Carnegie and Kate Greenaway Medals judging panel, said the winners showed the "importance" of making the voices of the disposessed heard. She said: “The books that have triumphed demonstrate the vitally important role literature and illustration play in helping children and young people to understand the world around them, be that through a historical lens or through the natural world around them."
She added: "These, and the Amnesty Honour commendations selected from the Carnegie and Kate Greenaway shortlists, poignantly prove the importance of stories in making voices heard – especially those of the dispossessed – encouraging the young reader to look beyond the headlines.”
Sepetys beat Mal Peet’s final novel, Beck, co-written with Meg Rosoff (Walker Books) and former Carnegie Medal winners Frank Cottrell Boyce, nominated for Sputnik’s Guide to Life on Earth (Pan Macmillan), and Philip Reeve, nominated for Railhead (Oxford University Press). Debut authors Lauren Wolk, shortlisted for Wolf Hollow (Corgi), and Bonnie-Sue Hitchcock, shortlisted for The Smell of Other People’s Houses (Faber & Faber) alongside The Bone Sparrow by Zana Fraillon (Orion Children’s Books) and The Stars at Oktober Bend by Glenda Millard (Old Barn Books).
Smith triumphed over Former Kate Greenaway Medal winners Emily Gravett for TIDY (Two Hoots), William Grill who was up for The Wolves of Currumpaw (Flying Eye Books) and Jim Kay who was shortlisted for the illustrated edition of J K Rowling’s Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone (Bloomsbury). Other nominations included Francesca Sanna’s The Journey and Dieter Braun’s Wild Animals of the North (Flying Eye) and The Marvels by Brian Selznick (Scholastic).
At the same ceremony, the Amnesty CILIP Honour category marking the beginning of Refugee Week. From the CILIP Carnegie shortlist, the honour went to Fraillon's The Bone Sparrow (Orion Children’s Books), about a boy living in an immigration detention centre in Australia. From the Kate Greenaway shortlist, the honour went to Sanna for her debut, The Journey, a picture book depicting a family fleeing their war-torn country in search of refuge. The commendation was first awarded last year following a partnership between the CLIP and the international human rights charity, announced in 2015.
Nicky Parker, chair of judges for the Amnesty CILIP Honour, said: “Stories are some of the very best ways to open children’s eyes to the world around them and to stimulate empathy and solidarity. Ultimately, we decided we could not ignore the two books that bravely, skilfully and sensitively address the global refugee crisis.”