Speech in Acceptance of
Hans Christian Andersen Award 2002
Board on Books for Young People
their 50 Anniversary Congress on Sunday, 29 September 2002 at
the Swiss Hotel Conference Centre, Basel, Switzerland
the presence of
Majesty Empress Michiko of Japan, and
Excellency Ms Suzanne Mubarak, First Lady of Egypt
wonder if you are as intrigued as I am by coincidence? I mean
those apparently unconnected occurrences in life that you cannot
always believe are merely accidental. In English there is a
phrase for them. We talk about the 'long arm of coincidence'.
When I began to prepare this speech, I thought I'd find out
who coined the phrase. I was amused to discover that it was
invented by a nineteenth century writer I'd never heard of whose
name was Charles Haddon Chambers.
are several coincidences that appeal to me today. To begin with,
the very first Hans Christian Andersen Award was given to the
English writer Eleanor Farjeon in 1956, and it is a happy coincidence
that I am the first English writer to receive the honour since
which we can add the coincidence that another Englishman receives
the illustrator's award today. And a third coincidence: that
these are made on the occasion of IBBY's fiftieth-birthday celebrations,
which somehow adds even more lustre to this bright honour.
the strange laws of coincidence are not done with Eleanor Farjeon
and me yet. For it happens that in 1955, the year before she
received the Andersen Award, Eleanor was given the Carnegie
Medal, Britain's oldest and highest recognition for writers
for young people. I received the Carnegie Medal in 1999, and
like her, now receive, as immediately afterwards as can be,
the coveted Andersen.
there's still more, because it happens that in 1982, exactly
twenty years ago, I received, jointly with my wife Nancy, the
British honour for services to children's books, which happens
to be called The Eleanor Farjeon Award. As I am sixty-eight,
an age at which Death peeps at you over the horizon, and as
Eleanor Farjeon died a few years ago, I am beginning to wonder
what the long arm of coincidence will do next to couple me and
my illustrious predecessor.
today's coincidences do not end there. My latest youth novel,
Postcards from No Man's Land, which won the Carnegie Medal,
is set in Holland, and it so happens that the favourite book
of the main character in the novel, seventeen year old Jacob
Todd, is The Diary of Anne Frank. It is, of course, no coincidence
whatever that Anne's Diary also happens to be one of my favourite
books. I have read it many times, have published an essay about
it, and never tire of studying it.
coincidence of this for today is that the copyrights in Anne's
book - one of the most translated, and one of the biggest selling
books in the world - are owned by The Anne Frank Fond. It happens
that the Fond is now in the care of Anne's only surviving relative,
her much loved cousin, the actor Buddy Elias. It happens that
Buddy lived in Basel at the time Anne was writing her Diary
- she sent postcards to him there - and it happens that Basel
is where the Fond has its office and where Buddy still lives
wonderful thing about coincidences is that they sometimes provide
the answer to a problem that you haven't been able to solve.
I had been having a great deal of trouble deciding what to say
to you. In fact, I'd written one acceptance speech, didn't like
it at all, and had torn it up. Then I noticed the long arm of
these odd coincidences, thought they might amuse you, and while
writing them down, saw at once that they were pointing in one
direction - to the heart of Anne's book and what by happy coincidence
Anne is saying to us as we discuss during our Congress the place
and purpose of literature for the young.
to put it in stark and personal terms: What on earth do I think
I am doing when I write novels on behalf of young people? And
what are you honouring when you give me this treasured award
Diary of Anne Frank is a great work of literature. It is also
one of the few great books - in my opinion it is the greatest
book - written by someone in their teens. It demonstrates with
innocent clarity precisely what young people in their early
adolescence are capable of thinking and of feeling, of understanding,
of reading, and of writing. Which is to say, a great deal more
than most adults give them credit for. For any adult author
who writes on behalf of young people, Anne's Diary is a standard
against which to assess our work.
is a brilliant story-teller. She does not need to invent weird
fantasies to divert herself. She does not allow sentimentality
to corrupt her view of life, quite the opposite. Anne is a great
realist. She takes the world as she finds it - mouldy peas that
have to be rubbed clean before they can be eaten, the loss of
her treasured fountain pen, an argument with her parents over
a novel they prevented her from reading because they thought
it too grown-up for her. She can take a few apparently boring
everyday events such as these and show how fascinating they
can be. She does this by the clarity of her thought, the precision
of her use of language, and her inborn impulse as a teller of
was also a teenage philosopher. She studied life, using herself
as her specimen, and found universal truths in herself. It is
in one such passage that I think we come to the heart of the
matter, the central idea about writing novels for the young
- indeed, writing novels for anyone whatever their age - that
I want to mention today. She wrote these few sentences on Saturday
15 July 1944, when she was exactly 15 years and one month old:
'I have one outstanding feature in my character, which must
strike anyone who knows me for any length of time, and that
is my knowledge of myself. I can watch myself and my actions,
just like an outsider. The Anne of every day I can face entirely
without prejudice, without making excuses for her, and watch
what's good and what's bad about her. This "self-consciousness"
haunts me, and every time I open my mouth I know as soon as
I've spoken whether "that ought to have been different," or
"that was right as it was." There are so many things about myself
that I condemn; I couldn't begin to name them all. I understand
more and more how true Daddy's words were when he said: "All
children must look after their own upbringing." Parents can
only give good advice or put them on the right paths, but the
final forming of a person's character lies in his own hands.'
Diary is a record of the human journey to self-consciousness.
It is about every individual's discovery of self-knowledge.
Its goal is to arrive at self-awareness. Anne's kind of self-consciousness
is not self-regarding. It is not narcissistic. On the contrary,
she was full of curiosity about other people and the world at
large. And she wanted to place herself in that scheme of things.
She wanted to know who she was, who other people were, and what
life itself was about. She was tireless in her pursuit of that
kind of knowledge. Even when all she had to study were mouldy
was another feature of her character that struck everyone who
knew her. She was a dedicated writer. Her only ambition was
to be a famous author. "I can shake off everything if I write,"
she recorded in her diary; "my sorrows disappear, my courage
is reborn." Every writer who has no choice but to be a writer,
knows the truth of this. Every writer who cannot help writing
knows that it is only by written language that they can make
some kind of sense of themselves and other people. Every writer
who feels that he or she is driven to write whether they wish
to or not knows that it is only by writing stories or poems
or diaries or plays - or whatever their natural form may be
- that they can discover who they are and find their place in
say it briefly, for me writing and reading literature is a moral
and a religious matter. But that is a large topic which must
be left for another occasion.
conferring the Hans Christian Andersen Award on me today, this
is what I feel you are honouring. You are not honouring me for
myself. I do not in myself deserve such an honour. You are,
I think - I hope - honouring that strange, that mysterious,
that inexplicable process, that art we call literature, by which
we may be brought to the highest possible degree of unselfish
self-consciousness and a fearless, clear-minded and - this above
all - an imaginative understanding of life.
well as expressing my gratitude to the international jury for
their recognition, I want to thank the jury in my own country
for nominating me. That alone is honour enough.
My heartfelt thanks to you all.
Aidan Chambers, 2002