A Speech in Acceptance of

The Hans Christian Andersen Award 2002

presented by the

International Board on Books for Young People

at their 50 Anniversary Congress on Sunday, 29 September 2002 at the Swiss Hotel Conference Centre, Basel, Switzerland

in the presence of

Her Majesty Empress Michiko of Japan, and

Her Excellency Ms Suzanne Mubarak, First Lady of Egypt

I 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.

There 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 then.

To 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.

However, 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.

And 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.

But 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.

The 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 today.

The 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.

Or 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 today?

The 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.

Anne 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 stories.

She 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.'

Anne's 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 peas.

There 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 the world.

To 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.

In 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.

As 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






Back to Top