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Hans Christian Andersen Medal Acceptance

by Paula Fox

One morning, years ago when I was young, I was walking along the sea at a place called South Beach on an island off the coast of Massachusetts. At the edge of the waves, drying in the sunlight, was a small sealed bottle. Inside it I could see a written card, but the glass was too thick to make out what it said. I hurried home, and there with screwdriver and knife I extracted the cork and fished out the card. It was from the Department of the Interior of the United States Government. It told me that I had found a bottle launched some months earlier in an effort to determine the meanderings of certain ocean currents and that if I would fill in the appropriate places on the card with information as to exactly where I had found it and on what date, the Department would be grateful and, further, would be prompt in informing me where the bottle had been launched from originally. I filled in the information at once, went to the village post office to mail the card, and began to wait. Governments do not answer promptly, and it was a long wait, six weeks, as I remember it. During that time, I spent hours in the library studying the coastlines of the world in atlases, and I daydreamed incessantly about the extraordinary places from one of which my bottle had undoubtedly come.

When the Government answered at last, I tore open the letter and, at once, gasped with laughter and chagrin. Laughter at the folly of my own imaginings and chagrin at the truth. The bottle had been launched from South Beach on that very island where I was staying, and it had not left South Beach.

The astonishment which I so much wanted to feel those long years ago when I was waiting for news of that bottle, I now feel because of the news you have given me about my books, the news that currents unimagined by me have carried them so far.

With astonishment — and gratitude and delight — I thank the International Board on Books for Young People for awarding me the Hans Christian Andersen Medal.

We have all heard of the long argument about the difference between literature for children and literature for adults. And in the vast expansion in publishing for children that has taken place over the last century, we have all been affected, one way or another, by an elaboration of differences within the children’s book world itself, controversies over age groups and age in­terests and age categories. What is often lost sight of in the din of contention is the universal power and endurance of a good story, a power expressed in a line I once read that speaks of “a tale which holdeth children from play and old men from the chimney corner.”

The power of a good story is the power of imagination. And great imagining, Goethe wrote, is the imagining of the truth, the effort to grasp truth through the imagination. It is the truth of life one finds in great stories.

It would be perverse and fatuous to claim that any five-year­ old child would find Madame Bovary or Crime and Punishment interesting. But that a child’s interest is not likely to be aroused by Emma Bovary or Raskolnikov does not confirm a general di­vision between child and adult, only a particular one. A particu­lar division is not the heart of the matter. The heart of the matter, I believe, is that the art of storytelling is, ultimately, the art of truth. In the imaginative effort that lies behind a good story, there is no difference between writing for children and for adults. And if what children have read, or have had read to them, has not condescended to them, has not given them mere­tricious uplift and vainglory at the expense of truthfulness, and has awakened their imagination, they may, later, want to know about Emma Bovary and Raskolnikov.

The Venerable Bede, in his Ecclesiastical History of the English People, tells of the poet Caedmon, an illiterate cowherd who lived in the seventh century. Caedmon did not have the gift of song, and in the evenings when the harp was handed round in the monastic farmstead where he labored, Caedmon would steal way to the stables, ashamed that he could not sing. One night in a dream, a stranger appeared to Caedmon and told him that he must sing. Caedmon asked, “But of what shall I sing?” And the stranger in his dream said, “Sing of the beginning of all created things.”

That is the task for storytellers. That is what literature for children and adults is about, all created things.

Thank you.

Copyright ©1978 by Paula Fox. A speech given on October 23, 1978, at the IBBY conference in Würzburg, Germany. From the April 1979 issue of The Horn Book Magazine.

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