Inspiring Older Readers
What ever happened to the prize book?
Rummaging through the shelves of second hand bookshops or the books in charity shops that sit in the ‘old and collectible’ sections that they now all seem to have, the one thing you’re almost certain to encounter is the book with the school / Sunday school prize plate in the front. You know the sort of thing - ‘To Muriel for attendance’ or ‘To Albert for achievements in spelling’ – which are most frequently to be found pasted into the front cover of unreadable late Victorian or Edwardian children’s books. The design of the book plate and the impeccable copperplate handwriting speak of an age gone by when to be given a hardcover book of your own was a substantial reward.
I’ve seen a lot of these this summer because of the time I’ve spent trawling the second hand bookshops of Scotland and the Midlands and they made me wonder whether books are still given as prizes for some kind of special achievement any more. It also sent me scuttling off to my own book collection to see if I could find the books I was awarded for (cryptically) English Literature back in 1969, my last year at school.
Lordswood Boys Technical School in Birmingham was unusual in that it was one of the few technical schools set up within the post-war tripartite education system – these were meant to be schools focusing on blue-collar skill development sandwiched between the academic high-flying grammar schools and the lumpen sump of the secondary modern. In the case of Lordswood this rather ambiguous status clearly rubbed the headteacher up the wrong way – he was old style and did his best to turn what he saw as this technical social experiment into a de facto grammar school despite the fact that it had no heritage or clear reason to be seen as one.
Part of this regime was a house system that was enforced with all the rigour of Hogwarts. Prize-giving based on the performance of the houses in garnering house points were the chosen method of enforcement / encouragement and the results of each year’s scramble for these prizes became a public event at the annual ‘speech day’ – something only the poison pen of Evelyn Waugh would be able to do justice to. Try as I might, I can no longer remember what it was I did to merit the award of my prize – two Penguin paperbacks – but I do have an almost filmic memory of the speech day event when I had to troop up onto the hall stage to collect my, no doubt, richly deserved reward.
So, how did I end up with Aldous Huxley’s Island and the first anthology of the Penguin Modern Poets series? Well, chance really. Those of us who were to be awarded these prizes were, literally, locked in the school library for an afternoon and made to browse the shelves and quiz the school librarian over what might be appropriate for us to select – as I recall the rules were that they must be paperbacks; they should not be ‘trivial’ ( real academic value only) ; and, they should not be explicitly salacious ( no Lady Chatterley, no Ulysses and nothing by those troublesome Beats). Somehow, and it’s a decision lost in the mists of time, I lighted on the two I did.
Farcical as all this might seem, it remains the case that over 40 years later I still have these books despite the endless moving and coming and goings of my library. That prize sticker bookplate in the front is really what has saved them from the culling and, I think, says something about the affection I still feel for them. If the prize had been something other than a book would I still have it? Even a book token would have been spent and I would have long ago forgotten what I bought with it and anything more ephemeral than a book would most certainly have been consigned to the dustbin of my memory.
Books are solid rewards for whatever the achievement is that needs to be acknowledged and having that book personalised or inscribed gives it an air of permanence that cheap and tacky trophies or even digital artefacts simply can never match. I don’t know if books are still given as prizes nor, if they are, whether they have prize bookplates or inscriptions but if it’s a tradition that has died out I think it’s a sad loss and wouldn’t it be great to bring it back?