My Year 1 and 2 class took part this term as one of 20 teams of judges for the youngest age group category, but the benefits which we gained could apply all the way from reception to Year 6. Also, although there is no substitute for being chosen to take part in an exciting national event, schools could run their own book award along similar lines.
For our application to be selected as Smarties Young Judges, we prepared scrapbooks about our favourite books and authors. Once successful, we were sent three copies each of the three shortlisted books for under-sixes on October 6.
Charlotte Voake's Ginger (Walker #163;9.99) is the familiar tale of a well-established pet whose comfortable life is shattered by a playful newcomer. In Leon and Bob by Simon James (Walker #163;8.99), a lonely little boy invents an imaginary friend. Fruits by Valerie Bloom (Macmillan #163;8.99 and #163;4.99 paperback) is a rhymed counting book with a Caribbean setting, in which two sisters feast on native fruit.
Over the next 14 school days we did a variety of activities based on all three books and I read two out of the three aloud every day. This frequent return to the same texts (as recommended by the National Literacy Project) meant that the children were able to read them independently.
Confidence grew very quickly; children shared the books and became quite astute at seeing non-text stories. Their empathy with the characters increased. Planned activities often began with discussion with a partner or in a small group before reporting back and recording. This ensured that we covered many aspects of speaking and listening, including drama, as well as writing.
While the children empathised easily with the little girl in Ginger and to a lesser extent with Leon in Leon and Bob, Fruits really excited them by being different. This is a rural school with native Norfolk children. Their contact with people from other cultures is limited, so multi-cultural books are important.
We compared Valerie Bloom's book with The Hungry Cat by Phyllis King, recognising the feeling of over-indulgence. But overall, it was the magical language and the brilliantly shining illustrations that so appealed. I played them some John Agard poetry tapes and soon they were easily rhyming "dark" with "talk" and "apple" with "people" as Valerie Bloom does. In their appreciation they were demonstrating a key skill - "using the meaning of the text as a whole to make sense of print".
By the end of this study period, we had covered technology as well as maths, science, geography, art, music and PE. All the children had taken home all three books and many parents - asked not to influence their children's preferences - posted their own reviews in the sealed parents' response box. Responses ranged from "I like Ginger" to a closely-written A4 sheet.
We drew and painted favourite scenes from the books, we made up speech bubbles for the characters. We wrote our own Fruits poems and sequels to Ginger and Leon and Bob. In groups, we mimed and acted the stories.
Finally, the children were asked to choose secretly and record the title of the book they would most like to own. We repeated this exercise on the next two days with only a few voters changing their minds. The votes for each book were very close - as the only person who knew this I had to work hard to maintain my own impartiality when summing up on the final morning.
The excitement of the ballot itself, the culmination of almost three weeks' work, was breathtaking. The children had planned the organisation and undertook it with delight. They had designed and make the voting slips and ballot box in the previous weeks .
It had been decided that the youngest child should start the count, so Joshua picked out a voting slip and read out the book title and the voter's name. (No anonymity.) That voter then chose and read out a slip - every child therefore had a turn at reading out a response ("reading for a purpose").
Those responsible for the prepared bar chart and tally sheet marked up the votes one by one. The children created a tangible tension, leaving me to sit back - a very interested but definitely passive onlooker - as the votes were recorded. Our winning book, Fruits, was just two votes ahead of the others which came in as joint second.
Had I unduly influenced the children? I shall never know, but I do know how valuable the experience had been and I shall continue to look for quality picture books which give opportunity for excellence in early-years activities
Gwynneth Bailey is language co-ordinator at Aldborough County Primary School, Norwich