The Carnegie and Kate Greenaway Medals, awarded annually by the Chartered Institute of Library and Information Professionals (CILIP), are arguably the most prestigious of the children's book prizes. Given for outstanding writing and illustration, the medals carry immeasurable esteem for their recipients. Winners are highly regarded by fellow authors, librarians, booksellers and teachers.
The panel of 12 judges, who are children's librarians and members of CILIP's youth libraries group, met in April to thrash out the various merits of titles that have been submitted by CILIP members - this year 38 for the Carnegie and 37 for the Greenaway. Their brief for the Carnegie was to find "a book of outstanding literary quality" that provides "a real experience that is retained afterwards". They were searching for a book of "outstanding artistic quality", that will give "pleasure from a stimulating and satisfying visual experience". After discussion, titles were assigned to one of three piles - Yes, No or, if opinion was divided, Maybe.
Sitting in on the judging can be perplexing, when comments such as "hilarious", "a hoot" and "technically brilliant" are swiftly followed by "so that's a 'No' then?" At least three books described as "brilliant for teenage boys", "the most child-friendly book on the list", and given "1010 for pure readability" were quickly despatched to the No pile. The chair's job, skilfully done this year with tact and humour by Colin Brabazon, is to draw the panel's attention back to that all-important word in the initial criteria: "Yes it's a good book, yes it's a good read, but is it outstanding?" Looking at the list of past Carnegie winners it is apparent that this rigorous approach works, as the panels seem to have a talent for picking books with lasting quality.
After hours of sometimes heated debate the judges had a towering No pile and two smaller piles of Yes (six) and Maybe (seven). At this point, the Yes pile included Kevin Brooks' Lucas, and I was disappointed to discover later that it had not stood up to further analysis and made it on to the final shortlist. It is a powerful piece of writing that perfectly captures one emotionally charged summer through the eyes of a 15-year-old girl.
Conversely, Linda Newbery's Sisterland, a strong Maybe first time round, joined the Yes pile after further discussion. It is a substantial work that manages to intertwine big issues, such as Nazism and Alzheimer's.
Discussion focused on whether these issues got in the way or were successfully slotted into the narrative.
Of the other five titles, David Almond's Fire-Eaters was described as "a definite 'yes' ". "It has everything" and "the writing is pure pleasure" were two comments. Almond's prose is spare, his voice clear, and this book certainly lingers long in the mind.
Jennifer Donnelly's A Gathering Light is an astonishingly assured first novel that tackles relationships in many contexts, specifically the role of women in society at the turn of the 20th century. Underlying the main narrative, a poignant mystery is unravelled. It was described as "totally emotionally captivating".
With Mark Haddon's The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, passions ran high from the start. The tentative reservations of the first judge to speak were, uncharacteristically but vociferously, shot down in flames. "The book breathes, it has a heartbeat", was one impassioned plea.
This is outstanding writing in which the main character, a 15-year-old boy with Asperger syndrome, grabs the reader from the first page and does not let go until the end.
Garbage King, Elizabeth Laird's story of street children in Ethiopia, was praised for its strong sense of place and the quality of the storytelling.
It is written very much from the heart and consequently thoroughly engages the reader.
Private Peaceful was also written from the heart, inspired by the author's outrage at the injustice meted out to soldiers in the First World War. It was felt to have "a sensitive, thought-provoking literary style".
As to this year's winner? In my opinion, Mark Haddon's is an exceptional book that does just what the Carnegie Medal demands and stands out, head and shoulders, above the crowd. Only The Fire-Eaters could match it for sheer strength of voice.
The second day's proceedings discussing the picture books were swifter but no less animated, and on the whole opinions were not as divided. The final piles were similar to the previous day - six Yes, eight Maybe and the rest No. I was sorry not to see Lauren Child's I Am Absolutely Too Small for School up there on the Yes pile, as it is a wonderfully interactive book that combines text and illustration to superb effect.
Subsequently, two of the strong Maybes, Debi Gliori's Always and Forever and David McKean's Wolves in the Walls, made it into the final shortlist. I was particularly pleased to see the latter there as, although initial opinion was too diverse to make it a winner, its presence on the shortlist pushes the boundaries of picture-book illustration.
Of the other shortlisted titles, the case for each was strongly put. In the initial discussions, no fault could be found with either Anthony Browne's Shape Game or Chris Wormell's Two Frogs and an impassioned plea was made in favour of Alexis Deacon's Beegu and his "expressive ears". There was great affection for Shirley Hughes' Ellas's Big Chance and much praise went to Mini Grey for the humour and detail in The Pea and the Princess. I should like to see the medal awarded to Anthony Browne for The Shape Game, as it is interesting on so many levels and is more than the sum of its parts, with Mini Grey a close second.
* Winners of the awards will be announced in July.
The Shape Game by Anthony Browne Doubleday 7+
Beegu by Alexis Deacon Hutchinson 3+
Always and Forever by Debi Gliori text by Alan Durant Doubleday 3+
The Pea and the Princess by Mini Grey Cape 6+
by Shirley Hughes Random House 6+
The Wolves in the Wall by David McKean
text by Neil Gaiman Bloomsbury 9+
Bob Robber and Dancing Jane by Bee Willeytext by Andrew Matthews
by Chris Wormell Random House 5+