"THE BEST books of the year as voted for by Scottish children" is how the winners of the first Royal Mail Scottish Children's Book Awards were described at this week's award ceremony in Edinburgh.
Little Lost Cowboy by Simon Puttock and Caroline Jayne Church, Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince by JK Rowling and Roxy's Baby by Catherine MacPhail were voted the nation's favourites - three novels for three different age groups: 0-7 years, 8-12 and 13-16 respectively.
The literati of the children's book world were out in force at the Scottish Storytelling Centre, as were the children who had voted and won prizes for the reviews they had written. The event was organised by BRAW, the arm of the Scottish Book Trust that cultivates "Books, Reading and Writing", and supported by The TESS.
Almost 5,000 children took part in judging panels across the country - "from Oban to Orkney, from Melrose to Mull", as author presenter Vivian French put it. Nearly 3,000 cast their votes and 500 submitted their reviews. It was a huge feat and one in which the book trust's director, Marc Lambert, was "enormously proud to be involved".
There have been many awards for children's literature - Smarties, Carnegie and Kathleen Fidler, to name a few. Several, like the Angus book awards, are chosen by the children who read the books. But this is the first national award in Scotland to be judged by its own audience.
The quality of books has been impressive for such a small country. A shortlist of nine was drawn up. Then difficult choices had to be made by the children's reading panels between Simon Puttock, Kenneth Steven (The Sea Mice and the Stars) and Julia Donaldson (Captain Cook's Favourite Book) for the youngest readers; JK Rowling, Debi Gliori (Deep Water) and Joan Lingard (The Sign of the Black Dagger) for the middle group; and Catherine MacPhail, Catherine Forde (The Drowning Pond) and KM Grant (Green Jasper) for teenagers.
Simon Puttock has 16 books to his name and Little Lost Cowboy, the heartwarming story of a coyote pup that has strayed from his mother and can't find her, has already won the Highland award.
"What really excites me," he said of the new award, "is it lets us know... children have opinions and care passionately about them."
Catherine MacPhail has won the UK Kathleen Fidler Award and the Verghereto award in Italy for Run Zan Run on bullying (1994) and the SAC Scottish Children's Book Award for Fighting Back on money lenders (1999). Roxy's Baby deals with teenage pregnancy. But they are not about issues, she says emphatically. "I don't like issues. I want to make a nailbiting page-turner. If it's something children can relate to, then all the better.
Roxy's Baby grew out of the true story of a pregnant Asian girl.
Some people said they'd look after her and told her her baby was dead, but they had sold it for its organs.
"It's such a horrible subject that it could never come out of anybody's imagination," says Ms MacPhail. "It was so horrific I felt I had to write about it. There are a lot of novels on teenage pregnancies, problems girls face - I didn't want it to be the same. Basically, it's a mystery, a thriller about how the girl discovers what's going on in Dragon House."
From mystery to magical mystery: JK Rowling has won more awards for her Harry Potter books than her hero has for his quidditch. The panel thought this sixth novel in the series was a "fantastically well-written and gripping read that definitely lived up to expectations", and her young audience agreed.
What is clear is that the Royal Mail Scottish Children's Book Awards are here to stay. It has been a massive undertaking by Anna Gibbons and her colleagues at BRAW, with support from the Scottish Arts Council. The result has been a national verdict, delivered through a national network of teachers, librarians, educationists and children, all working, as Ms Gibbons put it, to keep literacy at the top of the agenda and make children's books part of the literary scene in Scotland.
What the children said of the winning books
Little Lost Cowboy
reviewed by Charlie Duffy, St Brigid's Primary, Glasgow"I've just read Little Lost Cowboy. The story is about a coyote which has lost its mum and needs help. I liked the book because it starts off as sad and becomes happy. It's funny when the animals and the moon tell him where to go. The illustrations are graphic and artistic, and are very lifelike. When we read Little Lost Cowboy to Primary 3 they loved it. They couldn't stop laughing.
I thought they were going to explode. I think everyone who has young children should buy this brilliant book."
Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince
reviewed by Margaret Ann Macleod, Western Isles Libraries
"JK Rowling is an exceptionally good author, but this is one of her best.
In the sixth book, Harry Potter and Dumbledore are looking into Lord Voldemort's past, which provides Harry with valuable information... I was spellbound reading it. There were no weak parts. I'll vote for it as it had me gripped and passed the test with flying colours. Well done, JK Rowling.
A real toe curler."
reviewed by Leah Aylwin, Bearsden Academy, East Dunbartonshire "Roxy's Baby
was a novel I have been most enthusiastic about. Judging by the front cover I wouldn't have picked this book as it looked girly and didn't resemble a thriller. However, when I began to read it, I didn't put it down until the last word. It was full of cliffhangers and the storyline would veer off in another direction as soon as I thought it was heading down a particular path. I was engrossed. I thoroughly enjoyed the book, especially towards the end, when Roxy is in such an awful position that she concludes that the only way to escape from the malicious and manipulative Dyces was to burn the house down. I could feel my heart racing as I got nearer the end of the novel... Roxy's Baby, a thriller I'm passionate about."