A positive experience

This year's NASEN award winners introduced by the chairmen of the judging panels.

The Children's Book Award is given for the book that does most to offer a positive image of children or young adults with special educational needs. The judges look for books that will encourage awareness and understanding of all young people.

This year's entries - more than 50 titles - offered good reading experiences as well as positive images of children with special educational needs. There were novels in which, rightly, the quality of story was central; there were none of the patronising pleas for sympathy sometimes seen in the past - instead, high-quality fiction and picture books where all sorts of children were represented. Non-fiction too offered insights into the lives of others in books with clear texts and non-patronising illustrations.

There was unanimous agreement about the winner, Anne Fine's How to Write Really Badly (Mammoth). The story, told with great subtlety and humour, is rooted firmly in the real world - all teachers and schoolchildren will know Joe Gardener, the "writer from Hell", the pupil for whom school just doesn't work. New boy, Chester Howard, quickly understands Joe and embarks on an extraordinary partnership through which both boys grow in self-awareness. The strengths of both characters win hands down and the weaknesses, unlabelled thank goodness, pale into insignificance.

Michael Foreman's beautiful picture book Seal Surfer (Andersen Press) with its glowing painting of the sea in all its moods, is highly commended.Again the understatement makes the book special, and this time the words and pictures must be read together. The story is of a boy and his grandfather, and their relationship with the sea and the seals. Only the pictures show that the boy needs crutches and, at times, a wheelchair. The text concentrates on his full exciting life as he surfs with the seals and begins the process of growing up.

The other short-listed titles reflect the range of entries. Jenny Bryan's We're Talking about Disability (Wayland), offers real insights into the lives of four young disabled people through case studies and photographs. The Ghost of Grania O'Malley by Michael Morpurgo (Heinemann), a fast-moving story of conservation and courage with more than a hint of the supernatural, has a strong central character who doesn't let her cerebral palsy stop her fighting to save the Big Hill. Waterbound by Jane Stemp (Hodder Children's Books), a powerful and thought-provoking read for young adults, takes us into a future world that one of the judges called "another 1984".

Here, children whom the authorities decide should never have been born (because they fail to meet society's standards of perfection) survive in secret beneath the city streets. Advances in medical science mean that this novel has a shocking relevance.

In those 7,000 books published each year for children, there is room for some that tackle difficult issues and offer young readers understanding. But the story must be central and strong, and the issue just part of it.

The NASEN awards are administered by the Educational Publishers Council.

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