The statistics on children's reading would fill the Tokyo phone book and here's a few more. The Government has funded around 23 million new books in schools since taking office two years ago (National Year of Reading half-year report). On a less cheerful note, 120,000 11 and 14-year-olds are now in the middle of national tests.
A smaller figure, but one which has created a flurry in the world of children's books this week, is five: the number of novels on the shortlist announced this week for the 1998 Carnegie Medal. The children's librarians (including school librarians) who award the annual prize for authors selected eight titles for the shortlist last year. The same panel has put seven picture books on the shortlist for this year's parallel award for illustrators, the Kate Greenaway Medal.
There is material for another potential flurry: the big five (chosen from 47 nominations) do not include Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets by J K Rowling. She is the Booksellers Association author of the year, has sold more than half a million Harry Potter books, creates minor riots at children's book events and has the nation's 10-year-olds on tenterhooks awaiting Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkabhan, which will be published the moment the afternoon bell rings on the last day of term. Morris Gleitzman's Bumface, the wickedly funny and touching tale of Angus, his appalling mother and the case for family planning, has also missed out.
The CarnegieGreenaway judging process is open and democratic (the 14 regional judges all get their say, they hold wide-ranging consultation exercises to gather nominations, they invite observers to the meetings), but the debate can take unpredictable turns, and decisions often prove controversial. These medals carry no cash prizes, but they are the awards that writers and artists most want to win, and the composition of the shortlist can be perceived as a statement reflecting current concerns about reading: last year there were a lot of books with "boy" in the title.
This year's discussions were a breakthrough. There were no buzzwords ("child-friendliness" and "accessibility" reigned supreme last year) and little contemplation of worthy issues. The five books on the shortlist in the National Year of Reading are simply those that the judges most enjoyed reading. Not that they had ignored the appeal of the books to children, but while engrossed in them, they did not notice that the books were children's books - they were simply books that could not be put down.
Seeing adults enjoying children's books as a selfish pleasure is a great inducement to children to read, as well as a nudge to those who continue to perceive the children's shelves as the Cinderella sector of publishing.
All the five books have in common is that everyone, or the majority of the judges, thought that they would remember them in 20 years' time. A typical comment on one that failed to make the shortlist, was: "It's well done, interesting, says something important - but it didn't stay with me."
There are no worthy tomes here: the only one approach-ing tome dimensions is Peter Dickinson's The Kin, a chronicle of the adventures of the first humans, which has echoes of his 1992 novel, A Bone from a Dry Sea.
Robert Cormier's Heroes, about a disfigured young Second World War veteran on a compelling mission, is a slim novella of which one judge said: "I was absolutely spellbound. The effect was almost physical." David Almond's Skellig (a first novel, winner of the Whitbread children's fiction award earlier this year) is another deep, rather than long, read about two children, a dying baby and an angel-like creature. "Less is more," said the judges. "There's an almost magical aura about this book. It's a life-changing reading experience."
Fly, Cherokee, Fly by Chris d'Lacey is another tale rooted in committed family relationships, about a boy's bond with his racing pigeon ("strong dialogue and characterisation, very popular with children, with a good picture of family life").
Almond's and d'Lacey's novels are both set in the north of England, as is The Sterkarm Handshake by Susan Price, which won the Guardian Fiction Prize. This stirring, funny and moving timeslip thriller pits 16th-century Border reivers (raiders) against 21st-century entrepreneurs who seek to carry out their own raids on the unspoilt environment of the past. "I couldn't put this down - the best book I've read in a long, long time. A modern classic," said one judge. "It could go very well on adult shelves." The judges have given the lower age limits of 14 for the Cormier and Price titles, younger for the others. But there's no upper age limit for any of them, so enjoy.
The Carnegie and Kate Greenaway Medals will be awarded in July. Up to 1,000 schools will shadow the next stage of the judging. For an information pack, contact the Library Association marketing department, 7 Ridgmount Street, London WC1E 7AE. Tel: 0171 636 7543; e-mail: email@example.com'Outstanding Books for Children and Young People: the guide to Carnegie Greenaway Winners 1937-1997' by Keith Barker is available at pound;15.95 from Library Association Publishing at the above address
CARNEGIE MEDAL SHORTLIST
(for authors) SkelligBy David Almond (Hodder) HeroesBy Robert Cormier(Hamish Hamilton) The KinBy Peter Dickinson (Macmillan) Fly, Cherokee, FlyBy Chris d'Lacey(Corgi Yearling) The Sterkarm Handshake By Susan Price (Scholastic Press) KATE GREENAWAY MEDAL SHORTLIST
(for illustrators) The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe By C S Lewis Illustrated by Christian Birmingham (HarperCollins) Zagazoo By Quentin Blake (Jonathan Cape) Voices in the Park By Anthony Browne (Doubleday) I Love You, Blue Kangaroo By Emma Chichester Clark (Andersen) Pumpkin Soup By Helen Cooper (Doubleday) The Lion and the Unicorn by Shirley Hughes (Bodley Head) Come on Daisy! By Jane Simmons (Orchard)