Coping with grief and loss, dysfunctional family relationships, depression, religious fundamentalism, sex, violence and murder were some of the recurring themes faced by the fearless judges of this year's Carnegie and Kate Greenaway Medals. The awards, run by the Chartered Institute of Library and Information Professionals (CILIP), recognise both outstanding storytelling and exceptional illustration in books for children and young people.
Twelve judges from CILIP's youth libraries group spent two days mulling over the best books of 2004 to produce the short-lists for one of the most sought-after children's literary awards. A total of 81 titles were nominated by librarians around the country. At the Carnegie judging, several books inspired heated debate and polarised opinions. One unlikely candidate was Geraldine McGaughrean's Smile!, a gentle story for younger readers, which had been described as both "gorgeous, very complete, with a controlled plot", and "patronising, formulaic and slightly episodic".
However, there were no raised eyebrows when Kevin Brooks' contentious teenage novel, Kissing the Rain provoked strong feeling and attracted comments that ranged from "compelling" with "a unique voice" to "inarticulate verbal diarrhoea".
Surprising last-minute casualties were Geraldine McGaughrean's Not the End of the World, because the suspension of disbelief was too difficult to sustain, and Meg Rosoff's How I Live Now because too many judges just "didn't get it".
The resulting shortlist for the Carnegie Medal comprises six highly entertaining and original books. Al Capone Does My Shirts gets there for being "original and effortless"; Looking for JJ for being "cleverly structured" and "beautifully controlled" - although doubts about its uneasy morality pervade. Millions and The Star of Kazan get there for being "fantastic and wonderful" reads. Pullman just squeezes in on account of his brilliant storytelling and only re-reading will decide if the writing is genuinely outstanding or just too clever.
If these books share one thing, it is each author's indisputable ability to tell a rollicking good story. I suspect Heartbeat will take the medal, with The Star of Kazan a close contender, but Al Capone Does My Shirts may well creep up on the outside.
Some superb picture books missed the cut for the shortlist for the Kate Greenaway Medal but there was generally more consensus during the judging process. Of these, Biscuit Bear (Mini Grey) had been described as "faultless", Belonging (Jeannie Baker) as "skilful and stunning" and Once Upon an Ordinary School Day (Satoshi Kitamura) as a book "every trainee teacher should have".
In the final analysis, judges were reminded to focus on the word "outstanding". Praise for Chris Riddell's Jonathan Swift's Gulliver was unqualified and unanimous, and I would be very surprised if this sumptuous book did not run away with the Kate Greenaway Medal. The winners will be announced on July 8.
Millions (9+) By Frank Cottrell Boyce (Macmillan).
Boys must spend pound;229,000 before it becomes worthless. Funny and surreal.
Looking for JJ (13+) By Anne Cassidy (Scholastic).
Child murderer is released with a new identity. Thought-provoking thriller.
Al Capone Does My Shirts (11+) By Gennifer Choldenko (Bloomsbury).
Deals with autism and family crisis with humour and pathos.
Heartbeat (10+) By Sharon Creech (Bloomsbury). Spare, rhythmic narrative poem. Fantastic.
The Star of Kazan (10+) By Eva Ibbotson (Macmillan). Good old-fashioned adventure. Wonderful writing.
The Scarecrow and His Servant (8+) By Philip Pullman (Doubleday). Beautiful, simplistic allegory with hidden depth.
Greenaway shortlist Boat (7+) By Ian Andrew, text by Helen Ward (Templar).
Noah's Ark story reworked with superb drawings.
One More Sheep (5+) By Russell Ayto, text by Mij Kelly (Hodder). Original counting book with wonderfully expressive sheep.
Dougal's Deep-Sea Diary (5+) By Simon Bartram (Templar). Exuberant diary of Dougal's diving holiday.
The Sad Book (7+) By Quentin Blake, text by Michael Rosen (Walker) Powerful evocation of grief, matched in words and pictures.
The Whisperer (5+) By Nick Butterworth (HarperCollins) West Side Story meets Cats. Wonderfully filmic quality.
Guess Who's Coming to Dinner? (7+) By John Kelly, text by Cathy Tinknell (Templar). Distinctive cinematic pictures keep readers one step ahead.
Jonathan Swift's Gulliver (10+) By Chris Riddell, text by Martin Jenkins (Walker) Grotesque illustrative style is perfect.