As child judges around the country cast their votes for the Red House Book Award, Geraldine Brennan visits a school in Wiltshire, where the process is fuelling a passion for reading
It's a Pop Idol moment for Cherub by Robert Muchamore, the first in an adventure series set at a boot camp for young spies. Pupils at Shaw Church of England Primary School are giving it marks out of 10 and it has scored 10, 11, 10, 3, 2.9, "millions", 11 and 12. Two of the panel are clearly underwhelmed.
For this group - all Year 6, except Luke, who is in Year 5 and wakes up at 6am to read - the biggest polling-day question of the term has been: will the winner of the top age group in the Red House Book Award be Muchamore's book, Eva Ibbotson's The Star of Kazan (the children gave it 8, 7, 5, 4, 9, 9.99, 7 and 6) or Christopher Paolini's Eragon (scoring 9, 9, 8, 9.9, 9.99, 7, 6 and 8)?"
The votes from the 200-pupil school have been cast and the results of the award will be announced on Saturday, June 11. By now the children should also know the answer to another even more pressing question - who gets to go to the party at the Kensington Roof Gardens and meet the shortlisted authors?
The school, near Melksham in Wiltshire, is one of 300 schools - of which around two-thirds are primaries - which have contributed to this year's award (slogan: "Join in and read"). In all, 25,000 children have taken part, some through nurseries or family reading groups.
The young judges from around the country read a range of new fiction and picture books submitted by publishers; this year 700 titles have been circulating in schools, with each school usually receiving multiple copies of around 200 books in batches, which they read and exchange with other schools.
Now in its 25th year, the project is organised by the Federation of Children's Book Groups, with volunteers in 12 regions distributing the books. Children's reports, plus those sent to its website, are used to compile a long-list of 50 books, followed by a Top 10, which is split into three age groups. Once these are announced at the end of the spring term, children have around two months to choose age group and overall winners.
Shaw School is on the patch of national organiser Jo Williams, who combines running the award with work in a children's bookshop. Jo admires the Shaw pupils' reading stamina and the book-friendly climate in the school, where the walls are covered with pictures of sessions with visiting authors, including Geraldine McCaughrean and Simon Bartram (creator of Dugald's Deep-sea Diary). "Their enthusiasm is quite wonderful," she says.
Jo recruited Shaw School last year; like most schools which have had the Red House experience, they have come back for more and Jo says they can carry on as long as they want to: "We also add schools as word spreads about the benefits. We have not yet reached a point where we have had to turn schools away."
Literacy co-ordinator Sue Jackson is impressed by the speed at which the three shortlisted novels in the top age group have been devoured by Years 5 and 6. (The Star of Kazan and Eragon, in particular, are weighty reads.) "We got the books a week beforeJthe Easter holiday, andJseveral children had read all three for the start of term." The benefits are school-wide and inclusive, because shorter novels and pictureJbooks also need to be judged (the longer novels are reserved for Years 5 and 6).
Sue has noticed a range of benefits from participating over the past two years. "The children have been reading with a real purpose, which has scored highly with the boys. The more they read and the more their delight and interest in reading grow, the more it shows in their writing. Their vocabulary has improved noticeably."
The Red House is the only national children's award judged entirely by children, and Shaw Church's pupils have a strong sense of their role in the process, Sue adds. "They have made the decisions individually, but there has been a lot of informal discussion and they have had to de-fend their choices. Reading is now considered among the children to be not only OK, but fashionable. Those who are less confident readers can still empathise with the characters and comment on the books, and are also extremely motivated.
"The award offers a chance to expose the children to around 200 high-quality brand new books over a year. We couldn't possibly find our way to all those books and buy them ourselves."
She has, however, been encouraged to buy class sets of books shortlisted for previous years: Michael Morpurgo's Dear Olly, Harry Horse's The Last Polar Bears and Geraldine McCaughrean's Stop the Train!.
In return for the influx of new books, schools log each copy's journey between readers and make sure all are accounted for and returned.
Federation volunteers can often help with this, as well as visit regularlyto cheer the readers on, as Jo Williams does. She points out the sophistication with which another group (Years 3, 4 and 5, with one Year 6 enthusiast) approach the four shortlisted picture books. "They're commenting on paper quality, tactile pages, typography, endpapers; they really understand how the books work."
Back in the IbbotsonPaoliniMuchamore debate, the children have moved on to compare their preferred reading habitats. "My dad's got this really comfy armchair," says Maritza, who has fitted in Benjamin Zephaniah's Gangsta Rap along with her shortlisted books. Others favour their beanbags and sofas. Elizabeth has moved on from Garth Nix ("I read Mister Monday in Year 5, and I've just read Sabriel") and is still not sure where to place her vote. "I don't think The Star of Kazan is a very good title; it's only mentioned a third of the way in."
Jemima was won over by the horse content in Eva Ibbotson's book ("If a horse is a mile away she can tell you what kind it is," says Maritza).
"I like the title," Jemima adds. "It's a secret and you have to work it out." She has already given the book the greatest accolade she can think of: "I've bought my own copy."
Short listed books
* Books for young children: The Gruffalo's Child by Julia Donaldson and Axel Scheffler Macmillan pound;10.99
Open Wide by Tom Barber and Lynne Chapman Chrysalis pound;9.99
Baby Brains by Simon James Walker pound;10.99
There's No Such Thing as a Ghostie by Cressida Cowell and Holly Swain Puffin pound;10.99
Books for Younger Readers: Clarice Bean Spells Trouble by Lauren Child Orchard pound;9.99
Best Friends by Jacqueline Wilson Doubleday pound;10.99
The Legend of Spud Murphy by Eoin Colfer Puffin pound;7.99
* Books for older readers:
Eragon by Christopher Paolini Doubleday, pound;7.99
The Recruit by Robert Muchamore Hodder, pound;5.99
The Star of Kazan by Eva Ibbotson Macmillan, pound;12.99
* Previous winners that became bestsellers include: Mister Magnolia by Quentin Blake (1981); The BFG by Roald Dahl (1983); The Jolly Postman by Janet and Allan Ahlberg (1987); Double Act by Jacqueline Wilson (1996); Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone by J K Rowling (1998).
* The Federation of Children's Book Groups publishes a "pick of the year" list highlighting children's top 50 choices. For details of the federation's work with schools, see www.redhousechildrensbookaward.co.uk and www.fcbg.co.uk