Children's Literature

23rd November 1995 at 00:00
Whitbread judge Simon Tait recalls a summer of discontent. I had planned an uplifting and entertaining August judging my share of the entries for the 1995 Whitbread Book of the Year children's novel competition, but it was not to be.

Assailed by ghosts, homeless and parentless children, and even the makings of sheer vice, I had to pick three or four novels. I made it - with difficulty. There was no great little book.

I was relieved to meet my fellow judges and find that they had had precisely the same experience. The only other thing we had in common is that we are all parents. Nanette Newman is a grandmother and a prolific children's author; Sonia Benster has run The Children's Bookshop in Huddersfield for 20 years.

No two children's book competitions are alike, of course, and this one has idiosyncrasies that set it firmly apart. It is run by the Booksellers Association as part of the Whitbread Book of the Year Award alongside judging for novel, first novel, biography and poetry. The winner of each section goes on to contend for the main prize.

Since the award is for literary quality, illustration is not meant to be a major consideration - this turned out to be a sensitive point.

Authors have to be living in Britain or the Irish Republic and be alive at the time of judging (which sadly let out Robert Westall's The Night Mare). A children's book has never won the ultimate Whitbread Book Award, and this year will be no exception.

There has been a boom in children's book publishing - 7,013 titles were published in Britain in 1993, twice as many as any other country, including the United States, though it has levelled out since.

The importance of the early teenage market was abundantly clear from the 60 books we read between us. There had been 78 entered but the Booksellers Association had weeded out the no-hopers: they told us which ones; we demurred on none.

Coming to our shortlist of three was not difficult. In the end, one title came from each of us. Picking the winner was less easy, but that revelation has to wait until after Christmas to make the most out of the marketing.

We asked one principal question of each book: would it bring youngsters into reading?

First, the looks of the books were generally uninspiring. Elizabeth Arnold's The Parsley Parcel is a charming story, but few children would be tempted to proceed beyond the toothachingly prissy ragamuffin on the cover.The yellow boy standing before the Guys-and-Dolls set which is the cover for Philip Ridley's Kasper in the Glitter, however, demands further inquiry.

Illustration is an important morsel to set the young imagination's juices flowing. It costs money but its exclusion, we thought, was often a false economy. Chris Riddell's drawings for Kasper hold the book together.

There was some alarming marketing, too. One author had written a pretty decent first novel but it was published in hardback only at Pounds 11.99, a price beyond the budgets of most schools and libraries, let alone children. It will not sell, so the publishers' accountants are likely to veto a softback and this promising writer might be lost without trace.

"New authors have no clout with publishers," Sonia said. "You can tell the authors who do by the quality of the product, and by how quickly the paperback follows the hardback."

The paperback of Michael Morpurgo's The Wreck of the Zanzibar, in which the production quality matches the high stamp of the story-telling, swiftly followed the hardback into the shops.

You could see where some writers had been pushed for time, where endings were unsatisfact-orily thought-out and characters not properly built. Some of these were successful writers being pressed into writing perhaps three books a year.

But the chief beef was that almost all the books we saw were written for over-nines. The crucial age group of seven-to-nine, the period when children can be won or lost to books, is barely recognised in the award intake.

"What it comes down to," Sonia Benster reluctantly concluded, "is publisher's greed." So, I am afraid, said all of us.

The shortlisted books for the 1995 Whitbread Children's Novel Award are: The Parsley Parcel by Elizabeth Arnold (Heinemann); The Wreck of the Zan-zibar by Michael Morpurgo (Heinemann); Kasper in the Glitter by Philip Ridley (Viking)

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