Put three educationists, an author and a secondary school pupil round a table with a batch of children's books and ask them to find a winner and the sparks will fly. One reader's "purple prose" is another's "beautifully lyrical writing". "Hackneyed!" says one; "Delightful!" replies another. A "syrupy, sentimental love story" or a "plot to hook readers"?
Eavesdropping on the panel for the Special Educational Needs Children's Book Award is just like listening to any good reading group - it's contentious, enlightening and great fun.
The award, organised by the Educational Publishers Council and the National Association for Special Educational Needs, and supported by The TES, is given to a book of any genre that most successfully provides a positive image of young people with special needs.
The judges - Dorothy Smith, chair of the Nasen publications committee; Patrick Costello, reader in education at the North East Wales Institute for Higher Education; Linda Sigurdsson, information officer of Reach, the National Advice Centre for Children with Reading Difficulties; James Riordan, author and last year's winner; and Michael Riordan (no relation), a 14-year-old pupil at Haberdasher Aske's Hatcham College, south-east London - were looking for a book that all children would want to pick up and enjoy, not just those with special needs.
Among the 51 entries were books that have already received wide acclaim, such as Louis Sachar's award winning Holes (Bloomsbury Children's Books), much admired by the panel, but rejected because it failed to fulfil the first criterion of "enhancing the reader's knowledge and understanding of children with special needs". Nevertheless, for Michael Riordan, it was "one of the best books on its own merits", and Dorothy Smith argued that Sachar's story of a boy sent to a detention centre in a Texan desert was a "very positive book about disaffection".
The judges also said Anabel and Barnabas Kindersley's beautifully presented collection of interviews and photographs of UK children at the turn of the millennium, Children of Britain Just Like Me (Dorling Kindersley), was short on profiles of children with special needs; only one of the interviewees had cerebral palsy and another was blind.
Other entries, such as the popular EastEnders Reading Trail (BBC) and the Oxford Reds series of short non-fiction books (Oxford University Press), offer useful material for reluctant readers, but were rejected because they are not about special needs. This also ruled out the inspiring Bloomsbury anthology, Dare to be Different, in association with Amnesty International, which explores themes of exploitation and persecution.
So what exactly are special educational needs under the terms of this award? Dorothy Smith, chair of the panel, is guided by the four categories in the revised code of practice - learning difficulties (including dyslexia); behavioural, emotional and social difficulties; communication and interaction difficulties (including speech and language and autistic spectrum disorders); and sensory and physical difficulties (hearing and visual impairment). But books rarely fit into neat pigeonholes; so there were lively discussions about Gaye Hicyilmaz's The Girl in Red (Orion), for example, in which one of the main characters is a Romanian gypsy girl who has learning difficulties because English is her second language. In the end, the panel decided the book is about racial prejudice rather than special needs.
The shortlist includes something for everyone - a picture book, junior fiction, challenging novels for older readers and a non-fiction series for the library. TonyRoss and Jeanne Willis's delightfully unsentimental Susan Laughs (Andersen Press) brilliantly satisfied the judges' quest for books that celebrate difference. "It's important from the early years to acquaint children with difference and diversity," said Patrick Costello. Susan Laughs was also praised for challenging assumptions about the capabilities of physically disabled children.
The hero of Julie Rainsbury's Crab-Boy Cranc (Pont) walks with a limp but is a strong swimmer. His friend is star of the football team, but has other problems. Sensitively written from a child's perspective, this book was strongly recommended for seven to nine-year-olds.
For the same age range, Dolphin Boy by Julie Bertagna (Mammoth) reworks a popular theme, the relationship between a child and a dolphin, but in this case the six-year-old boy is autistic. The impact of this on the rest of the family, especially his sister, is well drawn, as Dibs slowly learns to copy sounds and communicate while playing with a lost dolphin.
Celia Rees's Truth or Dare (Macmillan) , "probably the first teenage novel to deal with Asperger's syndrome", was admired for the quality of its writing and "inspiring role model" and particularly recommended for teenagers.
Dreaming in Black and White by Reinhardt Jung (Egmont), a historical novel set in the Nazi era, deals with complex themes of disability and discrimination. James Riordan praised Anthea Bell's translation, while Michael Riordan "loved its mysterious style".
Sherryl Jordan, author of The Raging Quiet, (Simon and Schuster), has worked with profoundly deaf children in New Zealand, and her historical fantasy for older teenagers explores the relationship that develops between a young woman and a "wild boy" through the use of sign language. James Riordan described this as "a beautifully written, exciting story, well set geographically and historically", but was not alone in having reservations about the style in which the author describes the rape of a 16-year-old girl.
Among the non-fiction entries, the Friends series was considered the most successful for the positive way in which it documents genuine friendships between children with disabilities (including Down's syndrome, asthma, food allergy and deafness) and their classmates in mainstream schools.
As more children with special needs enter mainstream schools, all children must have access to books that reflect the full range of their experiences. Five years ago, when only 19 books were submitted for the award, Keith Barker wrote in The TES that writing about children with special needs was seen as something of a ghetto for publishers. This year's entry suggests that special needs are at last moving into the mainstream of children's literature.
Next week we announce the shortlist of the Special Educational Needs Academic Book Award. The winners of both awards will be announced on November 2 at the Special Needs London exhibition, the Business Design Centre, Islington, and featured in Friday magazine on November 3. Anne Fine, winner of the 1996 Award with How to Write Really Badly (Mammoth), will present the pound;500 prizes
THE NASEN CHILDREN'S BOOK AWARD SHORTLIST
SUSAN LAUGHS. By Tony Ross and Jeanne Willis. Andersen Press pound;9.99.
CRAB-BOY CRANC. By Julie Rainsbury. Pont Books pound;3.50
DOLPHIN BOY. By Julie Bertagna. Mammoth pound;3.99
TRUTH OR DARE. By Celia Rees. Macmillan pound;3.99
DREAMING IN BLACK AND WHITE. By Reinhardt Jung. Egmont pound;3.99
THE RAGING QUIET. By Sherryl Jordan. Simon and Schuster pound;7.99.
THE FRIENDS SERIES. By Diane Church. Watts pound;9.99 each