It's time to flex those reading muscles again to take part in the literary event of the year for young Scots.
Already, the organisers are predicting that the Royal Mail Scottish Book Awards will attract the biggest-ever number of participants. So far, more than 11,000 children in 144 Scottish schools and libraries have registered to vote. Last year, almost 20,000 took part and with registration open until the autumn, the 2008 record figure will probably be exceeded.
The Royal Mail awards, run by the Scottish Book Trust and supported by The TESS, celebrate the best of Scottish writers' and illustrators' work. It is also an inclusive, not to say democratic, competition: schools and libraries across Scotland are invited to set up judging panels of children, who read the three shortlisted books in their age category between now and the autumn, then cast their votes in November.
This year, to make the awards even more inclusive, the Scottish Book Trust has teamed up with the Royal National Institute of Blind People Scotland, which will transcribe all nine shortlisted books into Braille, audio and large print, thanks to a donation from the Rangers Charity Foundation. Hundreds of blind and partially-sighted children will, for the first time, help judge.
There are three categories: 0-7 years; 8-11; and 12-16. The three books shortlisted in each section emerged this year, as on previous occasions, from heated debate among a panel of readers made up of primary and secondary pupils and teachers, librarians, representatives of the Scottish Book Trust and sponsors Royal Mail, The TESS, Scottish Arts Council, Waterstone's bookstore and Crerar Hotels.
The youngest category (0-7 years) is full of fun and humour, not to mention colour. With a title like Pink!, Lynne Rickard's tale of Patrick the Penguin, who wakes up one morning to find he has turned pink over- night, offers plenty of scope for illustrator Margaret Chamberlain, a student of Quentin Blake. Manfred the Baddie, by John Fardell, will appeal to all youngsters with a subversive streak. The fans of writer Julia Donaldson and illustrator Axel Scheffler will be delighted with their latest production, Stick Man, which is reminiscent of their Gruffalo books.
Commenting on the category for younger readers (8-11 years), Alana White, 12, a judge on the selection panel and pupil at George Heriot's School in Edinburgh, had praise for the three very different books. The Eleventh Orphan, by Joan Lingard, was her personal favourite because the characters were "realistic and believable". The historic settings were "so well described", she felt she was standing next to the main character, Elfie. Dino Egg, by Charlie James, had her "chuckling all the way", and she discovered that you shouldn't judge a book by its cover when she read First Aid for Fairies and Other Fabled Beasts, by Lari Don. At first, she thought it would be "really girly and all about fairies" - but it wasn't. (The cover has since been redesigned.)
Another of the judges was Stuart Pauly, a 13-year-old pupil at Falkirk High, who "really" liked Ostrich Boys, by Keith Gray, in the older readers' category (12-16 years) - even if he did think that kidnapping your dead friend was "a strange plot". It is shortlisted along with books by two of last year's finalists - Crash, by JA Henderson, which opens with a train accident and the hero's discovery that his father is not the person he once was; and James Jauncey's The Reckoning, a thriller encompassing everything from racism to alcoholism and disability, which may sound dark, but is an exciting read.
Paddy Crerar, chief executive of Crerar Hotels and chairman of North British Hotels Trust, was a reluctant reader in childhood. For that reason, the trust has donated Pounds 25,600 to help the Scottish Book Trust run a shared-reading initiative as part of the awards. The programme will allow P6-7 and some S1 pupils in five authorities to read the three books in the early years category to P1-2 pupils.
Research carried out into the pilot of this initiative last year showed that it increased reluctant readers' enthusiasm for books and improved reading, talking and listening skills. Teachers reported that pupils gained in confidence and saw a boost in their independent learning ability.
In a separate initiative, the Scottish Book Trust is running a linked writing competition for pupils aged five to 16, in association with Matthew Fitt, of the innovative Scots children's publishing house Itchy Coo, and Mary Macmillan, Gaelic development officer at Learning and Teaching Scotland.
- Pink!, by Lynne Rickards and Margaret Chamberlain (Chicken House)
- Manfred the Baddie, by John Fardell (Quercus)
- Stick Man, by Julia Donaldson and Axel Scheffler (Alison Green Books)
- The Eleventh Orphan, by Joan Lingard (Catnip Publishing)
- Dino Egg, by Charlie James (Bloomsbury Children's Books)
- First Aid for Fairies and Other Fabled Beasts, by Lari Don (Floris Books)
- Ostrich Boys, by Keith Gray (Random House)
- Crash, by JA Henderson (OUP)
- The Reckoning, by James Jauncey (Young Picador).