Glittering prizes

18th November 1994 at 00:00
Adele Geras on why Gold Dust won the Whitbread Award. The brief for judging the children's novel section of the Whitbread Award is a delight. I was asked to read a third of the 83 novels submitted; I could call in any others I liked; and I could see any of the books that had been sent to my fellow judges, novelist Sue Townsend and Liz Woodhead from W H Smith.

The Award is given purely on literary merit, and no considerations of educational value or didactic intent enter the judging. Most of the books had something to recommend them. Not one was thrown across the room in disgust and most of those I started, I finished.

Many dealt with real-life problems: fatness, vagaries of parental behaviour, social security, life on a modern estate, and so forth. There were time-slip stories, and it was good to see more foreign settings. Fantasy was still popular, but mixed with an extra element of concern for the characters' day-to-day worries. There was a dearth of science fiction, although we had a good distopia novel. Historical novels were conspicuous by their absence, and there was very little sex and violence. Most of the books were written in a good, plain, easily accessible style.

Of the 30 books I read, I knew at once which would succeed: they were the ones that made me forget about everything except what was going on in the novel. In other words, they created a complete world I was happy to inhabit, and they did this in the best and most elegant language possible.

When the other two shortlists arrived, I was pleased to see that we agreed on almost all the titles. It would be more exciting, I know, to report friction, torn hair, lost tempers, but, when we met in August, we agreed very quickly on our finalists. The winner, Gold Dust, by Geraldine McCaughrean, (Oxford) is set in Brazil and tells the story of a community smitten by gold lust. A hole opens up in the street, and almost everyone in the small town falls into it, physically or metaphorically, scrabbling around in a frantic search for wealth. The novel is funny and moving and packed with larger-than-life characters. It is a parable with serious moral lessons, but it is also a rip-roaring adventure, full of vigorous, stylish writing and hilarious happenings.

It was also, we thought, a novel that would hold its own when judged against the other categories of the Whitbread Book of the Year Award, the winner of which will be announced on January 24.

They Do Things Differently There by Jan Mark (Bodley Head), one of those rare books which make you look at the world with new eyes. It is funny, clever and beautifully surreal. Jenny Nimmo's Griffin's Castle (Methuen) is a fantasy which is also deeply rooted in real life. It has a brave and imaginative heroine, a horrible villain and an ending to satisfy those of us who still believe in the possibility of happy ones.

The children's novel award is sponsored by the Beefeater restaurant chain.Other category winners of the Whitbread Award are: Novel: Felicia's Journey by William Trevor; First novel: The Longest Memory by Fred D'Aguiar; Poetry: Out of Danger by James Fenton; Biography: D H Lawrence: The Married Man by Brenda Maddox.

Adle Geras's latest book is A Lane to the Land of the Dead published by Hamish Hamilton.

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