Growing appetite for great reading
People that disappear into paintings, vampires living next door and battles with Dream Pirates: if the stunningly imaginative stories shortlisted for this year's Scottish Children's Book Awards are anything to go by, writing for young readers north of the Border is in fine health.
Run by Scottish Book Trust in partnership with Creative Scotland, and supported by TESS, the awards are an annual barometer of younger readers' changing tastes and the quality of writing talent in the country for 0 to 16-year-olds. Now in its sixth year, it is judged in three age categories: Bookbug readers (0-7), younger readers (aged 8-11) and older readers (12- 16).
With much of the of the process driven by schools and libraries, who establish judging panels of children to assess the three shortlisted books in their respective age groups, the level of involvement by young people has given the project a strongly democratic flavour. In 2010, 16,000 children took part.
Jasmine Fassl, children's programme manager at Scottish Book Trust, was particularly pleased by the enthusiastic input of children, parents and teachers.
"The number of children taking part continues to grow every year, which is proof of the huge appetite for reading in Scottish schools and libraries," she said.
The shortlist of nine, announced on Tuesday, includes Glasgow-based Alison Murray, who said she was "delighted and honoured" to have made it into the Bookbug category with her first picture book, Apple Pie ABC.
The tale of a girl trying to foil her dog's attempts to steal a pie, it combines simple, satisfying narrative with a tour through the alphabet, gently pushing young readers' vocabulary.
Ms Murray has a background in textile design and her retro-style graphics are informed by a passion for old books and printing processes.
Also on the list is Dear Vampa by Ross Collins, which focuses on a family of vampires who move into a new house.
"Children will always love vampires and the supernatural," Mr Collins told TESS, "but the book is also basically about getting on with your neighbours."
Witty and atmospheric, the story's carefully-laid clues culminate in a twist ending that will have young children clamouring for it to be re- read.
Completing the Bookbug list is Chae Strathie and Emily Golden's The Loon on the Moon, a colourful romp around the galaxy in the company of a creature which sucks up dreams that "leak from children's ears like steam from a kettle".
This year's stories for eight to 11-year-olds mix fantasy adventure, comedy and history. Many authors have explored how a child's bedtime can produce feelings of security but also fear - of the dark and the unknown quality of dreams. Ross MacKenzie has a refreshing new take on this idea in Zac amp; the Dream Pirates.
"I really wanted to ask what happens when you dream," said Mr MacKenzie, who lives in Renfrew. "And I wanted to show how horror and humour could be combined to tell the story."
Also making the cut are Franzeska G Ewart's There's A Hamster in My Pocket!, which examines friendship through mystery, humour and a menagerie of animals, and The Case of the London Dragonfish by Joan Lennon, launching with elan the adventures of hot-tempered girl detective Slightly Jones.
Authors on the older readers' list may deal with some tougher topics, but that doesn't mean they stint on a creative approach to storytelling.
Nicola Morgan's Wasted is a compelling and original novel with an ingenious narrative device at its heart.
She took a "risk" with the book because it was unusual, but the messages she has had from teenagers show that it was worth it, Ms Morgan told TESS.
"I think it appeals to that age group, though also to adults, because it includes so many elements that interest them and their brains are raring to explore - relationships, risk, danger, the future, chance, fate, and big questions of life, death and how our minds and the world work," she said. "There are no answers but the questions are mesmerising."
Set in 15th-century Spain, Theresa Breslin's vivid and gripping Prisoner of the Inquisition also gives teenagers some big moral themes to chew over.
Ms Breslin praised Scottish Book Trust for working hard to make the award interactive. "I'm really looking forward to hearing the comments and opinions of our young readers," she said.
Completing the list is Teresa Flavin's delightful historical fantasy The Blackhope Enigma, which charts Sunni Forest and friends' adventures in a world hidden within a Renaissance painting.
The shortlisted authors and illustrators receive pound;500 per book, and will be vying for the award of pound;3,000 per book when the winners are announced in February.
As in previous years there's an accompanying book review competition for budding journalists - entries can be in English, Scots or Gaelic on any of the shortlisted stories, and the deadline both for reviews and registering to vote is 27 January.
THE SHORTLIST 2011