Hidden treasures;Children's Books;Scottish Arts Council Children's Book Awards

25th June 1999 at 01:00
The Scottish Arts Council Children's Book Awards recognise under-valued and talented writers, Julie Morrice reports

Writing books for children - like creating theatre and composing music for children, and running restaurants or transport services with children in mind - has long been considered a second-rate activity. Ours is a society still run largely by people who think the next generation is none of their business - at least not until it is old enough to open its own bank account.

But the mood is shifting, and new developments, such as the presentation last week of the first Scottish Arts Council Children's Book Awards, are a key part of changing our adult-bound culture.

The awards have been introduced under a female literature director at the SAC. Jenny Brown, with her background in the Edinburgh Book Festival, brings to the SACa broader sense of what constitutes literature. Five of the six prizewinners are women too, and the only man on the list, illustrator Ross Collins, is still in his 20s.

From Frances Hodgson Burnett to Anne Fine, women have always been at the forefront of children's literature; perhaps the next generation of Scottish male authors will consider it safe and financially worthwhile to join them.

Their writers may be female, but the five books that won awards last week represent a broad range of children's fiction, and will appeal to boys and girls alike. It is proof that Scottish writing for children is well worth celebrating.

The awards are inclusive rather than jingoistic, and Susan Cooper, born in Buckinghamshire and resident in the United States, won an award for her rich and thrilling adventure story set firmly in the historical and geographical heartland of Scotland. The Boggart and the Monster is a sinuously written tale that weaves together the supernatural, the technological and the human in a highly-accessible, but intelligent fashion.

Perhaps no Scottish author would dare put the Loch Ness Monster at the centre of a story for a modern audience. The beast trails such a long skein of tartan-tourist-tat imagery in its wake that it has become as unattractive to natives as a diet of porridge and McGonagall. But Cooper's Loch Ness is no misty Balmoral-ised vision; it's the real thing - caravan sites, tour buses, cynical locals and all. With the all-too-convincing antics of the mischief-making Boggart, and the author's light touch with relationships, it makes for a tremendous read.

J K Rowling may have written her Harry Potter books in Edinburgh, but it is difficult to say whether or not the dark magic of her work owes anything to the atmosphere of the Scottish capital. Perhaps those long train rides from London to the wild landscape surrounding Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry are a souped-up version of the journey from King's Cross to Waverley. Whatever inspires them, Rowling's books are simply wonderful. If you know a 10-year-old or even a six-to-eight-year-old who has yet to discover Harry Potter, there is no doubt what his or her next birthday present should be.

Fantasy may make the most beguiling children's books, but realism has made its mark on the awards. Tom and the Tree House by Joan Lingard is a sensitive story for young readers, exploring the tangled feelings of an adopted child. Funny and sad by turn, it gets inside the child's world and makes the reader aware of awkward emotions and difficult choices. It is an achievement to tackle complex issues in a way that is entertaining and understandable for young children.

Catherine MacPhail's Fighting Back brings an even harsher reality into focus. Set in a tower-block estate ruled by a family of violent loan sharks, it's the story of a mother and daughter trying to piece together some kind of family life after the break-up of a marriage. The circumstances may be extreme, but the basic story is all too familiar: Dad has left for a new life with a new girlfriend, while Kerry and her mum must support each other and work out a new kind of relationship. When they are forced to move house, they find themselves in an alien world of petty crime and intimidation which is almost enough to tip them over the edge - but not quite.

Childhood fears start early, and Supposing... by Frances Thomas and Ross Collins confronts them head-on in a charming story for very young children. Little Monster has had a nightmare, but Mother Monster turns it on its head and makes the world a safe place again, and Collins' striking illustrations combine a Winnie-the-Pooh-cuddle factor with a dark imagination reminiscent of Tenniel's drawings for Alice.

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