Geraldine Brennan sat in on the judging sessions to compile the shortlist for the Carnegie and Kate Greenaway Medals, in which child-friendly storytellers triumphed
Should we put it on the shortlist just to get children to read it?" was the plaintive cry from one Carnegie Medal judge.
William Mayne's Hob and the Pedlar had been praised as "a great reading experience with a tremendous standard of writing" and "an imaginative, detailed perception of the child's world". But Mayne's novel was one of the casualties in an eight-hour judging session by a panel of librarians in which "accessibility" and "child-friendliness" were the buzzwords.
Geraldine McCaughrean's Forever X (Oxford University Press) was helped on to the shortlist by the child appeal of its setting, a hotel where Christmas is celebrated every day. This, it was felt, would encourage readers who had difficulty with the text of "a superb wordsmith whose command of language is second to none". Forever X also appealed as "a thoroughly rounded novel of characters".
Generally, storytelling power was the key to success unless, like Philip Pullman (The Subtle Knife) or Lesley Howarth (MapHead 2), you had written a sequel which was deemed not to be self-standing.
Another Oxford title, Tim Bowler's River Boy, was noted for "strong and well drawn" characters and "a complete and satisfying story of what it means to live life to the full which is also a reassuring exploration of death and bereavement".
Fire, Bed and Bone (Walker), Henrietta Branford's vivid account of the Peasants' Revolt through the eyes, ears and nose of a dog, was celebrated as "storytelling at its best with a wonderful sense of time and place". The panel liked Malorie Blackman's Pig-heart Boy (Doubleday) for its "superb central character", who receives a pig's heart in a transplant and strives for quality (rather than quantity) of life.
"The plot bounds along and the characters crackle with life," they said of Philip Ridley's Scribbleboy (Puffin), in which the worried, stuttering schoolboy Bailey Smith sheds some of his anxieties thanks to the graffiti artist who brightens his typically Ridleyesque urban jungle. They hailed Joanne Rowling's trainee wizard Harry Potter as "a new hero in children's literature" and Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone (Bloomsbury) as "a breath of fresh air - a real children's story". And of Theresa Tomlinson's Meet Me By The Steelmen (Walker) in which statues come to life to open doors to Sheffield's industrial past, they said: "a very strong, clever, time-travel story."
Meanwhile, it was raining cats, dogs and all manner of beasts on the shortlist for the Kate Greenaway Medal, the Library Association's accompanying award for illustration. Charlotte Voake's Ginger (Walker) examines an eternal triangle of one human and two cats - an oldster and an upstart kitten. "As perfect a book for the very young as I can bring to mind", wrote Naomi Lewis on publication (TES, March 7, 1997).
The judges celebrated Ken Brown's Mucky Pup (Andersen) for its "sense of chaos and the feeling of wet dog all over the page" and the farmyard drama Queenie the Bantam by Bob Graham (Walker) for "action and movement, excitement, suspense and not a single duff picture".
The rest of the shortlist moves into a wider age range. Sophie Windham's paintings for Geraldine McCaughrean's text in Unicorns! Unicorns! (Hutchinson) were noted as "very rich, detailed, atmospheric, with a perfect balance to every page". Anthony Browne's homage to surrealism and gorillas, Willy the Dreamer (Walker), "works on many levels yet retains child appeal", the judges said.
There are no names for Clare Mackie's creatures illustrating Michael Rosen's Book of Nonsense (Macdonald Young Books), but they appealed as "zany, offbeat and perfect for the text".
The remaining two books on the shortlist struck an emotional chord. The judges welcomed as "iconoclastic, eloquent and unsettling" Peter Collington's wordless present-day interpretation of Christmas goodwill in A Small Miracle (Jonathan Cape). And they noted "the astonishing amount of emotion" in P J Lynch's When Jessie Came Across the Sea (Walker), the tale of a young Jewish immigrant lacemaker's new start in turn-of-the-century New York.
The winners will be announced on July 15. The awards are sponsored by the Royal Mail