Three hundred groups have shadowed the judges for this year's Carnegie and Kate Greenaway medals, the UK's top prizes for children's authors and illustrators which are to be awarded next week. Elaine Williams joins a group of adults with learning difficulties who have relished the chance to discuss picture books, while on the facing page, Carnegie shadowers list their favourites
The chance to be judges of illustration has fired one group of Midlands students with enormous enthusiasm. As adults with severe learning difficulties, they find books that engage their interest and match their reading age in desperately short supply.
The eight participants on the skills development course at Melton Mowbray College in Leicestershire are aged from 21 to 50, but they have relished the opportunity to discuss the children's picture books shortlisted for the Kate Greenaway Medal, the Library Association's prestigious prize for illustrators.
The students have been shadowing Dorothy Porter, one of the judges, who is group librarian for Leicestershire Libraries and Information Service. Mrs Porter has written fiction for people, who, like her own daughter Alison, have learning difficulties - stories to interest adults, but in simple Format. She has also worked on a Book Trust directory, Read Easy, for this group.
She believes involving people with severe learning difficulties in the nationwide Carnegie Greenaway shadowing project acknowledges the contribution they can make.
Discussion within the group becomes quite heated. Students are encouraged to think of how the books might suit nieces and nephews. Whereas 21-year-old Tim Yarwood is passionate about Anthony Browne's Willy the Dreamer - he likes Browne's play on images and the fact that every time he looked at the pictures he saw something different - 33-year-old Serena Austin is equally animated in her preference for Ken Brown's Mucky Pup and the way you feel you will get your hands dirty if you touch the pictures. Alison Francis, 37, particularly favours P J Lynch's detailed portraits of Jessie in When Jessie Came Across the Sea and the way all the pictures resemble paintings.
Even after the group has finally opted for Willy the Dreamer, the arguments continue. Judy Smithers, the learning difficulties and disabilities co-ordinator at Melton Mowbray, says the students have concentrated on the task to an unusual degree. "They have remembered a remarkable amount of detail and loved having the chance to look at picture books again. It has also made them realise how difficult it is to choose a winner."
Ms Smithers introduced her group to picture books at the library next door to the college before tackling the shortlist. She says: "We looked at the pictures first, to see if we could work out the story from those. Then we read the story together to see if it was what we expected. Then we looked at the books again as a whole. The students made great strides because they were so enthusiastic. It helped them to know that their decision had some importance."
Now the group is hoping to find funding for a collection of books that tell stories through pictures alone. They have been inspired by another title on the shortlist, Peter Collington's A Small Miracle, a wordless moral tale.
Year 4 pupils at Christ Church primary school in Camden, north London, have also thrown themselves into their role in the national shadowing project, which has Arts Council sponsorship this year and has expanded to include 300 groups based at schools, libraries and colleges.
The Christ Church group held an assembly about the Greenaway shortlist, recommending books for specific groups and purposes. For example, they suggested that Bob Graham's farmyard tale, Queenie the Bantam, would suit a class looking at cycles, growth and change in science.
The school takes children from the deprived Regent's Park estate and qualifies for single regeneration budget funding to strengthen community links, so pupils are visiting the local library to read to younger children from the shortlisted books.
Their teacher, Maria Arevalo, says: "Every child has read each of the books and written reviews, deciding what was good about it and why and for whom it was most appropriate. Their criteria have developed during the term. Having to back up their opinions has made them very focused."
`I usually head straight for the adult shelves in the library - I was surprised at how much I liked some of the books on the list'
Carnegie Medal shortlist
* Pig-heart Boy By Malorie Blackman (Doubleday)
* River Boy By Tim Bowler (Oxford)
* Fire, Bed and Bone By Henrietta Branford (Walker)
* Forever X By Geraldine McCaughrean (Oxford)
* Scribbleboy By Philip Ridley (Puffin)
* Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone By J K Rowling (Bloomsbury)
* Meet Me by the Steelmen By Theresa Tomlinson (Walker)
Fiona Gogerty, 15, is in Year 10 at Harlington Community School, Middlesex. Her school's shadowing project was part of its Bright Challenge programme for able pupils in Years 8 to 10.
Her winner: Scribbleboy
I usually head straight for the adult shelves in the library - I like Catherine Cookson and Christopher Pike - and I was surprised at how much I liked some of the books on the list, although I would say they were aimed at up to 13-year-olds.
`Scribbleboy' is an exciting fantasy that a wide age range would enjoy. The bold, scribbly graphics and the way it is set out would catch younger children's attention. Children would connect with the school setting of `Harry Potter' and the magical element would draw them in. These are both good stories and the length of `Harry Potter' doesn't matter - it's a myth that children won't read longer books.
Gwyn Skone, 14, is in Year 9 at Harrow Way Community School, Andover, which is running its shadowing project as part of a whole-schoolprogramme to boost reading.
His winner: River Boy
I could picture the whole setting of Tim Bowler's book, and the picture never left me. The pace was handled so well - the story was never moving too fast so that you lost track, and at the same time it never dragged. The mystery about it was the coolest thing - it was really at the heart of the story. I liked `Scribbleboy' too - I enjoyed the exaggerated characters and the nice twist in the tale.
Francis Woolf, 13, is in Year 8 at Laiston Middle School, Suffolk. He is one of a group of 20 pupils shadowing the Carnegie.
His winner: Harry Potter
It's got to be `Harry Potter' - it gripped me right away and I read it in one night. I like books by Tolkien and Terry Pratchett and it reminds me of those, but the idea and the style of writing are really original and Harry is a great character.
Philip Ridley's `Scribbleboy' is also original - funky is the word I'd use. It's also funny and easyto read.
Jeanna Shalkowski, 12, studies at home in Leeds and is in one of a network of groups of young readers based at city libraries who are shadowing the Carnegie judges.
Her winners: Harry Potter; Pig-heart Boy
I read a mixture of children's and adult books -I had to put `War and Peace' down for this project.
`Harry Potter' is just the sort of book I like - full of adventure, funny and surprising. `Pig-heart Boy' helped me understand a lot more about heart transplants, about what he had to go through. I was sitting up in bed crying when Cameron's grandma died. It's a book that should have a sequel.
KATE GREENAWAY SHORTLIST
* Mucky Pup By Ken Brown (Andersen)
* Willy the Dreamer By Anthony Browne (Walker)
* A Small Miracle By Peter Collington (Jonathan Cape)
* Queenie the Bantam By Bob Graham (Walker)
* When Jessie Came Across the Sea By P J Lynch (Walker)
* Michael Rosen's Book of Nonsense By Clare Mackie (Macdonald Young Books)
* Ginger By Charlotte Voake (Walker)
* Unicorns! Unicorns! By Geraldine McCaughrean (Orchard)