Read if you dare: robbery, revenge and murder

25th February 2011 at 00:00
This year's Royal Mail Awards for Scottish Children's Books - supported by TESS - honoured a host of heart-stopping stories of mystery and crime, as Elizabeth Buie reports

The battle between good and evil - or light and dark - is the common theme uniting the winners of this year's Royal Mail Awards for Scottish Children's Books. Mystery and crime feature even in the winner of the Bookbug category for youngest readers, with robbers in the farmyard and the ladybird saving the day.

As five-year-old Ethan from Auchtermuchty Primary in Fife puts it so eloquently in his book review: "It was funny when the bad men fell in the pond. I didn't like it when they tried to steal the cow."

His words will be music to the ears of winning author Julia Donaldson, whose name is never far from the shortlist of these children's book awards. This is the fourth time in five years that she has featured in the top three of this category.

Her latest triumph, What the Ladybird Heard, illustrated by Lydia Monks, disguises learning as fun and seduces the youngest reader into the world of books.

These awards, run by the Scottish Book Trust in partnership with Creative Scotland and supported by TESS, celebrate the best of Scottish writers' and illustrators' work. But what differentiates them from similar prizes is that it is children who have the final say. Every year, children read three shortlisted books for their age group and then vote online for their favourite.

This year (the fifth in the awards' history) has seen another record entry: 17,000 votes were cast for the shortlisted books; 2,000 more than last year and a rise of 7.2 per cent. Participation is organised almost entirely via schools; this year, 11 per cent of all Scottish schools (300) voted.

The winner of the 8 to 11 years category is Barry Hutchison, author of Invisible Fiends: Mr Mumbles, which is proving a runaway success. This is his debut as a children's author and the first in a six-book series. It seems only a matter of time before Hutchison's name will be as well-known to young readers as Darren Shan's or Stephanie Meyer's.

We are in classic horror territory here: when Kyle Alexander was four, he had an imaginary friend - a happy, cheerful little guy, whose unfortunate speech impediment earned him the name of Mr Mumbles. But by the time Kyle was six, he had stopped seeing Mr Mumbles, and by the age of nine, he had forgotten that he ever existed. Mr Mumbles, however, has never forgotten about him - and when Kyle is 12, on a dark and stormy Christmas Day, a very different Mr Mumbles returns, bent on revenge. Be warned - do not read this book if you are alone in the house and there has been a power cut!

In the opinion of Ibrahim, 11, at Castle Douglas Primary, it is "without doubt one of the most exhilarating books I have ever dared to read".

"I found that once I started to read this book, I could not stop," says 10-year-old Morgan, another reviewer, from St Joseph's Primary in Aberdeen.

Gritty realism characterises the winner of the final category, for older readers aged 12 to 16. Grass, by Cathy MacPhail, is a tale of gangs, guns and friendship. Leo witnesses a gangland murder and assumes that he is "dead meat". But the killer, Armour, merely winks at him, and from then on exerts an insidious hold over the boy that will test his family loyalties to the limit.

Grass's impact is evident in the comments of some of the reviewers. It's "a gripping novel with a strong storyline that pulls you in the further you read," says Kyle, 15, from Buckie High; Armour is "a great villain", writes Kirit, 13, from Cleveden Secondary in Glasgow; and altogether it's "a good, realistic street book," says Daniel, 12, from Lenzie Academy.

Jasmine Fassl, the Scottish Book Trust's children's programme manager, sums up the formula for this year's winners: "The three winning books are all fantastic stories that draw you in right from the start and don't let you go until the last page is turned."

Over the five years of their existence, the awards have become increasingly inclusive. This year, for the second time running, the Scottish Book Trust teamed up with the Royal National Institute of Blind People Scotland to transcribe the shortlisted books into Braille, audio and large print.

And once again, CALL Scotland has created accessible digital versions of the shortlisted books for children with physical, visual and reading or dyslexic difficulties who can't read paper books. They are available free of charge from CALL Scotland at

Waterstone's will also be running a "three for two" offer on all the shortlisted books until the beginning of April.

Award winners

Bookbug readers (0 to 7 years)

Winner: What the Ladybird Heard, by Julia Donaldson and Lydia Monks (Macmillan)

Runners-up: Love from Louisa, by Simon Puttock and Jo Kiddie (Harper Collins); and Stormy Weather, by Debi Gliori (Bloomsbury)

Younger readers (8 to 11 years)

Winner: Invisible Fiends: Mr Mumbles, by Barry Hutchison (Harper Collins)

Runners-up: The Secret of the Black Moon Moth, by John Fardell (Faber); and The Dragon Whisperer, by Lucinda Hare (Bodley Head)

Older readers (12 to 16 years)

Winner: Grass, by Cathy MacPhail (Bloomsbury)

Runners-up: Crossing the Line, by Gillian Philip (Bloomsbury); and The Witching Hour, by Elizabeth Laird (Macmillan)


"It was like being strapped to a heart defibrillator." - Ibrahim, 11, Castle Douglas Primary, on Mr Mumbles - "It had my blood rushing. Imagine being Kyle! His fear is at 100; the reader's is hovering at 90." - Ryan, 10, St Brigid's Primary, on Mr Mumbles

"I just can't stop telling my friends how good it is." - Jack, 13, Woodfarm High, on Grass

"It's an amazing read that draws you in, allowing you to experience Armour's deadly web and Leo's emotional turmoil." - Anna, 13, Woodfarm High, on Grass

The Critics' Award

The winners of the parallel review writing competition, run by the Scottish Book Trust, are:

Bookbug readers (0 to 7 years)

Winner: Kelsie Middlemas, Castle Douglas Primary, Dumfries and Galloway

Second: Maddie Boyes, George Heriot's School, Edinburgh

Third: Susanna Tweedie, George Heriot's School

Younger readers (8 to 11 years)

Winner: Ibrahim Yassin-Kassab, Castle Douglas Primary

Second: Morgan Craig, St Joseph's Primary, Aberdeen

Third: Alice Bell, Castle Douglas Primary

Older readers (12 to 16 years)

Winner: Lorna Cowan, Lenzie Academy, East Dunbartonshire

Second: Abbie Dunn, Buckie High, Moray

Third: Stephanie Gracie, Ardrossan Academy, North Ayrshire.

  • Original headline: Read them if you dare: tales of robbery, revenge and murder

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