Rewarding tale of child murder

26th January 2001 at 00:00
A travelling salesman who murdered illegitimate babies after making their desperate mothers pay for their safety sparked the historical novel for teenagers that has just won author Jamila Gavin the Whitbread Children's Book Award.

Otis Gardiner, the arch-villain in Coram Boy (published by Mammoth) is modelled on tales of an 18th-century Gloucestershire bogeyman known as the "Coram Man". He claimed to be working for the philanthropist Thomas Coram's hospital for foundling children in London and offered to save mothers from disgrace by taking their unwanted children to Coram's care.

In fact he had no connection with the Coram charity: he would pocket the money, dispose of the children and blackmail the mothers.

Jamila Gavin picked up the Coram Man's trail five years ago near her home town of Stroud. "I had never heard of the Coram Foundation but when I went to the phone book and found that it was still a children's charity and it had a Foundlings' Museum, then I was off."

Coram Boy also draws on the author's love of music (she trained at Trinity College of Music before starting her writing career in the 1970s). It follows the fortunes of Gloucester Cathedral choirboys, Alexander and Thomas. Alexander's son, Aaron, is saved from the Coram Man, brought up in the real Coram institution and taught to sing in an early performance of Handel's Messiah.

The Whitbread children's award, which was presented in London this week, comes with a prize of pound;3,500. The panel which considered 101 novels included two young judges, Eleanor Pullan from Bristol grammar school (formerly of The Meadows county primary) and Adam Usden from Manchester grammar.

The Marsh Award for Children's Literature in Translation has gone to Duel by David Grossman, translated from Hebrew by Betsey Rosenberg.

This is a love story and cross-generational mystery for 10-year-olds upwards, published by Bloomsbury Children's Books. Betsey Rosenberg gets a prize of pound;750.

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