Space for literary reflection
Michael Thorn eavesdrops as the shortlists for this year's top children's book awards are drawn up
How do you choose the most outstanding children's books published in any year? Shut a dozen librarians in a room for two days, ply them with coffee, sandwiches and sweets, and not let them go until they've chosen a half-dozen or so books to be considered for the Carnegie and the Kate Greenaway Medals.
The two awards have been presented annually since 1955. Like the Newbery and Caldecott Medals in the United States, they are awarded by librarians, who assess the books against stringent criteria. To be shortlisted for the Carnegie a book has to be of "outstanding literary quality". And it should give the reader the feeling of "having gone through a vicarious, but at the time of reading, a real experience that is retained afterwards". Greenaway contenders must be books "of outstanding artistic quality" that provide "a stimulating and satisfying visual experience".
Although all categories of children's books are eligible for the award, including non-fiction and poetry, the tendency over the years has been for the Carnegie to be presented to a novel and the Greenaway to a picture book. This year, the two longlists, each of some three dozen titles nominated by regional groups of librarians, did not include a single poetry or non-fiction title.
Anne Marley is this year's judging panel chair. She has the assistance of Colin Brabazon (Youth Libraries Group vice-chair), Teresa Scragg and Angela McNally (to oversee procedures). None of these three has voting status (all the voting librarians are female), but they are free to make significant contributions to the discussions. Brabazon's incisive "expositions" (as they come to be termed) save several titles from premature demotion to the "out" pile. There is an inevitable Room 101 feel about the discussion as books are categorised "in", "maybe" or "out", although no book is rejected without due consideration.
A point of view has developed over the years, particularly in relation to the Carnegie, that librarians favour dark, issue-led books and emphasise what they consider to be highbrow literary quality at the expense of readability. Did awarding last year's Carnegie to Terry Pratchett's The Amazing Maurice and his Educated Rodents signify the beginning of a groundswell against a doom-and-gloom school of writing? Some of the judges'
comments this year suggest so. "A lot of books on this (longlist) involve stench," one of them good-naturedly complained. "The king of stench," summarised another, after describing one novel as "the most unpleasant book I've read for a long time". Even Brabazon's defence of its "neo-politics" and "dystopian vision" couldn't save this title from rejection.
"Not another psychopath!" was the impromptu response to Antonin, the Svengali figure in Philip Gross's Going For Stone, a hitherto critically well-received novel that one judge described as "Scooby Doo meets Hannibal Lecter".
These judges were very particular about authenticity and believability. The strength of the female characters in Raider's Tide by Maggie Prince was considered anachronistic, and there was concern that the narrator in Nicky Singer's Feather Boy did not sound like a contemporary teenage boy growing up in Brighton. Lesley Howarth's Carwash was ruined for another judge by an optician's prescription. "My contact lenses are minus 4 and I can't see a thing without them in."
Similarly precise concerns proved decisive for several of the illustrators.
One judge, a passionate supporter of Helen Oxenbury's artwork in Big Mama Made The World could not comprehend complaints that the baby's head was "not quite right" on some of the pages. Christopher Wormell's George and the Dragon also had passionate support, but some considered the figure of a girl "gauchely drawn".
Arriving at the shortlist for the Greenaway Medal was a particularly emotionally-charged process, partly because the librarians had a wide range of hands-on experiences of using the picture books in storytelling sessions in their libraries and found it difficult to set aside personal preferences. With the shortlists that finally emerged, questions that come to mind are: Will Anne Fine be the first author to receive a third Carnegie Medal (she is so far one of six to have done the double)? If Lian Hearn wins, will the author finally come out from behind the nom de plume? Can Lauren Child, with two chances of the Greenaway, win her second medal in three years? Will it be a first-time Greenaway for the popular Nick Sharratt? Or will the "outstanding use of colour" in Helen Ward's illustrations for The Cockerel And The Hen win the day?
I suspect Ruby Holler will be the novel with which the judges will find least fault. My preferred Carnegie winner is Martyn Pig, but I would be even happier for Kevin Brooks to win next year with Lucas.
Among the picture books, I suspect there might be dissenters for Nick Sharratt and Lauren Child, and that Bob Graham's Jethro Byrde, Fairy Child is the book most likely to attract the judges' fairly unanimous agreement.
In the absence from the Greenaway shortlist of my own favourite, Alexis Deacon's Slow Loris, I'd like to see Lauren Child win again for Who's Afraid of the Big Bad Book?; my second choice would be The Cockerel and the Fox.