Spider's tale

6th November 1998 at 00:00
CHILDREN'S BOOK AWARD 1998. WINNER. The Crowstarver. By Dick King-Smith. Doubleday Pounds 9.99

HIGHLY COMMENDED. Me and My Electric. Edited by Elizabeth Laird. Mammoth Pounds 6.99

With so many prizes under his belt, you might imagine that Dick King-Smith could easily have become blase about such things. But having a book on both the NASEN and the Smarties Book Prize shortlists clearly means a great deal to the creator of Babe (The Sheep-Pig).

The Crowstarver is not a typical King-Smith novel, although he has given it a rural-idyll setting in the 1930s. Its choice as winner of the 1998 NASEN Children's Book Award is a provocative one. It tells the story of how the adoptive parents and the village community of farmhands react to and cope with the needs of Spider, a boy with severe learning difficulties.

Early on in the novel, Spider's parents present him to the local school. The headmaster gives the child a rudimentary assessment and then tells Spider's parents that he cannot admit him.

With no alternative educational placement available, the community rallies round and provides Spider with a meaningful way of occupying his time. His employment as a crowstarver (basically, a human scarecrow) on the local land-owner's farm enables him to live a fulfilled outdoor life, in the context of which a special relationship with the animal world is allowed to develop.

It is impossible to read the novel without imagining, grimly, just what would befall a Spider today. Almost certainly the headteacher would be persuaded to try a mainstream placement. After two or three reviews, the involvement of various agencies, countless written reports and assessments, Spider would be "statemented". Quite possibly, he would continue in mainstream education for a while longer, until, at one annual review, it would be decided he should go to a special school. A taxi would collect him each day, and drive him several miles to this school, where he would continue to be taught an inappropriate curriculum. In comparison, Spider's existence in The Crowstarver is heavenly.

Yes, this is a novel; yes, communities were not always so understanding; and yes, many individuals were put out of the way - into asylums - simply because their individual differences and needs were wrongly interpreted. Dick King-Smith, now in his mid-seventies, could be forgiven for writing with a certain degree of nostalgic licence, but he insists the setting and the characters are "drawn directly from life". The village is based on one he lived in while working as a kind of apprentice farmer on the Wiltshire Downs just before the Second World War. Spider is a composite of two present-day acquaintances.

King-Smith's recent novels for older readers (Godhanger in 1996, this year The Crowstarver) arose out of a degree of frustration at having to rein himself in for shorter texts. "Editors would always be saying 'Cut that out . . . get on with the story', but I wanted to let myself go."

It would be a pity if The Crowstarver's selection by the NASEN judges focused attention exclusively on the special needs theme, to the extent that this warm, gentle book becomes a vehicle for polemical debate, rather than a novel to be savoured for its skilful evocation of landscape, humanity and the animal world. Equally, it would be wrong to read it as a neutral historical record. It is a compelling, heartrending story set in the past, but with implications for our own time.

Very much of our own time is the highly commended collection, Me and My Electric, edited by Elizabeth Laird and published by Mammoth. Here the focus is primarily physical disability. A number of well-known children's authors were assigned to act as scribes and editors for children with disabilities. The resulting pieces fulfil one of the main aims of this award which is, in the words of Desmond Spiers of the National Resource Centre for Children with Reading Difficulties, who chaired the judging panel, "to show (children with special needs) as real, flesh-and-blood characters, with many of the same preoccupations, likes and dislikes as able-bodied kids".

For the first time, this year's judges included last year's winner, Dorothy Horgan (author of Charlie's Eye), and a teenage reader, Kate Gallow. A pupil at Walton High School, Stafford, she helped when it came to assessing books for their "accessibility to target audience" (one of four criteria).

According to the fourth member of the panel (Dorothy Smith, the NASEN publications chair, who has been judging the award since its foundation in 1993), their final decision came down to another of those criteria, "the quality of story". That should please Dick King-Smith, and encourage him to "let himself go" again.

The NASEN Book Awards are sponsored by 'The TES' and the Educational Publishers Council.

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