Straight on the shortlist

13th December 1996 at 00:00
Young judges' contribution to selecting the Whitbread Children's Book of the Year.

The voices of young people are increasingly being heard in the judging of literary prizes for children, whether on "shadow" panels or as judges. This year the new Whitbread Children's Book of the Year prize invited young readers to participate. The shortlist was selected by a panel of three adults - myself, the author Jacqueline Wilson and Joanna Carey, the children's books editor of The Guardian - and two 14-year-olds, Cameron Queen and Ela Stevenson, winners of a book review competition run by Whitbread and The Times 10-15 section. This was the first time adults and young people had judged together - a welcome innovation.

Judging prizes is always a stimulating job. You know what your criteria are, but what will everyone else's be? Will you have to contend with any untoward biases which are not related to the quality of the books? What is the chair's agenda? And so on. As managing editor of In brief . . . , a book magazine by teenagers for teenagers, I know that young people have strong views about books and are capable of astute criticism. But when new to a very vocal editorial group they may not initially be able or ready to articulate their critical responses. I was concerned that Cameron and Ela should find their voices early on.

I need not have worried. Under the firm and fair hand of Bud McClintock, the Whitbread chair, we were free to focus on the task of selection. Initially we surfed the long shortlist of 10, each adult judge introducing the books she had selected from the 30 she had read and the others commenting.

Likes and dislikes appeared immediately: we each had a bete noire (a different one) and at least one book that had let us down. There were, however, two books that worked for everyone and went straight on to the shortlist: Russell Hoban's The Trokeville Way (Jonathan Cape) and Philip Pullman's Clockwork or All Wound Up (Doubleday). One judge was afraid Hoban's tale of an adolescent "mind trip" would be discounted because it was so "eccentric" and was delighted to discover that this was precisely why we had all loved it, along with its wonderful language and its peculiar perspective. We all thought Pullman's story about the relationship between clockwork and storytelling was another original - a literary tour de force.

It became clear after the first of several votes that our final selection for the remaining two places on the list would be made from three books: Anne Fine's The Tulip Touch (Hamish Hamilton), Geraldine McCaughrean's Plundering Paradise (OUP) and Terry Pratchett's Johnny and the Bomb (Doubleday).

We found Fine's study of "evil", explored through the friendship of Tulip, a victim turned victimiser, and outsider Natalie to be daring, dark and disturbing. We were struck by the sheer energy of McCaughrean's 18th-century piratical adventure in which three young people are removed from the hypocrisy of the Christian Graylake School to a "heathen" native community in Madagascar. Pratchett's timeslip novel, in which Johnny and his friends move between Blackbury today and during the Blitz, delighted us with its cleverness and its almost throwaway social comment. Four agonising ballots on, however, this was the book that lost out.

What did the young people bring to the judging? Most importantly, their considered views, which adult judges sometimes forget. The adults' views on this panel were sometimes challenged, sometimes confirmed, occasionally in unexpected ways. The final shortlist might have been different had Cameron and Ela not taken part. At 14, both were able to articulate their responses: had they been 10 - the lower age limit of the young judges' competition - the judging could have been difficult, particularly in view of the books under consideration.

All in all, the judging proved to be a positive experience. We came away satisfied that we had selected a shortlist that both reflected all our views and contained some of the best writing published this year for any age.

Elizabeth Hammill is a bookseller and project manager for the Centre for the Children's Book in the north-east.

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