IF IT's true that books provide a fantasy world for us to live in, then Scottish children are well blessed. Anyone who has snuggled up to read to a small child in bed, or watched a wee boy's eyes light up in class as he listens mesmerised to a Friday afternoon story, will appreciate the riches of the Royal Mail Awards for Scottish Children's Books.
These are riches not just for the youngest children, but go right through to teenagers, with something for all abilities. Now in their second year, the awards are sponsored by The TES Scotland. With prize money from the Royal Mail, Scottish Arts Council and Arts and Business Invest programme raised to Pounds 3,000 for the winner of each category, this is the biggest prize for children's writing in the UK, say the organisers.
Each spring, publishers submit a total of about 50 books by Scottish writers and illustrators to BRAW (Books, Reading and Writing), the children's arm of the Scottish Book Trust. A panel of adult judges selects three favourites for each category: 0-7 year olds, 8-11s and 12-16s. Over the summer months, posters of the nine finalists are displayed in Waterstones bookshops, and schools and libraries set up judging panels for thousands of children to read and (sometimes) write reviews, before casting their votes in November.
This is one ballot in which every vote counts. Last year, about 3,000 children from more than 160 schools voted for their favourite title and 4,800 took part in reading panels. This year, 111 schools have signed up, with 5,150 children, even before today's publication of the shortlist.
There's a new Gaelic award this year, judged earlier because of the language requirements. It has gone to Uspaig agus S-S by Marie C NicAmhlaigh, illustrated by Kathleen NicAonghais. It was deemed "an imaginative book which beautifully investigates the world from a child's perspective".
So what can the reading panels look forward to? Starting with the youngest category, Katie's Moose, by James Robertson, Matthew Fitt and Karen Sutherland is a simple Scots words and pictures board book in which Katie is looking for her moose and other animal friends. Lift the flaps for a look.
Augustus and His Smile, by Cath-erine Rayner, is a touching combination of sad and happy. Augustus the tiger is sad because he has lost his smile, so he sets off to find it. "This is," said the panel, "a lovely, quiet story that will stay with you."
Another animal stars in Dan and Diesel, by Charlotte Hudson and Lindsey Gardiner. "A heart-warming book about a special relationship between a boy and his dog", this story of love and independence has to be read to find out what makes it different.
Moving up the age range, Nicola Morgan is no stranger to children's book awards. The Highwayman's Footsteps is "beautifully written and fantastically paced, a book which makes you want to hold your breath from a fantastic writer," said the panel ("I felt cold metal on the side of my skull before I heard the voice... A pistol. Resting on the bone just behind my ear. The favourite place for murderers, robbers and highwaymen... ").
Chill, by Alex Nye, lives up to its name. Set on bleak Sherrifmuir near Stirling, it is a spooky tale of the past coming back to haunt the present.
"A readable and chillingly evocative ghost story, with a really good resolution," said the judges.
If children are looking for a laugh, The Flight of the Silver Turtle, by John Fardell, will appeal. This was selected for being "a fantastic story which will appeal to boys and girls, full of eccentric characters, mad inventions and thrills."
The teenage reading group is often difficult to capture. But this year's shortlist should appeal, with the first of Catherine MacPhail's new thriller series, Nemesis: Into the Shadows, which the panel considered "a gripping, atmospheric thriller full of twists, interesting and entertaining characters and full of images which stay with you long after you have finished reading." It teaches a lot about the art of writing a cliffhanger.
The Medici Seal, by Theresa Breslin is an exciting story of the Renaissance and a young boy who works with Leonardo da Vinci. It is packed with authentic detail. The panel described it as "A rich tapestry combining adventure with the human interest of Matteo's journey from boy to confident young man."
Rounding off the list, and in a slightly lighter vein, is Cathy Cassidy's Scarlett, about a teenage rebel sent to live with her father in Ireland when her mother can no longer cope: "This is a romantic, enjoyable book with a straightforward narrative which contains layers of ambiguity and tackles divorce and its impact with honesty and sensitivity."
So what do these books tell us about the state of the Scottish children's book market? Clearly, it is booming. At a time when Scottish culture is politically to the fore, this is a perfect place to start.
Katie's Moose Itchy Coo
Augustus and His Smile Little Tiger Press
Dan and Diesel Red Fox
The Highwayman's Footsteps
Chill Floris Books
The Flight of the Silver Turtle
Nemesis - Into the Shadows Bloomsbury
The Medici Seal Doubleday
Gaelic Children's Book of the YearUspaig agus S-S Leabhraichean Beaga