Triumph out of trauma

14th July 1995 at 01:00
Elaine Williams talks to the 1995 Carnegie Medal winner, author of a spine-chilling novel about a boy with dyslexia. Theresa Breslin likes to see the world through adolescent eyes. She wants to recreate the rawness of those emotions, of those years when you sob with abandon or shriek with laughter, when life is very, very good, or very, very bad. "I want to validate that, " she says. "Stories for kids should let them see that their lives are important. "

This week she has leapt from relative obscurity to be awarded the Carnegie Medal, a children's book prize given by librarians, which since its institution in 1956 has been bestowed on such notaries as Arthur Ransome, C S Lewis and Richard Adams. The Carnegie is intended for literature of lasting value. Its sister award for illustration, the Kate Greenaway Medal, was also announced on Wednesday (see Primary Forum, page 6).

The Carnegie judges were overwhelmingly in favour of Theresa Breslin's latest book Whispers in the Graveyard which releases Solomon, a dyslexia sufferer, into a drama peopled by malevolent, supernatural spirits. The reader is made to see the world through his eyes; to experience his pain and anger, his intelligence and sensitivity as the story unfurls into a spine chiller.

Solomon's nightmare life at school, where words "tremble and merge, swimming across the page", is matched by threats to bulldoze a graveyard which had become his refuge. He rebels at school and runs away.

Theresa Breslin believes that disruptive behaviour from dyslexic children is a normal reaction borne of sheer frustration. "I was trying to get into Sol's mind, so for a fortnight, anything I wanted to read I made myself read it by looking at it in a mirror. At the end of five days I wanted to bang my head against the wall."

During her research she attended a meeting of dyslexics and their parents and was shocked by the level of emotional distress shown by both children and adults. "To write a book about dyslexics became a mission, but it had to be a book that would mean something to young people, a book they would want to read." She will donate the Pounds 1,000 in library books, provided by Peters Library Service, the Carnegie sponsors, to the Dyslexia Association and Institute which is about to set up a central office in Scotland.

A community librarian in Kirkintilloch near Glasgow, with four children of her own, Theresa Breslin is proving a forceful children's writer who is amused by her own success. "I always thought writers were people who were rich," she says, "living in big houses, or who were dead. I never thought it could be me until I started writing myself."

While working on a mobile library she saw the devastating effect on a community of the closure of a local steel mill and decided to write the story from a child's point of view. Simon's Challenge, her first book, was filmed by the BBC and won the Kathleen Fiddler Book Trust award.

She beat better-known authors to the Carnegie Medal this year including Lynn Reid Banks; Berlie Doherty; Michael Morpugo; Robert Westall and Jacqueline Wilson. The judges, 12 librarians from the national Youth Libraries Group of the Library Association, debated long and hard over the shortlist, culled from nominations by librarians throughout the country. Jacqueline Wilson's Bed and Breakfast Star was rated a "rattling good tale" which looked like a winner until one critic pointed out that Wilson was writing to a formula. Lynne Reid Banks was criticised for trying to cram the whole history of Middle Eastern politics into her intricate novel The Broken Bridge. Michael Morpurgo had rewritten the legends of the Round Table in Arthur, High King of Britain, a classic retelling which would stand up to the next 20 years, according to one librarian. Others, however, felt the imposition of "20th-century psychological analysis" onto ancient tales failed to work, that the two genres did not mix well.

Carnegie judges have, over the years, chosen books that have gone on to be regarded as classics and librarians are very much aware that a book has to earn its place on the shelf. They are highly sensitive to how books are viewed and received by children and constant references were made to this throughout the debate.

Theresa Breslin believes this is the real strength of the award."These people have to justify their books working. They cannot be elitist, they are constantly in contact with kids and they know the worth of a book."

Whispers in the Graveyard was admired for its strong storyline and strong central character. Although one critic felt the voice of Solomon was too sophisticated for a child with dyslexia, most felt the style was wholly in tune with the way a gifted, dyslexic child would use expression if he or she had the means of articulation.

Librarians have encouraged groups from schools to shadow the Carnegie judging as a way of stimulating critical reading. In doing so they have exposed their own judgments to youthful dissent. A group of 25 school pupils who run the In briefI magazine from Waterstones in Newcastle upon Tyne, a critical review written by teenagers for teenagers, were so incensed by the Carnegie choice last year that they decided to cast their own judgment on this year's shortlist. It was not that last year's winner Stone Cold, by Robert Swindells, was a book about homelessness and a serial killer, a fact which provoked outrage from certain tabloids, but they had felt that other books were better written and more deserving of a literary prize.

This year they supported the official choice, though by a narrow margin. They too questioned whether a boy with dyslexia could have written such a literary text and some felt the book was over-ambitious. Others, however, felt the boy's struggle in the graveyard became a gripping metaphor for his relationship with the world in general.

Whispers in the Graveyard by Theresa Breslin is published by Methuen Pounds 9.99 ISBN 0-416-190529. Highly commended for the Carnegie Award were:Willa and Old Miss Annie by Berlie Doherty and Maphead by Lesley Howarth, both published by Walker Books

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