What was I like as a cat?

5th November 2004 at 00:00
The YoungMinds Book Award is presented next week. Judge Nicci Gerrard explains why it's unique

There are so many book prizes, and more being added all the time. It's not just about the big, rich, famous ones such as the Man Booker and the Whitbread. There are prizes for gender (the Orange Prize) and for genres (best crime, best science fiction, best journalism, best history, biography, romance); prizes for chronology in the writer's life (best first book, best second) and for an author's overall contribution to literature; a prize, even, for bad writing about sex.

Most of them are sponsored by companies, an act of patronage that is also, of course, a piece of benevolent advertising. But the YoungMinds Book Award, now in its second year, is probably unique in the UK. It is awarded to the book, fiction or fact, that most powerfully and vividly portrays to adults something of a child's or young person's experience, and it is run by an organisation that is devoted to young people's mental health and emotional wellbeing.

YoungMinds is a charity that seeks to help young people who are in pain, confusion and distress, and tries to illuminate the problem of mental health for a wider audience. Its manifesto states that "children's mental health matters. When they have it, they feel good about themselves, enjoy relationships, learn confidently and overcome their difficulties. When they don't - when they are overwhelmed by misery, anger or fear - all kinds of problems can arise."

The charity was set up to provide a national strategy and to encourage an understanding of the pervasive influence of children's emotional experience. The YoungMinds book prize is part of that plan. Literature can convey some of the terror, joy and strangeness of children's imagination in a way that experts cannot. (I remember being stopped short when one of my children, aged two, asked solemnly: "What was I like when I was a cat?") Although it aims to reward good writing, the prize is also a celebration of writers' attempts to recapture what it is to be young, with all of youth's mystery and difficulty, power and vulnerability, dreaminess and canny worldliness, and it is based on the belief that literature can make a difference.

Two years ago, my husband, Sean French, and I set up a charity called Small Voice. Perhaps because we are both writers, we looked for what we and our trustees called "retribution through art" and our first donation was to the YoungMinds Book Award. I was one of the judges who awarded the inaugural prize to Judy Pascoe's Our Father Who Art in the Tree, a surreal tale of wonder and dread, set in Australia. A point that struck all the judges during the decision-making process was how we look back on our childhoods to help understand ourselves.

The books on this year's diverse shortlist range from the confessional to the analytical; from the cheerful to the tortured and the strange to the sad. The story of wrecked childhood has become a bestselling genre (Julie Gregory's Sickened is top of the non-fiction bestseller list), and it is interesting how childhood has been transformed over the past half-century from an Edenic place of innocence to a site of injury and damage.

Nicci Gerrard is a journalist and novelist. The other judges are author and agony aunt Virginia Ironside, child psychotherapist and retired director of YoungMinds Peter Wilson, and Dr Bob Jezzard, consultant child and adolescent psychotherapist and senior medical officer at the Department of Health. An award of pound;3,000 will be presented in London on November 12, at a ceremony that coincides with the YoungMinds annual lecture, to be given by Lord Victor Adebowale, chief executive of the social care charity Turning Point. See www.youngminds.org.uk

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