The CILIP Carnegie and Kate Greenaway Medals are the UK’s oldest and most prestigious children’s book awards. This year’s winners will be announced on Monday 20th June, and today I’m delighted to host an interview with some of the current judges, Sioned Jacques, CKG Chair of Judges, Tanja Jennings, CKG Judge for YLG Northern Ireland, Martha Lee, CKG Judge for YLG Wales, and Isobel Powell, CKG Judge for YLG West Midlands. To visit the website to see the shortlists, click here for the Carnegie and here for the Kate Greenaway.
What are the key things you are looking for in a winner?
ML: When looking for a winner for both the Kate Greenaway and the Carnegie we have to adhere strictly to the criteria. So when reading each book and then discussing and judging, at the front of our minds is whether each book meets the criteria..
IP: A book which makes a real impact on the reader with a story and characters that stay with you long after you have finished. If a book doesn’t have that quality then it can’t be a winner. It is also about the quality of the writing, this doesn’t mean being overly verbose or with a highly complex vocabulary. Instead it means that the writing flows and doesn’t get in the way of the story being told. That the style of writing fits beautifully with the type of book and the characters dialogue is real and believable.
SJ: The key components are based on the strict criteria that as judges we have to look for in a book. They include distinctive style that’s appropriate to the subject, whether it’s literary style for the Carnegie or illustrator’s style for the Kate Greenaway. Characters and plot are also important in considering a Carnegie winner. Are the characters credible, how do they interact with others, do they go on a journey for example and do they act in a way that’s reasonable for their personality within the remit of the plot. The plot should flow smoothly and have a satisfying ending, though this does not necessarily mean a happy or positive ending. The book needs to be a complete package that leaves you with a sense of satisfaction and of having gone through a real experience. The most outstanding books stay with you for weeks, months, years after you’ve read because they have an impact on your thought processes.
How much do the children you work with in the library influence you?
ML: In terms of the children I work with influencing the judging process – this doesn’t happen at all. We stick strictly to the criteria when analysing a nominated title. In my everyday job within the library, children influence me all the time, from the books I read myself to what I order for our collections, but I guess in turn this would have an influence on what I would nominate each year for the award.
IP: I don’t work directly with children as I run a school library service so I work more with teachers and school librarians. Because part of my job is about recommending books to schools for all age groups and abilities I do read a wide range of children’s and YA fiction so I think this helps me bring a lot of reading experience to the judging process.
SJ: Other people’s opinions of the books, whether children, young adult, colleagues or friends have no influence whatsoever on the decisions I make while judging and deciding on a winner. It’s all about how well the books fit against the criteria. I have a very keen Carnegie shadowing group this year with strong opinions about the books, but they’re often judging with their hearts which we can’t do as judges. However, I have found that they sometimes decipher text in a way that I hadn’t considered which will make me look at the book again against the criteria.
In your opinion, is there such a thing as a ‘trend’ in children’s publishing – would one year be dominated by fantasy for example?
ML: I guess you do get ‘trends’ in children’s publishing but I think a library environment is completely different and as it’s librarians who nominate the books for the CKG award a trend wouldn’t necessarily come through in the nominated titles. Although I do find it strange that we have three books with ‘lie’ in the title this year!
IP: You do certainly get clusters of certain types of book, normally as a result of there being a bestselling book in a particular genre. However, although that does happen, the way that the CKG books are nominated by librarians you do get a real range of genres submitted which means that this effect is negated somewhat.
SJ: There are always a few books, particularly on the Carnegie nominations lists, that have similar themes, e.g. death, friendship or this year lies. Dystopia books were very prominent a few years ago. I don’t think trends are as obvious for the Kate Greenaway list. However regardless of trends and themes the Medals recognise outstanding writing or illustration in children’s literature and each book is judged against criteria that can be applied to any genre or theme.
How do you balance your own personal taste with being a judge? For example, if you hate historical novels, would you ever pick one as a winner?
ML: This is very difficult and it took me a long time to get used to divorcing my personal taste and judging the book according only to the criteria. You have to be fair to the book and author, and judge the book solely on the criteria, just because you might not be a fan of historical fiction does not automatically mean it doesn’t deserve to be on the list because of your personal taste. I know I sound a bit repetitive but every book is judged according to the criteria and has nothing to do with personal taste.
IP: One of the great things about being a judge is being forced out of your comfort zone and having to read books that you would otherwise put to the bottom of the pile! As a judge I have found that there are nominated books I have had to read that I would never have picked up otherwise and then found myself loving it. We are all human though and enjoying books is a personal thing, so to help mitigate that referring to the criteria as you are reading helps you to keep considering the book from that more objective point of view.
SJ: Due to the strict criteria, personal taste cannot be taken into consideration. The fact that judges have to read all the books regardless of personal taste is a really good way to appreciate other genres that previously you may not have enjoyed or appreciated. As for considering them as a winner – of course – if the novel has ticked all the boxes in terms of the criteria and is outstanding then it deserves to win whether it’s a subject or genre that you don’t enjoy. For me personally one of the advantages of the Carnegie in particular is that it expands your reading interests, I’ve found that I can read a well written novel in any genre now whereas in the past I would have chosen books in a specific genre or on a specific subject because they would interest me. The Carnegie also makes you realise that there are well written books and not so well written books regardless of genre or topic.
Do you pay any attention to the author/illustrator and whether they are debut writers/illustrators or more established?
ML: No, we judge all the books that are nominated equally and pay no attention to whether they are debut or established. Everything is judged fairly and equally.
IP: For me it makes no difference, I am looking at the book being considered, not any past work or reputation. In fact it is great to find a new author or illustrator and be bowled over by their creation and equally great to read a well-established author or illustrator (whose work you may not have previously liked) and have your perception of them changed. William Grill won the Greenaway award last year and was shortlisted against many well-known illustrators. When we were judging the winner the fact that this was his first book made no difference, we were judging the amazing quality of his pictures and the way they brought the story of Shackleton to life.
Do you try and pick a range of genres for the shortlist – poetry/non-fiction/sci-fi/realism – or is it completely on merit – i.e. one year could be all fantasy fiction?
ML: No we don’t pick different genres so there’s a mix, everything is judged on merit according to the criteria.
IP: The shortlist is completely about merit, there is absolutely no attempt to falsely engineer a list with a range of genres, styles or age groups. Everybody who reads the shortlist should be confident that they are the best books written for children and young people in the last year.
TJ: The books that are selected for the shortlist are chosen completely on merit. They are all outstanding potential winners. Titles meet strict criteria on style, characterisation and plot. If a range of genres appear it is serendipitous because it makes the list eclectic.
Do you ever feel you need to ‘censor’ your choices – not pick a winner with excessive swearing for example?
ML: Definitely not.
IP: The CKG judges have never shied away from controversy; they are willing to choose any type of book as the winner if it is of outstanding literary quality. We are only interested in selecting the best books we can and you only have to look at previous shortlisted and winning books to see that censorship is not our thing!
TJ: Training encourages judges to stick rigidly to the criteria. Personal preferences do not affect decisions. In some instances swearing can be an integral part of characterisation in the novel as was the case with Conaghan’s ‘When Mr Dog Bites’. Readers should also be encouraged to make their own choices about what they want to read and not be curtailed by censorship.
How did you get chosen as a judge?
ML: I joined my regional YLG group for professional development and obviously because I have a passionate interest in children’s books. One of my fellow colleagues was sitting on the judging panel when I joined and hearing her talk about it just sounded amazing so I asked to be put forward to be the judge for the following year and happily I was accepted.
IP: I have been on the West Midlands YLG committee for a number of years and when we came to choose the next representative to be a judge I put my name forward and was selected by the other committee members to take the role. It is a great honour to have had the chance to be a judge and it is an experience I will always cherish, even the stressful and difficult parts!
What’s the best thing about being a CKG judge? (and the worst)
ML: I couldn’t pick just one thing as being the best, there are so many amazing bits: meeting and making friends with your fellow judges, being able to sit down, read and discuss books as part of my job, meeting favourite authors, reading all the amazing books that are nominated, let alone the longlisted and shortlisted books, getting sent proof copies of books, being more involved professionally in the industry and of course attending the winners ceremony. The worst, although I wouldn’t call it that I would just call it the hardest, is having to read all the nominated books in a certain time frame. I think this year it was 162. It’s definitely the hardest and best thing I’ve ever done (and that includes studying for a BA & a MSc!).
IP: The best thing about being a CKG judge is feeling part of something so prestigious and historical; to know that the books which I helped choose as the winners will be remembered for years to come as part of the CKG roll of honour. The worst thing about being a judge is choosing a winner! It is so difficult when you are faced with so many amazing books and the discussions around the judges’ table can be long and very passionate.
With many thanks to the judges for giving their time to be interviewed.