book lists

To Win or Not to Win: Book Prizes

This week two major book prizes made announcements in the children’s book world. The Carnegie/Kate Greenaway (CKG) announced their shortlists (the children’s equivalent of the Booker, let’s say), and Waterstones announced their Children’s Book Prize.

Both produced antagonism and discussion – the CKG, because of its heavy leaning towards YA, an issue picked up by Fiona Noble in The Bookseller, who asked if there should be a section for the younger children’s fiction (as I, and the Americans, like to call middle grade). There was less contention over the Waterstones Children’s Book Prize, which already has three categories – picture book, younger fiction and older fiction.

My Brother Superhero

By the way, the winners of the Waterstones prize were David Litchfield for The Bear and the Piano, David Solomons with My Brother is a Superhero, and Lisa Williamson for The Art of Being Normal, with My Brother is a Superhero winning overall.

Book prizes are tricky beasts. Are they like end-of-year book lists – sent to provoke disagreement? Are they solely for rewarding merit – and if so how do we really judge one piece of subjective artistry against another in any sphere of the arts? Or are they about money?

In March 2014, a study showed that winning a prestigious literary prize equalled a sharp downturn in ratings on review sites by readers. Is this because readers have higher expectations of those books, judge them more harshly when they read them, and so ultimately feel let down, or are readers reading books that they wouldn’t otherwise have chosen, and actually aren’t suited to?

Winners of prizes may sell more books, but the reader’s judgement or criteria for buying a book shrinks to one determining factor – that it won a prize. Is it bought for kudos rather than for the other qualities that might make it attractive to the reader? Qualities a reader usually applies when choosing a book, such as subject matter, style, author loyalty, etc.

Amanda Sharkey, an academic behind the study, states:

“As a result, readers who read prize-winning books tend to be disappointed…nor even simply because they have higher expectations for prize-winning books – but rather because many readers who are drawn in by prize-winning books tend to have tastes that are simply not predisposed to liking the types of books that win prizes.”

To the book trade, does it really matter if a reader finishes the book they’ve bought and enjoys it? Publishers love to stick stickers on the front of books announcing which shortlists they’ve made it onto, which prizes they’ve won. It’s a commercial reality that prizes equals prizes. Frances Hardinge not only won the children’s book prize at the Costa this year for her book The Lie Tree, but also the overall prize (well-deserved, and a brilliant book in my opinion) . And her publisher reported an increase in sales by 350 per cent in the three weeks after the win.

Publishers choose which books to put forward for most prizes in the first place. Are they likely to put forward not only ‘good’ books, but books which follow a recent trend, or books that seem more likely to carry forward that sales impetus? For example, do publishers put forward more YA titles for the Carnegie than middle grade books, knowing that YA sells well at the moment? It’s just a thought. When The Lie Tree won the Costa, booksellers frequently stocked the title in the adult section of the bookshop, or the YA section – whereas its category is borderline middle grade to YA (suitable from 12 years). Although interestingly, it’s not the publishers who put forward books for the CKG – every member of CILIP (Chartered Institute of Library and Information Professionals) nominates two books for each award.

But in the end, it’s the judges, not the publishers, who decide the winners. And who are they? It depends of course on the competition. In the children’s book world, this can be hugely contentious. Are we asking adults to pick the best children’s books? Are they best placed to judge what a five-year-old, or a ten-year-old likes? Or are we choosing a book with the most literary/illustrative merit, not just the most popular? Which people can best judge – those who sell the books – those who stock the books in their libraries – teachers – or even, *whispers*, the children themselves?

Of course in the end it’s subjective. We are judging artistry, not maths. One can argue endlessly about the great writers who never won awards – why did Faulkner never win the Pulitzer? Why did James Joyce never win a Nobel Prize?

Even the Ancient Greeks gave prizes for literary merit – regularly awarding prizes for best tragedies and comedies at their festivals. And I bet there was as much contention as there is now – Medea, for example, was only awarded third place.

In the end, it’s about recognition. I know plenty of authors who have their work published and then worry that their publisher made an error – authors are full of self-doubt! So it’s lovely to be rewarded for one’s literary prowess, or ability to make children laugh, and then have sales spike too. (The prize money helps – most authors earn very little).

And publicity – the more we talk about books, the more we celebrate books and writers, the more attention we draw to them, and spread the word about reading and books, then hopefully the more we inspire children to read. Because books are “dreams that you hold in your hand” (Neil Gaiman).



Top Ten(ish) Books Published 2015

I’m not convinced on the end of year lists thing. MinervaReads raison d’etre being that one list of ten books would not suit any two children – different books suit different children. However, this being the time of year when we all go crazy and make top ten lists of absolutely everything, here are the top ten children’s books of MINE for 2015 – simply the books I most enjoyed reading (for review purposes). And by the way, this was ridiculously tricky (which is why I kind of cheated and mentioned 16).

bear on chairplease mr pandaBear and the Piano

There’s a Bear on My Chair by Ross Collins
I first saw a copy of this book pre-publication in April when a sample was thrust upon me at a conference. I agreed with the publisher that this was bound to be a hit and subsequently reviewed on publication in June. For me, I like picture books that, as a parent, you are happy to read over and over – as that’s what a child demands. I also like inference – when you have to work out a bit of the story for yourself – and illustrations that elicit a wry smile or an outright guffaw. The text is reminiscent of Dr Seuss, the pictures humorous and warm. This ticked all the boxes and it’s my picture book of the year. A small mention to Please Mr Panda – which just crept into 2015 books, and is probably my joint favourite – Steve Antony is proving to be a master of his trade – and the panda is one of my favourite modern picture book characters, demanding politeness from children in the simplest yet most exquisite way. I can’t wait for him to demand patience from them, as he will be doing in 2016 with I’ll Wait, Mr Panda. One other picture book I’d recommend as a startling debut and one to not be missed from the 2015 publications list is The Bear and the Piano by David Litchfield. The messages within the story, and the way the illustrations capture light, make this a totally exquisite book.


Tree by Britta Teekentrup and Patricia Hegarty
Non-fiction is being packaged more and more effectively by clever children’s publishers, and for me Tree stood out as one of the best cross-overs between fiction and non-fiction this year. The text is poetic (it also rhymes) and fictional – but through its illustrations, Tree shows the changing of the seasons, making clever use of die-cuts so that the reader can see inside the tree too. The colour palate in this book is a treasure in itself – as the same tree morphs from season to season – the leaves, creatures and surrounding atmosphere changing, the basic trunk stays the same. This was a book that was pounced on by all children as soon as they saw it, and held wonders within.

the school of art

School of Art by Teal Triggs, illustrated by Daniel Frost
This features as my non-fiction title of the year, as never has a book managed to explain complicated concepts and high-art techniques and subjects to me in such a simple way. Knowing nothing about the subject, I came to this as a child would and was entranced with the wonderful explanations – the introduction of professors who taught different knowledge bases, and the fantastic examples and try-it-at-home sequences – all of which worked exceptionally well. The design of the book was different too – clean, tidy and neatly colourful. In my initial review I found some of the text quite dense, but actually have since dipped in and out very successfully, and love that the book is so comprehensive. A rich overarching story within which the separate sections operate well on their own or as part of a whole. The book imparts great knowledge.

completely cassidy

Completely Cassidy: Accidental Genius by Tamsyn Murray
I have to admit, many books purporting to tell a story from a 9-13 year old contemporary girl’s point of view about her family/friends/school/boys, crop up on my radar. This one stood out for me because I simply couldn’t put it down. Cassidy rang so true, her character was so alive – I demolished this book in a sitting and was laughing out loud. With random doodles, fun graphics and capital letters, this was the most fun I had reading this year.

Mango and Bambang

Mango and Bambang by Polly Faber and Clara Vulliamy
This is the year for me in which illustrated stories piqued the attention like no other category within children’s books – from the phenomenal duo of Philip Reeve and Sarah Macintyre with Pugs of the Frozen North to Squishy McFluff by Pip Jones and Ella Okstad , to Dave McKean’s Illustrations of Phoenix by SF Said, to the ongoing success of Claude by Alex T Smith and Tom Gates by Liz Pichon, and of course our children’s laureate’s wonderful Ottoline. However, Mango and Bambang was like a breath of fresh air in the genre – a tidal wave of happiness – with its two tone colour perfection – its stripes, its worldly setting, its characters. This first book contains four individual stories about a girl who discovers a lost tapir. It is gentle, yet alluring.


Stonebird by Mike Revell
Although published early in 2015, and one of the first books I reviewed, this story still sticks fast in my memory – its poignant storytelling with a touch of magic about a boy who moves house, so that his mother can be nearer his grandmother who suffers from dementia, both engages and enthralls. The book deals sensitively with the consequences of the move, including the bullying Liam experiences at his new school, as well as the effect on his mother. Liam overcomes some of his problems by seeking the help of responsible grown-ups, and using the magic of storytelling. It deserves to be in every school library, and I hope for more from this author. Later in the year, reading In Darkling Wood by Emma Carroll, I was also smitten with a protagonist dealing with the fallout from illness in the family, and some magic in the surroundings – both these titles, for age 9+ yrs struck me as being brilliantly evocative.

An Island Of Our Own

An Island Of Our Own by Sally Nicholls
I was gearing up to interview Sally Nichols for #YASHot in September (although this didn’t quite happen as Sally had her baby – congrats!) but in preparation I read all of Sally’s books. This one stands out for several reasons. Beautifully short chapters that enable even the most reluctant reader to sample small delectable portions of Sally’s writing, and wonderful characterisation – Sally definitely wins the Oscar for Best Supporting Cast, as her secondary characters are so wonderfully defined I know I’m not the only reviewer to have fallen for Jonathan, the protagonist’s big brother. She also weaves a neat mystery plot. Sally incorporates great use of setting from the flat the children live in, to the island they visit, as well as introducing exciting extra information into her books, in this one, the MakerSpace organisation. A great book.

demolition dad

Demolition Dad by Phil Earle, illustrated by Sara Ogilvie
Phil Earle has been writing for a while, but mainly for slightly older children, so it was a blessing that he decided to reach down the age ladder slightly with this terrifically funny, yet also poignant, well-crafted novel. A great plot, sense of community, carefully dealt with emotion, an insight into father/son relationships – this book has so much. The humour is intensified by Phil’s self-referential jokes, as well as Sara Ogilvie’s amazing illustrations. A gem (and also more to come focussing on the same community next year).

The Dreamsnatcher cover FINAL

The Dreamsnatcher by Abi Elphinstone
Another book I stumbled across pre-publication, and adored. Dark fantasy with such dense imagery, but led by a forcefield in the shape of Moll, our protagonist. Brave, feisty, impetuous, like a younger contemporary Northern Lights Lyra mixed with the determination of Sara Crewe from A Little Princess, and Wonderland Alice’s curiosity, and Elphinstone has drawn quite a heroine. With the darkest prologue I’ve read for a while (I like dark), and a vigorous plot, this was an influential read. Looking forward to reviewing the sequel The Shadow Keeper next year (with some more deliciously dark scenes from Abi Elphinstone’s wild imagination).

The Boy Who Drew the Future

The Boy Who Drew the Future by Rhian Ivory
This was such an enjoyable read, it was another I consumed in a day. Told from a dual narrative point of view, one set historically, the contemporary, the themes and settings danced between the two – Ivory cleverly dropping clues in each to build to a dramatic climax. The characters were intensely loveable, there was clear anguish and conflict, and some brilliantly spooky coincidences. Simple, compelling storytelling.


Young Teens
Two books that stood out for me in the highest age range I cater for, were One by Sarah Crossan, and Railhead by Philip Reeve. The former for Crossan’s stunning use of free verse to tell her story of conjoined twins – packed with beautiful memorable language, and strung with emotion. The latter for its uncompromising science fiction world-building, to the extent that the reader is pulled in without any misgiving. Intriguing characters, tense, grotesque (I will never forget the hive monks), exciting, scintillating – and the sort of book you wouldn’t just thrust upon your young teen, but also share with all the grown-ups too.

Wolf Wilder

Lastly, (I know I’m already well over ten), my award for most stunning writing goes to Katherine Rundell. I imagine her as a kind of Elsa from Frozen – words flung from her fingertips onto the page with magnificent magical majesty, just as ice flies from Elsa’s fingertips. She writes with meticulous precision – every word well placed, every phrase constructed like dainty decorations on a wedding cake. It is clear, crisp, attractive, easy to read, and highly perceptive.

Long before publication of her 2015 novel, The Wolf Wilder, the enchantment of the first line was on everyone’s lips “Once upon a time, a hundred years ago, there was a dark and stormy girl” and the images of the snowy landscape, the descriptions of the soldiers, the telling of the life of the wolves suck the reader into the story. I can’t wait to see what’s next.