Wednesday, 13 April 2011

The importance of prizes in children’s literature

This was a fascinating seminar at the London Book Fair yesterday. Authors Beverley Naidoo and Philip Pullman, illustrator Piet Grobler and Guardian Children’s Book Editor Julia Eccleshare all spoke eloquently about the value of children’s book awards, not just to the authors and illustrators at the receiving end, but also in terms of raising awareness of books and reading. For both Pullman and Naidoo, each of whom have won a plethora of prizes, the one that gave them the most pleasure and pride was the Carnegie Award. They talked of the prestige it holds because the judges are librarians, the people who know most about children’s books. The Astrid Lindgren Memorial Award, the Hans Christian Andersen Award and the Children’s Laureateship were also highlighted as bestowing enormous honour, while the Frances Lincoln Diverse Voices Award, the NASEN Award and the now defunct Other Award, which Naidoo won for Journey to Jo’burg, were praised for opening up access to important books that would otherwise be missed. In a note of caution, Eccleshare voiced a concern that because of commercial pressures, awards, together with the ‘bestseller’ tag, may effectively narrow the choices available to children and young people. Some of the very best books fall through the award net. A question from the floor about whether awards influence children’s choices provoked an interesting discussion. Philip Pullman suspected that the reading choices children and young people make themselves are not directly influenced, but that prizes have an impact on those he called the gatekeepers, i.e. librarians, teachers and parents. Eccleshare felt that prizes judged by children, as the Smarties Award was, do inform their choices. I wish that I had thought to ask about their views on local and regional children’s book awards, which I think are very powerful, and which I very much enjoy providing courses on.