Tuesday, 23 September 2008

On Prizes - Sally Nicholls

When I was a child, I couldn’t understand why the same book didn’t win every literary award in a year. That’s what a competition is about, isn’t it? Finding which book is the best?

In real life, of course, even the judges on a panel may not all agree which book is the best. Children’s awards are judged by anyone from children’s authors (Guardian’s Children Fiction Award) to booksellers (Waterstone’s Children’s Book Prize) and often have a distinctive ‘feel’ to them - the Carnegie (judged by librarians) tends to favour more literary works, while the Smarties (judged by children) favoured strong storylines and plenty of humour.

But while certain books are favoured, others may be given less attention than they deserve. Novels for younger children tend to struggle when judged against books for teenagers, as teenage books often have more complex vocabulary and subject matter. Funny books may also be seen as less ‘important’ - which is why Michael Rosen recently set up the Roald Dahl Funny Prize to rectify this. Roald Dahl never won a prize in his lifetime that wasn’t judged by children, apparently. And when was the last time children’s non-fiction or poetry won anything?

Then there are the problems associated with choosing a shortlist. I know the judges for this year’s Booker were keen to have a ‘varied’ longlist, which is something that drives me crazy. If I’d written a romance, which the judges liked better than someone else’s comic or science fiction novel, but put those on the longlist instead, because another author had written a preferred romance, I’d be furious. Being shortlisted or longlisted for a prize can have a hugely positive effect on an author’s career. I can understand Richard and Judy wanting a varied book club, but surely the Booker longlist should simply contain the novels the judges think are worth reading?

Bring local children’s awards into the picture and the plot gets increasingly tangled. Local awards are a fantastic incentive to reading - give young people a shortlist of books and allow them to vote for the winner themselves. The problem comes when trying to reconcile two disparate aims - getting children reading and giving a prize to that elusive ‘best book’.

A friend told me about how her novel suddenly got onto all sorts of local shortlists when she started using a male main character. Appeals to boys, apparently. I judged presentations at a wonderful local award, which was obviously inspiring hundreds of keen and enthusiastic Year Six readers. But when I looked at the shortlist, the books were uniformly short and simply written - some clearly aimed at much younger readers. “It’s a long shortlist,” the organiser explained. “And we want kids of all abilities to be able to read the books.”

(I had a similar conversation with a teacher once about teaching books in schools, actually. “Ways to Live Forever is a great book to teach in schools,” she told me. “Oh yes?” I said, puffing up my chest. “Yes,” she said. “It’s short.”)

And I have sympathy with the organisers’ problem, remembering a ten-year-old friend struggling with David Almond’s ‘Heaven Eyes’ as a Smarties Prize judge. A wonderful book - for teenagers. Not one my ten-year-old friend got much out of reading. And surely ‘appeals to lots of different children’ is a good reason to give a book a prize?

The grown-up in me recognises all of these difficulties, and is incredibly grateful that we do have a range of prizes, celebrating all the different ways that different books can excel. It’s just the ten-year-old who crosses her arms, sulks, and wails, “Just give it to the best book!”


Anonymous said...

With children's books it's complicated by what adults want children to read or think they ought to read or ought to like--and maybe that explains the dearth of funny books. My kids complain that the books that get taught in school all involve death or some huge trauma--definitely no humor.

Your point about youth books doing better than books for younger children because the language and ideas are more complex was very enlightening; I had never thought about it like that before.

Marie-Louise Jensen said...

And teen books appeal more to the adult judges than younger books. The Carnegie sometimes seems to go to the most adult book on the list. And it's absolutely true, Asakiyume, that they want issue books - worthy books. You mentioned romance, Sally, but I don't think a romantic book would stand much chance either, unless it was a tragedy. Like chick lit, it's seen as less 'literary'. But books can do well without winning prizes!

Nick Green said...

Heh heh. Reminds me of an amusing quote on the phenomenon of ‘Death By Newbery Medal’:

"The dog always dies. Go to the library and pick out a book with an award sticker and a dog on the cover. Trust me, that dog is going down."

Linda said...

Three cheers for funny books, I say! Nothing better for adult or child than a great big belly-laugh: cures most ills!
Good to hear you on Go4it this week, by the way!

Melissa said...

I have found that great books that sell a lot tend to be ones that can appeal to all ages. Even in the genre of fiction/adventure, TSUNAMI by Dean Whitney became very popular. I read Tsunami in one day, on the plane and between flights. It's terrific! Lots of interesting sub plots, good villains, suspense, and a love story too. The main characters are well developed and what a payoff when we finally get to the tsunami! Very well researched. Tsunami cries out to be a thriller disaster movie, and appeals to all ages!

Sally Nicholls said...

Oh, God, does the whole English-speaking world listen to Go4It? I accidentally gave that interview with a blood sugar of about 2, and I haven't dared listen again for fear of what I might have said. It wasn't too bad, was it?

I love the dog quote, Nick. It is odd what we consider literary, isn't it? Although I do get annoyed by books with a happy ending obviously tacked onto the end, it is depressing when an issue is more important than how it's tackled.

I'm suprised you think romance doesn't do so well, M-L. I suppose it depends on how you define it. A lot of prize-winners have romance in them, but not necessarily as the main plot.

I think there are as many different types of children as there are adults. Children need as much variety in what they read as adults do - funny, sad, literary, silly, realistic, fantasy, all of the above ...

Anonymous said...

Nick's quote made me laugh and laugh--must share that with my kids :D