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!”