For those who don't know, the Carnegie is probably the most prestigious award given to a UK children's writer annually. The longlist is very long, but the shortlist is usually whittled down to about 6 or 8 books by a team of dedicated children's librarians.
In advance of the visit, I had a lot of reading to do. The shortlist this year was:
- Prisoner of the Inquisition by Theresa Breslin
- The Death Defying Pepper Roux by Geraldine McCaughrean
- Monsters of Men by Patrick Ness
- The Bride’s Farewell by Meg Rosoff
- White Crow by Marcus Sedgwick
- Out of Shadows by Jason Wallace
First we decided on our criteria for what made a good book. We had a huge list of everything from 'makes me laugh' and 'great cover' to 'inspiring characters' and 'feels like I'm there' (none of us could spell verisimilitude...).
Each student judged the books by choosing the three criteria that mattered most to them.
Then, the discussion began...
It became clear quite quickly that despite saying that they didn't judge a book by it's cover, they all had. Very few of them had read all six books, and the cover had had a huge influence on what they'd selected to read. None of the boys had read Prisoner of the Inquisition (I told them what idiots they were being, as this was in my own personal top three). The size of the book mattered too. Hardly any had read Monsters of Men; some of the smaller Year 7s could hardly lift it.
Hearing from the authors influenced their opinions too. After hearing that Geraldine McCaughrean's favourite bit of her book was a transvestite sailor, the students snatched copies of the book from one another searching for La Duchesse. The favourite answer of all though was Marcus Sedgwick's laconic response to a question about the title: 'read the book.' It became our catchphrase for the day.
While we had a great time, it was clear that the challenging nature of almost all of the books had intimidated the students. I'm not sure there is a solution to that. The award is intended to reward excellence and excellence is challenging. A shorter shortlist, perhaps?
Finally we had to declare a winner. After the votes were counted, we found we didn't agree with the official result (sorry, Patrick). Our winner was Marcus Sedgwick with White Crow. Possibly because of that very sage piece of advice 'read the book'.
Elen's latest book Operation Eiffel Tower is out now, published by Bloomsbury.
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