One of the lucky privileges of winning the aforementioned prize last year is the long running tradition of being invited to judge the next one. It's something of a daunting task, involving a lot of reading, but a privilege all the same. For one thing, it has meant hanging out with my fab fellow judges Natasha Farrant and Jenny Valentine, our chair Julia Eccleshare and Guardian children's acting editor Emily Drabble - and doing nothing but talking about books! What joy.
I am, of course, sworn to secrecy on the details of the judging process so far: the books we have rejected, the books we love in different ways and the books which provoke the most vigorous discussion...
Instead, I want to reflect on the experience in a more general way.
Reading to judge is a category on its own. Like many of you, I suspect, you read a lot more young people's fiction than the average adult, including parents. I read for inspiration, to learn, to keep my reading diet mixed, keep an eye on the market and quite often just for fun. But when you read a book that is up for a prize, you read in such a different way. And that way is: "Is this book the best it can possibly be?" Your capacity for generosity, indulgence and ambivalence is muted. Otherwise the process can never be fair. You respond with your gut, as ever, but ultimately a prize judge is required to stand back and pass critical judgement. On story, character, tone, style, and plot. Oddly, the net result is to be filled with admiration at the incredible standard of children's writing at the moment. Some of the choices we had to make (only 8 books make the long-list) were on a knife-edge, and sometimes came down to very finely turned nuances of opinion and criticism.
Yet the process is also exhilarating. You begin reading in the mode of impartial judge, but can end up fighting and championing texts with a passion which you never imagined the text would provoke. The more closely one examines the texts under consideration, the more one is filed with awe and respect for the sweat, work and soul which has gone into every one.
But most of all, I learned to go on a journey with a few books.
It is quite a thing to finish one, and be so sure and immediate in your reaction, only to find that after several hours of intense debate with your fellow judges, the story you hold in your hand feels quite different, an almost alien beast to the one you initially encountered. For better, for worse.
Some people will love the books we have listed so far, some will have wished for others. All I can say for sure is that being a prize judge, has left me in awe not just at the strength of contemporary children's literature, but renewed my faith in stories as the elusive, many-faced and ever changing magic spirits I once beheld them to be.