Tuesday, 11 June 2019

Book Awards and their uncanny resemblance to buses - by Kelly McCaughrain

This one’s about Book Awards and the pros and cons of writing for children rather than adults.

I’ve had kind of an incredible month and I’m so happy I have literally nothing to rant about (don’t get me wrong, Book 2 is still a PITA and normal service will resume all too soon). Instead I’m just going to share the short speech I gave at the Northern Ireland Book Awards last week, where I was asked to talk about my experiences over the last year of being nominated for awards. The award ceremony had Pictionary and balloons and Haribo, so I’m afraid this blog post cannot possibly compare, but I have added some photos instead.

Do I look like I know what I'm talking about?

This is part of what I said (to a roomful of children and their teachers and librarians):

“My book’s been nominated for 7 awards in the last year, and you’ll all be aware of how awards work from your end of things – all the reading groups and judging and voting – so I just want to talk about what it’s like from my end and what it means to a writer to be chosen for these awards. So to do that I want to put it in a bit of context first.

In 2017 Children’s Books Ireland hosted an event for people in children’s publishing and the event was called ‘When are you going to write a proper book?’ The title was kind of an insider joke that anyone who writes for children will get, because if they haven’t been asked that question directly, they’ll at least be aware of that attitude, that assumption that writing children’s books is somehow easier or is some sort of apprenticeship for the ‘real thing’, the real thing being writing for adults.

Which is of course nonsense. I don’t think I could write a book for adults, but I also know lots of writers for adults who couldn’t write a children’s or YA book to save their lives. They’re just two very different skills. But that attitude does persist, and I think it means that children’s literature often isn’t taken as seriously as adult literature. And even though everyone knows and agrees that children who read see enormous and measurable benefits to their emotional and mental wellbeing, their cognitive skills, empathy, education and that they go on to do better in their professional lives, children’s literature gets less press coverage, less money, fewer reviews, less shelf space and less respect.

But there is a fantastic advantage to writing for children that writers for adults don’t have, and that is… school librarians. School librarians are wonderful human beings who pretty much live for the opportunity to pass on their own joy in reading to the next generation and if you’re a writer, these fantastic people really are game changers because they are eager to promote your books, to put up posters that they’ve made themselves, to organise readings and discussion groups, to nominate you for book prizes and to bring their students to award ceremonies and all with the single focused objective of giving young readers the pleasure of reading.

The 7 awards I’ve been nominated for have all been organised/voted/judged/nominated by school librarians and school reading groups. The validation in that is enormous. Young readers are our target audience so being chosen by them is a true measure of success. It’s really the only measure of success. And being chosen by librarians is a huge compliment because we know they have the purest motivations in the world. They don’t care how fashionable your topic is or if you’re a celebrity or if there’s a movie coming out, they just want well written books for their readers, so to be chosen by them is a huge honour and I think all children’s writers feel that. 

Two weeks ago, I had one of the best days of my life, at the Children’s Books Ireland Book of the Year Award ceremony. I was on the shortlist for the award and having already not won four awards that I was up for, I really wasn’t expecting anything. So much so that I told my husband not to bother taking the day off work to come down to Dublin with me, so I went on my own. 

But I got to hang out with these guys, some of my favs from the very impressive shortlist
But I got the shock of my life when they announced that I’d won the Eilis Dillon award for a first novel.

Lovely pen with my name engraved for the Eilis Dillon. 
And the Children’s Choice Award and the Book of the Year Award! 

Accepting the Book of the Year trophy

It's a gorgeous trophy. And INCREDIBLY heavy

Can you see me struggling with the weight?

And I took it home on the bus! Along with my Children's Choice award flowers.

So apparently awards are like buses, you wait ages and then… three come along at once. They didn’t ask me to make a speech which was just as well because I was speechless. Totally gobsmacked. It was absolutely incredible. 

Some impressive names on there
And then mine! They even spelled it right.

And I have to say the Children’s Choice Award is probably the one that means the most to me because it was voted for entirely by young readers, who are a very discerning audience and their opinion means a lot so that was wonderful. 

Elaina at CBI captured the moment I phoned home to tell my husband
Awards and shortlists are a huge honour, and a great confidence boost, but in practical terms they also mean that your book becomes more visible, your publisher publishes more copies of it, the bookshops order it in, you might get mentioned in newspapers and all of that is a boost for your book as well as making children’s literature and its importance a bit more visible as well. 

In actual print!
So I just wanted you all to know, readers and teachers and librarians, in case you didn’t already, that these awards would not be possible without you. You young readers haven’t just come to watch an award ceremony, you are bestowing an award, an award that wouldn’t exist without you. And in doing so, you are contributing to children’s literature, because so many books would just be lost in the pile without your championing and promoting and celebrating them. You’re supporting and encouraging authors who are writing now as well as fostering a love of reading in the young writers of the future. I know from my own experience over this last year that your work is incredibly valuable and goes far beyond the winner’s trophy and you should be very proud of the difference you’re making.”

After I made this speech, they announced that I’d won the NI Book Award too, which was fricking awesome! 

My husband is incapable of talking an in focus picture
Apart from blatantly blowing my own trumpet here (shut up, I’m allowed), I really do mean it about the librarians. With marketing budgets in publishing dwindling, the media can make a big difference to the fate of a book, but we all know they just aren’t as interested in children’s books as adults’, and if it weren’t for schools getting involved in these awards there’d be very few opportunities for children’s books that aren’t written by celebrities to get noticed.

And I wish all that wasn’t necessary, I wish every book got that attention, but I am also very grateful to all those librarians and teachers who are so generous with their time and efforts on behalf of writers and readers. I’ve been out to talk to a few schools because of the awards and they’re always so grateful to have you, as if you’re doing them a massive favour, but it’s really the other way round.

So now it's back to earth. The flowers I got from CBI and from my lovely publishers have gone distinctly Miss Haversham and I should probably throw them out but I don’t want it to be over. The celebrations have been great though, and have included many bottles of fizz with family and friends, and a picnic on the beach in the rain!

This is how we roll
...and enrolling in a circus fitness class with my sister that may have been a huge mistake because it is SO HARD

I'm not too good with the focusing either

Kelly McCaughrain is the author of the YA novel Flying Tips for Flightless Birds

She blogs about Writing, Gardening and VW Campervanning at weewideworld.blogspot.co.uk 



Rowena House said...

It was wonderful to see you getting a whole bus queue of awards! Things seem to go bang at first in this published author game, then all quiet, and suddenly, there you were: front page news! I hope the after-glow burns for a long, long time. And when your next story is ready to meet the world, everyone will go, Wow. That's that amazing multi-award winning writer. How cool!

Kelly McCaughrain said...

Haha! Thanks Rowena. You just never know what's going to happen. As I find on a daily basis. Today's writing has gone from utter despair to 'Hmm, that's OK actually' for example! Life has certainly never been this interesting before.

sara gethin said...

Congratulations on all those wonderful awards, Kelly - I've been meaning to read your book for ages, so now I most definitely will. That's the power of prizes!

Kelly McCaughrain said...

Yay! Thanks Sara, hope you enjoy it!

Penny Dolan said...

What a glorious and happy tale! Congratulations on your success and your joy, Kelly!

Kelly McCaughrain said...

Thanks Penny, it's been lovely! X