Chris Powling reports on the jury’s deliberations
Emil, as always, was a balancing act – not just between books, in the way of every award, but within books too. For Margaret Meek, Elaine Moss and I had the job of assessing the excellence of text and illustration both separately and together: each must matter in its own right but also in combination with the other. No easy task, I’m glad to say. It took a while even to determine our shortlist. Once this was done, our deliberations shifted into over-drive.
Consider, for instance, three very different approaches to the telling of tales. Kevin Crossley-Holland’s British Folk Tales (Orchard, 1 85213 021 0, £12.95) persuaded us it had just the right button-holing quality – irresistible as gossip yet with hints of an older, more formal discourse beautifully picked up by Peter Melnyczuk’s headpieces. But how were we to compare it with Neil Philip’s The Tale of Sir Gawain (Lutterworth, 0 7188 2670 1, £6.95)? Here the author mimics superbly the gruff voice of a man of action baffled by events too resonant, too powerful to be fully comprehended – but caught in all their stunning savagery by Charles Keeping’s line-drawings. Different again was Gammer Gurton’s Needle (Walker, 0 7445 0640 9, £7.95) with David Lloyd’s prose and Charlotte Voake’s pictures actually making this tough old literary chestnut good enough to eat…
Equally appealing was the team of Philippa Pearce and John Lawrence in Emily’s Own Elephant (Julia MacRae, 0 86203 318 7, £5.95), as mannerly a performance as we could wish for – Ardizzonian in its sharpness and drollery. Quentin Blake was also on top form with Mrs Armitage on Wheels (Jonathan Cape, 0 224 02481 7, £5.95) where words and images seem, appropriately enough, to be free-wheeling across the page. Surely it was impossible to rank-order a batch of such quality!
Luckily, it was also unnecessary. For one book stood out even in company like this. If recent years have thrown up better poems for children than those of Charles Causley in Jack the Treacle Eater (Macmillan, 0 333 42963 X, £7.95) we’ve missed them… just as we’ve missed any better accompanying illustrations than those of Charles Keeping. Whatever their subject and mood – and there’s an astonishing variety of both in the verses and images encountered here – it’s hard to conceive of an apter match of sight and sound (and these poems urge the reader to utter them aloud). Yet poetry – do I hear you say? – can’t be illustrated since the vision it conjures is private and peculiar to each listener. Well, tell that to Charles Causley. According to him, some of the Keeping illustrations opened even his eyes. Asked to specify, he picked amongst others his poem ‘Moor-hens’ which begins:
Living by Bate’s Pond, they
(Each Spring and Summer day)
Watched among reed and frond
The moor-hens prank and play.
…and, with the help of the exquisite Keeping vignette on the page opposite, we join the children ‘who lived by the pond’ ourselves since ‘sputtering over the water / As if it were made of glass’ is exactly what the moor-hen here seems to be doing. That sort of magic goes on throughout the book. No wonder we gave them the prize.
The Kurt Maschler Award, established in 1982 in memory of Erich Kastner and Walter Trier (the author and illustrator of Emil and the Detectives), is now most frequently referred to as ‘the Emil’ with reference to the bronze statuette of Emil which is given as part of the prize. The award is given for ‘a work of imagination in the children’s field in which text and illustration are of excellence and so presented that each enhances and yet balances the other’.
The judges for the award this year were Margaret Meek, Elaine Moss and Chris Powling.
JUDGING THE SMARTIES PRIZE
Jill Paton Walsh, winner of the first Smarties award with Gaffer Samson’s Luck, was this year one of the judges.
There’s no getting round the fact that our initial reaction was disappointment. Some 230 books delivered to our doors, coming shiny and rainbow-coloured out of the boxes, should have been predominantly delightful, and were at first glance appalling. There’s no getting round the fact, in short, that a great deal of rubbish is published, and not only published, but thought good enough to submit for a prize of which the watchword is excellence. Two thoughts remain with me from this initial phase of reacting to the books wholesale; first that it is amazing how many people think that the most promising approach to children is to be as silly and vulgar as possible; second that the lavishing of talent on the illustration, design, and packaging of rubbish is only too likely to lead to children getting glamorised tripe to read. No doubt, a cleverly packaged book will sell. But if it is discarded almost at once, will more books sell to that family’? How can the average parent plough through this stuff to the good things?
For there were good things, and in plenty, in the staggering piles of unpacked volumes. The panel of judges were very varied in their approach, but it was fascinating to see how often the varied approaches converged on the same titles. Our shortlist emerged in discussion as a welcome set of exceptions to our gloomy initial impressions.
For children up to five, we listed The Angel and the Soldier Boy by Peter Collington (Methuen, 0 416 96870 8, £5.95), a comic-strip narrative entirely without words, of great charm and delicacy, and in which every `frame’ could be viewed with pleasure; Nancy No Size by Mary Hoffman (Methuen, 0 416 95980 6, £5.95), a warm and amusing family story made eloquent by Jennifer Northway’s glowing illustrations; Captain Toby by Satoshi Kitamura (Blackie, 0 216 92036 1, £5.50), a dream sequence story in which the everyday house and its contents turn into a voyaging ship, and in which we all admired the striking combination of beauty and humour in the pictures; A Day of Rhymes by Sarah Pooley (Bodley Head, 0 370 31066 7, £7.95), a book which it is a pleasure to think of children having, beautifully chosen and illustrated, and Oscar Got the Blame by Tony Ross (Andersen, 0 86264 180 2, £4.95) in which a little boy’s dream companion keeps doing terrible things…
For the six to eight-year-old reader we shortlisted Lend Me Your Wings by James Agard (Hodder & Stoughton, 0 340 41318 2, £6.95), a folk tale retold in musically beautiful language and illustrated by Adrienne Kennaway with strikingly bright and beautiful paintings; Taller Than Before by Bernard Ashley, illustrated by Jane Cope (Orchard, 1 85213 075 X, £3.95), a gritty and touching account of a little girl struggling for self-respect in a bullying and racist school – nothing made too easy here, and yet a cheerful book; Tangle and the Firesticks by Benedict Blathwayt (Julia MacRae, 0 86203 291 1, £6.95), a real original, a sort of epic hero-journey all in miniature, and illustrated in deeply absorbing detail; The Trouble with Gran by Babette Cole (Heinemann, 0 434 93296 5, £5.95) which made us laugh, and Fancy Nancy by Ruth Craft, illustrated by Nicola Smee (Collins, 0 00 184242 0, £4.95), quiet domestic stories, wonderful for reading at bedtime.
The shortlist was hardest to compile in the oldest range covered by the prize – ages nine to eleven. Our choices were A Thief in the Village by James Berry (Hamish Hamilton, 0 241 12011 X, £6.95), profoundly evocative stories of a Caribbean childhood, with a poignant sense of the strengths and vulnerability of children; Jack the Treacle Eater by Charles Causley, illustrated by Charles Keeping (Macmillan, 0 333 42963 X, £7.95), Causley’s first book for children since Figgie Hobbin, and surely to win equal admiration and love; Through the Dolls’ House Door by Jane Gardam (Julia MacRae, 0 86203 278 4, £7.95), an original story about dolls, not easily done – wry and funny, and full of a sharply poignant sense of the passage of time; How’s Business (Deutsch, 0 233 98038 5, £5.95) by Alison Prince and a large group of school children, a world war two story produced in a fascinating way, and remarkably gripping and readable, and Tumbleweed by Dick King-Smith (Gollancz, O 575 03975 2, £5.95), a comic Arthurian talc which made us laugh.
Choosing winners from what had after all turned out a strong list was a close run thing, and cost us anguished discussion. We finally agreed on The Angel and the Soldier Boy, Tangle and the Firesticks, and A Thief in the Village. And then, all ready for a final battle we found ourselves all unhesitatingly agreed; A Thief in the Village was everyone’s choice of overall winner. Interestingly enough it is a book we expect every adult reader also to enjoy.
My final reflections are twofold. Firstly profound satisfaction at the ability of good books to win admiration from whichever direction they are approached; second, ruefully, that humorous books do not stand up well in serious discussion, and really need a category of their own. Will someone start another prize?
The Smarties Prize was established in 1985 ‘to stimulate high standards in children’s books and encourage children and their parents to discover the fun of reading’. The winners in each section receive prize money of £1,000. The overall Grand Prix winner receives £7,000.
The judges for this year’s panel were Floella Benjamin, Bill Tidy, Anthony Browne, Jill Paton Walsh and Betty Root.