The Mother Goose Award
This year’s winner: Susan Varley for Badger’s Parting Gifts
Fiona Waters, one of the judges, reports.
This year’s winner has the distinction of a unanimous vote from the judges. Right from the start this book stood out as being something rather special and a supremely sensitive piece of work.
Susan Varley has used a pen and wash technique of deceptive simplicity to tell her story, equally telling and full of feeling in the squared-off full page pictures as in the delightful vignettes which are beautifully designed into the letter-press. The strength of all the illustrations is in the relaxed and sensitive way in which they serve a very difficult theme. There is no trace of cuteness or of whimsy in the handling of anthropomorphic animals, a vehicle for introducing the theme of old-age and death to young children in a way which is just distanced enough and in no way mawkish. This artist has a very accurate eye for tone, for creating a sense of distance and depth on a flat page, and for using her hatched line without labouring the overall effect of each picture (which means good design too). Working strongly in the best tradition of English book illustration she has clearly been inspired by Ernest Shepard and Edward Ardizzone as well as (one surmises) by some very good teaching, but nevertheless shows every sign of being her own woman.
We chose three runners-up.
Julia Butcher’s The Sheep and the Rowan Tree is elegant and beautifully designed, like an exquisite piece of embroidery. The borders round each page are superb, echoed but not repeated under the text which with its lovely illuminated capitals is a joy to read. The whole is first class – the product of artist and designer working closely together throughout?
Gregg Reyes’ Zoo Walk is a book of powerful imaginative atmosphere; the choice of black and white just right for the theme of unease about what might be out there after dark. This work provoked the most discussion and argument among the judges. It is a flawed masterpiece; the line drawings are not so sure as the silhouette work and the visual narrative not always clear. The cold choice of type face and mean format too do not do the imagination of the book justice.
Jez Alborough’s Bare Bear is a real good laugh. Straight from the Beano tradition, here is a book with unashamed comic, child appeal. While other books are floundering around being worthy this is just honest good fun. There has been no attempt to turn the drawings into `illustrations’ and therein lies its success, no pretensions.
The rest – a general view.
Overall the submissions this year were rather dull: far too many books which produced some tepid agreement and not nearly enough to provoke a strong response. Perhaps publishers are feeling the need to play safe and have conveyed this reaction to artists and writers – not the best way to stimulate creativity. Once again there was a dearth of non-fiction; all the more disappointing after the hope that Sarah Pooley’s Skin and Bone, a runner-up last year, would signal more books of this sort. There was a lack of books depicting contemporary life and children, and no recognition at all of multi-cultural Britain. We were deeply disquieted by In Search of Unicorns (Hodder & Stoughton) whose pictures we considered wholly inappropriate in children’s illustration. As usual, and sadly, there were the publishers who seem uninterested in giving their artists the chance of winning an award. Michael Joseph, asked to submit Moses the Kitten and The Magic Island, replied that they were `not geared up to that sort of thing’; there were too many last minute submissions, some books outside the terms of the award.
Black and white illustration was better represented this year. There is some real quality drawing by Alan Herriot in a traditional Rackham style for The Foundling by Hector Malot (Canongate). The handling of small drop-in vignettes is particularly successful, some are beautifully executed. Margaret Jones’ forceful and detailed work in Y Mabinogi (University of Wales Press) was much admired, her draughtsmanship is breathtaking in places. There is a real feeling for Celtic decoration here, backed by detailed research, and fused with her own free and inventive imagery. She makes a powerful contribution to a long and demanding text and deserves a special mention.
Good figure drawing is crucial to a promising illustrator’s repertoire and there still isn’t nearly enough of it, especially in the seemingly simple stories with a contemporary setting, in reality a most exacting genre. Teaching in this area on most graphic design courses just isn’t very well done it seems. We all welcomed Juliet and Charles Snape’s Emily the Engine Driver and Daniel Likes Dancing (Julia MacRae as a brave attempt in this category.
The most accomplished contenders in the area of highly-wrought artwork and fantasy were probably Liz Underhill, Pigs Might Fly (Methuen) and E J Taylor, Biscuit, Buttons and Pickles (Walker Books). The former drew mixed reactions from us: no doubt about the artist’s professionalism and expertise, but on some spreads the detail seems overloaded to the point of cancelling itself out. E. J. Taylor has the benefit of a beautifully designed and produced book overall: endpapers, type-face, balance of full-page illustrations and drop-ins are all excellent and enhance the pale pretty colours to full effect. Our reservations were about the main characters, doll figures verging on the cute, having the feel of some other kind of `product’. Peter Weevers’ handling of The Hare and the Tortoise (Hutchinson) is equally expert. His pale watery full-page pictures are well set off by the text and his line drawings in brown. On the whole he has avoided the trap of sentimentality and his handling of washes and grasp of technique are excellent and show great promise.
Things to applaud, things to regret. We look forward to next year.
The Mother Goose Award for the most promising newcomer to children’s book illustration is sponsored by Books for Children booksellers.
The judges for this year were: Clodagh Corcoran, Sally Grindley, Shirley Hughes, Jane Little, Colin McNaughton, Jan Ormerod and Fiona Waters.
Susan Varley will be 24 this year. In 1983 she graduated from the BA course in Graphic Design at Manchester Polytechnic with a first class honours degree. Since then she has worked as a freelance illustrator. The greatest influence on her work so far, says Susan, has been her tutor at Manchester, Tony Ross. She wrote and illustrated Badger’s Parting Gifts ‘in the hope of helping children get over the death of someone they love’. Her second book, out last Autumn, is After Dark which has a story by Louis Baum. Both books are published by Andersen Press.
Badger’s Parting Gifts, Andersen Press, 0 86264 062 8, £4.95
The Sheep and the Rowan Tree, Methuen, 0 416 27710 1, £4.95
Zoo Walk, Oxford University Press, 019 279795 6, £4.50
Bare Bear, Benn, 0 510 00162 9, £2.95
The Guardian Award
This year’s winner:
What is the Truth? by Ted Hughes with drawings by R. J. Lloyd
Stephanie Nettell, Guardian Children’s Books Editor, reports.
It’s quite a departure for the Guardian (or anyone else) to present their Children’s Fiction Award to a book that is predominantly verse, but for sheer creative energy, for action, emotions, even dialogue, Ted Hughes’s What is the Truth? is probably worth several novels. The judges – writers Penelope Lively, K M Peyton, Michael Rosen and Geoffrey Trease, and myself – felt it stood alone as a very special book for young people, an inspirational work that catches that particular excitement of poetry: the joy of discovering if there are any limits to the sounds, rhythms, moods and ideas that words can create.
The book is subtitled ‘A Farmyard Fable for the Young’, and its sixty poems are the richly varied answers a group of country folk give to the question God’s Son asks them in their sleep, implying that each creature, each person, is his or her own truth. The Poacher sings of the buzzard and weasel, the Shepherd of swallows and lambs, the Farmer’s son of his pet badger and the fox, the Schoolteacher of the mouse and the goat – and many, many more, horses and fleas, pigs and treecreepers, cows and flies, viewed with love, exasperation, humour and pity.
We would acknowledge at once that few youngsters are likely to embark on it on their own, but in the hands of a sympathetic, imaginative adult it offers a marvellous range of emotional satisfactions, metrical forms and rhyming schemes, language games and unexpected imagery. Mike Rosen, that veteran of classroom campaigns to stir and excite children into experimenting for themselves with words, was already picturing the fun teachers could have with such a book: not only will children, in town or country, look at the wildlife round them with a sharper eye, but they are bound to be stimulated into wanting to write about their own animals and feelings.
For straight contrast it would be hard to beat our runner-up, Duck Street Gang, by Denis Marray, an uninhibited farce, the sort to make you laugh aloud, about the dreaded class 2D of a Liverpool dockland comprehensive. Here is a first novel by a 55-year-old who has been a labourer all his life, displaying an exuberantly original talent that should be cherished by anyone concerned with children’s reading: these are real teachers and real kids, whose speech and characters lose nothing in his gloriously shameless search for comic heights. In fact, just the sort of writer Ted Hughes, in his Arvon workshops and his many books, has spent his life cheering on.
What is the Truth?, Faber, 0 571 13155 7, £7.95
Duck Street Gang, Hamish Hamilton, 0 241 11269 9, £5.75
The Children’s Book Award
The Federation of Children’s Book Groups annual award is selected after trials and consultation with children all over the country.
This year’s winner:
Brother in the Land by Robert Swindells, a story of surviving in a post-nuclear England.
Pat Thomson, co-ordinator of the award, reports.
The children, from 11 upwards, found the book a gripping compulsive read. Their responses taught us that we must not brush aside their fears in the cowardly hope that they ‘do not understand these things’. Nor did they permit us the easy escape route into ‘children’s books must always be hopeful’. For them, the hope lay in the author’s honesty. A thing which is known may be prevented. The children’s responses were often as moving as the book itself.
The award, a book full of children’s writing and drawing about the book, will be presented to Robert Swindells at the launch of National Tell a Story Week in Nottingham on 4 May.
The Top Ten runners-up for the award were:
The Goodnight Book, Peter Curry, World’s Work, 0 437 32953 4, £3.95
Cheerful, repetitive text, simple but amusing pictures. Asked for every night. 2+
Spot Goes to School, Eric Hill, Heinemann, 0 434 94312 6, £5.95
The No. 1 hit personality of infant flap books strikes again. They loved it. 3+
Lucy and Tom’s a.b.c., Shirley Hughes, Gollancz, 0 575 03398 3, £3.95
There’s more to this than the average alphabet book. Provoked lots of enjoyable talk. 4+
But Martin!, June Counsel and Carolyn Dinan, Faber, 0 571 13349 5, £4.95
A real hit with all ages, especially at the surprise as you turn the page. We all have our problems at school, but Martin! Well, Martin is a Martian! 4+
An Evening at Alfie’s, Shirley Hughes, The Bodley Head, 0 370 30588 4, £4.95
Alfie is in his element helping the baby sitter to cope with a burst pipe. `Let’s have it again … and again … and again …’ 4+
Willy the Wimp, Anthony Browne, Julia MacRae, 0 86203 175 3, £4.95
Transformation of Willy from chimp wimp to hero – and possibly back again. Pictures extremely funny because they are so well observed. Appealed to a very wide age range. 6+
Harry’s Mad, Dick King-Smith, Gollancz, 0 575 03497 1, £5.50
Good fun. A strong-minded American parrot conducts the adventures with considerable panache. ‘6+
Letty, Avril Rowlands, Puffin Original, 014 03.1616 7, £1.25
Letty, the would-be detective, is frequently the victim of her own inventiveness. Warm character, easy read. 10+
Badger on the Barge and Other Stories, Janni Howker, Julia MacRae, 0 86203 163 X, £5.95
Set of powerful short stories about children face to face with adults. Good writing results in real tension. 11+
The Changeover, Margaret Mahy, Dent, 0 460 06153 4, £6.95
Magical, psychological, totally absorbing. A gripping book for older readers. 13+
Brother in the Land, Oxford University Press, 0 19 271491 0, £5.95 and (this month) Puffin Plus, 014 03.1798 8, £1.50
The book has also won The Other Award and was commended by the Young Observer Teenage Fiction Prize.