Anthony Browne, one of the judges, reports on this year’s winner and runners-up in the prize for ‘The Best Newcomer to British Children’s Book Illustration’.
It’s a peculiar business, judging books. I’ve been on the Mother Goose panel for four years (this is my last year). And this one has been the most difficult, and I suspect, the most controversial.
We all agreed on one thing – that this year’s entries were the best ever. But then we always do. Many of the illustrators who weren’t on the final shortlist will surely go on to become well-known names of the future.
Gus Clarke with Eddie and Teddy (Andersen, 0 86264 285 X, £5.95) has produced one of the funniest books of the year. It’s also one of the best. This is a typical Andersen Press book (and I mean that as a great compliment) – it’s witty, bright, with coloured line drawings rather than paintings and a wonderful punchline. Most picture books, particularly by first-time illustrators, have some weak pages – a few illustrations that are there to fill a space, or that just don’t quite work. But not this one; like Teddy, the book is small, concentrated and brilliant. Shades, perhaps, of Tony Ross and David McKee (not bad role models), but ultimately very Gus Clarke. We all look forward to many more books from him.
Squeak-a-Lot (written by Martin Waddell, Walker, 0 7445 1907 1, £7.99) illustrated by Virginia Miller is a wonderfully accomplished book that in another year could easily have won the Mother Goose Award. Mice have been drawn so often in children’s books that it must be very difficult to come up with an original approach. Virginia Miller has done just that. She’s used a superbly flowing drawing style, warm muted colours that are never dull, and produced a lithographic quality that looks like no-one else. The design of the book reminded us of Sendak, and is stunning – never design for its own sake, but as a tool to tell the delightful Martin Waddell story. A lovely book.
The panel was in complete agreement on these two books. The difficulties arose with the other two. Unfortunately there were six judges and we were decisively split right down the middle on our choice of the winner. Most uncomfortable!
The Whales’ Song (Hutchinson, 0 09 174250 1, £6.99), illustrated by Gary Blythe and written by Dyan Sheldon, must be one of the most amazing entries ever for the Mother Goose Award. Everyone on the panel could see the tremendously accomplished technique that Gary Blythe possesses, but this in some perverse way seems to have been a disadvantage with some of the judges. Criticisms were made of the girl’s face – ‘Too pretty’ (!), of the use of photographic reference (like Ingres, Frith, Manet, Corot, Millet, Turner, Delacroix, Courbet and Degas), of the ‘chocolate-box’ sentimentality, and the slickness of the technique. I hope I’m not being too unfair to some of my fellow judges, but I found comments like these about illustrations of this quality amazing. The Mother Goose Award is given to the most exciting newcomer to children’s book illustration, and I believe Gary Blythe to be one of the most exciting newcomers to children’s books of the last twenty years.
His illustrations are large oil paintings, but they don’t have any of the precious `one off’ feel that paintings can have in picture books. They are true picture book illustrations, full of mood and emotion, carrying the story beyond the words in a way that only happens in the very best picture books. If some of the paintings have a slightly sentimental feel, then that is only reflecting the text and shouldn’t be seen as a criticism of the illustrator.
I hope this doesn’t seem unfair to the excellent winner, A Close Call (Macmillan, 0 333 523881, £5.95) by Amanda Harvey. If it does, then I must apologise. This is also a brilliant debut, a creepily worrying story, superbly reflected with delicate watercolours in sombre shades, spiky figures and dreamlike landscapes. We again liked the design of the book, the use of different shapes and sizes of illustration, the way the illustrator had closed in on details, and the nervous loose edges of each painting. A perfect match of text and images, the book itself is a lovely object and a very worthy winner.
Yes, it’s a peculiar business, judging books.
The Mother Goose Award is sponsored by Books For Children, and the judges this year were Anthony Browne, Sally Grindley, Colin Hawkins, Pat Hutchins, Beverley Mathias and Elaine Moss.