‘Judging literary awards is a rocky road, paved with good intentions.’ says Geraldine Brennan, ‘Every year there’s several books that could have won a major award but didn’t: only time makes it clear which books should have won. I am collectively responsible for more than one of the outcomes in the following list and when I have nothing else left to worry about in the small hours there’s always that.
‘I’ve focused on the biggest current or recent mainstream literary awards for which most children’s books are eligible: the CILIP Carnegie and Kate Greenaway Medals, the Guardian Children’s Fiction Prize, the Booktrust Teenage Prize, the Nestle Smarties Prize and the Costa (formerly Whitbread) Children’s Book of the Year. I haven’t included specialist or targeted awards such as the Branford Boase Award for first novels or the CLPE (formerly Signal) Poetry Award. My choice of the ones that got away might yet be proved wrong by history and is not intended to carp at the achievement of those who did win the relevant awards: it’s just me living in an ideal world where the weather’s better and my clothes fit. Bear with me.’
Kit’s Wilderness (1999)
David Almond, Hodder Children’s Books, 240pp, 978-0340944967, £5.99 pbk
This tale of a Tyneside mining family and their ancestors ancient and modern is David Almond’s second novel. I find it deeper and more unsettling than Almond’s breakthrough book, Skellig, but while Skellig won the Carnegie Medal, Kit’s Wilderness suffered a series of near misses in the UK (silver award in the Smarties Prize, highly commended for the Carnegie Medal, and shortlisted for the Guardian Prize). In the US, it won the American Library Association’s Michael J Printz Award. Clay, published in 2005, covered similar territory for older readers with a central character who forms an alliance with a local bad lad, and a sense of evil barely kept at bay by love and faith. It similarly lost out on a major prize despite being shortlisted for the Costa and the Carnegie.
Hansel and Gretel (1981)
Anthony Browne, Walker, 32pp, 978-1406318524, £5.99 pbk
The interiors with their mid-1970s decor were contemporary for the time of publication but the loveless family life in the woodcutter’s cottage, ruled by the spiky chain-smoking stepmother, hints at an earlier and darker age. A resonant, chilly treatment for Grimm, light on the gingerbread.
The Baby and Fly Pie (1993)
Melvin Burgess, Andersen Press, 256pp, 978-1849394550, £5.99 pbk
Burgess waited another three years to win the Carnegie Medal for Junk while The Baby and Fly Pie made Highly Commended. The tender but bleak tale of homeless child scavengers in a dystopian London of the future, and the shifting goalposts of respectability that prevented them escaping their lot, was before its time in theme.
The Sorcerer’s Apprentice (1997)
Ted Dewan, Corgi, 32pp, 978-0552545280, O/P
Science, music and the spirit of invention combine in Dewan’s bicentennial steampunk retelling of Goethe’s Der Zauberlehrling, in which renegade vacuum cleaners replace Disney’s buckets and brooms and the Sorcerer owes his marvels to invention and toil, not magic. Dewan’s father’s electric organ is a significant presence, both physically and as inspiration for an electronic score of Paul Dukas’s music to accompany the book, an expensive flourish in pre-e-book times. Dewan is something of an inventor himself. This was shortlisted for the Kurt Maschler Award.
The Oldest Girl in the World: Poems for Children (2000)
Carol Ann Duffy, illustrated by Marketa Praticka, Faber and Faber, 96pp, 978-0571205769, £5.99 pbk
Although poetry is eligible for the Carnegie Medal and the Costa Children’s Book of the Year, poetry titles rarely make it even to the longlist submission stage of the Carnegie. Cue great excitement when Meeting Midnight, the first children’s collection from the future Poet Laureate, was shortlisted for the Whitbread (now the Costa) in 1999. Yet this second collection, which went unrewarded, deserves at least similar attention for the title poem alone, offering a gateway to the enchantment of the five senses for small children. The Oldest Girl in the World presents traditional forms and folkloric material for contemporary readers.
Michael Rosen’s Sad Book (2005)
Michael Rosen illustrated by Quentin Blake, Walker, 40pp, 978-1406317848, £5.99 pbk
This is surely the book that the Kurt Maschler Award (for text and illustration working together) was invented for. But the Kurt Maschler was discontinued after 1999 and it seems that there were too many complicating factors in this collaboration between two giants of children’s literature. The very circumstances that make it a special book and the first port of call when talking to young children about death and bereavement make it hard to classify. It’s not fiction but subjective reportage. A real person, familiar to his readers, talks about his grief at the loss of the son whom his child fans also feel they know from his poems. Quentin Blake, too, was drawing a friend and close collaborator. It offers a glimpse into the intimate world of its creators.
Adele Geras, Scholastic, 368pp, 978-0439992206
Shortlisted for the Whitbread, Carnegie and Guardian but the gods, revealed by this excellent women’s-eye-view of the Trojan War to be cantankerous and capricious, were not in favour. Two sisters who have grown up under siege in the service of King Priam, both in love with the same Trojan warrior, make the ancient and terrifying events familiar. Through the girls, and the trio of old women who dish the dirt in Helen of Troy’s kitchen, new teenage readers of the classics are made.
The Vanishing of Katharina Linden (2009)
Helen Grant, Penguin, 352pp, 978-0141325736, £6.99
This dark psychological mystery set in a wholesome-seeming German town with shades of Twin Peaks and Royston Vasey was simply unlucky. The Carnegie shortlist for that year was packed with worthy winners and the Medal went to Neil Gaiman for The Graveyard Book. Grant’s first novel stays in the mind long after reading with its updated Grimm-fest and the 10-year-old narrator is an intriguing mixture of endearing innocence and irritating whimsy. The Vanishing of Katharina Linden has since picked up an Alex Award in the US for its appeal to young adults.
The Silver Spoon of Solomon Snow (2004)
Kaye Umansky, Puffin, 240pp, 978-0141316734, £4.99, Kindle ed.
Kaye Umansky was one of the inaugural judges of the Roald Dahl Funny Prize in 2008. The prize seeks to give books bursting with sheer laughter value their deserved acclaim and if it had been around four years earlier, this sharp, clever parody of the Victorian waif novel would surely have won. As it was, it made the shortlist for the Smarties.
The Big Ugly Monster and the Little Stone Rabbit (2004)
Christopher Wormell, Red Fox Picture Books, 32pp, 978-0099455950, £6.99
This is a slow-burn book, which presents profound themes and big questions about need, image, attraction, friendship and contentment for young children to explore and return to. If the monster believes the rabbit is his friend, is that enough? While the monster is not exactly cuddly, is he really ugly? His vulnerability makes him endearing. Much to discuss, and perhaps not enough time to do so on awards panels.
Geraldine Brennan is a journalist specialising in children’s books and education, regularly reviews for the Observer and has judged several literary awards.