When a writer has won two Carnegies and a Smarties, and already been shortlisted four times and runner-up once for our own award, it is almost a relief, and certainly a great satisfaction, when the right moment, the right judges and the right book finally slot perfectly into place.
I am content now to have waited so long. The Kingdom by the Sea offers the best of Westall – vigorous action with a page-turning grip; unashamedly ferocious passion, emotionally and physically; tenderness for the vulnerable among us, children, animals, the lonely or grieving. Like Blitzcat, but for a younger audience, it is a journey of discovery, this time set in the Westall-land of Tynemouth in the last war, and portrayed with touching simplicity from the viewpoint of a skinny 12-year-old of unquenchable spirit.
When Harry loses his home and family in the bombing, he sets out down the coast, alone except for Don – dog, companion and fellow outcast – to face a capricious adult world, in turns caring, potty and brutal. Geographically he doesn’t get far, but spiritually and intellectually he discovers a kingdom of beckoning horizons where he knows he could he himself.
The expected happy ending is tipped on its head with a painful allegiance to truth: we know that one day Harry will inherit his kingdom, but the reader is being warned not to expect life to stick conveniently to the rules. Yet it is an uplifting book: the pick-yourself-up courage with which Harry faces each adventure is wonderfully cheering, offering child and adult readers alike the splendid indulgence of a good cry.
While Westall’s novel takes young readers back to another time, runner-up Against the Storm by Gaye Hicyilmaz (ill. Mei-Yim Low), takes them to a distant country – both books demonstrating the universality of human needs and emotions. Mehmet’s family have always dreamed of a better life in the city, but, settled in the shanty town on the hills above Ankara, they find urban poverty has a callous cunning they are ill-equipped to tackle. Mehmet, like Harry, is cheeringly resilient, a survivor, but the story of his battle with the way fate deals with the poor is one of haunting pathos, albeit described with gentleness and even humour. It is a fine debut for a writer who must surely have prizes to come.
The judges this year were James Aldridge, Russell Hoban, Ann Pilling, Ann Schlee and children’s books editor of the Guardian, Stephanie Nettell.
The Kingdom by the Sea, Methuen, 0 416 15662 2, £8.95
Against the Storm, Viking, 0 670 82960 9, £7.99