We pause in our exploration to look at
THE AWARDS BUSINESS
From time to time throughout the year there are excited stirrings and celebrations in various parts of the Children’s Book World. It’s prize-giving time. From Carnegie and Greenaway on Library Island, after long deliberations, comes an announcement each Spring about `a children’s book of outstanding merit’ and ‘the most distinguished work in illustration’ from the previous year. In other parts of the world decisions are being made about The Other Award (for non-biased books of literary merit), the Mother Goose Award (for the most exciting newcomer to children’s book illustration), the Signal Poetry Award, the Whitbread Award, the Kurt Maschler Emil. On Media Island, The Guardian, the Times Educational Supplement and the Observer are busy with their particular prizes.
A lot of activity. What does it all add up to?
As luggage on this voyage around the World of Children’s Books we carry a bag packed with questions and this trip is no exception.
What are awards for? How are they decided? What effect do they have on authors, publishers, booksellers, librarians, teachers, parents? What does all this awards business mean for the children of Readerland for whom the books were presumably created?
There is only one award in this country in which children have a say – the Children’s Book Award, given by the members of the Federation of Children’s Book Groups and their families. The children have the last word in deciding which book wins, but the adults (parents, teachers and librarians) are closely involved, deciding which books from all those published in any year are read aloud or offered to children for comment, collecting and reporting on responses, giving their own views too. For the other awards we have mentioned the judges are always adults. They are also mostly, some would say exclusively, ‘insiders’. That is they are inhabitants of the various islands of the world of children’s books, not natives from the vast and uncharted interior of that most legendary of all places, Readerland. They are children’s librarians, booksellers, publishers, authors, reviewers, and some names crop up regularly on more than one jury.
In the context of award-giving that’s not so unusual. Oscars, for example are not given by the people who go to cinemas: they are given by the Film Academy, a body made up of people from the trade itself. Some would say this is the essence of an award: it is a tribute by those in the know to someone who has achieved a standard of excellence inside a trade or profession, the identification of a bench mark against which all practitioners can measure their work.
The remarks of the judges for the new Kurt Maschler Award and the Mother Goose award, for example, have recently been very pointed about the standard of design and the quality of reproduction in illustrated books. If they have been heard and heeded by editors and production departments standards should rise all round. In some years judges do not make an award and that makes its own point. In much the same way the creation of an award can focus attention on a particular area which needs attention. The Other Award has made people look at the content of children’s books in quite a new way. Kathleen Gribble, Assistant Borough Librarian (Children and Schools) in Newham, who, as past chairman of the Youth Libraries Group, has been in charge of the Carnegie and Greenaway committees says,’ Giving awards makes us all think more carefully about kids books. The TES non-fiction award has certainly done some good. Before it started the standard of illustration in information books was appalling; but it has improved a lot, although there is still a long way to go.’
Many of the awards in children’s books could be looked at in this way. But awards are there for other purposes too. One is to encourage publicity – and more publicity it is hoped means more sales – and the other is to encourage new talent. The Mother Goose aims to do just this as does the new Kathleen Fidler Award for a first novel for 8-12 year olds.
Do awards boost sales? Liz Attenborough is an editor at Kestrel whose children’s list has scooped many awards of all sorts over the years. In her opinion an award has very little effect either way on the sales of a children’s book.
`Awards don’t make that much difference to how many copies of a book are sold. Each Peach Pear Plum by the Ahlbergs had already sold 10,000 copies in nine months by the time it was awarded the Greenaway. It sold an extra eight or nine hundred copies at the time of the award, but I don’t think it contributed greatly to the way the book sold after that. What it does tend to mean is that a book will last longer, stay in print for a longer time. If an award goes to a bad book it won’t help it sell, and it won’t help it last.’
Strangely awards have more impact sometimes outside this country than in it. ‘The Japanese for example are wild about awards. When one of our books gets an award we get letters from publishers all over the world about foreign editions. And when Sunshine won the Mother Goose award the Australian publisher ordered an instant reprint of 5,000. That would never happen here.’
Awards usually go to hardback books. Winning an award may help a book to make the transition to paperback and therefore to a much bigger potential audience. Barry Cunningham, who is in charge of children’s marketing at Penguin Books, feels that an award’s primary influence on a book is that it gains it more publicity. ‘An award doesn’t really sell any more copies of a paperback, but it does get a book talked about. That’s sometimes because it stirs up controversy. When Robert Westall won the Carnegie last year for The Scarecrows, a lot of people said it wasn’t even really a children’s book – and the controversy around an award gives a book that much more profile when it comes to publicity.’
The right sort of publicity certainly sells books. After a long period of semi-obscurity the Booker prize (for adult fiction) has in the past few years established itself as a public event to such an extent that Ladbrokes quotes odds on which book will win, and last year the presentation was shown live on BBC television. Schindler’s Ark, Thomas Keneally’s winning book, is still in the best-sellers list for hardback fiction. Children’s books don’t get that sort of coverage. Although the Whitbread Awards, one of which is for children’s books (the biggest prize in children’s books in money terms) also got on TV last year. Even when the award is given by a newspaper like The Guardian, The TES or the Young Observer the fanfares are faint and easy to miss. Only those with their ears already pricked, usually the insiders most closely involved and interested, are certain to hear. Some try to pass on the news. Paperback publishers always byline an award on a cover, even when it’s an award that the general public may not have heard of. The Library Association offers Greenaway Medal stickers which can be put on the covers of winning hardback picture books: but publishers have to pay for these and many don’t take up the idea. In general the Youth Libraries Group is somewhat disappointed by the reluctance of publishers to get behind the Carnegie and Greenaway Awards. In the United States a publisher’s publicity staff who think they may have a winner are ready poised with press releases, photographs, books, waiting tensely for the announcement of the Newbery and Caldecott Awards (the American equivalent of our Carnegie and Greenaway). An award usually means an instant reprint of at least 10,000 copies. But, say British publishers, in the States these awards mean guaranteed sales to thousands of libraries as well as bookshops. Here they can’t even be sure that librarians will buy the books their own Association has chosen to honour. It’s a classic chicken and egg situation.
The reasons some librarians are not buying those books may also have to do with something else Barry Cunningham had to say about the `closed circle of the children’s book world.’
‘I’ve got the greatest respect for award winners, but I fee! there’s a growing tendency to give awards to books which could be classed as `Kid lit’, rather than books which are genuinely popular with kids. It seems to me that there’s a small body of established writers and artists who get shortlisted for awards every year with monotonous regularity. In a way you get the feeling that it’s a self-perpetuating system with little reference to the outside world.’
In this context it’s more than interesting to note that Roald Dahl, one of Britain’s most popular writers of children’s books – and one who sells extremely well – had never won an award until this year, when The BFG scooped The Federation of Children’s Books Groups’ award. Barry was quick to point out that Dahl was given his award by consumers – i.e. kids and their parents, the inhabitants of Readerland. `With the other awards, it’s adults making judgements on writing for kids with very little relation to what children actually read or buy.’
Others would agree with part of this – but go on to say that it’s an inevitable part of making an award. Stephanie Nettell, for instance, the children’s books editor of The Guardian, who administers the Guardian’s fiction award.
‘I think it’s true that an award winning book is almost by definition one not likely to be read by kids. It’s inevitable in a way. I think that what we’re doing with an award like ours is picking out a book which is breaking new ground. Obviously that means the vast bulk of readers won’t go for it.
‘But I hope I would never allow The Guardian award to go to a book which I felt was inaccessible. I try to make sure that I and the judges have a normal, bright child in mind when we’re looking at books. It’s difficult, but in a way it’s like reviewing. You need experience of children’s books, knowledge of children, too. You have to be careful.
`The Sentinels by Peter Carter, for example, and Conrad’s War by Andrew Davies are intelligent books with a good story. But I don’t think you’d get a mass readership for them. Books like these are on the limits of a child’s world, but will stretch them too.’
She also added that winning an award has an `intangible, knock-on effect’ on a writer’s later career. It meant that his next book would be reviewed more widely than it would otherwise have been, and therefore helps to build his reputation as a writer to be looked at seriously.
Beverley Mathias of the National Book League, has a fairly acerbic opinion about some awards.
`Some are a complete waste of time, and there are some years where even the ones which are worth something are given to the wrong books. For example, Jane Gardam’s small book for 8-10 year olds, Bridget and William (a Julia MacRae Blackbird) is a good piece of literature. It’s a great book for the age range at which it’s aimed. But the Carnegie committee didn’t have the courage to give the award to a book which is for the under tens – they seem to think that an award for writing should go to something written for the over tens every year.
‘It took a lot of courage to give the Greenaway to Haunted House. Committees need more of that sort of courage. There’s another point, the Greenaway is for illustration, not just for a picture book. But it rarely goes to a non-fiction book, (and there are some superb non-fiction illustrations) and it never goes to a book for older children which is illustrated. It’s time the committees took a closer look at the criteria on which they give awards.’
Kathleen Gribble has been on the committee of judges for both the Greenaway and the Carnegie, as well as the Mother Goose.
`The judging process is very difficult, not easy at all. I’m hampered by my own awareness of children’s books to a certain extent, but I think that doing it has made me read and look at illustration more critically, more closely. It’s also very hard work. I knew it would be, but it turned out to be harder than I thought it was going to be. It involves a large number of books – 35/40 books in each category for the Carnegie – a lot of thinking and a lot of talking to other people.’
And they, like other juries, do worry about criteria and categories. `We have suggested that the Carnegie and the Greenaway be divided into age ranges. But that presents even more problems. What we’re going for is quality above ail else.’
The search for that `quality book’ begins for Carnegie and Greenaway in the regions, with the Youth Libraries Group committees which nominate books for consideration by the final panel. For other awards what gets considered is often dependant on what publishers decide to submit. Liz Attenborough paints a picture of publishers wracking their brains to find potential winners. `This one has got to win it: it’s got ingredient X. Except that we can’t always decide exactly what ingredient X is. Or what the judges are looking for. Occasionally we are surprised when certain of our books win!’ Some publishers don’t submit books by default perhaps or misunderstanding about the terms of the award.
What about the people on Author Island where all these books begin? Alan Garner is reported to have said (jokingly?) that he was very disparaging about children’s book awards until he got one; then he wanted every one that was going. Michael Foreman, who has won lots, values most the Frances Williams Award for Illustration – given every five years – because it is judged by his fellow professionals. Most agree that it is reassuring and pleasing to be a winner. But it does have its drawbacks. After Penelope Lively won the Carnegie Medal for The Ghost of Thomas Kempe she was `turned overnight into a kid lit buff and was asked to give talks all over the place. `In the end I had to give up because it was interfering with my writing.’ For Michelle Magorian winning the Guardian Award for Goodnight Mr Tom, her first novel, was encouraging, `But it’s an awful lot to live up to.’
Awards touch on all shores of the World of Children’s books. A sail around to look at the Awards Business from all points of view reveals many of the issues that perennially pre-occupy its inhabitants: how children’s books are produced, judged, publicised, sold.
`You’ve got to be realistic,’ says Kathleen Gribble. `How many children are bothered about what awards are made? Very few indeed. Awards are about publicity, and they are about adults, and really they are for adults.’ Beverley Mathias agrees and adds, `Awards are useful in that they help to bring more books to the attention of adults who don’t know about kids books.’
Let’s end where we began, in Readerland with the children, and give Beverley Mathias the last word. `Children don’t buy or read a book because it has won an award. A children’s book still needs to be sold to a child, whether it has won an award or not. It has to be presented in the right way, as a good book which is worth reading.’
CHILDREN’S BOOKS AWARDS an alphabetical round-up
The Carnegie Medal presented by the Library Association for a book of outstanding merit in English, first published in the UK in the preceding year. First awarded in 1937. (Pigeon Post, Arthur Ransome)
The Children’s Book Award chosen by members of the Federation of Children’s Book Groups and lots of children. The prize is a scrap book of the children’s responses in words and pictures. First awarded in 1981. (Mr Magnolia)
The Kathleen Fidler Award given in memory of Kathleen Fidler by Blackie and the Scottish FCBG for a first novel! for 8-12 year olds. Inaugurated 1981. First winner, Allan Baillie for Adrift (published this year)
The Kate Greenaway Medal presented by the Library Association for the most distinguished work in the illustration of children’s books first published in the UK in the preceding year. Established 1956 (no award)
The Guardian Award for Children’s Fiction given for an outstanding work on fiction for children first published in the UK during the preceding year. First awarded 1967 (Devil-in-the-Fog, Leon Garfield)
The Kurt Maschler Award for a work of imagination in which text and illustration enhance and balance each other. The prize includes a bronze statuette of Emil, Erich Kastner and Walter Trier’s famous boy detective. First awarded 1982 (The Sleeping Beauty and other favourite fairy tales, Angela Carter and Michael Foreman)
The Mother Goose Award for the most exciting newcomer to children’s book illustration. Prize includes a bronze egg. First awarded 1979.
The Other Award presented by the Children’s Rights Workshop, for non-biased books of literary merit. Includes paperbacks and books by non-British authors. Number of books selected at the discretion of the judges. First awarded 1975.
The Signal Poetry Award presented by Signal magazine for an outstanding book of poetry for children. Inaugurated to advance the cause of poetry for children. Award withheld frequently in recent years. Previous winners, Ted Hughes and last year Michael Rosen and Quentin Blake (You Can’t Catch Me, Deutsch)
The TES Information Book Award for distinction in content and presentation in non-fiction books published in the UK or Commonwealth. First awarded 1972. Since 1973 awarded in two categories: Junior (up to 9) Senior (10-16)
Whitbread Awards for a book published in the UK and written by someone who has lived in the UK or Ireland for five years. Administered by the Booksellers Association. Prize £3,000. Children’s Books first added as a category, 1972.
Frances Williams Award made every five years to encourage and advance the art of book illustration. Judged by a panel of artists.
Young Observer/Rank Teenage Fiction Award to encourage writing for young people. First awarded 1981