Friday, 11 October 2013

Guardian Children's Fiction Prize - reviews

I’m going to start my round-up of the Guardian Children's Fiction Prize shortlist with the book I suspect fewest folk will be familiar with and that is Rebecca Stead’s ‘Liar & Spy’.

It's a deceptively short and simple tale of the new friends Georges make when he has to move home and the games he gets drawn into when his new friend, Safer, starts to put greater demands on this new friendship.

But the tale is not at all simple. There is a lot going on in this quirky, original story and I really loved the way Rebecca Stead played with the readers understanding of what is going on.

She subtly plays with perspective on some of the power struggles that go on in children’s relationships and it is only as things are slowly revealed that the reader can understand – and also appreciate the quality of her writing and plotting not to reveal the truth.

It’s also a great story about standing up for ourselves. Why do we let the bullies make up the rules and why do we play them, is the central question of this really delightful and intriguing tale which is never short on surprises.

Half the shortlisted authors this year are American (Rebecca being one). Let’s hope this shortlisting will bring her a much-deserved greater audience in the UK as I also loved her first book ‘When You Reach Me’ – which won the Newbery Medal in the US.

There is hardly any need to introduce the second US author who is shortlisted – John Green for his  huge bestseller ‘The Fault in our Stars’.

As it is much more likely you are already familiar with this tale of two terminally-ill teenagers who fall in love, I feel there is probably little to add.

As a bookseller I tend to spend my day talking to people about the books they have liked and read as this is the only reliable way to suggest other books they might try.

I have talked to hundreds of people about the Hunger Games lookalikes, the dystopian adventures, the thrillers and the dark and the gritty that makes up the teenage bookshelves in most bookstores (and most teenagers room). But there have been two outstanding books that come up again and again as ‘favourite reads of the year’ – and they are ‘The Fault in our Stars’ and RJ Palacio’s ‘Wonder’.

It is fairly easy to assess why everyone has loved ‘Wonder – the story of a boy with a facial deformity who has to conquer the reality of life and school – and his eventual triumph in being accepted for the self beneath the disfigurement. It’s almost the only modern-day feelgood fiction book that appeals to both boys and girls, from ten-year-olds through to upper teens.

But it’s the characters in John Green's book that teenagers appear to adore - the dialogue, the intellect of the protagonists. But the reason I enjoyed it is that, heartbreak aside, it’s a message of hope. Despite its heartbreaking subject matter, it is a feelgood story as the most important journey the main protagonist goes through is not just about her first love affair (which has the added poignancy of probably being her last).

By the end of the book, she has reached an understanding of the question she poses at the beginning – why, if you know you are to have a short life, is it even worth having been born at all?

The question which Mr Green answers most beautifully is a wholehearted ‘yes’ that we can touch other people deeply, inspire and meaningfully love other people and create something beautiful in quite a short space of time.

And that how long we are here is not so important as what we choose to do with that time.

Another protagonist off on a dangerous journey is Stan in David Almond’s ‘The Boy Who Swam With Piranhas’.

When Stan’s home town shipyard closes down and options for employment are limited, his uncle turns their home into a fish processing factory, with Stan shifted out of his bedroom to rise at six to pot pilchards. It’s good-bye to school and learning and hello to machinery and mayhem and an increasingly mad uncle.

Stan runs away to join the hook-a-duck stall, while his Uncle’s lunacy starts to draw attention from shadowy officials. But Stan is about to have a meeting with destiny – in the form of Pancho Pirelli and his amazing death defying piranha act.

With larger-than-life adults, grotesque baddies and a nostalgic feel to this story, it is the humour that I think most people will really love about this book. That and the illustrations by Oliver Jeffers, which are sublime.

Why are there not more illustrated books for this age group. And why not more by Oliver Jeffers??

David Almond, author of the phenomenal ‘Skellig’ will get a slice of the David Walliams/Roald Dahl action with his funny fishy tale.

As well as the humour, what I loved about this book was that Stan (rather like many Dahl heroes) acts in a much more mature way than all of the adults. He says the right thing to the right people and seems to exude an empathy that everyone warms to – including the reader.

More homegrown talent for the fourth contender for this prize and a writer we already love here on Space on the Bookshelf as Katherine Rundell featured as our August book of the month. Certainly less well-known than David Almond, Katherine is marking herself out as an author to watch for the future.

‘Rooftoppers’ gives me a warm feeling that the judges for this year’s Guardian fiction prize for children share my love of a good old-fashioned story, and quality writing – writing that is also pretty quirky.

Katherine Rundell’s story about the unusual upbringing of Sophie – shipwrecked as a baby and brought up to believe in books and music – who heads to Paris in search of her mother.

There she finds help among a group of dispossessed Parisian children, who are as much at home on the dizzying heights of the sights of Paris as most of its residents are in its cafes and who teach her to leap across rooftops as they stay one step ahead of the authorities in their quest to find Sophie’s real mother.

The winner will be announced on Weds Oct 16 for this prize, which is the only children's fiction award selected by fellow writers.


  1. Thank you so much for this rundown .. . When You Meet Me was one of my favourite reads of last year and I can't wait to read this new book by Rebecca Stead. Especially excited to read a new author in Katherine Rundell. Bring it on!

    1. Hi Candy, thanks for stopping by! Yes it's amazing set of books isn't it. Personally I've not read When You Meet Me, but I've just added it to my wish list!

  2. I read Rooftoppers just yesterday (I'm on holiday - yay!) and thoroughly enjoyed it. There was something of Dahl's surreal magic about the tale.

    Now, I wonder how many more of these short-listed titles I can read before I return to my desk..?


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