Friday, 27 March 2015

Contraulations to the winner of the Waterstones children's book prize 2015

How utterly terrific that a picture book has been crowned as this year's winner of the Waterstone's Children's Book prize.

Rob Biddulph's 'Blown Away' is a beautiful example of everything a picture book should be. It's a short story in miniature, with an engaging main character (a penguin) and a plot that draws you on through the story that is imaginative, bold and unexpected.

The Waterstone' prize is to recognise new and emerging talent and always manages to shortlist books that children can really relate to and love to read.

So congratulations also to Sally Green who was crowned winner of the best book for teenagers with her enthralling tale of warring witches, 'Half Bad'. And to the winner of best young fiction, Robin Stevens, with 'Murder Most Unladylike' a boarding school mystery - both of which are building a fantastic fanbase and should be on everyone's recommended reading list this year.

But with such hot competition it's a real tribute to talent that the overall winner was a picture book.
Picture book writers have so few words to convey all the essential elements a story should contain.

And with Drew Daywalk and Oliver Jeffers' fantastic picture book 'The Day the Crayons Quit' having recently scooped the overall Red House Children's Book Award, hopefully we might be seeing real recognition of just what talent and craft goes into making a picture book that you want to read time and again.

Tuesday, 17 March 2015

We interview Dawn Finch, CILIP Vice President about Carnegie and libraries

Today the shortlist for the Carnegie Medal was announced, and that means the launch, up and down the country of shadowing schemes where schools compete to read and review the shortlist – and pick and debate their own favourite titles.

To mark the occasion we are very lucky to be able to interview Dawn Finch, CILIP Vice President, about the very special place libraries and books have played in her life – and a glimpse behind the scenes of the tortuous road to picking the Carnegie winner.

What was your favourite children’s book as a child?

Oh dear, I'm always being asked this one and it's so hard to answer because I loved so many books. I chose books that fitted with my moods and current tastes and often chose with a random point of my finger when I was in the library. That's the wonderful thing about libraries - no price tag! I could choose whatever I wanted and never had to worry about the cost. I think if I am pushed for an answer I'd go for Arthur Ransome's Swallows and Amazons books. I so wanted to be Nancy and to be able to just go off and row across a lake. Those books encapsulate such a sense of freedom and exploration, and that really appealed to me as a child.

What is your favourite children’s book as an adult?

Whatever I’ve just finished! I used to stick a book out to the end even if I wasn’t enjoying it, but I no longer do that. If I’ve finished a book then that means I enjoyed it. I’m such a sucker for a good book that I do tend to fall in love with the last one I finished. I wouldn’t like to say which is my current favourite as by the time you go to print I’ll be on to the next one and will be in love with that.

 What do you think makes children’s books so inspirational?

For me it’s always been about the voices that speak to us. Young people are looking to be listened to, but they also want to be spoken to as well. A book is inspirational if it touches something inside the reader and says “yes, me too, you are not alone.” I don’t feel that young readers want to be preached to, or to have some great moral message explained to them, they just want to feel less alone. A book that can do that is inspirational.

 Why did you become a librarian?

I always wanted to be either a librarian or a writer, and I’m lucky enough to have achieved both of those things. Who wouldn’t want to be a librarian?! I grew up pretty poor and libraries changed my life. If it wasn’t for libraries I would not be me, and I kind of like me! There is no way my parents could have afforded all of the books that me and my sister ended up reading, but the library let us have them for free. In the school library I had a safe haven from bullies and unhappiness, and I found a place where I felt I belonged.

I always knew that I belonged in a library and I can’t remember a time when I didn’t want to work in one.

What is the best thing about the job? And the worst?

BOOKS! That’s easily the best thing about the job. No, really the best thing is teaching a child how to read and seeing that glorious epiphany moment when they get it, when everything clicks and they become a reader. There really is nothing like that. Recently I had a young man stop me in the street and tell me all about what he was reading and told me it was all down to me because ten years earlier I hadn’t given up on him when he’d given up on himself. He thought he’d never learn how to read, I knew he just needed the right books. That’s pretty special.

The worst thing is the current fight we are in to save libraries from people who haven’t got a clue how important they are. I’m so tired of having to explain that libraries are more than just a room with books in. I’ll never give up on that fight, but I dream of a day when we don’t have to face that struggle.

What is your vision of what a children’s library will look like in ten years time.

I try not to think of the negative aspects of library futures and prefer to dream of a buzzy and lively place full of people using their library for all sorts of things from using the computers, to studying, to reading and learning and just enjoying a vibrant and welcoming place that belongs at the heart of every successful community.

 How did you get involved with CILIP?

When I started off as a casual assistant in a public library a very long time ago, I wasn’t eligible to join CILIP and I saw membership as a validation of being a professional. I studied hard and being accredited was one of the proudest moments of my life. I felt like I’d finally arrived and was a real librarian. I’ve spent a lot of time on committees and campaigning as I wanted to put something back and, in January 2015, I was elected Vice President and now I can properly give back to the organisation that changed my life.

What are the biggest challenges in being a judge for the biggest and most prestigious children’s writing prize– the Carnegie Medal?

As part of the Presidential team we don’t actually get a vote in the Carnegie or Greenaway, but obviously we are involved in our own way. I’ve been on the reading groups in the past and it is incredibly difficult in the regional reading groups to bring it down to a decent number. I’m very glad that I don’t have to bring the list down to the final few, that would break my heart every time my favourites didn’t get through. I think it takes a very special person to be able to separate their personal opinion from those of others.

What do you look for in a good children’s book, and how does this differ from judging an adult book?

I don’t think that there is any difference between judging a book for young people and a book for adults. A good book is one that speaks to you and one that lives in your mind after you’ve put it down. I think that some people feel that it’s all about issues and adversity, but it’s really all about a book that bursts from the page and into your life and your imagination. That’s what makes a Carnegie Greenaway book.

What is the best thing about being involved in the Carnegie prize?

Well, the best thing for me is that I get all the cool stuff like chatting to other authors and reading the books without the weighty responsibility of making final decisions!

So. Let us into the secret – how do they decide which books will make it onto the shortlist? Is it terribly civilised, or is it more heated arguments and smoking guns?

The panels can get quite heated as librarians are incredibly passionate about the books chosen and can get quite protective about the ones that they love. These are not just regular readers remember, these people live and breathe children’s books and so it’s inevitable that their passions will come through. I wouldn’t want to divulge any secrets about the decision making, but it’s by fair and balanced discussion by the final judging panel. As far as I know it has never come to blows!

Children’s fiction and publishing never stands still and we guess judging such a prestigious prize CILIP YLG has to be seen to move with the times. A decision was made this year regarding ensuring joint authors both get nominated – are there any other changes you are looking at?

As you say, the award will move with the times but the criteria for selecting titles are quite clear and fair. I’ve no idea what other changes will be made but any changes would be arrived at by open discussion with CILIP YLG

How many books do you have to read in order to pick a winner?

It depends on how much quality fiction has been published in that year. I believe that members of the regional panels read around a thousand titles overall, more if it is a good year. It genuinely is a massive task, and that’s why YLG rely on the input of librarians from all over the country. It’s a colossal thing to take on, but I do believe that it’s one of the fairest awards because lobbying and marketing have no sway over the librarians – they really can’t be bribed, even with chocolate and cake.

The Carnegie Shadowing scheme is hugely popular in schools and great for getting children reading and reviewing. The shadowing is aimed at 11 and 12 year olds, just getting to grips with more challenging fiction. Do you ever feel they should steer away from having books on the shortlist aimed at 16+ because of the content?

As a school librarian myself I’ve sometimes found it frustrating that the Carnegie books are often too old for my readers, but that’s just the way it goes some years. If the best books in that year are written for older children we shouldn’t exclude them. We are in the midst of a golden age of YA writing and so many of the best books published are indeed for older readers. It’s happened in the past too (remember that Melvin Burgess won it with Junk back in 1996) and I’m sure in future years it will include a good mix as always.

It is always possible to follow the Greenaway Award in schools, and I think that this often gets swamped by the Carnegie. The Greenaway represents the very best illustrated fiction and picture books and is an amazing showcase for the best illustrators in the business. It is a particularly fine list this year and I have lots of favourites on it.

The Carnegie Medal is for the best children’s and young people’s fiction. It’s widely acknowledged that more adults now read YA than children. How do you define young people when allowing nominations for the prize?

I try not to define young people, that’s a rocky road and I’m not travelling it! The publishers define the age group for the books that they publish, but sometimes the judging panels disagree. I’m not convinced that more adults read YA than children. I work with countless schools and the pupils I meet all read books for young adults, as well as books for children and adults. I think that YA is now often read by the 18-25 bracket and that stacks the figures. My own daughter is 21 and I’m still not thinking that she’s quite an adult yet. In any case, it’s fine growing older but I see no reason why anyone should grow up!

What’s your favourite book that has ever won?

That’s actually quite an easy question – Mal Peet’s Tamar from 2005. I so love this book and I slightly embarrassed myself at the ceremony by shouting “yes!” when the announcement was made. To be honest I think that the entire Carnegie backlist is a perfect representation of the very best in writing for young people. For the Greenaway I think that my favourites are probably The Whale’s Song by Gary Blythe and Dyan Sheldon (1990), or maybe Pirate Diary by Chris Riddell and Richard Platt (2001)
It is a remarkable award and every year I look forward to seeing what will win, and to reading the extraordinary books that make the lists.

Thank you Dawn, for such illuminating answers and inspiring us all to fight to keep out libraries. SOTB

Friday, 13 March 2015

Three cheers for first YA book prize – but hold on, what is YA?

Book prizes are great. 

They are particularly great for raising awareness of the titles in a forever jostling publishing scene, and they are good for sparking discussion about books.

So it’s terrific news that young adult novels published in the UK or Ireland, have their own new YA Book Prize.

It aims to celebrate great books for teenagers and young adults and to get more teens reading and buying books.

Before celebrating the books on the prize list, let’s have a shot at joining the debate, because many people are still getting to grips with YA. In my bookshop one of the questions I get asked a lot is – what is YA?

So we have today set ourselves the challenge to answer this question. It is surprisingly difficult.

It is easy to look at the origins of  YA. YA emerged as being for people who felt themselves getting a little old for children’s books, but perhaps didn’t feel they could connect with books written for adults – YA were books written particularly to appeal to teenagers.

What about YA books now?

Parents, particularly parents with keen readers aged ten and 11 eager to start on more challenging reads are often asking for guidance on the right books. Their children are starting to no longer want to read children’s books and are showing an interest in something more challenging. Is YA right for them?

Are they the right next step for those readers ready to branch out of children’s books? Is that what YA is there for?

Well, if you read a YA title it will almost certainly be about a teenager.

But perhaps one of the most interesting facts about YA is –the majority of YA readers are adults.
So the books are certainly not strictly for teens.

And another fact – YA books are hugely popular and that popularity is growing, largely because adults have embraced YA with great enthusiasm.

The majority of readers of YA are women – aged between 20-50, because you want different reads when you are 20 to when you are 60, of course you do.

And YA is serving that market brilliantly. The growth in popularity of YA is fulfilling a very real need – it is keeping people reading.

So, are we getting any closer to the answer of ‘What is YA?’

If you ask readers to define what is the difference, say, between a YA title (found in the teen section) and something found in, say, the fantasy section (for adults), it gets trickier to see the difference. It’s more than a little blurry.

Plenty of fans may tell you it is about style. It is something about the way YA books are written that appeals.

Generally speaking YA books are pacy, with a strong, emotional hook, very often told in the first person. Quite often a present-tense narrative. Some tell you what they like about YA is that they are slightly lighter reads, more fun, less complex – more comfort reads.

But if you ask half a dozen YA readers they will probably all give you a different answer – which is why it is quite tricky to say what YA actually is.

If you, like me, are finding it rather intriguing – the whole ongoing emergence of YA (is it for teens, is it a genre, is it for children, is it for adults?) and the still, ongoing question of what makes good books for teens, do go and read Marcus Sedgwick’s well-reasoned and thought-provoking article where he tries to get to grips with what YA currently is.

It's often easier to inform parents, who are trying to find the best reading for their teenagers, what YA is not – for example, it is not a safe haven that avoids subject matter you might expect to find explored in adult books.

Swearing, violence, rape, murder, torture, drug-use, sex and an awful lot of death. You might find any or sometimes all of these in YA fiction.

Although, arguably, you could say that it is dealt with in a slightly less graphic way than you might find in adult fiction. But again, some would say not, particular as, increasingly, YA is planting its roots firmly in that adult market to which it has great appeal – and where the readers and much of the book buying is coming from.

Again, it is a bit blurry.

You tell this to parents and many beat a hasty retreat back into the safety of the adult section where there are books aplenty which are great for keen teen readers that don’t have as much sex and violence and bad language as many YA novels.

Interestingly, there are also plenty of teenagers I talk to are really not interested in YA and themselves want to move straight onto adult books. You get a real mixture of responses about why:
  • they too heavy on the romance;
  • they are too violent and graphic;
  • they are for girls
It’s not difficult to see where many of these perceptions have come from as YA first started to have a real devoted following when it was dominated by sub-Twilight paranormal romances. All those red and black covers. Remember them?

Anything else that adds to the confusion about YA?

Well, it is largely adults who are buying them and thus shaping the trend, yet it is still largely children’s publishers who are publishing them.

Thus many children’s publishers have gradually become publishers of books aimed at adult readers and buyers.

So, young adult fiction started out as trying to meet demand and create books written specifically for the teenage mind. But, as YA books are moving inexorably towards satisfying the huge demand for its huge adult fanbase – it might leave you with a question:

Where does that leave teenagers?

Teenagers are readers too. And just to be clear – many teenagers also read YA (just as they might still read children’s books and adult books).

From a small and independent bookseller’s point of view it's tricky to make sure you have a brilliant selection that will appeal to that constant thread of new readers at secondary school who are looking to bridge that gap between growing out of the children’s section, but not yet feeling ready to be in the adult section.

What you always aim to do is have a book there on the shelf for everyone; not too many similar titles. You tend to aim for diversity and range.

Some publishers are helpfully keeping pace with all these changes and starting to split their lists into 12+ (books for teens) and YA (books for adults who like YA).

But all publishers have their own approaches. Some books in the US are classed as YA and we are calling them adult novels here. In Europe the YA market is even less clear cut, so books published there for adults might be repositioned in the UK as YA.

So. Finally, I am going to talk about the books on the YA Book Prize. (Yes finally). It’s a great celebration that YA now has its own (arguably long-overdue) prize and recognises what an important part of publishing YA now is.

Because, actually, the prize demonstrates rather beautifully another thing that YA is not - it's not all first-person narratives and breathless plots interspersed with a bad-boy/bad-girl romance and lots of people dying. 

There is a lot more to YA and teen books. YA books are more than just a style. They are not just about fitting into a certain expectation. There is a lot of range and diversity.

There are books on the list that will really appeal to teenagers and adults (hooray.) And boys (even bigger hooray).

So, if a new book prize is all about identifying the very best books in the genre and letting more people find out about them, without further ado, let’s have a look at the books on the list.

The ten books in contention for this year’s prize are:
• A Song for Ella Grey by David Almond (Hodder Children's Books)
• Salvage by Keren David (Atom/Little,Brown)
• Say Her Name by James Dawson (Hot Key Books)
• Half Bad by Sally Green (Penguin)
• Finding a Voice by Kim Hood (O'Brien Press)
• Lobsters by Lucy Ivison and Tom Ellen (Chicken House)
• Only Ever Yours by Louise O'Neill (Quercus)
• Goose by Dawn O'Porter (Hot Key Books)
• Trouble by Non Pratt (Walker)
• Ghosts of Heaven by Marcus Sedgwick (Orion)

It is a great inaugural list.

There is a mix of romance, realism, dystopia, fantasy, comedy and a ghost story. Nothing historical we note – mostly futuristic (how YA). But definitely titles there that teenage minds will respond to and that includes boys (although a bit more boy-appeal would have been welcome).

Not all are present-tense, first person narratives. Some have complexities, lyrical writing, and be thought-provoking enough to satisfy the most demanding reader looking for their next challenge. Some are just fun. Some just aim to scare you.

Anything that celebrates the fact that publishing is very varied and with something to appeal to everyone is a bonus and shows perhaps there is greater diversity of publishing in the YA genre than people realise – and long may this be true.

YA may be the new kid on the block and stirring up an awful lot of controversy, but the shortlist really does demonstrate that YA is growing up fast and offering both its teen and adult fan-base both range and choice.

This prize certainly deserves to achieve its aims – of highlighting the very best in YA and teen titles and encouraging more people to discover that there really is great fiction being published by UK authors – whether you are a teenager taking your first steps out of children’s books, or an adult who just likes to read YA.

Just keep reading.