Sunday, January 31, 2010

Children's column: Judging the Carnegie
Written by Nicolette Jones in BookBrunch
Friday, 29 January 2010 10:05

I had the privilege this week of sitting in on part of the CILIP Carnegie Medal judging. The judges are a group of volunteer librarians, 12 women and three men, plus the chair, who diligently read a longlist of more than 50 nominations from fellow librarians and whittled it down to a shortlist of seven. This list is embargoed until 23 April, so I can say no more about what is on it; but readers of Bookbrunch may be interested in a flavour of the judging process.

Carnegie judges have a reputation (based on the awarding of previous medals to novels with themes of drug addiction, homelessness, euthanasia, dyslexia, immigration ...) for looking for "issues" books. But it was clear that a worthy issue alone would never carry the day. One judge remarked of one book: "I think issues were raised but I had no emotional response." Qualities I saw the judges address included style, credibility, character development, use of research, evocation of place and time, construction, plot, and, evidently important, and in line with the Carnegie criteria, emotional impact.

Every book was discussed in detail, even those about which some judges were dismissive: "boring and offensive"; "the construct didn’t work at all"; "too contrived", "pilfered tears". Sometimes there was a wide divergence of opinion, and there were books that did not make it onto the shortlist that nevertheless had passionate and articulate advocates. There was recognition that the nominations included something for everyone. As one judge remarked: "With all of these books there is an audience out there somewhere."

The judges came up with some entertaining comparisons: "Stephenie Meyer without the vampires", "Like an extended EastEnders episode”, "Stephen King’s Carrie brought up to date", "It sounded like a 1940s melodrama", "Kevin Brooks with a fairy godmother". Some comments damned with faint praise: "You can recommend it with an almost straight face"; "Some of the set-pieces worked well"; "It was a good read, and lots of people will enjoy it, but would you go and read it more than once?"; "You can read it but you did have to hang your brain outside."

Clearly the judges had a hinterland of other reading of books for young people, were familiar with writers’ other work ("far and away his finest"; "one of the best I have read by her yet"), and knew their audience: "I bought it for the library because I knew it would be really popular with 14-year-old girls, and it was."; "Young people are loving this book." It meant that they had insights into what was current, to the point of being overdone: "This is another dystopian futuristic nightmare that can only be resolved by teenagers ... we need help, call up the 12-year-olds"; "They are on the run again", "The one-dimensional racist bully comes up as the villain in teenage fiction all the time."

They confessed, and overcame, their own preconceptions: "I thought, 'Oh no, there’s a map'"; "I have a hard time with fairies"; "I like demons and possession", and even, "I’m fed up with resourceful, intelligent teenagers." They considered both the big picture and the details, finding turns of phrase they loved, and small faults of information, such as “They went from Victoria to Cornwall on the train."

Expectations were high, and there was recognition that children’s books could embrace big themes: "It looks at humanity and cruelty"; "It was about what it means to be a man." And there was praise for all kinds of merit: "It had a brilliant first line"; "It is really good at dialogue"; "She loves the form"; "He is such an assured writer", "He does adolescent friendships really well"; "She is so expressive in her writing"; "A fascinating insight"; "It had beautiful descriptive passages”; "It really captured the sense of place"; "It felt like a proper book for children"; "I loved the family background"; "It was so visually arresting"; "He knows this world absolutely"; "It needs to be applauded for its compassion"; "You can’t ever discount a writer of that quality."

Especially enjoyable to listen to was out-and-out enthusiasm. "I really loved it", "I thought: 'What a brilliant way to put that'", "I felt the story would stay with me for a long time, and it has"; "Tthe imagination and the detail were fantastic"; "Everything comes together beautifully"; "It opened up something I wouldn’t have thought to think about"; "It was so poignant and believable"; "You felt like you had read a much longer book: it enveloped me"; "It feels like a classic to me already"; "It makes the hairs prickle on your arms"; and "It excited me so much I wrote upside down in my notebook." Which the books were that inspired these remarks, you will have to wait to find out.

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