The announcement of this year’s Bisto Children’s Book of the Year Awards has caused the usual tremors of gossip, guessing and unrest among the Irish children’s literature community. We wanted to take this chance to give our response to the eminent jury’s decisions on what constitutes the best books from last year.
We were delighted by the very strong (hulking you might say) presence of picturebooks on the list – an overdue and very welcome result! Picturebooks are too often considered to be simplistic … and a phase that readers should grow out of and surpass. The demanding production costs involved in picturebooks is often considered prohibitive and with six books to choose from – both new and established voices – any jury would be spoilt for choice.
Chris Haughton’s A Bit Lost, this year’s Bisto Children’s Book of the Year and winner of the Éilis Dillon Award for first book, kick-starts a really promising career – we are huge fans of Chris’ charming and poignant story of a little owl who gets lost (and a cheeky squirrel who helps him out).
To have not one but two books by both Oliver Jeffers and Kevin Waldron suggests that either their distinctive voices are so powerful that they overshadow the competition as evidenced by Waldron and Chris Haughton recently winning two places on the Booktrust Best New Illustrators of 2011 list – or that there really isn’t the range of Irish-produced picturebooks that we hope there is. However, Jeffers’ unique talent shines through to merit a place on any international award list. Up and Down is a perfect continuation of Lost and Found – arguably the book that most established his hold on our imaginations. We were impressed by the ambition of the themes in the recipient of the Judge’s Special Award, The Heart and the Bottle and enjoyed the emotional complexity that Jeffers brought to this story of grief and loss and armchairs.
The partnership of Caitríona Hastings and Andrew Whitson returns with Mac Rí Éireann – making this the only Irish-language work on the shortlist. The status of Irish-language children’s literature is an elephant in the room – one that no one is talking about. Therefore, it’s significant and telling that this text won the Honours Award for Illustration and not for its Irish-language dimension. The inclusion of only one title could be read in many ways – we’re hopeful that this year will see a wider momentum for quality storytelling and production in Irish-language publishing. Rounding up the picturebook selection is another, relatively new illustrator in Kevin Waldron, whose Tiny Little Fly brought colour and mayhem to Michael Rosen’s text. Kevin’s interpretation of the text impressed us with its energy and diverse style. It is always a challenge to reboot a classic, such as The Owl and the Pussycat, but Kevin’s visual translation was fresh, vivid and playful. We’ve been avid Waldronites around here for a while and are looking forward to his next book.
Last year saw the establishment of Little Island – who have squeezed two titles onto the shortlist (joining The O’Brien Press as the only English-language Irish publishers to be shortlisted).
The 9–12 market for girls is too often seen as the land of frivolity and forgettable texts. However, Deirdre Sullivan’s Prim Improper distinguishes itself from its peers with its contagious sense of humour – making a lasting impression. A welcome return to the shortlist (always the bridesmaid never the bride) is FE Higgins’s latest instalment in the Tales from the Sinister City series, The Lunatic’s Curse. The deliciously dark atmosphere and grotesque Dickensian characters are always a pleasure to return to – and certainly threatening enough to be a contender for the prize.
Peter Prendergast’s successful jump from picturebooks to the 12+ plus audience comes in the form of the engaging Dancing in the Dark. Tracing the pain of letting go, Prendergast’s unsentimental writing and authentic dialogue were particularly evocative.
Mixing grittiness and glamour, Sheena Wilkinson’s Taking Flight, winner of the Honours Award for Fiction, was more than the usual rite of passage story. So much of Irish children’s fiction is pastoral and takes place in the romanticised world of nature so this story set in the complexity of Belfast life – and dealing with real and messy emotions – is an appreciated inclusion. Following the Children’s Choice award model established last year, which resulted in Jane Mitchell's Chalkline winning a gong, the ten Junior Juries from around Ireland have read and debated each book to an inch of their life. Their decision to nominate Taking Flight confirms Sheena Wilkinson as a worthy winner who grasped the imagination of the young judges.
At this point we move from affirming the decisions of the jury to suggesting our own alternative shortlistees and awardees. (namely deriding, undermining and just generally criticizing their choices)...
To recap … none of the following successful/popular/established and bestselling authors were, yet again, included on the list: Michael Scott, Derek Landy, Garrett Carr, Sarah Webb or Judi Curtin. It was also very surprising to find that John Boyne’s Noah Barleywater Runs Away and Kate Thompson’s Wanted were both omitted. Although, Darren Shan’s recurrent absence from the Bisto list could be in light of perceptions that the horror genre is not ‘literary’, we are disappointed that The Thin Executioner wasn’t recognised either.
The omission of John Newman’s Mimi – a convincing and genuine character-based story which heralds the return of a favourite storyteller – was surprising.
Ahead of hearing the winners, we correctly slipped on our fortune-telling garb and rubbed our crystal ball (i.e. guessing) to predict that the winner of the Éilis Dillon would have been Chris Haughton for A Bit Lost. And, although we’re torn with various favourites for the overall winner, we had hoped to see Oliver Jeffers’ Heart in the Bottle crowned as the 2011 Bisto Book of the Year, with Taking Flight and Dancing in the Dark taking home merit awards. PK & DM